Like most contractors in the service business, the E.L. Payne Company — a residential heating and air conditioning service company in the Los Angeles area since the 1930s — traditionally used standard Chevy and Ford cargo vans. Then, in 2004, “I was driving up the freeway and I saw a brand new, white Scion xB,” said owner Gordon Payne, and it reminded him of a mini version of a 1950’s milk or bakery truck.
Could he use it as a service vehicle? Payne started exploring the possibilities.
In looking at his vans at the time, and understanding the human tendency to fill empty space, he found that “they were full of air, and that much of the space was occupied by junk,” he said. “I began to look at the actual, organized space, and I began to picture it sitting in that Scion, that square box.”
Down to a Science
Payne ran the conversion idea by one of his more energetic and creative service technicians, Chris Cross. Cross said to go for it. They rented a Scion xB to literally take it apart and analyze the possibilities.
To spec the xB’s payload capacity with his needs, they unbolted and removed the passenger seats, took out the spare tire and jack, and weighed those pieces. They took that 160 lbs. of weight savings and added it to the xB’s total approximate passenger weight. The resulting 500 lbs. about equaled the payload weight needed. They then loaded the rental xB with 500 lbs. and Payne gave it to Cross for the weekend.
The car averaged 30 miles to the gallon during the full-load test, “right to the dot,” Payne said, which was an eye-popping improvement over his traditional cargo vans that averaged 12 mpg. The ride quality was “awesome,” according to Cross, though he admits to clearance issues in driveways.
Projecting a hefty fuel savings over the life of the five-year lease with the xB, “That got me thinking that we could do this,” Payne said.
A commercial heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) company that carried bigger loads couldn’t get away with the switch, Payne said. But, as a residential service company, he felt he could use the switch as a business advantage. “I’m a bit of an environmentalist and I converted our carbon footprint savings,” he said. “I thought I could talk to my customers that we’ve taken this step for energy efficiency and pollution.”
The company built rear shelving units using most of the existing bolt holes to secure them. They unhooked things like the upper handholds to expose the threaded couplings and used them as connectors.
Finding space for the filters was a big challenge. An enclosed roof rack, which stores filters and other non-daily supplies, eased the cargo burden greatly. Ladders were moved from the inside to a rack on the top as well.
The technicians were relied on for input in the modification process, and some, such as Cross, customized their units further. Cross went to the container store and figured out which type and size of container would work for each part. The result is a tightly packed and labeled network of shelving in the back.
Per a directive from the big boss regarding resale value, Cross is meticulous about protecting the unit’s interior. He uses tin foil to protect the door panels, bubble wrap on the driver compartment’s center console and, for equipment in the back, a blanket bought at a 99-cent store.
Making the switch required changing the process of providing equipment and materials for jobs. Whereas the regular cargo vans could carry six motors, the xBs can carry two, and parts such as contactors went from seven or eight to two as well, Cross said.
“You have to be more diligent with your supply,” Cross said, which means making sure to restock during office visits or stopping by a wholesaler on the road as needed. Vendors now deliver some parts on site in certain circumstances.
Handling the Holdouts
Payne says some of his veteran techs pushed back, and he finally moved his last holdout into an xB in the past month. Payne said the tech went “kicking and screaming,” but simply couldn’t argue with the $225-275 in fuel savings per month, per vehicle. “At the meeting this morning, I made everyone give him a round of applause for making the change,” he said.
The company bought 12 new xBs last year, and this new build out became the collaborative effort of what worked and what didn’t. “The first six years were the great experiment,” Payne admits.
“We made this shift, and now [the technicians] would not go back in a million years,” Payne said. “They have comfortable cars to drive; they’re easy to park, have great stereos and comfortable air conditioning, and they get a lot of compliments.”
And sometimes, those compliments come from unusual places. “We drove by a school and the kids came running over thinking we were the ice cream man,” Cross said.