A key part of the success of PHVAC contracting businesses is the ability to get plumbers and technicians to the jobsite on time. That means having reliable wheels carrying all the tools and parts that may be needed to get the job done.
In a time where labor — especially skilled trades labor — is limited and customer demand is high, contractors are looking for ways to maximize vehicle uptime and employee productivity, according to Julie Ellenberger, Ford Pro product marketing manager. One of the ways Ford is helping its contractor customers be more productive is the new three-across front seat in the 2023 Ford Transit. The new feature allows contractors to carry three people in a single van instead of having to send two vehicles to a jobsite.
“Technology also plays an important role,” Ellenberger says. “Driver-assist technology can increase driver confidence and help maintain vehicle uptime. Regardless of which vehicles are in the fleet, more and more contractors are turning to telematics to help optimize fleet efficiency by tracking crucial information such as driver habits, real-time vehicle location and downtime.
“Unemployment remains low, so it is hard for contractors to find new employees to meet the growing demand for their services,” she adds. “At the same time, dealers and other service providers are also challenged to maintain staffing levels, which can cause service delays and increase vehicle downtime. Global parts shortages are also making it more difficult to get new vehicles, leading customers to try to make their existing vehicles do more.”
Ellenberger notes that Ford Pro Telematics is complimentary for the life of a Ford gas commercial vehicle, providing access to vehicle health data such as odometer readings, diagnostic trouble codes and information around oil life, engine hours and recalls for all Ford vehicles in the fleet. Additionally, Ford offers free Ford Pro E-Telematics for the first three years after purchase of an E-Transit or F-150 Lightning. And lastly, contractor customers who have a mixed fleet can add real-time GPS tracking, geofencing, fuel monitoring and other features can purchase a Ford Pro Telematics subscription.
Reliability, efficiency and safety in high demand
According to Dave Sowers, head of Ram Commercial, business customers are still looking for capability and efficiency, as they always have.
“However, more and more they are demanding advanced safety features,” he explains. “The 2023 Ram ProMaster has a host of standard safety features including Full-Speed Forward Collision Warning with pedestrian detection, post-collision braking, Drowsiness Detection and Traffic Sign Recognition.”
The Ram ProMaster also features an available digital rearview mirror and 360-degree surround view camera.
“Businesses want to protect their employees, investments, the public and their reputation,” Sowers says. “Accidents can be damaging to any of those things. Businesses with typical fleet sizes can expect to recover the initial investment in those safety features through reduced accident expenses and less downtime over the life of that vehicle, and their fleet in total. There is a proliferation of safety features on passenger cars, and contractors desire to see them transition into the commercial space.”
Additionally, Ford is also beefing up safety options. Ellenberger notes the company’s new Fleet Safety Package permanently activates the most popular driver assist technology, including Driver Alert, Pre-Collision Assist with Automatic Emergency Braking, Lane Keeping System, Auto High-Beam Headlamps and Reverse Speed Limiter.
“Customers can also add Blind Spot Assist 1.0 and/or Reverse Brake Assist,” she says. “On the all-new Super Duty, we standardized DAT features such as Pre-Collision Assist with Automatic Emergency Braking, Lane Keeping System and Auto High-Beam Headlamps on our chassis cabs. On the pickup, instead of limiting DAT and camera features to our high-trim trucks, we have made them optional packages for our work trucks. Additionally, our new Virtual Rearview Mirror looks like a regular rearview mirror but is actually a high-definition screen that provides a panoramic view behind the van — even when a bulkhead, partition or windowless rear doors are in the way.”
A different option
Michael Eads, manager of trade shows and sales training for Isuzu Commercial Truck of America, notes that many of the contractors he sees at tradeshows are moving away from using cargo vans in their fleets.
“The size constraints make it rough to keep organized and access their equipment and materials on the job site,” he says. “A lot of contractors also complain about the noisy ride as well with all the rattles that aren’t cut off from the cab. A few I have spoken to also note the security of a van vs. a customized body. With theft of their materials and equipment being a risk, a customized body on a true work truck like an Isuzu really makes a lot of sense for them.”
Eads points out the reliability of heavier-duty work trucks is also a driving factor, plus they can be customized to make it easier on the plumber or HVAC technician.
“When they realize how easy our trucks are to drive and all the benefits, they can quickly grasp the benefits to the driver and when they are onsite working,” he says.
Ellenberger adds that contractors turn to heavy-duty full-size trucks when towing and torque matter. “The new 2023 Super Duty is the first pickup in the U.S. with embedded 5G capability, enabling faster mapping, Wi-Fi and Ford Power-Up software updates while driving (for less downtime), plus all-new available Trailer Navigation that identifies the best real-time drive route to take based on trailer size.”
Supply chain hangups
Historically, when plumbing and HVAC contractors needed to replace fleet vehicles and equipment, the challenge was available funding. Today, the supply chain disruption and microchip shortage are creating complications in the market. The days of simply walking into a dealership and driving a new truck off the lot are gone.
“I think this is true just about everywhere,” Eads says. “Customers are in dire need of trucks to either replace old ones in their fleets or add to their growing fleets. Every OEM seems to have hit by the supply chain constraints in some form or fashion. We have been fortunate enough that with the hurdles in the market right now, we are still building and delivering trucks regularly. Customers can get an Isuzu, but they have to get it ordered through their dealer. Most dealer inventory is getting sold before it arrives to the dealership.”
Eads notes that Isuzu is working closely with its suppliers and engineering teams to manage various potential issues before they arise and cause a disruption.
“While parts can be an issue one day, the next day it is transportation issues with ocean freight and drivers,” he explains. “Trying to stay in front of the various issues and being transparent with our dealers and customers has been our approach. We want to make sure that our dealers and customers know we are doing our best and keep their trust. At Isuzu, we have a customer-first approach to everything we do.”
Ellenberger notes that Ford has more than 600 Commercial Vehicle Centers that specialize in helping contractors and other business customers. They have been trained and equipped to sell, service and finance our full lineup of Class 1-7 commercial vehicles. The company has also made several improvements to help streamline the upfitting process.
“Transit and E-Transit vans can be ordered with a range of work-ready accessories such as bulkheads and shelving directly from the factory, so the vans are ready to work upon delivery,” she explains. “Customers can also work with any of some 300 qualified upfitters around the country, including 13 located conveniently within 30 miles of the Kansas City Assembly Plant where Transit and E-Transit are built, for all their equipment needs.”
Sowers agrees that supply chain challenges — both chip and non-chip related — have had significant impacts across the industry during a time of high demand for commercial vehicles.
“The last few years have presented unique challenges, but the work never stopped for many and ProMaster was there to serve them,” he says. “Over the last 18 months, Ram has been able to add a third shift and increase the line rate at our plant to improve output by over 50%. We have worked diligently with our entire supply chain to maximize the throughput of that new capacity.”
Sowers adds that now, more than ever, fleet managers and small business owners need to forecast their vehicle needs and order early to assure availability when the need is there.
Must have options
According to Ellenberger, contractors are definitely interested in the all-electric E-Transit. “It’s a natural choice for contractors working in urban environments. It offers everything contractors love about the Transit — including its uncompromised cargo capacity and versatility — in an all-electric package that offers a lower overall total cost of ownership.”
Sowers notes that Ram expects to see early electric vehicle adoption by large fleets followed by a more gradual adoption by smaller fleets. “Many of these businesses have local or defined routes which align well with range capability and charging requirements. We’ve announced ProMaster will have an electrified version by 2023.”
Eads is a little more cautious, saying the demand for all-electric depends a lot on the market right now, and the size of the business and their operations.
“Range will stay at the forefront of concerns for those servicing rural areas while in the larger metros, it will be less of a worry,” he says. “With the majority using gas powertrains, the infrastructure of their operations could be something that keeps them from being quick/early adopters. Most of the plumbing/HVAC companies are smaller businesses and don’t have large fleets. In the large metros, you have some sizeable businesses that could make the change quickly once their base of operations has been upfitted to accommodate their charging needs.”
In the meantime, Eads notes that contractors want a vehicle that is durable, easy and comfortable to drive and secure for storing equipment and materials.
“They want a vehicle designed to help them be efficient on the jobsite, and one that showcases a professional appearance for when they arrive,” he explains.
For Ram ProMaster, contractors are interested in capability and efficiency, and recent trends have seen a growth in demand for safety features, Sowers reiterates.
“Ford’s Pro Power Onboard provides exportable power to basically transform the vehicle into a mobile generator that can charge and power tools and equipment on job sites and on the go.” — JULIE ELLENBERGER, FORD PRO
“Forward collision mitigation is the highest demanded safety feature currently but vocational customers are also looking to prevent minor collisions in tight work site environments,” he says. “This is where backup cameras with dynamic gridlines, digital rearview mirrors, 360-degree Surround-view cameras, and front and rear park assist sensors come in handy in preventing damage and downtime.
"Contractors will all get some type of shelving and mobile workshop-related conversions. Ram additionally offers flooring options, wall panels, and the Ram ProMaster Crew Van kit, available through Mopar, which includes additional seating for up to 3 crew members and maintains up to nine feet in the cargo area. Work vehicles have evolved significantly over the last decade and the addition of the Crew Van kit further enhances the capability and flexibility that ProMaster offers.”
Ellenberger notes that Ford’s Pro Power Onboard has been a game-changer for contractors. “Available on a growing number of Ford commercial vehicles, including E-Transit, F-150, F-150 Lightning and new Super Duty, it provides exportable power to basically transform the vehicle into a mobile generator that can charge and power tools and equipment on job sites and on the go.”
New for 2023
For Isuzu, the biggest news came last year when the company announced it would be coming to market with a Class 5 gas truck starting in 2023.
“Production will begin in the Q2 timeframe and will offer some of our customers in this industry more options and capability,” Eads says.
Ford recently announced its new Ford Pro Fleet Management Software to scale software products typically reserved for large fleets, making them accessible for small- and medium-sized businesses to use to manage their operations.
“Only 10% of small businesses believe today’s business productivity software tools are designed for businesses of their size,” Ellenberger says. “So, we designed fleet management software for small- and medium-sized fleets up to 150 vehicles, which helps businesses track the total cost of ownership on each vehicle in their fleet. For as little as $5 per vehicle per month, the system provides a flexible tracking system designed to monitor cost-related items such as fuel usage and maintenance to help fleet managers optimize vehicle cycle management.”
Ford Pro Intelligence subscribers also have access to Ford Pro Title and Registration and Ford Pro Driver Risk Management, which helps business owners save time on registration and licensing management, provides a single point of contact to renew vehicle registrations and helps owners manage title-related concerns such as state-to-state transfers, Ellenberger notes.
Ram has made a significant investment in the 2023 ProMaster in areas that are most important to business customers, Sowers says.
“We’ve improved the efficiency of ProMaster with updates to the engine, the addition of a 9-speed automatic transmission and electric power steering which combine for a 9% improvement in fuel economy and reduced cost of ownership,” he explains. “Significant advancements in connectivity and safety have also been made by bringing in forward collision warning and optional features like blind-spot monitoring, Active Driving Assist and Adaptive Cruise Control with Stop and Go. The 2023 Ram ProMaster features L2 autonomy (Active Driving Assist) which is the highest level of autonomy that still requires you to keep your hands on the wheel. Ram was thinking specifically about vocational customers like plumbers and HVAC technicians when investing and redesigning the 2023 ProMaster to meet their current needs.”
He adds that Ram will deliver fully electrified solutions in the majority of its segments by 2025, and a full portfolio of electrified solutions for all of its segments no later than 2030.
The fleet solutions that plumbing and HVAC contractors are looking for are out there, they just have to identify their vehicle needs and order early.
Photos courtesy of Ram, Ford and Isuzu