Chemical Brothers

As a niche segment, chemical transportation by road often involves a different mindset to fuel haulage. Unanderra Tanker Hire is one of the industry’s leading practitioners.
Comfort cab DAF XF530 on site.

At nearly 18,000 kilometres into its maiden run, the DAF XF530, one of three new Euro VI prime movers purchased earlier this year by Unanderra Tanker Hire (UTH), is excelling in the areas that count: Fuel economy, driver acceptance and safety.

These latest vehicles in the fleet are largely working independent from each other within the business.

The first unit in Brisbane is carting laundry chemicals and delivering chemicals to breweries. The other two DAF XF530s have been designated on more traditional tanker tasks.

The Port Kembla-based company specialises in carrying chemicals, something of a kindred application to fuel haulage, but generally is considered an entirely different beast. Demand, not to mention customer expectations, diverge and as a result far less onus is placed on optimising high productivity combinations compared to what the market asks of fuel or even milk tankers.

There is little need, given current trends, for multi-combinations. As the fleet must balance the challenges of tight entrances at metropolitan water treatment plants and waste station sites in regional settings, a semi-trailer remains the best, least compromised option.

The prime mover fleet runs single trailers at 44 tonnes. UTH also delivers smaller loads around Sydney where an 8-tonne or 10-tonne job might require it go into a water treatment plant. The trucks also frequent waste disposal facilities and supply chemicals to leachate plants.

Drivers at these sites are often confronted by problematic access that require trucks to have cross-locks and power-dividers according to UTH General Manager Jeremiah Justice Wiedl or JJ, as he is better known.

“Most of these entry points are just little dirt roads better suited to a 4×4 passenger vehicle,” he explains. “That’s where the big trucks don’t fit. We can make it work using a semi with a compartment of a product and then we’ll leave, reload the semi elsewhere and go away on a long trip.”

Unlike carriers in the cement sector, a chemical hauler like UTH is not always loaded to capacity. That’s because the trips are governed, according to JJ, by the destination of the customer’s site tank.

“If they’ve got a 5000-litre tank, we’ve got to deliver them a 5000-litre load,” he says. “If they’ve got a 20,000-litre tank we’ve got to deliver a 20,000-litre load. Most of the customer storage tanks we do are only taking a single trailer load of product.”

The fleet contains 21 rigids mainly for urban assignments. However, the bulk of the vehicles are prime movers, nearly 60 in fact; and the three new DAFs join another five already in circulation for the Dutch brand. The first of which were introduced following the successful tender of a new contract in 2013 recalls JJ.

“We were looking at buying a DAF CF85 back then, but the dealer offered us a DAF XF105 with an automatic for considerably less than what I wanted in a smaller model truck,” he says. “I don’t recall if it was a product promotion, but we bought two of the larger DAFs initially and it proved a masterstroke.”

One of the new purchases outside Illawarra Truck Repairs & Spares.
One of the new purchases outside Illawarra Truck Repairs & Spares.

Still going strong in their tenth year, the DAF XF105s were bigger than what JJ and his team felt they initially needed.

Because dangerous goods drivers can carry lots of extra safety equipment, the truck, it was discovered, provided the team with superior storage options. In turn, this led to another advantage regarding fleet utilisation.

UTH soon found it could complete smaller jobs challenged by the urban confines in metropolitan Sydney and, then afterwards load up much heavier for regional trips.

“You can live in that truck,” says JJ. “They were more versatile to what we had been accustomed to and that made it possible to maximise our hours with drivers.”

One prevalent area of the business involves transporting hydrochloric acid for the galvanising industry. As these deliveries are usually actioned early in the morning, the flexibility afforded by the DAFs has enabled the driver to reload and trek out, for example, to one of the gold mines in the state’s central west.

“These guys want to earn a decent living,” says JJ. “They don’t want to just work an eight-hour day. They would rather put in a six-hour shift in the morning, do a local delivery and then go on long haul.”

These and other chemicals are also used in the steel industry for preparation processes, for various uses in the mining sector and are crucial for correcting ph levels at water treatment plants where it is necessary to drop the solids found in the water. These plants are now located across the country.

UTH, in keeping with this, runs trucks in four mainland states. As chemicals are sometimes loaded in places where fuel is also loaded, the application is comparable at least in its categorisation. The trucks also, like fuel haulage vehicles, need to have battery isolation switches installed. Many of the similarities with chemical transport, however, end there.

“The milk guys and the fuel guys are always looking at optimising payloads and finding the optimum trailer combinations,” says JJ. “We used to have a delivery where we would take a load of hydrochloric acid from Sydney to remote treatment plants outside of Alice Springs. We only went out there with 15,000-litres of product. That’s only 17-tonne.”

It would be unheard of, JJ notes, in the fuel and milk markets. Working under HML, UTH has provision to load up to 46 tonnes GCM although payload rarely exceeds 25 tonnes.

Business models evolve differently. Often for reasons of timing, economies of scale and sheer necessity. All three have applied to UTH, at different times.

Even so, its measured approach to total cost of ownership has made for linear, steady growth. That’s not uncommon either for businesses managed by people with technical proficiency. JJ after all is a mechanic by trade.

“I was brought up to try and maintain things and keep them going,” he says. “That’s always been something dad has emphasised from the start.”

For the family that start takes place in 1980 when Oskar and Wendy Wiedl, JJ’s parents, purchased the business. It was historically established in 1975. Today it remains a family business in the truest sense with JJ’s partner, Belinda, sons Hayden and Joshua, daughter Julianne, and brothers Wayne and Paul, all integral members of the team.

Over the years the company has diversified operations from a traditional liquid waste haulage provider to the chemical transport specialist it is today. That transition was accelerated in the mid-1990s when environmental regulations, designed to crack down on businesses dumping waste illegitimately, created an opportunity for small businesses like UTH which it seized upon.

It took well over a decade to expand its working vehicles from a solitary second hand Leyland Reiver to six trucks by the time JJ joined the company.

The truck mix today is varied. As UTH relies heavily on versatility as much as anything, the latest in prime mover technology, as represented by the new DAFs, sits side by side with vigilantly maintained older models, some of which are maturing into a second decade of operations.

One of the big discoveries for the business that helped it choose a direction was when it realised the aftersales costing of say, parts, was making it uncompetitive in the market.

“We sat down with the accountant, who has been with the business for 15 years and got all the American branded trucks, the Kenworths and Western Stars, and put them beside the European trucks in the fleet and we decided we had to do something to remain competitive,” says JJ. “So, we steered away from the European truck.”

That decision was made in 2008. But changes in traffic conditions and cramped site access of new customers that had been secured, made it evident that sending in bonneted traditional American trucks into these locations wasn’t necessarily the smartest move.

“Drivers were having minor accidents and customers were starting to notice our competitors were sending smaller vehicles in,” says JJ. “So that gave us pause. That’s around about the time the first DAFs were purchased.”

The newest Euro VI DAF XF530s are not, unlike some other European brands in the fleet, on contract maintenance schemes. Maintenance of the fleet in the main is performed inhouse.

The workshop employs six personnel including a fabricator.

“The challenge with contract maintenance is you need to go back to the dealer,” JJ says. “If the fleet is not profitable, you’re paying a bloke to just sit with a truck at a dealership all the time. That becomes a false saving when you look at the wage component.”

Driver Steven Carr with his Euro VI DAF XF530.
Driver Steven Carr with his Euro VI DAF XF530.

JJ will use external providers, where appropriate, for parts. He often relies on both Gilbert & Roach and Illawarra Truck Repairs & Spares for this and is content with the arrangement.

“Our gear is kept well-presented and maintained. We might downgrade it so it’s not on the same high-profile work or doing the big kilometres anymore,” he says. “If it’s still serviceable, we keep it.”

Being a mechanic by trade informs JJ’s organisational philosophy whereby expertise and resources mean there is no need to take leave of material reality. Reliability when it comes to good working equipment is not something merely inherited.

“Most of the guys are happy to drive the older gear as long as it’s well maintained,” he says. “You can’t have everything new. Everything gets to an age where you must repurpose it to a different application. This is the thing with the PACCAR product. We’re getting support everywhere. It doesn’t matter where you are you get the support you need. You get the network.”

Diehard Kenworth and Western Star operators, over a beer might joke about driving a DAF in JJ’s experience, but once they do drive it, they “come down-to-earth”, to use his words, abruptly.

Given where it is they need to go and what it is they need to do when they get there, it can be a rude awakening at first.

“The chief reason is the impossible places we need to get into. You need a conventional truck. You need a truck with a really good turning circle,” says JJ. “They’ve never let me down and the drivers now love them.”

The new Euro VI DAF XF530s, by way of neat coincidence, are made in the old Leyland factory in the north of England, where the first truck of the business was manufactured.

With readily available parts and a competitive price point, the new trucks offer him a significantly better cost of life than the other European branded vehicles he has owned.

“I just think the DAFs are far better,” says JJ.

“The DAF slogan two or three years ago was ‘Do the math buy a DAF’ and not a truer word was spoken. It all comes down to cost of life of the vehicle.”

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