Interview with Director of Fleet Sales, Andy Summers
Benjamin Franklin once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” If this were limited to one word in this industry, it would be maintenance, which is crucial because a ‘pound of cure’ can be costly. Fleets delivering goods using liftgates are highly susceptible to a ton of cure if they’re not careful because, without it, fire is a very real possibility.
Most liftgate connections utilize zinc die-cast housings with unsealed open backs that create an easy yet unwanted pathway for moisture and contaminant entry. Zinc die-cast and copper wiring exposed to moisture and road debris create the perfect recipe for corrosion. Once corrosion manifests, it spreads exponentially due to a high amperage draw required to charge the liftgate batteries. Left unchecked, electrical heat and corrosion amplify one another creating resistance that not only blocks the charge but also creates a combustible situation.
We asked Andy Summers, Director of Fleet Sales at Phillips, what his thoughts are on the topic. He has 20-plus years in the transportation industry with roughly half of that heavily rooted in the Summers’ family cargo and freight business and the other half with Phillips Industries. His exposure to the commercial vehicle industry from sales to maintenance, to operations, makes him a multi-faceted expert in understanding the day-to-day functions and needs of a fleet’s business. In his current role, he spends a lot of time in the field meeting with fleets and looking at how they can improve their operation, specifically when it comes to tractor-trailer maintenance, installation, and spec’ing products that increase their ROI. Time and time again, liftgate charging systems are at the top of the list. The challenges his customers see run the gambit. But what’s been very surprising is the number of thermal events he’s seen, which leads to our first question.
Phillips: How often do electrical charging cable/connection thermal events really happen?
Andy: They happen more often than one would expect. One fleet I worked with a few years ago had 4 in one month. Another had up to 2 per week.
Phillips: What creates the potential for a thermal event?
Andy: The cause is a culmination of several things all encompassed around lack of maintenance and poor product selection that breeds corrosion. Moisture and chemicals from the road left on unsealed and unprotected metal connections for too long, without proper maintenance, leads to corrosion. This corrosion builds up and leads to a thermal event. We also see a lot of cases where corrosion forms between the positive and negative cables leading to a corrosive link. The corrosion can actually conduct a current!
Phillips: Are thermal events more prevalent during certain times of the year? In certain areas?
Andy: Generally speaking, a thermal event can happen any time of the year however, they seem to really increase during the harsh winter months when roads are being treated with calcium chloride and magnesium chloride. To add to this, it can happen anywhere. I recently saw a unit in Dallas, TX that was on the verge of major issues. Luckily, it was caught in time.
Phillips: What’s the worst outcome you’ve personally seen come from a thermal event?
Andy: The one instance that stands out the most is when an entire rig was sitting in a garage over the weekend, ignited, and burned the truck and garage to the ground. It was really scary stuff.
Phillips: What kind of downtime have you seen fleets experience due to a thermal event?
Andy: Usually, when a thermal event takes place an investigation needs to occur. If it’s caught quickly and there are only signs of melting, it may be as simple as a repair and replacement. But one would want to know why it happened to prevent it in the future. If it ends with a fully engulfed situation, the tractor/trailer could be a complete loss and take weeks/months for repairs. (Add to that the supply chain constraints we see today.)
Phillips: What are the costs associated with the fallout of a thermal event?
Andy: It’s difficult to determine a total cost estimate for a thermal event. It could be several hundred dollars to replace components in a minor incident (time, plus parts, plus downtime), to hundreds of thousands of dollars, approaching seven figures if a loaded trailer is attached. With the cost of tractors ranging between $100k-$150k and trailers ranging between $30k-$100k, there is a lot of cost in just the equipment. And if the worst-case scenario happens and a driver or technician is harmed, it is an even bigger issue!
Andy: The over-molded dual pole product line from Phillips is a game changer.
Many may not realize the cable itself creates the perfect path for moisture and contaminants to run down into the back of a metal plug. It’s like a waterslide that starts where the cable is supported by the spring’s hose holder and travels down and into the open back of the connector. The WEATHER-TITE™ M2 plug is molded to the cable, so there is no open entryway to worry about.
On the sockets, fleets will often install a rubber boot that can actually collect moisture, rather than keep it out. Metal sockets are made up of two components, the housing, and the socket insert. Moisture enters the socket housing at the front and attacks the pins on the front of the insert that connect with the plug. The moisture passes through those pins to the back of the insert where it settles in the socket boot creating the perfect environment that causes corrosion on the pin studs and harness terminations. With the over-molded Dual Pole QCS2®, that is no longer an issue, and the quick change feature makes it easy to replace when pins become too worn. Everyone running a truck should be familiar with the concept because of the Phillips 7-Way QCS2® sockets that are on every tractor today.
Phillips: What has been your experience with fleets after they’ve upgraded their systems to use these products? Are there any compelling success stories you can share?
Andy: Over the last few years, several Transport Topics Top 100 fleets have switched over to the WEATHER-TITE™ M2 and Dual Pole QCS2® Sockets. Some of them were driven by improving their maintenance processes and reducing downtime. Others were driven by their legal team saying, “If it can help prevent a loss of equipment or a life, we need to be using the better mousetrap.” Most fleets started with retrofit kits that we customized for northern and central U.S. equipment. We also worked with the fleets and their tractor OEM partners to ensure the specs on new equipment were updated. Once those units were retrofitted, they turned to the warmer southern regions where, believe it or not, corrosion is also a problem.
Andy: First, I would suggest that they rethink it. Why take the chance? If a better-sealed product could prevent major corrosion issues, thermal events, expensive repairs, or potential lawsuits, why wouldn’t the fleet do it? The cost of a WEATHER-TITE™ M2 cable and Dual Pole QCS2® socket vs. a $250,000 truck and trailer replacement from a thermal event; seems like a pretty easy decision to me.
However, I do understand it is impossible to do a complete sweep retrofit, so performing routine preventative maintenance and using the 4-123 Dual Pole Cleaning Kit is a great place to start.
Phillips: What is your position on preventative maintenance?
Andy: Preventative maintenance goes a long way! Unlike the 7-way circuit that is only energized when the tractor is running, the liftgate charging socket is hot 24/7/365 unless the battery cable is disconnected. I generally recommend checking liftgate connections every time the vehicle comes in for a service. More often than not, these plugs are never disconnected from the tractor during maintenance. Everyone knows to clean and use grease but the key is to make sure all connections are checked, cleaned, and greased at regular PM intervals. I can’t stress how important it is to inspect more often in the winter months. Depending on where the fleet or equipment is located, this could be as often as every week. It is not an optional preventative maintenance item.
The 4-123 Dual Pole Cleaning Kit contains a handle plug brush and pin cleaning tip to cover both plugs and sockets. It’s a great way to remove any corrosion buildup before applying dielectric grease.
It’s important to note that with over-molded components, such as the Dual Pole QCS2® and WEATHER-TITE™ M2, preventative maintenance can’t be ignored. These products will absolutely reduce the opportunity for a thermal event, but the chance isn’t almost entirely eliminated without proper care.
The overall message is that better maintenance practices and product selection will help extinguish corrosion, extinguishing the high probability of fire. Contact your local fleet sales rep to see how you can improve your operation and avoid the smoke signals that your practices aren’t up to standard before it’s too late.