Darryl Syler, fleet operations manager for Little Rock, Ark., oversees four shops in which he and his technicians maintain about 1200 vehicles and machines for the city. Photo: City of Little Rock

Darryl Syler, fleet operations manager for Little Rock, Ark., and 38 technicians operate four shops in which they maintain some 1200 vehicles and machines for the city. “Our biggest challenge is to stay up-to-date with the ability to diagnose and repair our fleet and equipment,” he said.

Syler is not alone in his challenge. Around the nation, fleet managers finger the update frequency and cost of diagnostic scanner upgrades as a challenging item in their annual shop equipment budget. “The scanner cost around $4500, and it cost me $2000 to update our computer this year,” said Jamie Hardick, fleet maintenance supervisor in Charleston, S.C.

In some cases, Little Rock's Syler said he believes tool manufacturers charge more for their brand-name recognition. Syler has a way to stay informed, though. “I charge one shop foreman with making sure that we keep current on diagnostic software,” he said. “He does a lot of research. To some extent we're at the mercy of the manufacturers who use proprietary software on newer vehicles. But the manufacturers may release certain information after a few years. Right now, 2001 and 2002 software is available.”

The city owns four handheld diagnostic scanners—two Snap-On units and two OTC Genesis units—for cars and light vehicles. And for heavy equipment, technicians use three laptop computers.

In Green Bay, Wis., T.J. Sorensen has another answer. “We always try to get the same kind of truck engines so that we can use the same software in our laptop computers and scanners,” said Sorensen, public works superintendent, Motor Equipment Department ‘This year, we may buy Sterling, and next year, International, and the next year Peter-bilt. But we basically have Caterpillar and Cummins engines in our garbage trucks and dump trucks. And we have all Allison automatic transmissions in all our trucks. They have less maintenance because you're not always putting in new clutches.”

In South Burlington, Vt, shop foreman Tim Heath said it costs him about $2000 each year to update his Snap-On scanner, an MT 2500. The scanner can diagnose any computerized component, ranging from an electronic ignition to ABS brakes to engine controls.

It takes a special electronic tool to calibrate salt truck feeders, Sorensen points out. “We can download, calibrate, and print out information from our salt and sand feeders,” said Sorensen. “We spread salt or sand, or a 50:50 mixture of both.”

Syler keeps in-house repair work that a lot of shops outsource. Take air-conditioner recharging, for example. At about two-year intervals, the city buys an air-conditioner recharger for one of its shops.

And he's about 90% certain to receive funding for a new paint and body shop. “We have a large fleet of police cars,” said Syler. “I feel like this (paint and body work) is something we could bring in-house and save money in the long run. We have some 10-year-old cars with their paint fading, and we want to freshen them up.

“Right away, we'd realize a tremendous savings on those cars,” said Syler. “We're looking at establishing a paint and body shop that can do anything an outside automotive body shop can do. And we do all our own tire work. We do patch the heavy-duty tires, but we do not patch any police car tires.”

“We do not do air-conditioner recharging,” said Green Bay's Sorensen. “We don't want to be a generator of hazardous waste— the used Freon. We sub out air-conditioning work.”

Vermont's Heath said owning a Parker hydraulic hose machine saves a lot of down-time. When a hydraulic hose springs a leak, he can crimp fittings and make his own replacement. And his shop handles exhaust system repairs. The South Burlington shop even does the body preparatory work for a paint job, then subs out the actual painting. “We farm out very little work,” said Heath.

Daniel C. Brown is a freelance writer in Des Plaines, Ill.