Rugged and remote, the Uinta Basin in northeastern Utah offers some of the most demanding operating conditions faced by any tank truck fleet. However, the region also contains vast natural gas reserves, and the fleets are there helping the production companies that are tapping those reserves.
It takes an outstanding maintenance program to keep trucks, tractors, and tank trailers operational in the harsh mountainous terrain where the natural gas fields are located. RN Industries (RNI), a 10-year-old vacuum truck fleet based in Roosevelt, Utah, has built just such a program.
“Good maintenance is critical because our customers count on us to provide consistent, on-time service no matter how demanding the conditions may be,” says Roger Chapman, RNI president. “Much of our work is off road in a tough area that is very hard on our trucks. The driving conditions beat up truck frames and suspensions. The few dirt roads in the area are topped with shale that eats up tires. Winter driving conditions can be especially brutal with snow, ice, and temperatures below zero.
“To deal with that operating environment, we built our maintenance program around an aggressive preventive maintenance effort. We have an outstanding maintenance team at shops that are strategically placed around our operating area. We run durable vehicles that are custom-specified to handle the conditions in this area.”
Both the maintenance program and the vehicle specifications now in place evolved gradually over RNI's decade in business. The company started with four vacuum trucks in 1999 transporting fresh water to rigs drilling natural gas wells and hauling away briny, oily water for disposal.
“The gas fields were just beginning to boom, and it was a busy time for us,” says Dale Price, who has been with RNI since it started and is now general manager. “We added three more tank trucks a year later, and we have been growing steadily ever since. This company really started growing at a fast rate around 2002.”
The boom times continued well into 2008, but operations in the gas fields have slowed along with the rest of the US economy. “We're not as busy as we were last year, but we've still got work,” Chapman says. “We saw last summer that the pace of growth was likely to slow down. Oil and gas boom times come and go. We're in this business for the longhaul, though. Energy resources fuel growth of the US economy, and we believe the future still looks very promising.”
Today, RNI runs about 100 vacuum trucks and 100 tractor-trailer vacuum transports. The company also owns several hundred frac tanks that pump mud and other solutions used in the drilling process. RNI leases the frac tanks to the drilling companies.
The fleet operates across a wide area, serving customers throughout much of eastern Utah, north into Wyoming, and east as far as the western range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Water accounts for most of the loads, but the fleet also hauls some drilling mud.
“We primarily serve the gas rigs, but we also do some work with oil rigs,” Price says. “We take fresh water to the drilling rigs, and we haul away what is called production water, which may contain brine and hydrocarbon residues. We also collect drilling mud, which the rigs reuse.
“Rigs use a tremendous amount of water in the drilling process, because these gas wells run as deep as 14,000 feet. At least 1200 barrels are needed when a rig commences drilling operations. Much of the drilling and fracing water used in the production process is recovered when the well is completed.”
The fresh water is pulled from RNI wells and from local rivers that RNI is permitted to draw from. RNI drivers haul production water to a network of six collection pits that was established when the company was started.
The pits were designed by Chapman, who had built water plants before starting RNI. Water is offloaded into a catch basin, and oily residue is skimmed off and removed for disposal. The water then flows into a collection pit that is 10 to 12 feet deep and lined with a polymer material. A series of sensors and monitoring wells help ensure against leaks. Natural evaporation — aided by a sprinkler system — is used to reduce continually the amount of water in the pits.
Hauling water is a year-round operation, and it is hard work. Drivers haul up to 15 loads a day. Some have regular production runs, while others are sent to drilling rigs that need service. During the busiest of times, RNI employs two drivers per truck and keeps the equipment running almost 24 hours a day.
Winter can be the busiest time of the year, because that is when natural gas demand spikes in many parts of the United States. Winter driving in the Uinta Basin is no picnic for the drivers, though. Work conditions can be brutal.
Drivers must contend with extreme cold, as well as mud, snow, and ice. Temperatures during the winter of 2007-2008 dropped as low as -45°F. This winter has been almost balmy in comparison with temperatures going no lower than -30°F. Snowfall can exceed two feet. Drivers spend hours putting tire chains on and taking them off during the course of a shift.
Even during the warmer months, the work is hard. RNI looks for truck drivers who have a good work ethic and a willingness to work safely and provide good customer service. During the boom times, RNI hired quite a few drivers straight out of a vocational training program, and a number of these new hires were women. Many had a commercial driver license but no tank or off-road driving experience.
“We're willing to give a chance to anyone who wants to work,” Chapman says. “That goes for truck drivers and truck mechanics. We do a lot of training, and we were even providing temporary living quarters for some of our new hires last year when the boom was at its peak.”
Initial training and orientation takes place in a classroom at RNI's Vernal, Utah, terminal. New hires then are assigned to a driver-trainer for on-the-job training that lasts up to two weeks. Regular safety meetings continually reinforce the points made by instructors during the training.
On-the-job training takes place in the Kenworth T800 tractors that account for most of the trucks and tractors in the fleet. “We started with Kenworth, and we've never changed our preference,” Price says. “We believe our fleet equipment has helped us recruit and retain good drivers in what has been a highly competitive market.”
Chapman prefers Kenworth T800s for their quality, durability, and resale value. “The T800 is our workhorse,” he says. “The cab holds together in rust-service applications better than anything we have ever tried. The T800 really holds up well in the gas fields. Every year we order more trucks thinking we'll trade in some of the older units, but they keep running and we keep growing. Eventually, we want to get to a five-year trade cycle, but not yet.”
RNI orders T800s with 500- to 600-horsepower engines and 18-speed transmissions. The company began a shift from Caterpillar to Cummins ISX engines about a year ago. “We had to make a change,” Chapman says. “The Cat engines weren't performing well in the dusty conditions that we encounter. The air filter on those engines couldn't handle the dust, and trucks were breaking down.”
Drive tandems are specified with fulltime differential locks. Double frames, along with other severe-service components, help the trucks and tractors overcome the grueling operating conditions. All of that means RNI runs heavy trucks — tractor tare is 19,000 pounds and vacuum truck tare is 26,000 pounds.
Vacuum trucks account for about half of the RNI fleet. Most of these trucks carry an 80-barrel (3,360-gallon) tank fabricated from stainless or carbon steel. Over the years, RNI has purchased vacuum tanks from several suppliers, the most recent being Independent Truck Tank LLC in Bolivar, Missouri. Truck- and tractor-mounted cargo-handling equipment includes vacuum pumps from National Vacuum Equipment and Masport.
Vacuum trailers transported by the tractors typically have a 130-barrel (5,460-gallon) tank made of stainless or carbon steel. The most recent trailer purchases were from Dragon Products LTD, Beaumont, Texas. Product hoses carried on trailers and trucks are from various suppliers, including Goodyear.
Trailers are built with the rugged operating conditions in mind. The newest ones have the same sort of single-point spring suspension that is used on belly-dump trailers. It is a durable suspension that performs well on rough roads.
Steel disc wheels are standard on the vacuum trailers. RNI runs a variety of tires from Goodyear, Yokohama, Bridgestone, and Firestone. “The dirt and gravel roads we operate over eat up tires,” Chapman says. “We have found that certain brands and tread configurations work better in various areas.”
Keeping the equipment up and running takes a substantial maintenance capability. RNI has three shops in Utah's Uinta Basin at Blue Bell, Vernal, and Glenbench. RNI also has a small shop in Rangely, Colorado. “The Glenbench location puts a shop right in the midst of where most of our trucks are operating,” Chapman says. “That is critical because our mechanics see the equipment regularly.”
Even with the slowdown in natural gas drilling, RNI continues to expand its maintenance capabilities. A new 10-bay shop is under construction in Vernal and should be operational by early summer.
Fleet repairs are handled by a diverse maintenance team. RNI has trained many of its mechanics from scratch, and vendors such as Kenworth help out with the training. As with the drivers, the trucking company looks for mechanic applicants who show a willingness to work hard and learn.
Women became a critical part of the RNI maintenance program during the boom times, working as mechanics and shop managers. In fact, RNI probably exceeds the trucking industry average for the number of women mechanics in its maintenance program. Only 3,300 women (just 0.9% of the total mechanic workforce) work as bus and truck mechanics and diesel engine specialists, according to a 2008 Bizjournal survey.
The maintenance program is built around preventive service, and drivers are part of the effort. The company relies on drivers to alert mechanics when a problem is detected. A majority of the fleet has the Qualcomm on-board satellite communication system, and drivers can contact the shop in an emergency. Drivers also assemble their own product hoses.
Trucks and tractors are serviced on a 200-hour oil change interval. Mechanics check or change air, oil, and fuel filters during that service. Filters are cut apart for examination, and oil samples are sent out for analysis as part of an aggressive effort to detect and fix problems before they result in equipment breakdowns.
RNI mechanics at the Blue Bell shop handle warranty work on engines, and mechanics at the other shops repair and rebuild a wide range of vehicle components. “Very little of our fleet repair work is sent to the dealer,” Price says.
The slower economy is giving RNI mechanics a little more time to examine vehicles brought in for service or repair. However, the principal objectives remain the same: Do the job right and get the equipment back on the road as quickly as possible to meet customer needs.