Trucking along

Contractors are still equipping trucks and refreshing fleets despite supply chain shortages.

Contractors have dealt with rising costs on trucks and their parts since COVID-19.
All photos courtesy of Shoemaker Brothers Landscape

By a rule of thumb, it usually takes Brian Paige six to eight years to replace a truck.

Paige Landscape Company, which is based in Walpole, Massachusetts, has been in business for 12 years. He’s never seen a wait on trucks like the one that exists now.

“We just received three new vehicles back in June that we ordered last year (in November 2021),” Paige says. “The plan was to recycle three of those older vehicles and replace them with the three new ones. However, the new ones came in late.”

Consider Paige one of the lucky ones: Charles Thomas with Arlington Green Mowers in Jacksonville saved up money months ago to buy five new electric trucks. They had bought zero — Thomas couldn’t find any that were available.

“When it came to supply chain issues, it became really incredibly difficult,” Thomas says. “In some places, I can’t get parts period. I’ve had to scale back dramatically. Plenty of work, I could have plenty of customers, I just can’t meet the demand.”

Supply chain issues might be driving this headache, but landscapers still need to adapt to ensure they’ve got the right trucks to handle this season’s workload. With no signs of supply chain issues improving dramatically overnight and with fuel charges still fluctuating in some areas, what landscapers do next is critical to their success.

“It certainly seems like it’s industry-wide. I’ve got plenty of calls from potential customers whose companies can no longer service them. Some just stop coming by entirely,” Thomas says. “When gas prices rose, I expected smaller outfits to go down the tubes unfortunately. It left more work for me.”

Accepting the new reality

For Stefan Shoemaker at Shoemaker Brothers Landscape, it’s not just whole trucks that are hard to find — it’s everything from the tires to the smaller parts for repairs. And even if he can find it, it’s going to come at a much higher price.

“You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find the brand we like anymore,” Shoemaker says. “We’re less than a year out from our next purchase, and I’m just accepting that it’s going to be more expensive more than what it was two years ago.”

Thomas says he’s struggled to find even quality used vehicles or equipment on the open market. To deal with those costs, he’s had to raise prices on clients — but that’s a risky proposition in a market with lots of lowball competition.

“The prices were ridiculous. The markup on stuff — y’all have lost your mind,” he says. “You want sticker price for something that’s 10 years old.”

To make the price worth it, contractors ensure they’ve got the right trucks for their jobs. Shoemaker says the trucks he’s purchased have been progressively larger than the last: He started with a ¾-ton truck before buying his latest one-ton truck. Now, he’s looking for one that’s slightly larger to buy in 2023.

Finding the right truck all comes down to price and the necessary features contractors might want included. For some, backup cameras are nice additions when towing trailers with equipment.

Weighing the add-ons

Shoemaker says they’ve got a dump trailer they can attach to their trucks, but ideally, he’d love to be able to take all that weight on one truck rather than putting it on a trailer. Sure, trailers might carry equipment like their mowers, a compact tractor backhoe or their skid-steers, but bulk materials like mulch, topsoil, gravel, pavers and plants should go on the truck, Shoemaker says.

Meanwhile, Thomas has identified the electric vehicles he wants to buy — it’s just a matter of getting them. When he entered the green industry, he says he started with strictly gas-powered equipment “like anybody else did.” But once he tried some electric mowers, he left impressed with it. Now he thinks it could be a huge cost saver.

“It wasn’t necessarily a cost factor at the time, but it became one when I realized just the savings that I had when I realized no gas, no spark plugs, no oil,” Thomas says. “I won’t ever go back to gas for anything ever again. The electric truck is the cream on top of everything because then I can use that battery to charge my equipment when I need it.”

Paige says his team doesn’t “go crazy” with customization — they just want an extended cab for their landscaping trucks. The trucks already come with lots of bonus features that aren’t necessary but somewhat appreciated, like a remote starter for their diesel truck. He says his guys were laughing that the trucks had backup cameras. It’s not that they’re not nice add-ons; it’s that they’re unnecessary features, he says.

“These trucks come with so many bells and whistles already now,” he says. “They’re nice, but for all the stuff they put in their base truck… some of it is just overkill to be honest with you.”

Shoemaker agrees: His team likes the backup cameras because it’s nice for pulling trailers and pushing snow, plus his brother’s truck has a dump bed on it that’s proven handy. But they can live without some of the upgrades like OnStar radio or unnecessary comfort features. He says there’s a difference between a work vehicle and a personal one.

“Comfort is important but we’re trying to run a business,” Shoemaker says, “so we’re trying to keep costs down.”

One vital consideration for those work vehicles: how to protect them from theft or damage. That’s in part why Paige has added GPS tracking to his trucks. He admits it took him a while to find the program that reliably works — he’d watch a truck pull into the lot and then look down at his GPS tracker, which indicated it was still 10 miles away.

“We had a different GPS program we used in the past, but we decided to give it another go with a different program,” Paige says. “We like that our program integrates with some of our other equipment, too.”

Finding a new truck

For Thomas, it’s not a matter of if but when he’ll buy a new truck.

“Honestly, I’m desperately looking to replace them,” he says. “I’d buy two or three today if I could get them.”

His vehicles are due for some repairs, and he can see some wear and tear on some of his trucks. He recently talked to another landscaper he saw out in the field about the high prices on trucks and other equipment. One way to save some money, Thomas says, might be to avoid doing a truck or trailer wrap. Thomas usually puts the company logo and graphics on his trucks, but even those cost three times what they did before, he says.

That landscaper he talked to about the truck wrap didn’t do any designs on his new truck.

“I still want it to look decent, but ultimately, I need it to work,” Thomas says. “It doesn’t have to look fancy. It just needs to do a good job of it.”

The author is associate editor with Lawn & Landscape Magazine.

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