ANOTHER heating season is about to get underway, and propane haulers hope they will be running hard for the next few months. The colder the temperatures and the longer those temperatures last, the more loads of propane that will be hauled.

That's all good news for propane haulers, such as S&B Kessler Inc in New Carlisle, Indiana. Propane brought steady growth for S&B Kessler over the past 10 years as the carrier served a growing customer base, most of which is spread across five Midwestern states.

“Last winter was very strong for us, and it kept our fleet running hard,” says Barry Kessler, owner of S&B Kessler. “It was a cold winter that created plenty of demand for propane. As a result, we had a lot of propane hauls. We hope this winter will be just as good. The coldest part of the past winter lasted 30 days. We need seven to eight weeks of that every winter to have a good year.

“We've become specialists at handling propane transport challenges. S&B Kessler has grown to a good size for the amount of business in this area. In the process, we've built a reputation for excellent service and reliability.”

Growth potential

Becoming a propane transport specialist was a gradual process for Kessler. After obtaining his commercial driver license in 1989, he drove for a short time over the road for Allied Van Lines. When a local farm co-op said it needed another fuel hauler, Kessler bought a tractor and tank trailer and began hauling gasoline and diesel.

Propane was added to the mix in 1999 and soon became the dominant cargo for S&B Kessler. Along with the propane, the carrier still transports some gasoline and diesel, as well as anhydrous ammonia and butane.

“We chose to focus on propane hauling because it offered better growth potential at the time we entered the business,” Kessler says. “It was more open to new carriers. While propane has been good for us, we know we can't rely on just a single cargo.

“Anhydrous ammonia, gasoline, and diesel help keep us busy during the warmer months. Most of the anhydrous ammonia goes to agriculture, but we do have a few industrial accounts. We haul most of the anhydrous ammonia from about mid-March to about mid-May with a smaller second round in June. More ammonia loads are moved in a three-to-four-week period in the fall. Start dates and volumes are determined by temperature and moisture.”

The cargoes are transported by a fleet that includes 25 tractors and 46 tank trailers. Fourteen of the tractors are supplied by owner-operators. Most of the operations are concentrated in a five-state area consisting of Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

“We also haul quite a few propane loads into Kentucky and Tennessee during the winter,” Kessler says. “In addition, pipeline problems and other issues last winter resulted in quite a few East and West Coast hauls.”

Propane hauling at the peak of the heating season can be demanding work for the S&B Kessler drivers. Trucks and drivers run hard during the prime heating season. Ice and snow on the roads are among the biggest challenges. In addition, drivers often must contend with delivery locations that haven't been plowed clear of snow.

Experienced drivers

Drivers may stay on the road for a week or more at a time. Tractor-trailer rigs average 3,000 to 3,500 miles a week during the winter, and drivers run even more miles during the coldest times when hours-of-service exemptions are in effect.

Due to the nature of the business, Kessler selects only experienced truck drivers. Most of the drivers live close to the New Carlisle area, which means they already are very familiar with winter driving conditions.

In addition to a commercial driver license with tank and hazmat endorsements, S&B Kessler now requires the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) for all drivers. “Anhydrous ammonia is the primary reason that our drivers need the TWIC card,” Kessler says.

Regardless of experience, every driver in the fleet receives annual retraining on propane hauling. Drivers assigned to anhydrous ammonia loads also receive annual training for that cargo.

S&B Kessler helps its company drivers contend with the harsh operating conditions by providing them with premium-quality tractors. For most of its history, the carrier has standardized on Kenworth T800 and W900 tractors.

“We prefer Kenworth products for reliability, durability, tare weight, performance, and cab quietness,” Kessler says. “We also have a great local Kenworth dealer.”

C-buying program

Another key reason for the Kenworth preference is the c-buying group. Kessler joined the program early on after hearing about the program from a Kenworth representative. Kessler also purchases Bridgestone and Michelin tires through the c-buying program.

S&B Kessler has a regular replacement schedule for its tractor fleet, and that did not change even in the difficult economy this year. The carrier bought three new tractors in 2009 and leased three. More new tractor acquisitions are planned for 2010.

“We believe it is important to keep our fleet up to date,” Kessler says. “We run our tractors three-and-a-half to four years before replacement. By then, they have 350,000 to 400,000 miles on the odometer, and those are tough miles. As a propane hauler, our combined empty weight runs close to 38,000 pounds. In addition, we work our vehicles the hardest when operating conditions are the worst.”

All of the company tractors are sleeper units with a tare weight of 16,500 to 17,500 pounds. Sleeper size ranges from 38 inches to 63 inches.

Future Power

For many years, S&B Kessler had standardized on Caterpillar engines, but that is changing. Caterpillar is exiting the heavy-duty truck engine market, and the carrier is taking a look at the engines available from Cummins and PACCAR Inc.

Three of the new T800 tractors acquired in 2009 were specified with PACCAR's 12.9-liter MX engine rated at 485 horsepower. “These engines are part of a PACCAR test, and we'll run them for three years,” says Mike Bromley, S&B Kessler dispatch and operations manager. “We hope to put a PACCAR engine in a W900 tractor one of these days to see how that configuration works.”

An Eaton Fuller 13-speed transmission and a Spicer drive tandem also are part of the powertrain. Product handling equipment includes hydraulics from STAC Inc and Blackmer pumps.

Tractors are dressed up with molded fiberglass fenders from WTI Truck Accessories over the drive wheels. Running gear includes an air suspension, Michelin X One widebase tires, and Alcoa Dura-Bright aluminum disc wheels.

Aluminum wheels combined with widebase tires help save at least 800 pounds per rig, which translates to more product with each shipment. “We're getting good performance from both Bridgestone and Michelin widebase tires,” Bromley says. “We have had no trouble with these tires even when running through the mountains during the winter. The only issue we have observed is that trailers slide around a little bit when the tank is empty.”

S&B Kessler has a mixture of MC331 propane trailers in its fleet, and the most recent purchases have come from Mississippi Tank Co. Capacity ranges from 9,100 to 11,600 gallons. The smallest trailers are dedicated to anhydrous ammonia.

With yet another heating season about to fire up, S&B Kessler's fleet and drivers are ready to go. With any luck, this winter will be every bit as cold as the last one.