Trusty or rusty?

AN ENGINEER, telling us how he lost control of his classic 1967 Chevy Nova Super Sport on a rain-slick road, explained that he “encountered a frictionless surface.”

Frictionless surfaces are good things for cylinder walls and wheel bearings, but they can be disastrous for tires and road surfaces. Which is why our industry spends countless hours manufacturing and installing snow and ice control equipment and why customers spend countless dollars buying and operating it.

In today's litigious society, where appliance manufacturers can be sued for failing to tell customers not to dry the cat in the microwave, we have an extra incentive to provide traction to whoever needs it. If you are responsible for keeping roads or your parking area free of ice, you do so. Your job is at stake. And maybe your house.

It's no surprise then that as new solid and liquid agents have become available to fight ice and snow, they are quickly adapted and applied frequently. Nor is it surprising that any snowplow truck driver worth his salt will apply these materials at higher concentrations than recommended. If he is going to err, he will err on the side of caution.

Despite their higher costs, these chemicals have become increasingly popular with municipalities and with state departments of transportation. They have proven themselves very effective in helping keep roadways safe in winter weather.

But progress has not come without a price. Chemicals such as magnesium chloride are great for ice control, but they are substantially more corrosive than traditional road salt. To keep sheet metal from being crumpled in an accident, we have had to corrode it.

Some of the chemicals that are applied to our roadways adversely affect aluminum, and they can even put a stain on stainless steel. Not surprisingly, truck fleets are reporting substantial increases in corrosion — not only in sheet metal, but also in trailer slider rails, brake shoes, fifthwheels, landing gear, and electrical connections.

That is why industry groups are searching for solutions. The Technology & Maintenance Council (TMC) has been at work on this subject for several years and plans to develop recommended practices designed to minimize the effects these chemicals have on motor vehicles. TMC was scheduled to address this issue during its 2004 fall meeting that was held September 13-17 in Nashville, Tennessee.

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) will do the same when it conducts the SAE Commercial Vehicle Engineering Congress & Exhibition October 26-28 in Chicago. SAE considers the topic sufficiently important to spend an entire afternoon — four hours and 30 minutes — talking about it. The two-part seminar will include presentations from companies such as Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems, Dana Corp, DWS Fleet Management; Meritor Heavy Vehicle Systems, Ryder Systems, Truck-Lite Company, and the US Army Aberdeen Test Center

The need is significant. According to a TMC report compiled by its S.6 Chassis Study Group, structural components of trailers are being compromised. Fuel tank straps of tractors are corroding, as are radiator fins. The most affected areas are those subject to heavy splash and road spray, but even stepped-up corrosion of foot pedal linkages inside the cab has been reported. When brakes and electrical systems become corroded, when fuel systems are eaten away, and vehicle control systems don't operate smoothly, the safety of the motoring public is jeopardized.

Plenty of work can be done at all levels. Producers of the chemicals, managers at state departments of transportation, and the truck drivers who apply the chemicals each bear some degree of responsibility for the type and quantity of the materials that are applied to the roadways. For their part, fleets can help their own cause by washing their equipment more thoroughly and frequently.

But the reality is that the trucks and trailers our industry produces will continue to be subjected to highly corrosive materials. And it will be up to the entire channel — OEMs through final-stage manufacturers — to take extra measures that will help tomorrow's trucks and trailers battle next year's corrosion.

Our industry has made substantial progress. We have replaced carbon steel with materials that don't rust. E-coat and powder-coat systems are now common practices, and even the smallest manufacturers are using more effective surface preparation processes to improve paint adhesion.

But the challenges are greater than ever. Unless we make it illegal for trucks and trailers to leave the Sun Belt, we will need to develop additional ways to guard against corrosion. Because when given a choice between ice-free roads and rust-free trucks and trailers, the customer will demand both.

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