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Utility in Utility Vehicles?

The term utility conjures up visions of days long gone, of people and machines performing many duties -- sometimes simultaneously. After all, the terms utility tub or utility belt didn't get their names because one holds water and the other one helped Batman foil the evil plots of his arch enemies.

While job function and regulations have caused machines and people to become specialists, manufacturers of machines still need to make vehicles and equipment that perform many functions. We, as commercial consumers, demand it. What's more, with tighter budgets and demands for higher productivity, manufacturers have to compete fiercely for the consumer's capital equipment dollar.

As a fleet manager, I am continually reminding people that there is no such thing as a perfect vehicle.

Sure, we can purchase vehicles and equipment that perform multiple functions and do it very well. But we also know there are always limitations -- things we wished equipment had as options, or tasks that equipment enabled us to perform better. So goes the story of off-road equipment.

The last ten years have seen an explosion of utility vehicles. We need not look any further than the outdoor sportsman industry for verification.

Utility vehicles serve the parks and recreation industry like Ivy rest and booney hats.

There are many different kinds of utility vehicles; each vehicle usually has specific features for specific applications such as high ground clearance, tighter turning radius, and higher load carrying capacity.

Some utility vehicles can be purchased to perform the same function as an on-road vehicle. These vehicles come equipped with headlights, turn signals, heat and windshield wipers. They even have a ground speed of up to 45 mph.

The significant advantage in this type of vehicle is that it can dump or spread a load, travel on tight trails, and still be driven on the road while performing normal or routine functions.

When purchasing a utility vehicle, some key factors in your decision making process should be:

Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR)

GVWR is the maximum weight that a specific vehicle can haul. It is arguably the most significant primary decision the buyer should make before evaluating a specific feature a utility vehicle has. This weight factors in: (1) the load you want to haul (payload), (2) the accessories you will be using with the vehicle (snow plow, dump body, generator), (3) the fuel on board and, (4) the driver with passengers. GVWR directly affects the vehicle's life cycle.

Life Cycle

If your agency has specific guidelines for how long a vehicle or a piece of equipment should last, the vehicle's life cycle will drive your decision perhaps even more than GVW. A general rule is that one engine hour equals 30 miles. For example, a utility vehicle that has 5,000 engine hours will have operated as though it has 150,000 miles on it. Life cycle affects operating cost per hour.

Cost

It's hard to believe when shopping for utility vehicles that the price can range from $3,000 all the way up to $30,000. Obviously, the higher-end machines can do more and come with more features (e.g., generators, pressure washers, lifts, snow plows, etc.). The buyer should keep in mind, though, that the most expensive may not always be the best. If you're planning on using a utility vehicle for trail work but will also allow it to be used for snow removal, you're probably safe. However, a utility vehicle that incorporates a work platform (lift) and pressure washer may pose problems when both tasks need to be completed at the same time. A better choice might be to purchase two smaller, lower-cost units. In some cases, if the utility vehicle will be used for transportation and light hauling, it might be wiser to purchase a compact pickup truck. The average price of a base model compact pickup from a government purchasing contract is around $11,000.

Users

This is a tough lesson learned, but a valuable one. Always determine how the end user intends to use the utility vehicle. I can personally cite cases where I solicited input from someone I thought was the end user, only to find a month after the unit was in service that the vehicle was not being used for what it was initially purchased. In a word, try to balance the costs versus what the operator needs.

Service

Can the dealer service what it sells? Is the dealer certified? Does the dealer have factory trained technicians? Will the service department provide a loaner while your unit is out of service? Can/will the service department order parts "Down Unit" so the vehicle will be up and running as quickly as it could be?

Warranty

Never underestimate the power of a strong warranty. Sure, you might pay for it up front, but if your fleet administrator, vehicle mechanic, and operators are vigilant, you'll more than benefit from a good initial or extended warranty.

Preventative Maintenance

Whether you have an "in-house" vehicle mechanic or use a commercial maintenance service, a good, aggressive preventative maintenance program (PM) is pivotal. By using one, your fully- burdened operating costs will remain relatively flat. Your utility vehicle dealer should be able to provide you with the manufacturer's anticipated operating cost per hour.

Training

Utility vehicles, just as any other piece of equipment, can be dangerous. Having your local dealer include operator safety training in the purchase price is yet another key to successful implementation of a vehicle. The training should also include some type of cross-training experience for the repair technician and/or commercial maintenance service. Keep in mind, the more your operators and mechanics are comfortable with a purchase, the lower your operating and maintenance costs will be.

Safety

In my experience, utility vehicles are primarily operated by seasonal staff. This poses a unique problem... The seasonal employee may not have the advantage of attending the in-service training you may have arranged. In that case, you'll need to spend the extra time with your seasonal staff on operator training and vehicle safety. If the workers know you're serious about safety, your maintenance costs will likely be lower. If you have a returning seasonal, ask his or her input prior to purchasing. User comments might provide value.

Once you have assessed and filtered all of the information, it's time to begin your search. Demos are key. Contact as many vendors as you can who make vehicles within your above analysis.

Decide on a specific use or course, so that your data will be similar between units. Schedule a project around your demo. This will ensure a real world test of a manufacturer's product.

Also schedule as many operators to test the equipment, create a survey form, or hold open discussion meetings that exclude the salesperson but include the vehicle mechanic.

Ask other park districts or municipalities. Sometimes they can help you cut your search by offering a real life analysis. You might even be able to send your operators to that location to test drive the equipment before making contact with your salesperson.

Last of all, take your time. Seek utility. I have made decisions based on what I thought was a fair analysis in an effort to move the purchase along, only to find I could have done better had I waited.

In the end, it all boils down taking a utilitarian approach to the process. And just like the utility vehicle you're purchasing, you're success is dependent upon performing many functions in order to get good results.

Mike Wegas is manager of Cleveland Metroparks' Fleet & Fleet Safety Management department.

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