Tales from the Towers – Chapter 48: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, err Cargo Vans

In this 48th installment of Tales from the Towers, Rory Conaway provides wireless ISPs with valuable information on the kinds of vehicles that work best (mechanically and financially) for the wireless ISP who has to drive a lot. He also provides tips on how to maintain those vehicles.

I like cars. I’ve been a car guy since Hot Wheels in the 60s. I’ve been through the Smokey and the Bandit Trans Am phase and although I’m in the Mustang phase now with enough horsepower to turn earth into my personal dynamometer, I find that my interest is turning to gas mileage, vehicle longevity, and reducing the cost of operation of my vehicles. I know this isn’t technically a WISP type article but it’s a fact of life with a WISP from a financial sense. That and there is a big lull in the industry on hardware/software announcements since WISPA is almost 30 days away where we get the really big news.

Since the Greens seem to be running the energy policy, so brilliantly I might add since they did such a bang up job on screwing up the nuclear industry 30 year ago, gas prices are starting to approach the cost of a Wendy’s Triple. This means that the lifeline for a WISP in getting to customers is only possible if we don’t have to sell a kidney to fill the gas tank. Now throw in having to replace a vehicle every few years, and those numbers add up fast at 30,000 or more miles per year. Since the best vehicle is what does the job and costs me the least, that’s now become my interest. Also, when gas prices start hitting into my HoHo budget, then the gloves come off.

I’m not going to tell people what to buy in this article since pretty much most cars today are solidly built. I will only relate my experience in how to get the maximum performance and mileage out of what you have bought for the least amount of money. My personal favorites are the E-150 or E-250 Ford Econoline vans because they run forever, parts are cheap and plentiful, and Ford worked out all the bugs a long time ago. But they aren’t my favorite for gas mileage though. Throw on ladder racks and pipe boxes and gas mileage dips into the 11-14 miles per gallon (mpg) range. These kinds of numbers start getting crazy when you realize that it costs $15 in gas (petrol) just to drive to the office and home every day. Our primary site which is 100 miles away costs us about $80 in gas just to drive there and back and we do that 2-3 days a week or more. That adds up fast so gas mileage is a critical issue with me these days.

Since we only purchase used vehicles (I’m allergic to depreciation), one that’s been checked out thoroughly for everything from engine compression to what station the radio was on when we bought it, I change oil, and air filter along with whatever other maintenance I can’t guarantee was done. Synthetics go in along with a Mobil 1 Oil Filter and a K&N Air Filter. Although I use Amsoil oils for my race car, for the rest of my vehicles, I prefer Mobil 1 synthetics. Not everyone is going to agree on this one and competitive data put out by different synthetic oil manufacturers is pretty confusing but I’ve raced with Mobil 1 and used it for 30 years. The reality is that all true synthetics are better than mineral oil so it doesn’t matter which one you use. For those of you who still argue that there isn’t much of a difference between synthetics and regular oil, I’ll share a couple experiences with synthetics.

Back when Mobil 1 first came out in the late 70s, they gave out free samples at our local racetrack. In 1980, a buddy of mine with a 1978 Honda 750 race bike decided to test it. He was changing rings every weekend and replacing pistons every other weekend. After switching, there was no perceptible compression loss after several weeks of racing. At the end of the season, when he tore down the engine, the hone marks were still in the cylinder with no visible wear. These marks should have been significantly more worn along with the corresponding piston scoring. Seeing those hone marks made me a believer in synthetics and its capability in anti-shearing. It’s also why it’s the only thing that goes into any high-performance or luxury car today. If you want more proof, I rarely get rid of any car with less than 200,000 since engine wear isn’t a deciding factor. My highest mileage van, the 2003 E-150, now has 280,000 miles and runs like a top but I’ve had several personal cars that have hit 200,000 miles or more with no engine issues. A couple of these have been totals in accidents and one was stolen (family members are not always the best people to whom one should loan a vehicle).

My other favorite story is my 1986 Toyota truck that I bought at 60,000 miles. The sludge in the heads looked like something out of The Blob (a great 1958 classic movie only topped by Evolution). After dropping in Mobil 1, I watched the oil color. Within days it went from a clear to evil black. At 500 miles, I’m changing the oil again. At 1500 miles, I’m seeing the same thing with the oil and looking for an exorcist. The truck went back into the bay and I bought another round of Mobil 1 for the house. However, this time when I look under the header oil cap, the sludge was completely gone and it looked shinier than my wife’s ring when it gets back from the jewelers. My gas mileage in that truck went from 19mpg city to 25mpg city and 25mpg to 32mpg on the freeway. I also added the K&N Air Filter.

I usually run more than 10,000 miles between oil changes although I’ve gone as much as 15,000 miles without much worry if the oil looks good. My personal experience has been that synthetics and the K&N Air Filter are worth 1-2 mpg or more, depending on the vehicle and the state of tune (not to mention you don’t have to replace the filter, just wash it every 10,000-50,000 miles). Throw synthetics in your tranny and differential (a big expensive mistake in not doing it on my part that won’t happen again with a Ford 8.8 rear-end that tows) and your gas mileage should go up a little more. If you tow with a Ford 8.8” rear-end, then definitely put synthetics in the tranny and differential. If you have an E-250 with the 10.5” rear-end, it’s not as critical. It also minimizes needing a tranny-cooler and I live in Southern Arizona. I towed 7000+ pounds with a Ford Windstar, rated for 3500 lbs and notorious for tranny failures, across country twice and multiple times per year without an issue. That tranny still worked great at 200,000 miles (yeah, I know, it’s too much weight but synthetics rock).

Since most work vehicles really don’t stress the oil that much, almost any synthetic oil is going to be fine. What’s important is that you don’t use a synthetic blend and you use a quality oil filter than can last without disintegrating internally and still filter. My preference here is the Mobil 1 Oil Filter since it’s a synthetic fiber that was originally designed to go 25,000 miles. There are even better and more expensive filters out there such as, Amsoil, Redline, and Royal Purple which are synthetic based materials meaning built for longer oil changes and higher pressure but I haven’t found them necessary for street cars. In reality, higher mileage cars will make the oil too dirty from blow-by at 10K to bother with a better quality filter. Most additives in the oil are also pretty much used up by then unless you get a high-mileage oil.

As for adding other things in the oil, don’t waste your time, money, or engine as up until now, they have been nothing but snake oil. I’ve got one blown engine to prove it and the government has sued most of the companies for trying to pass off PTFT particles and mineral oil as something you need. It’s all garbage.

Stick with straight oil. If your compression is going down and oil consumption is going up slightly, move up a little on the weight. Instead of a 5-20W oil, use a 10-30W. Oil needs vary from vehicle to vehicle and are definitely different between Canada and Phoenix so research what works best. However, if you are in either temperature extreme, cold or hot, synthetics work a lot better and their anti-shear factor is significant on startup for wear.

Tires are another area where you can save a lot of money. If you do a lot of highway driving and you keep your vehicle a long time, don’t go cheap on tires. The best value I’ve seen is the Michelin 80,000 mile truck tires. On my E-150 van, I’ve gotten 120,000 miles out of $600 worth of tires (have to watch for coupons for Costco for this price). If I didn’t let the younger guys drive this van unsupervised, I would have gotten even more but the edges were starting to wear down. The younger guys just don’t get the concept that the Queen Mary doesn’t corner like a Porsche and they go through corners like Mario Andretti is trying to pass them. Adjusting air pressure to distribute the wear evenly maximizes the life of the tire. If your edges are wearing too fast, add more pressure. If the center of the tread is wearing too quickly, then take some pressure out. Always stay within the manufacturer’s guidelines. If you have any other wear patterns that differ from these 2, get the truck in for an alignment and check your shocks, springs, tie-rods, bushings, and wheel-bearings.

Brakes are another issue with heavily loaded vehicles. In this area, I can only speak for the E-150, Honda, and Ford mini-vans and the Mustang race car that eats brake pads like I eat HoHos.

1) Don’t get cheap brakes from the local brake shop unless they are guaranteeing life-time replacement. I find that one downhill trip warps them so fast, I might as well just throw out an anchor next time.

2) Factory brakes aren’t much better when the van is loaded up. If it’s a mid-2000 Honda van, just plan on replacing brakes every 10,000 miles even with an egg glued to the brake pedal or my wife is driving which is the same thing. She never met a speed limit she didn’t think was 5mph too fast.

In every case, the solution is cryogenic brake rotors and the correct associated pads. Honda’s will go from 10K to 80K miles. The E-150 brakes went from pulsing on the next speed bump it went over to smooth braking for the next 50,000 miles. I have yet to wear them out. Don’t get drilled rotors under any conditions although slotted isn’t a bad idea if you drive in the hills or snowy/rainy environments. Sometimes the best race practices are also the most cost-effective for the street since most performance parts are actually the same price or cheaper than factory parts. I’m planning on seeing my E-150 hit 400,000 miles with the same engine and transmission which should be in about 3 more years.

In the meantime, I’m eyeing a 2009-2011 Chevy HHR cargo van to add to the fleet. It may need a little help in the suspension department to handle the load which the aftermarket is more than willing to help with, but anything that can triple my highway mileage for our long drives out here in the West is definitely a positive step.

However, if most of your driving is of shorter range and at city speeds, consider a Ford Transit Connect. If you like the Transit Connect and have to do a lot of highway miles, then wait until 2014 when Ford releases the 6-speed tranny with significantly better highway gas mileage. Nissan also has a mini-cargo van coming out but I’m not familiar with it yet so caveat emptor. As I said though, I’m not a fan of new vehicles due to the depreciative costs and with new models, possibly recall issues that haven’t been worked out yet. Either way, smaller is the new cool and a financial reality for WISPs with their own fleets to keep costs down. But don’t worry, after Train released their last big hit, 50 Ways to Say Goodbye, I took “crappy purple Scion” off the potential fleet list.

* * * * *

Previous article: Tales from the Towers, Chapter 47: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

About Rory Conaway

Rory Conaway has been in the IT and Wireless Industries for the past 25 years as an author and consultant. He currently operates a growing WISP operation in Southern Arizona. He consults with investors, manufacturers, and WISPs, and develops financial business models for startups. In addition to writing articles in industry publications such as Mission Critical Magazine, Mr. Conaway also writes the series “Tales from the Towers” that can be found on various such as www.triadwireless.net and www.muniwireless.com. He has also engineered several wireless designs such as S.P.I.R.I.T. and Guerilla Wireless as well as building integrated wireless and video surveillance for airport security, municipal and critical infrastructure, SCADA systems, and hotel/MDU deployments.