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Mechanics truck, lube skid provide sizable benefits to small Illinois earth-moving company

Written by: Troy Johnson, Two Rivers Marketing

John Howerter has never spent a dime on advertising for his small earth-moving company. The 40-year-old has owned and operated Howerter Bulldozing outside his hometown of Smithfield, Ill., for nearly 15 years. In the rural area of western Illinois near Smithfield (population 250), everybody knows everybody. So when Howerter is looking for new jobs, he doesn’t take out an advertisement. He simply sits down for lunch at a local café.

A small-town café often serves not only as an eatery, but also as a social hub and place to talk shop. After dining with Howerter Bulldozing customers, Howerter usually walks out the door with a full stomach and a heavier workload. It’s business, small-town style — and Howerter wouldn’t want it any other way.

“I live two miles from where I grew up. When I go to the café to eat lunch, that’s my advertising,” Howerter says. “A lot of guys said I should go off to Peoria (Ill.) and get on big construction jobs, but I always just wanted to work next door, for my neighbor.

“I like repeat customers. When I leave a job, I want to know they’ll be coming to us when they need something done again.”

The surest way for Howerter Bulldozing to keep neighbors approaching Howerter at lunch is to continue getting jobs done right and on time. Howerter recently made an investment in productivity, acquiring a new service truck and lubrication skid to expand the company’s field service capabilities. The new Iowa Mold Tooling Co. Inc. (IMT) DSC20 mechanics truck and IMT SiteStar® lube skid support an equipment fleet consisting of two bulldozers, three excavators and a skid-steer loader.

“Our truck is pretty much a shop on wheels,” Howerter says.

With six pieces of equipment, three employees and a modest area of operation, Howerter Bulldozing might not seem like a company that would need a robust mechanics truck. However, a closer look at the business reveals how the right mechanics truck can benefit any contractor, regardless of size.

Truck minimizes trips back to shop

John Howerter’s résumé featured firewood-cutting and well-drilling when he bought a bulldozer from his brother in the late 1990s. Howerter Bulldozing was born, and the company has grown to John and two full-time employees serving customers within an approximate 30-mile radius of Smithfield, roughly 50 miles west of Peoria.

The owner estimates his customer base is 75 percent agricultural and 25 percent recreational. Projects Howerter Bulldozing frequently tackles for agricultural customers include land clearing, terracing, building-site cleanup, fence removal, digging foundations for new construction, maintenance and repair of levees and drainage ditches, and waterway and dry-dam construction. For recreational customers — think owners of hunting grounds — the company typically builds roads and maintains water crossings.

Howerter used to rely on a pickup truck and his local equipment dealer to keep the company’s fleet up and running. The recent addition of full-time employees gave him the flexibility to take a more do-it-yourself approach to maintaining the bulldozers, excavators and skid steer.

“Once I got enough help, I knew I could keep up with the schedule and have more time to service. So I made it my project to get my service truck,” Howerter says. “We needed something safer and cleaner for lube service. I was doing it the old-fashioned way — changing hydraulic oil by strapping a barrel on the forks of a skid loader and rigging up a valve and hose.”

In 2011, Howerter set out to find a mechanics truck for general field service along with a cleaner, more efficient method of meeting his lubrication schedule. After identifying IMT as his preferred mechanics truck manufacturer, Howerter worked with Star Equipment, based in Des Moines, Iowa, to configure the truck and lube skid.

The joint analysis of Howerter Bulldozing’s needs led Howerter to select the DSC20 mechanics truck, which is designed for small to midsize equipment maintenance applications. Howerter specified a 9-foot body with an IMT 4004i electric telescopic crane, an air compressor, an integrated grease gun and IMT drawer sets built to withstand the rigors of field technicians.

Howerter took delivery of the mechanics truck in the sweltering summer of 2012 and quickly started enjoying reduced downtime and increased productivity.

“It minimizes your trips back to the shop,” he says. “With the heat this summer I was using the air compressor every day to blow dust off radiators. With the drawer kit, I have every tool I need. And the crane is there whenever you need it.”

Electric telescopic cranes such as the IMT 4004i model are ideal for applications where lifting needs are light and the duty cycle is occasional. These cranes generally have a maximum lifting capacity of 2,000 to 6,000 pounds and cost less because they do not require a hydraulic pump, hydraulic reservoir and PTO. The crane meets Howerter's specific requirements with a rating of 18,000 ft-lb, a maximum lifting capacity of 4,000 pounds (1,814 kg) and horizontal reach of 16 feet (4.9 m).

“It’s great if I need to pull a cylinder, load a bucket or root rake, or set fuel tanks in and out of trucks,” Howerter says. “It’s a back saver.”

Lube skid makes service cleaner, faster 

For smaller contractors who do not require a full-service lube truck to meet lubrication needs in the field, the lube skid offers a right-sized and effective alternative at a lower price point. A lube skid consists of tanks with hoses designed to deliver contaminant-free fluids in the field. The IMT SiteStar lube skid Howerter selected is available with multiple tank configurations including oils, antifreeze, grease and water.

The SiteStar lube skid is designed to conveniently sit in the back of IMT Dominator® mechanics trucks such as the DSC20 unit, but can also fit on a trailer or in the back of any other truck that can legally carry the weight of the unit and accommodate the skid’s dimensions. The lube skid is easily removable from the truck bed or trailer, allowing contractors the flexibility to quickly utilize truck-bed or trailer space when not providing lube services.

With a grease gun integrated into the mechanics truck body for regular use, Howerter specified lube-skid tanks for engine oil, hydraulic oil, transmission fluid and oil salvage. He also requested the option for final oil product filtration between the product pumps and the dispensing hose reels.

Another feature that drew Howerter to the SiteStar lube skid is the unit’s integration of polyethylene tanks instead of steel tanks. Polyethylene tanks are 80 percent lighter than steel tanks of comparable size, and they are designed for superior contamination control. Introducing even a small amount of foreign material into the sensitive fluid systems found in today’s equipment can bog down machine performance or cause a breakdown.

“I really like the poly tanks,” Howerter says. “With steel tanks you’re going to have condensation and rust. Also, IMT is one of the only manufacturers that offered the filters for the product. The lube skid just makes the process a lot cleaner.”

While lowering levels of contamination to promote better performance and longer life of Howerter Bulldozing equipment, the lube skid also saves the company significant service time. For example, Howerter estimates that a hydraulic oil change with the lube skid takes 30 minutes, putting equipment back in the dirt 90 minutes faster than the company’s previous “old-fashioned” method.

“The lube skid simplifies and speeds up service,” Howerter says. “I did the math before I bought it, and figured if I buy fluids in bulk and fill all the tanks 20 times, it’ll just about pay for itself. The IMT lube skid was the best-looking skid out there. It’s a big convenience.”

Mechanics truck, lube skid not 'overkill'

Peers have suggested that Howerter invested too heavily in the mechanics truck and lube skid, that the truck-and-skid combination provides more capabilities than his small-town operation requires. Howerter disagrees.

“My buddy said the truck was overkill — that I was getting along all right with the pickup,” Howerter says. “But then he said, ‘On the other hand, we’re going to call you next time we need something worked on.’ And he did.

“Another philosophy I have is that when you buy the best, you only cry once,” he adds. “I’ve learned that when you buy a cheaper tool and try to make do, you’re not going to like it and might end up buying the best product anyway. On this truck, I got exactly what I wanted.”

Howerter says his small company has realized reduced downtime, increased productivity and greater contamination control since acquiring a mechanics truck and lube skid. He recommends a truck and skid to other small contractors who have never considered the products, or are undecided about their value.

“Once you get a mechanics truck,” Howerter says, “you will wonder how you survived without it.”