What would a contractor be without a truck? The truck functions as rolling supply house, billboard on wheels, main office and restaurant. Over the years, we've held Best-Looking Truck contests and always received a great response -- so many, in fact, that we use the entries for our Truck of the Month stories.
Take Vince Bona, Bona And Sons Plumbing & Heating, Cleveland, who stands in the back of his year-old step van that he describes as a mini-version of a UPS truck.
"It's a prefab shop on wheels," Bona says. The setup in general, plus the height of the truck in particular, allows techs to effectively cut pipe and perform other first steps for residential plumbing service and repair, which accounts for 70 percent of the 35-year-old family business.
Bona customized the inside of his truck with shelves and about 30 to 40 drawers for storing small parts. Talk to Bona long enough and how contractors think about their trucks is indicative of how they think about their businesses.
"I remember when our trucks didn't have much on them in the way of advertising," he adds. "But then I joined a contractor success group and learned that one way to move away from the 'mom and pop' mentality and start running a real business was the value of advertising on your trucks. A lot of contractors might think they can't afford to do it. Well, you can't afford not to do it."
Judging from what Bona and other contractors tell us about their trucks (and from the calls we get wondering when we're going to hold our next contest), it's clear that a lot of pride goes into these vehicles.
Appearances aside, we wanted to find out more about what went into the buying decision as well as what literally went into the truck as inventory. To find out, we sent out a survey last February. For the record, we mailed 1,000 questionnaires to PM readers who, according to our subscription records, are active in residential plumbing and heating. We received a 19 percent response rate.
Buying HabitsRight off the bat, our very first question shows we went to the right place for information -- 99 percent indicated they were responsible for specifying, recommending or making purchasing decisions regarding trucks.
Pickup trucks and cargo vans were the popular choices. About 69 percent said they owned pickups; 68 percent said they owned cargo vans. Here's how the rest of the choices broke down. (Keep in mind that multiple choices were allowed):
- Service/utility body -- 34 percent
- Cube truck -- 20 percent
- Step van -- 14 percent
Ownership was preferred by 92 percent vs. 8 percent who leased their trucks. Most preferred buying new trucks, but a third bought both new and used vehicles.
Price TagWhen it came to price, a third said they spent between $20,001 to $25,999 when purchasing a truck. The median price was $22,500. Here's how our stated price categories broke down:
- More than $35,000 -- 19 percent
- $26,000-$35,000 -- 19 percent
- $20,000 -- 21 percent
- $15,000-$19,999 -- 11 percent
- Less than $15,000 -- 10 percent
Contractors routinely add vehicles to their fleets. A quarter of our respondents said they added trucks every one to two years; 34 percent add every three to four years; and 30 percent do so every five to six years.
We also asked which of three factors were the most influential when purchasing a truck. For the factors listed, the top three choices were: Dependability (72 percent); Cargo space (45 percent); and Overall value (42 percent). Price and brand name weren't far behind (38 percent and 36 percent, respectively).
The InsideMost respondents operated with $5,000 or less in inventory stored in each truck. A third had between $5,001 and $10,000 and 10 percent had between $10,001 and $15,000. Four percent had more than $15,000 in inventory.
An accompanying text box lists the popular items you'd likely find in the back of most trucks. For an added bonus, we asked a wide-opened-ended question, "What other plumbing/heating product do you keep in your truck that you believe other plumbing contractors do not?" Here's an alpha list of all the written responses:
- ABS fitting @ 1/2-inch to 4 inches, as well as copper and IP fittings
All brands faucet items, all toilet tank repair parts
Assisted PVC fittings and copper fittings and valves
At least six of each kind of basin supply, flex, chrome, coffer
Back-flow preventers, welding materials
Brass, CPVC, PEX, CSST and PRC pipe and fittings and lots of towels
Circulators, mixing valves, electrical supplies
Drop cloths, extra clothing
Faucet repair kits
Fittings and gauges
Kitchen sink, storage tanks, disposers
Large drain cleaning machine
Lead and oakum melting set
Mobile hardware store
Movers quilt blanket, to put down on floor to protect customers' floor from scratches
Oil heat parts, heat pump parts, ladder, sheet metal tools and equipment, electric parts and wire fuel oil, propane
Pipe fitting copper
Pipes and fittings
Pump hoist and electrical control
PVC, ABS, copper fittings
Small repair parts @ stems and miscellaneous
Small size CO2 cylinder/regulator
Solar water heating products
Threaders supplies, traps and miscellaneous repairs
Tile equipment and cutters
Various plumbing products; too many to list
Wax seals, closet hangers, traps, p&j (1 1/4-inch and 1 1/2-inch)
Wet VAC, removing water from toilets
'You Can't Go Wrong With A Ford'In Tim Summers' opinion, anyway. Summers is the owner and laborer of his one-man company, Summers Plumbing & Gas Works in Statesville, N.C.
"I've been driving Fords all my life, and I've always worked out of a pickup truck," he says. "So I didn't even need to test drive it or step inside it at all; I just put the order in and knew I was getting a great truck."
With its bright, shiny red color, Summers gets a lot of compliments on his pickup truck -- the No. 1 choice of plumbers, according to our survey. About 99 percent of his jobs are new construction, so he is the envy of many when he drives up to a jobsite.
The truck also has a Reading Aerotech bed with a custom rack and fitting bins. Because of the layout of the truck as well as the size, Summers can carry all the inventory he needs to complete each job.
"I used to make two or three trips to get all my material to a site; now I just make one trip," he says. "And with the four-wheel drive, I don't worry about getting stuck."
The other feature Summers likes is the movable vise at the back end of the truck. "It has come in handy on a few jobs," he says.
His simple, straightforward logo appears on the window, but not on the truck body. Why?
"I didn't want to mess it up," he confesses.
Ah yes, how plumbers love their trucks.
Alaskan Comfort In A BoxWhen you're starting out in business, a good truck is essential to your livelihood. That's what Curtis DeRoest has found with his fledgling company, Custom Comfort Plumbing & Heating, located in Anchorage, Alaska.
"The (box) truck is big enough that I can carry everything I need to complete all phases of a job," he says.
The truck carries tools, rough-in material, trim material, service parts and radiant heat material. While most of his competitors carry 10-foot pieces of pipe in their trucks, DeRoest can carry 24-foot pieces because of the pipe rack installed on the side of the truck. Plastic tubing is used in the rack to protect the copper pipe from dirt and "road scum."
A radiant heating specialist, DeRoest received his plumber's license in 1998. He dreamed of going out on his own, and soon after he put together Custom Comfort. The company made a quarter of a million dollars in its first full year. His motto? "Work smarter, not harder."
The logo is his design, and makes the trucks (his other one is a pickup) very noticeable. "Our trucks are the best looking in all of Anchorage," he says.
Straight As An ArrowWhen the founder of Stuart, Fla.-based Arrow Plumbing began his business, he wanted something striking for the company logo. Add his love of bow hunting, and the Arrow Plumbing logo was born.
"That logo catches a lot of attention," said Tom Daniels, estimator and sales manager at Arrow. "And not only on the road; we go to home shows, and the banners in our booth attract people."
The R.S. Andrews Group now owns the company, but the logo hasn't changed.
Arrow has 12 trucks in its fleet, with a mix of cargo vans and full-size vans. (According to our survey, cargo vans are the No. 2 choice among plumbers.) While the trucks carry standard items, Daniels says that Arrow trucks carry some unique items, including drain cleaning machines, water heaters, pumps, toilets, copper pipe, CPVC pipe -- and sewer cameras.
"We're the only company in the area that uses sewer cameras," he notes. "They allow us to see what the problem is and repair it on the spot. Other plumbers come to us when they need this type of diagnostics."
While most of Arrow's jobs are service work, about 20 percent of its business comes from remodeling. And they don't remodel your average, middle-class home; they go high class all the way.
"We deal with mostly high-end homes, so we carry all different kinds of brands and makes of high-end, high quality faucets," Daniels says. "We keep these products in stock because of our clientele; we don't have to go elsewhere to get the exact faucet they want, so we can complete the job quicker and more efficiently."
And that's the name of the game, right?
Which of the following products do you keep in each truck?Wrenches - 97%
(Multiple responses allowed)
Drills - 96%
Torch kit - 96%
Pipe cutters - 94%
Pipe-joining compounds - 94%
Saws - 92%
Faucets - 57%
Chemicals - 54%
Drain cleaning/inspection equipment - 53%
Shower valves - 49%
Pumps - 41%
Pressure-balancing valves - 38%
Water closets - 14%
Water heaters - 10%