How are contractors staying in contact with techs who are anywhere but sitting at a desk all day long?

Bob Bair commands a fleet of 25 trucks - a far cry from when his plumbing business was “one truck and me” working out of his garage back in the 1970s. Over the years, Bair's company, Robert Bair Services, Downers Grove, Ill., has diversified into residential service and repair for plumbing, heating and air.

So there's little doubt to Bair that knowing where his techs are at all times can speed up response times to new assignments.

He's used plenty of telecommunications equipment to keep in touch with his techs. Pagers. Cell phones. Two-way radios. You name it. But recently, Bair implemented a decidedly space-age product to keep in contact - a Global Positioning System that relies on a constellation of satellites orbiting 22,000 miles above the earth.

A GPS-based fleet management system is a simple way to keep in contact with techs who are anywhere but sitting in the office throughout the working day. Basically, Bair installed a “black box” in the service vehicles, which contains a chip that receives signals from a federally funded constellation of 26 satellites that can give users their precise location anywhere on the planet.

Bair is more concerned about navigating his often congested trading area of the Chicago suburbs.

Although pinpointing the exact location of a tech is a major benefit, Bair is also using the data to determine whether a vehicle needs a new transmission, or which tech might be idling more than he needs to.

“We have so much more control now,” Bair says. “The reports you can generate from all this information do more than just tell you who has a lead foot. GPS can help put various costs and expenses of running your business in black and white.”

Other Contractors

So are other contractors using GPS? Last summer, we sent a field communications survey to 1,500 PM subscribers to find out more about how the office communicates with the techs on the road. We received a 17 percent response rate.

The majority (53 percent) had a fleet of six to 10 service vehicles with the remaining percentage split between one to five trucks (23 percent) and 11 to 49 vehicles (24 percent).

While many readers rely on cell phones, two-way radios and pagers, not many PM readers have opted to implement this high-tech device to stay in touch.

Only 12 percent had equipped its field vehicles with GPS equipment, and more than half had done so in the last year or less - 31 percent said “one year” and another 28 percent indicated “less than one year.”

And what about the plans of those who had not equipped their field vehicles with GPS equipment? Almost 20 percent indicated that they would do so within the next 12 months, but that still leaves a big crowd of 81 percent who do not have any plans in that time frame.

Despite this current snapshot, one question reveals how underused the benefits of GPS systems are in our service industry. When asked to choose from a multiple-choice list of ways to improve their company's mobile workforce, respondents chose the following:

  • Increase productivity: 78%
  • Cut operating expenses: 73%
  • Reduce fuel use: 71%
  • Ensure safe driving practices: 49%
  • Reduce overtime: 41%
  • Improve security: 30%
  • Monitor vehicle diagnostics: 30%
As Bair has learned, GPS is a “killer app” that can potentially handle many of these chores.

“Operating an efficient business is a priority for every business owner,” says Sheri Sakagawa, marketing manager for Networkcar, a GPS provider based in San Diego, and the brand Bair chose for his fleet. “For contractors of all types, greater insight into their employee's working day and the location of their vehicles and equipment inside the vehicles can provide valuable clues as to the efficiency of their business.”

One of the fastest growing markets for GPS technology is vehicle tracking and location. Marketing firm Frost and Sullivan dubs this type of service, “mobile resource management,” and says it could be a billion dollar business by 2007.

From an average cost of a couple of thousand dollars per unit just five years ago, now many systems can be purchased for less than $500. In fact, if we had conducted this survey a year ago, we wouldn't have had the chance to quote Bair - he just installed his equipment last January.

“We had looked at it before, but we couldn't even consider it because of the cost,” Bair says. It wasn't so much the expense of the hardware, but many systems were complicated enough that operations Bair's size would have had to hire someone to integrate the information with other technology.

Here are a few suggestions on how to think about GPS:

'Real Time' Vs. 'Passive:' There are two general categories of systems to choose from - “real time” or “passive.” Both have the capability to provide contractors with various reports on, for example, vehicle speed, routes and stops and starts.

But just how quickly a contractor needs this information will determine which type to go with.

Generally, a real-time system uses the satellite system and a wireless network to allow contractors to receive information and view the location of vehicles in, as the name suggests, “real time.”

“Real-time GPS tracking is becoming the standard for companies who wish to track fleet vehicles,” Sakagawa says.

Our survey results certainly bear this out. More than 80 percent of our respondents using GPS were using real-time equipment.

“Necessary costs, such as fuel and employee overtime, can be closely monitored and verified to ensure your company is operating at top efficiency,” Sakagawa adds.

For example, excessive vehicle idling not only uses expensive fuel, but also causes unnecessary vehicle wear and tear. With real-time tracking and by accessing the appropriate reports, fuel use can be reduced.

The idling report came in handy for Bair in reducing fuel costs. “Certainly a lot of times, idling is a result of normal stop-and-go traffic,” he explains. “But we did find some cases in which the techs were leaving the engine on just to keep their lunches cold!”

Cutting any such waste can quickly add up for Bair, and he says his fuel use has gone down 10 percent. That's a big chunk of change, considering he's seen his monthly gas bills increase to $8,000 a month from $5,000.

Overtime costs are another significant expense that can be decreased with real-time monitoring, particularly since Bair pays techs monthly bonuses based on efficiency. Timesheets can be compared to a report that lists a vehicle's location throughout the day.

Meanwhile, much of the same information can still be received via passive systems - just not until the end of the day.

When a passive unit is installed in a vehicle, the GPS location data is stored in the GPS receiver and downloaded from the vehicle at the end of the day or when the vehicle returns to the yard. Older passive systems need to be downloaded manually. Basically, techs turn in a memory card at the end of the day that transfers the information to a central database for storage and review.

Newer passive systems, however, can transfer the data wirelessly via a 900mhz or Bluetooth device when the vehicle travels back to the shop.

Monitoring Vehicle Performance: Certainly, Bair wants to know just how fast a tech is driving a vehicle with his first and last name across it.

“It wasn't many days after we installed the GPS equipment that we discovered one of our techs barreling down the freeway at 87 miles per hour,” Bair adds. “There are a lot of reports we run at random, but speed is one we do check automatically.”

But since a tech is aware of the equipment - and the reports - Bair says the GPS equipment does have a “self-correcting nature” to it.

While keeping a check on unsafe driving is a major benefit of GPS, many providers also offer to monitor vehicle diagnostics. Some companies base this on mileage and notify owners when it's time for routine maintenance, such as an oil change or tire rotation. However, the brand Bair went with connects directly to a diagnostic port in the engine - the same port that a mechanic would use if the vehicle were sitting in a garage.

“Nobody wants a truck to break down on the road,” Bair says. “It just ripples through the company and the customers.”

What About Big Brother?

Business owners need to let their employees know that these systems were not designed to stop them from getting a donut and coffee at a convenience store.

For his part, Bair uses GPS to run a smooth business, not spy on his employees.

“I trust my guys,” he says. “I wouldn't have them out driving our trucks if I didn't.” That said, GPS lets contractors - in the words of a former President - trust, but verify.

While someone may be watching the techs, that also means someone is watching out for the techs, too. In case of accidents or other safety issues, the system can find the vehicle and send assistance. The system also provides proof of service, in case a customer claims the techs were late or didn't arrive at all.

“Placing GPS in vehicles does require a good explanation to the people who drive the vehicles,” Sakagawa adds. “The bottom line is very simple: If the business owner were riding around with each of his trucks every day, would the trucks be operated more efficiently and safely?”

You can find out the complete picture of field communications by purchasing our field communications survey for $95. Call Donna Edwards at 248/244-6428 or e-mail her at

A Brief History Of GPS

NASA launched the first Department of Defense GPS satellite in 1974 and the last, and 24th satellite, in 1994. The heart of the system relies on these satellites that orbit the earth twice per day. Devices that are equipped with GPS equipment receive transmissions from at least a few of the satellites and are able to discern very precise positioning data.

Up until 1999, the Department of Defense purposefully encrypted the satellite signals beaming from space in order to blur the location. Only the armed forces and other governmental agencies had the ability to decode the signal.

As a result, GPS pioneers in the private sector had about a 200-ft. variance on the actual location of whatever they were tracking.

In May 2000, the Department of Defense switched off the encryption. They reserve the right to turn it back on during national crises.

If you asked someone five years ago what GPS was, you'd probably get a blank stare or a shrug of the shoulders. But as with anything technological, costs have decreased and features have increased. For a few hundred bucks, a dedicated jogger can now wear a GPS device on his wrist and determine distance and speed.