Combination Truck Buying Tips

Tips and advice for choosing the right truck for your cleaning and maintenance program.

Combination Truck Buying Tips

Before you even start looking at truck makers and field-testing different models, it’s good to at least have a general idea of what you need. Determining capacity, size, reel configuration and some other factors ahead of time will make the process easier. 

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When Elizabethton’s sewer and water departments in Tennessee merged, they had to decide how to handle a system of mostly 100-year-old vitrified clay sewer. Part of their formula for success was purchasing a carefully spec’d combination jet/vac unit.

“We knew we were going to have to take a new focus on establishing a maintenance schedule and really find out where we were,” says Jonathan Pleasant, construction manager for the water resources department. “Our system is very old, most of it was put in back in the 1920s, and maintenance was not really high priority for a lot of those decades. So we already had an inkling that there were going to be problems.”

They made the decision many municipalities across the nation are facing: Do we need a combination truck?

As aging infrastructure continues to deteriorate and federal standards require ever-increasing maintenance and replacement, finding the right truck for your utility’s needs becomes more and more essential.

“I was kind of surprised at the number of companies that actually make them, because you’d think that’s a pretty specialized piece of equipment,” Pleasant says. “Once we got this ball rolling, the truck was a key part of our preventive maintenance — of trying to change the culture of the organization a little bit so that we’re not simply taking things as they come, but we’re trying to actually lay out a game plan to take them head-on.”

Do you need a combo?

The very first question in this conversation is simply do you really need a combo unit? If all you need is a jetter, there’s not much point in spending the extra money for the jet/vac option.

“Do you want to jet your lines just to clean them? Or do you want to jet and be able to vacuum the materials?” asks William Petrole, vice president of sales and marketing for Vacall. “If that’s the case, then of course you would need a combination machine truck over just a plain jetter truck.

“How are you going to use it? How do you want to utilize the machine?” Petrole continues. “The combination machines now come with a hydroexcavating package so you can not only clean sewers with it, but you could also go out and if you had a water main break or if you wanted to hydroexcavate, you can also use it for hydroexcavating, so that would be a thing to think about. Do you want a single-use truck, or do you want a multiple-use?”

Take a cue from Elizabethton’s recent experience: Look at your utility’s needs over the life of the truck.

“We’re looking at things like pipe bursting and sliplining and contracting out different things — but in all that stuff, the Vactor truck is still a key component because you can’t even get in there to do any of the inspection work without having cleaned the line first,” Pleasant says.

Elizabethton ended up with a 2017 Vactor tandem-axle with 2,000 gallons of water capacity. The hydroexcavation package was one of the first things they looked at when deciding on configuration.

“The hydroexcavating was kind of interesting to us. We wanted to have that extra sprayer on the front and the capacity to do that too, and we do use that a lot,” Pleasant says. “We do a lot of potholing for utilities — gas lines, communication lines, any time we’re doing horizontal directional boring — so we use it for that, and we also use it for cleaning out our basins at the water treatment plants.”

Developing your specs

Before you even start looking at truck makers and field-testing different models, it’s good to at least have a general idea of what you’re looking for.

“The first and most important concern we had was that with our old truck, when it was fully loaded, when the debris tank was full or when we were hauling a full tank of water, we were actually technically overloaded for the wheel size,” Pleasant says. “So that was a concern. We knew we wanted to address that, and we automatically were thinking about tandems, just to get the extra capacity.”

There are a few main factors you will want to decide on in advance:

  •  Water capacity

  •  Debris capacity

  •  Truck size (single axle versus tandem/double)

  •  Hydroexcavation

  •  Reel configuration

  •  Cold-weather package

  •  Water recycling.

Once you’ve hammered out the basics, it will become much simpler to decide on the other myriad features and options available.

Some of the common options are extra hose and specialized nozzles, alternative reel mounts and custom storage. Plus, most manufacturers have pages upon pages of potential options and add-ons.

“We really like the front reel that can extend out and turn sideways, because we knew one of the trade-offs of getting the larger size was that we’d have a bit more limited mobility,” Pleasant says. “We’ve got a lot of small side streets and back roads, small bridges, so we had to take that into consideration. But we kind of offset that I guess with more flexibility on our reel positioning and the length of our hose.”

In addition to the front-mounted swivel reel, they opted for a 600-foot hose, as well as a set of specialized nozzles.

“We have a lot of offsets — the vitrified clay has settled and shifted — and debris in the bottom of pipes, a lot of sediment buildup and grit,” Pleasant says. “So that’s why we bought some of the floor-cleaning nozzles, and we also have some serious problems with roots and grease.”

Bidding to spec or buying on contract

After you’ve decided what you want and done your research on models and brands, you have one last choice to make: Bid or contract? There are two ways to buy a combination truck: You can either develop a spec sheet and put out a bid that any manufacturer can submit a proposal for or you can go through one of the many contract organizations on the market.

The obvious benefit of bidding out a truck build is that you can get exactly the features you’re looking for. You can do your research, even field-test a variety of models, and then pick and choose your favorite features from each, combining them into the perfect truck for your utility.

You also have the bonus of seeing all the bids laid out in front of you, therefore guaranteeing the lowest price available. With a contract, you’re taking someone else’s word that it’s the lowest option for that configuration. On the other hand, a contract may be sourced from a wider variety of manufacturers than your single bid gets responses from, which could potentially equal a lower price.

“When you buy off of a contract, you’re not guaranteed that you’re buying the lowest-priced piece of equipment out there,” Petrole says. “What you’re guaranteed is that you’re buying a piece of equipment for a very well-negotiated price.”

A major benefit of contracts is simply that the bid process is taken off your plate. The contract group handles all the details, intricacies and hassles. One thing it can’t tell you is the cost of ownership — don’t forget to take into account the ongoing cost of maintenance and other factors of keeping a truck in-house.

Do your homework

Unless your municipality is very fortunate, you are likely to face this difficult decision. The most important thing is to approach it analytically, and remember there are resources available.

“We called all our surrounding utilities, those with combo trucks, and just made a visit. It was nice how open and welcoming some of them were. I mean, I can’t say that’d be the same situation for everywhere,” Pleasant says. “Just see what your neighbors have. There’s no easier way to go and actually see something in the field or get a feel for something that’s been used for a good while. That’s probably the easiest thing, and best thing we did, really.”

Take the customer service of the manufacturer into account as well: Often a truck is only as good as the support of the designers and repair departments that it is purchased from. Look into warranties, ease of operation, and amount of training and what the manufacturer provides for training. Ask around about the manufacturers’ reputations when issues do arise.

“It really all goes hand in hand,” Pleasant says. “We had to have a state-of-the-art truck to keep up with the extra emphasis we were putting on sewer maintenance and sewer line washing. There’s not really a day that goes by that this truck is not out there in the field being used.”


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