By Diane M. Calabrese / Published June 2020
Dirt attracts attention. Negative attention. A tractor-trailer operator may have a good explanation for the muck, such as traversing a salt- and sand-coated interstate in winter, and a state Department of Transportation (DOT) inspector will likely understand.
Yet there’s always a chance that a dirty vehicle will set off the curiosity of an inspector. Is there a lack of care—and by extension, attention to detail—or a reasonable explanation?
Dirt may increase scrutiny from inspectors of all sorts. Imagine a less-than-clean 18-wheeler pulling up to a grocery store in April 2020. It may be laden with much-wanted goods to restock shelves. But with caution the word of the day, it may not meet the best reception. Or, consider the delivery vans that keep multiplying to carry goods ordered by online shoppers. Clean surfaces provide a level of comfort.
Truck operators are in great demand. Vehicles that deliver, from the one- and two-axle trailers that pull a load to the loads they pull (e.g., trailers, tankers) to vans of all configurations, must be cleaned.
Many truck drivers work as owner-operators. They often clean their own trucks and own a pressure washer to aid them in the task. Yet, they should not be overlooked as a source of business.
The busier the owner-operators of trucks are, the more likely they would welcome an assist for routine tasks such as cleaning. They are extremely busy this spring.
Moreover, a contractor can learn a lot about washing vehicles, such as how to price the service. The pricing becomes important because most fleet washing is either done in-house or bid out.
A contractor must be able to provide detailed information about cost per vehicle and cost per special service. Even if a fleet is comprised of only two vehicles, the response to a request for proposals (RFP) may be required to be awarded the routine work of cleaning them.
But there’s plenty of opportunity to land accounts, and the opportunities span the nation. Is one geo-
graphic area more suited to opportunities for fleet washing than others? “No, we see them all the same,” says Steve Osborn, national sales manager at Fragramatics Mfg./Big Dog Chemicals in Pine Bluff, AR.
Osborn’s company sells detergents used to clean equipment, and that provides a good vantage for knowing just how ubiquitous the prospects for contractors are.
Any stop required on a busy travel and delivery timetable slows down a truck driver. Inspections take time, even when everything is in order. So not getting stopped is a priority.
“Nobody wants to be stopped by DOT, and clean trucks have less likelihood of being stopped versus dirty trucks,” says Osborn. His comment echoes our premise that clean trucks avoid unwanted attention.
Clean trucks also get their share of positive attention. How many of us have admired the gleaming Freight-liner or Peterbilt tractor moving down the highway?
Fleet accounts may be the singular focus of a business. But, they may also be combined with other revenue-building streams. “It certainly could be done with other activities,” says Osborn.
For example? “Mobile oil changes and disinfecting the inside of trucks to kill viruses come to mind,” says Osborn. “I’m sure there are many more options.”
A contractor aiming to land a fleet-washing account will be fishing in a well-stocked pool. According to the 2019 Pocket Guide to Large Truck and Bus Statistics published (January 2020) by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), more than 9.3 million single-unit (straight) trucks, close to 2.9 million combination (tractor-trailer) trucks, and close to one million buses operate in the United States.
All registered commercial motor vehicles (CMVs) that have interstate operations or carry hazardous
materials are regulated by FMCSA, a division of the USDOT. More than 6.6 million U.S. drivers have a commercial driver’s license.
Trucks far and away carry most freight to its destination, moving more than 65 percent. Rail moves just nine percent or so. (Water, air, multiple modes, and pipeline round out the remainder for goods transport.)
Fleet owners of all kinds must clean their vehicles. Rental car businesses, RV sellers, and school bus operators all have fleets of a kind. Each one represents an opportunity for a contractor seeking an account.
Broward County in Florida tallies its fleet at approximately 2,500 vehicles. The tally includes almost every conceivable vehicle, from cars, trucks, SUVs, vans, and trucks to specialized service equipment. For many services the county uses vendors.
City and county descriptions of fleets and in-house versus vendor-supplied fleet services are a good starting point for a contractor trying to get that first fleet account. Municipalities may contract for many services, including washing, but they also have a fleet manager or coordinator. Contact that individual to ask about whether vendors are used for washing.
The information about how vendors are selected is in the domain of public information, so do not hesitate to make inquiries at local, county, and state levels. (In unique circumstances, such as cleaning of vehicles used to transport nuclear waste to storage sites, information may not be entirely contained in open records because of security concerns. However, most fleet account holders do not begin in the extremely specialized sphere of cleaning such vehicles.)
The U. S. General Services Administration (GSA) has an Office of Transportation and Asset Management Vehicle Policy Division that oversees the care of vehicles, which total close to 700,000. (The office is separate from the GSA office that deals with leasing and buying.)
The “vehicle care” division of GSA has responsibility for maintaining federal motor vehicle fleets, including those that are GSA-owned (29 percent), agency-owned (70 percent), and leased (one percent). That includes maintenance and cleaning. The purview of the division includes 22 fleets that have more than 2000 vehicles each. Sixty-two percent of the vehicles under the purview of the division are trucks, 36 percent are sedans, and fewer than two percent are buses or ambulances.
Opportunities to land fleet accounts are many in both the commercial and government sectors. Seizing them requires an investment of time in responding to RFPs or preparing bids.
Take as an example an RFP issued by the police department of Costa Mesa, CA, in late 2012. The general work was for power washing the exterior and cleaning the interior of police vehicles and related vehicles. The tasks to be accomplished are described in the RFP in detail, tasks such as the protocol to spot clean and damp wipe everything from steering wheels to prisoner partition bars on the interior.
As with any RFP, the expectations for meeting regulations are listed. (In the example from the Golden State, they included not only OSHA and NPDES, but also CARB and AQMD.) Yet none of the foregoing is the most complicated part for a contractor.
The most complicated part is figuring out pricing. In the Costa Mesa RFP at www.costamesaca.gov/Home/ShowDocument?id=7863, the bidder is required to give a unit price for washing and detailing services for each category of vehicles (passenger cars, light-duty trucks, etc.). Imagine giving a building or house owner an estimate for exterior cleaning without knowing the condition of the building.
Starting small—more than 90 percent of trucking companies in the United States operate with six or fewer trucks—gives a contractor the opportunity to become experienced at pricing for profit. Washing for an owner-operator of one truck can make a great deal of sense as a launching point. Word of mouth will likely lead to more owner-operators, and a contractor has the ability to refine pricing.
A contractor cleaning an 18-wheeler (or any other commercial vehicle) is not working without an easily accessible and free knowledge base. Companies that sell cleaning products offer easy-to-follow diagrams and videos about things such as how to apply product (bottom to top) and how to rinse (top to bottom).
Suppliers of chemicals for vehicle washing also offer ancillaries, like those for removing dead insects with a tight grip and applications that protect surfaces from salt. Regulators supply explicit guidelines on how to clean vehicles used in transport of food and hazardous waste.
In fact, checking guidance from regulators about how to clean and outcomes expected should be a first step. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advice on cleaning.
It may have been some time since anyone gave rodents a thought, but rodent infestation in vehicles is a concern of the CDC. The longer a vehicle goes without use, the more likely it is that rodents (not just rats, but squirrels, mice, and others) will construct nests in engine compartments, ducting, and taillight and headlight enclosures. Interior cleaning of trucks and vans reduces the possibility that rodents will adopt a nesting spot.
Parts of vehicles with evidence of rodent activity, such as droppings or nesting debris, must be disinfected to reduce exposure to hantavirus, for one (yes, diseases of all sorts are always with us). CDC specifically advises against use of pressure washers to dislodge material. See https://www.cdc.gov/rodents/cleaning/guidance-cleaning-vehicle.html.
Interesting, diverse, and essential to safety and health, fleet accounts merit serious consideration by contractors.