Second Life

By on March 1, 2008
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Frugal hog farmers are proud to say they use everything but the squeal when they butcher a pig.

Truck dismantlers these days have the same attitude about squeezing out the last drop of profit when they recycle a used-up or crash-damaged big rig.

“As the years go on, it seems like we’re recycling the squeaks and rattles out of them,” says Jake Rea of Michigan Truck Parts in suburban Detroit. “Every ounce of metal, all the fluids, all of the sheet metal we flatten in the crusher and send to the shredder. It’s amazing how far we’ve come. It’s not like the old days where everything sits around in the yard.’’

With greater competition for salvage trucks, the high cost of buying land for storage yards and huge environmental concerns, dismantling facilities are organized and clean operations always looking for more efficient ways to break down a dead truck into a myriad of marketable parts. And they want those parts moved out of the shop as quickly as possible.

Refined process

Truck recyclers are developing a fairly refined process for identifying the right markets for parts with a strong consumer demand and disposing of components that are an environmental liability.

They usually know when they bid on a retired or wrecked truck whether they can resell the rig in one piece to a trucker or a body shop. A decision to dismantle means that, as the wrenches turn, the sales force is deciding if the engine and transmission should be sold by the company at retail, go to a domestic remanufacturer or be peddled to a third-world country.

The engine and drivetrain components are the gold that dismantlers mine, and the sweet spot for reselling is in parts from trucks in the seven- to eight-year-old range, according to John Weller, owner of Weller Truck Parts in Grand Rapids, Mich. If an engine is clocked out at 400,000 miles, it’s a great candidate for sale as a used part. If it has amassed 700,000 miles, it may need rebuilding to return to the road, he says.

Weller’s company specializes in remanufacturing transmissions, differentials, steering gears and drive shafts, which often need rebuilding, but when updated are a popular choice over much more expensive new parts. A transmission, for instance, can be rebuilt up to 20 times.

Transmissions are boiled clean, and bad gears, seals and bearings are replaced in a process that takes a technician about a day to complete. The same process for a differential takes about a half-day, a steering gear takes 3-4 hours, and a driveshaft can be rebuilt in about an hour.

A world market

Engines from popular trucks of a newer vintage are sold domestically or go to a rebuilder. Engines from older trucks are sold to buyers from South America, Africa or other countries, where they are in higher demand but bring less money.

“All pieces that get wrecked or worn out have a fairly good demand,’’ Weller says. “People buy doors, cabs, hoods, fuel tanks, tires, front axles, steering gears and fifth wheels. The rest of the pieces — brackets, frame rails — most people buy new.’’

If a truck is in a wreck, but the rig can be salvaged, the body shop will search for dismantlers on the Internet to replace parts damaged in the crash. Those often include the cab and sheet metal parts that are more conveniently replaced than straightened. Other parts that are popular when truckers go to refresh an older ride are lightly worn seats and other interior components.

A Peterbilt 379 hood is a good example of a wise used-part purchase, according to Rea. The aluminum hood can run $15,000 new from the manufacturer, Rea says, while he will sell the same part for one-third of that price. A Pete 120-gallon fuel tank is another example. It sells for about $1,500 new and $400 through Rea.

Dismantlers recover an average of 20-30 gallons of fluids per truck in a labor-intensive process that is carefully controlled by government regulation, according to Rea. Fuel and oils can be used by the recycler in its own vehicles and often the oil is burned to heat the shop. Weller says his company sells some oils over the counter and some of the few thousand gallons of fuel recycled each month at a percentage of retail prices.

Get the lead out

Anti-freeze and Freon go to companies specializing in recycling those fluids. The filtered fluids are successfully remarketed, avoiding an environmental headache.

Batteries are stockpiled and sold to a recycler, usually a battery manufacturer. Tom Larson, of Kadinger’s Truck Parts in Downing, Wis., says that when he gets a semi load of palletized batteries, he calls a number of companies that buy them and sells to the highest bidder. Like the fluids, the batteries aren’t considered a real profit center for the dismantlers.

Tires are not as serious of a recycling issue for the trucking industry as they are for the auto industry. With new truck tires costing $400 or more each, there is a thriving market for reselling tires with tread left and sending many spent tires to a retreading company. Tires with sidewall damage can’t be retreaded, so they go to a shredder, and the rubber is reclaimed for a variety of purposes.

A strong scrap metal market takes care of sheet metal that’s not in high demand and all other metal components of a truck. Scrap is flattened and shipped to a shredder, where it’s diced and sliced down to 2-by-2-inch cubes that are smelted to manufacture new products.

No fluff

With more than 90 percent of a truck effectively recycled, one category of waste remains a recycling challenge. Dismantlers call it “fluff.’’ The majority of fluff is fiberglass parts, seat cushions and interior fabric and components that have no resale value. It’s called fluff because the lightweight materials are separated from the valued metal in the shredding process. Recyclers are docked a percentage of the fee they’re paid for scrap depending on how much fluff is spit out. Fluff is either incinerated or goes to the landfill.

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