Many towers aspire to be in the heavy-duty segment for a multitude of reasons. Perhaps they have always wanted to drive a big truck, are looking for a new challenge, or want to grow their income. Heavy-duty towing brings these opportunities and much more to the table. The question then becomes, are you ready to make that leap, and if so, should you?
Just because you can do something doesn’t always mean you should. I think we can all agree that there is a lot of passion in the towing industry. Even so, we must remember that it is a business and decisions must be made based on economic reality first, and emotion or personal desires second. Unfortunately, I have witnessed many good towers fail because they had to have that new heavy-duty wrecker or rotator without any consideration as to how they were going to pay for it or if they actually needed it.
Let’s discuss some of those differences
From a business operations point of view, heavy-duty towing has a different client base than light-duty. Yes, there are some overlaps, but for the most part, heavy-duty jobs are business-to-business transactions whereas light-duty jobs are consumer-focused. This has many advantages given trucking fleets know exactly what to expect when hiring a tow service, and what the job should cost. They are happy that someone is willing to quickly service their truck. Business to business is not all roses, of course. It does present some unique cash flow problems with many fleet customers wanting to pay on their terms or outright refusing to pay for police-ordered towing and recovery services. Yes, the rewards can be higher but so are the financial risks associated with a job that is not paid for in a timely manner.
While it is obvious that the equipment is similar though larger and more expensive, many don’t realize just how much more skill and effort it takes to safely operate heavy-duty wreckers compared with their light-duty counterparts. There is much more to it than simply making sure your drivers have a CDL. The average heavy-duty operator needs to be an expert truck driver, master mechanic, and extremely creative problem solver capable of seeing the whole picture.
Given the cost of heavy-duty wreckers, it is often not possible to allow each driver to have their own take-home truck which results in more sharing or “slip seating” of trucks. This is often necessary for the financial success of the business but can lead to problems with the drivers. Towers, especially heavy-duty operators, like to take ownership of their equipment, not wanting to share trucks with other drivers. While it is great that a driver wants to treat a truck as if they owned it, usually resulting in better maintenance and upkeep, the bottom line is that truck needs to be available around the clock and a driver simply cannot safely run 24/7. To be successful you will need more than one heavy-duty operator in your fleet.
What type of heavy-duty operation do you want?
While we are on the topic of staffing, you must ask yourself what type of heavy-duty operation you want to develop. Heavy duty towing has many subsegments, each with its own unique challenges.
Basic heavy-duty towing for breakdowns, tractor swaps, and such only requires a handful of drivers and doesn’t typically impact other areas of your company. Venturing into police towing and truck wrecks/recovery often requires the availability of multiple extra laborers on very short notice. Most heavy-duty companies will pull from their light-duty division or the shop when the big truck wreck comes in. While this can provide a welcome distraction for those other employees it may cause such a disruption in your business that you could lose money by doing the truck wreck call.
A major incident often will require you to respond with specialized equipment such as forklifts, front-end loaders, sweepers, and more, with each piece requiring a skilled, trained, and competent operator. Owning or renting the equipment is simple, finding and retaining skilled operators when their primary job involves other tasks at your company is a challenge. To address this issue many heavy-duty towing companies often have sister companies in the cartage, construction, or hauling industries. This allows them to have near-instant access to skilled operators and equipment without paying for those assets to sit idle between major highway incidents.
The question is, does my area have the need for more of these types of services or do I know someone I can subcontract these services from? The tower doesn’t have to do it all themselves, but they must have solid, pre-arranged working relationships with many different disciplines in their community to successfully venture into the heavy-duty recovery segment.
Road service is another segment of the heavy-duty towing industry. Many light-duty towers already provide some basic roadside assistance services, so this isn’t a completely new offering. What is significantly different from heavy-duty roadside assistance is the scope of repairs fleet customers expect you to make at the roadside. In many parts of the country, it is not unusual for a road service technician to perform computer diagnosis and complete troubleshooting of a mechanical breakdown roadside, nor is it unheard of to complete complex repairs roadside or in a remote location such as a parking lot. Even services such as oil changes, brake jobs, air conditioning repairs, and other routine maintenance are often done by mobile technicians for the convenience of the fleet operator.
Fleet customers are a special sub-category
Fleet customers happily pay a labor premium for the expedited turnaround time on the repair or to avoid the tow charge. They are going to pay for the repair anyway so why not pay half of the tow rate (figuratively speaking) to have the repair shop come to their truck rather than towing the truck to the shop? Historically, towing a disabled heavy truck has been the last resort. It is not the go-to solution as it is with light-duty vehicles. This requires the tow business owner to decide what level of mobile repair services they want to offer, and if they have technicians available that are sufficiently skilled—and willing— to work in all weather conditions.
Even if you decide mobile repair service is not right for your towing operation you still will need tow operators that can make somewhat complex repairs to disabled or wrecked vehicles as part of the process to prepare them for towing. This will include skills in axle and wheel repair, brake systems, electrical, and even hydraulic systems.
What kind of truck do I buy?
Now that you have decided that you do want to venture into the heavy-duty world you have to decide what truck(s) to purchase. There is no one truck or manufacturer that does it all, so you must find the best compromise for the client base you plan to serve.
Bigger isn’t always better. If your business plan calls for doing mostly tractor swaps and on-highway truck breakdown towing a quick swap (detachable tow unit on a tractor), a 25-ton may be all the heavy wrecker you need. If your plans, and actual workload, call for towing loaded cement mixers, coach buses, and fire trucks, you will want a 50-ton with the right underreach.
Consideration must be given to fitting the correct combination of wheelbase, front axle weight, overall static weight, and weight ratings that will give you the tow performance you want and the drivability you need. Longer wheelbase wreckers will tow more weight safely, but they may not be practical in some urban environments— especially if you are just learning how to tow larger vehicles. A shorter wheelbase with a counterweight may be your preferred choice.
Another often overlooked consideration is the rear axle of the tow truck. Just because your truck is built with rear axles and suspension rated for 46,000 pounds (or more) doesn’t mean you are legal with that much weight on your rear axles. Actual legal weight will vary from state to state, with some states allowing for generous exemptions when performing a “first move” of a wrecked or disabled vehicle while others require a wrecker to always scale legal. Learn the regulations in the state(s) you plan to operate your heavy-duty towing service and don’t assume that it must be legal just because you see other towers using a specific type of truck or axle configuration.
Consider that on the National Network and Interstate Highway System the legal weight limit for tandem axles is 34,000 pounds and most heavy wreckers equal or exceed this weight with the most basic of tows. Some even exceed this when not towing!
Additionally, each state has its own unique size and weight regulations that apply only to state highways, often with significant differences from the Federal Bridge Formula rules. This means you may need to purchase special permits if you want to legally operate certain heavy wrecker configurations in your state.
Special consideration must also be given to other licensing and authority issues that affect heavy towing more than light-duty towing. In many states light duty tow trucks are often exempted from many of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s regulations. Heavy-duty tow trucks do not get that lucky! Heavy-duty tow trucks are treated nearly identically to any other large commercial vehicle, meaning hours of service and other regulations apply, including operating authority and CDL endorsements for secondary tows or routine transportation services.
Heavy-duty towing can be very rewarding when a tow boss is fully prepared for their new venture. As with any other new business segment, understanding your market and the forces at play within is key to success. Please don’t get blinded by the stories of large tow and recovery invoices as they are the exception, not the rule, and often are not fully collected without a fight.