Brian J Riker
President and Chief Compliance Specialist,
Fleet Compliance Solutions, LLC
A version of this column originally appeared
in the April 2020 Issue of American Towman
Rotators have become commonplace in our industry today, making it very tempting to impulse buy one for your fleet. As this would most likely be your single highest-priced purchase, I must caution against that. Rotators are a great investment in your fleet when spec’d properly and fed with enough work to allow them to earn their keep.
How do you decide which rotator to purchase and, more importantly, is it the right time for your business? Having a good grasp of your market, potential market, and company’s overall financial health is the first step. Quality data is your best tool for investment decisions, so begin by analyzing your current operations.
Do you have a solid base of heavy-duty recovery, lifting, and load-shift work already? If not, is there an untapped market for these types of jobs that you can enter with your current heavy-duty rigs? Having a solid customer base is critical for future success. I strongly caution against buying a rotator just because everyone else has one, or to make the police department look at you for inclusion on the rotation. Test the waters with your current equipment long before buying a highly specialized unit.
When searching for work I must caution you about diversification. Yes, many towers are using their rotators to lift and place materials and equipment in a variety of locations and different situations, however, a rotator is not a crane. They are designed to different standards and intended to do different (if similar) tasks. There is more to using your rotator on a non-automotive lift than simply having a crane operators’ certification or license.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has precise design, testing, and inspection standards that apply to cranes which reduce the lift ratings greatly as compared to tow trucks which are specifically exempted from the crane standards when performing automotive lifts.
Besides the obvious regulatory compliance complications of using a tow truck or rotator in the place of a crane on many different job sites, there is also the issue of legal liability. Will your insurance cover these additional risks, and what special requirements will they have? Do you need additional local or state business licenses or authority to operate? Are there different vehicle registrations or permits when using the rotator as anything other than a tow truck or recovery unit? Are there union work rules and operators to consider?
Who is your competition for these lifts? I do not advise competing against crane companies on price but rather service. We don’t like it when the new guy comes into town and undercuts prices, so we shouldn’t do it to others. One distinct marketing advantage towers have when they branch into these lines of work is the 24/7 nature of our operations. We are already geared up to operate at a moment’s notice, which should come at a respectable price premium when compared to long-term scheduled services.
This next question requires honest soul searching. Do you, and/or your top operators, have the skillset, dedication to training, and desire to become rotator operators? These are high-tech and complex machines, that although similar, are vastly different from heavy wreckers. The skills to plan and execute a complex lifting plan with a rotator are at the top of our industry. Is there a large enough talent pool in your market to keep a truck like this staffed and available around the clock? Will the potential operators be able to obtain and maintain the required certifications or licenses required for your operational areas? Do your customers have competent riggers available or are you expected to supply your own?
IS IT LEGAL?
Legal operation is another concern. Not all rotators are legal in all states. Some will require special axle configurations and/ or special hauling permits. Some configurations may not be able to be legal in your state. Learn the size and weight regulations as well as permit availability in the areas you plan to operate before selecting a rotator to purchase. You may be in a state that does not recognize a five-axle configuration or perhaps your state is a grandfathered state and allows weights in excess of the Federal bridge formula.
Remember, as currently in effect, the tow truck weight exemption contained in the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act only applies to heavy-duty tow trucks while towing, not responding to, or returning from a job.
Is this going to be your primary heavy-duty tow truck or only a specialized recovery unit? This has a large impact on which options you select. Keep in mind the specialized nature of a rotator when determining how often, and how far away, you want to tow with it. There will be a cost of operation difference between a typical rotator and a conventional tow truck with similar towing capabilities. There are many more economical units purpose-built for towing than a rotator.
Decide what you typically plan to pick and swing. The largest rating or longest boom is not always the best solution for every task. All the manufacturers make a good product, each having their own strong points and weaknesses. The platform designs used by each manufacturer are quite different, which means they will all be most stable at different points in the radius around the truck. Some are best at working off the side, while others have excellent performance around the rear corners. Most have a sweet spot where stability and capacity are maximized. Find it and make sure it fits your needs.
When comparing brands, be sure to compare apples to apples as not all the ratings and measurements are determined using the same calculations. Overall advertised capacity, as well as the published load charts, are not all equal. Determine if the numbers you are comparing are structural capacity or tipping point and at what boom elevation, extension or radius were these ratings determined.
Don’t forget about the chassis either. It is easy to become fixated on the rotator itself and forget about critical chassis specs. Engine horsepower, torque, gear ratio, and even transmission type are crucial to your happiness with the truck. Decide what road speed you plan to operate at (be realistic), and make sure the gear ratio is appropriate to keep the engine in the right RPM range for your desired performance. Fuel economy, pulling power, and engine life can be drastically affected by gear ratios.
NEW OR USED?
Whether to buy a new or used tow truck is a question almost as old as the towing industry itself. I believe there are advantages to both, depending on your financial situation.
New is nice although it comes at a hefty premium when you factor in Federal Excise Tax, sales tax (in some states), and depreciation. New allows you to select just the right options for your plan, ensures the equipment has not been abused, and gives you the peace of mind that comes from a good warranty and excellent dealer support. All major manufacturers have factory-sponsored training available to help new and experienced operators alike learn how to maximize the performance from their new purchase.
Used has plenty of advantages as well. Someone else already took the hit on the taxes and first round of depreciation. A used truck is often sold with the tools and rigging necessary to work right out of the gate, and if it is a private sale the seller will often offer guidance on using the truck. You may even be able to arrange to work the truck firsthand to fully understand what you are buying and the capabilities it has.
Older used trucks can be found at a very attractive entry-level price point allowing you to test the waters with a rotator before spending upwards of $750,000. Financing may also be easier to obtain, although the rate is often higher than that of a comparable new truck purchase.
When selecting used from either a dealer or private seller, be sure to thoroughly inspect the truck before committing to purchase. It is always best if you inspect it in person. I highly recommend bringing along a second set of eyes, someone that is not emotionally attached to the purchase and able to speak to you honestly. An industry friend with rotator experience would be best. Operate all the controls, lift and swing something heavy (within the load chart ratings) and drive the truck for a long road test.
Be wary of poor-quality repairs, shop-built modifications, and other signs of less-than-professional care. The ring gear, turret, outrigger legs, and sub-frame (platform components) must be in good shape with no signs of damage. These are critical to your safety when operating a rotator and as such should not show signs of strain, stress, or unauthorized repairs/ modifications.
Social media is your friend when purchasing a used truck. Find out as much as possible about the previous owners and look for evidence of the truck being abused on the internet. Many towers post pictures bragging about how strong their truck is, and although a little bragging is harmless, it is never acceptable to overload a piece of equipment. It will fail, often when least expected, and could cause great harm. By investigating how a used piece of equipment has been treated, you can make a better judgment call on the overall condition regardless of how well it has been cleaned up.
Rotators are an awesome tool that makes many of our most common tasks in the towing industry easier or safer. When you keep the purchase in that perspective, mindful that it is a tool and not a status symbol, you will likely make the right choice for your company.
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