If you were to step into the shoes of a mobile technician — say, a person in the utilities, cable, telecommunications, or pest control industries — a good portion of your day would also be spent making trips to your truck or van to retrieve the tools you need to perform that service. Racks and bins make doing so easy.
Racks, store long, oddly shaped items, and bins, which store smaller items like parts, tools, and other materials. Racks and bins serve three key purposes: they carry the tools and materials technicians need to do their jobs; they keep that cargo and the driver safe if contents shift en route, and they provide much-needed organization so technicians can quickly and easily grab what they need.
“If boxes and bins are organized and securely stowed in the van, parts can be found more easily and aren’t damaged during transport,” says Isabella Braun, international business development manager for racking systems company, Sortimo. “Professional van racks and bins are necessary to increase organization and worker productivity.”
What happens when trucks and vans aren’t equipped with racks and bins? Jonathan Culp, director, fleet and leasing sales for vehicle upfitting company, Dejana, says the result is wasted time and money.
“When some cargo is too tall or too big to fit on a shelf, technicians will put it on the floor and block the center aisle. Over time, this turns many service vehicles into a rolling mess,” he says. “Underneath that pile is inventory that can be lost, damaged, or become obsolete. This is wasted money.”
Beyond productivity, racks and bins also keep cargo and drivers safe in the event that the vehicle lurches forward or stops suddenly. Instead of shifting and potentially entering the cab and injuring its occupants (and not to mention causing damage to valuable inventory), contents stay safely in place.
“When a load isn’t secure it’s unsafe for the driver and can also damage the cargo,” says Dshamal Schoetz, manager of upfitter programs for Mercedes-Benz USA. “For instance, if a plumber doesn’t secure a toilet, stops suddenly, and damages it, that means another trip to the store to buy a replacement.”
How Are Racks and Bins Used?
Racks and bins refer to the various storage options available to organize and secure items inside a commercial vehicle; there are many potential uses, some more complicated than others.
“Racks and bins can include a wide range of equipment, including various widths of shelves and bins of all sizes, as well as an array of drawers, cabinets, hooks, spools, and other storage compartments,” says Julie Ellenberger, Ford brand manager for Transit, Transit Connect, and E-Series. “That means they can be configured based on the specific use of the vehicle.”
With many rack and bin options on the market, how they will be used depends on the industry and needs of the technician.
“The decisions surrounding upfitted bins and racks are based on the vocation,” says Cindy Towe, assistant manager, Business Elite promotions and incentives for GM Fleet. “For example, an electrician, a landscaper, and a baker would have different vocational needs to add another level of functionality to their fleet vehicles.”
Ramses Banda, senior product manager, medium-duty trucks for Navistar, gave the example of a farm tractor repair company, which would need a welding machine, welding torch, a drill, a sander, wrenches, sockets, and a host of other equipment to fix a tractor on-site.
“The most unique application I have ever seen is a company who utilized our shelving to transport empty coffins,” says Jay Cowie, product manager for van equipment company, Ranger Design. “Regardless of industry, racks and bins take an empty van and transform it into the technician’s mobile workshop. The right mix of shelves, drawers, and storage will enable the technician to have what he needs on hand when he arrives at the job site.”
Which Materials Should I Choose?
The material you choose depends on how you will use the racks and bins. Options typically include aluminum, steel, or composite, each offering specific benefits.
Ashley MacLeod, marketing manager for Masterack, says steel is the strongest material on the market, and offers the most cost-effective option for fleets carrying heavy equipment. Aluminum, on the other hand, is 30% lighter, which translates to increased fuel economy.
“Aluminum is best for larger fleets that would realize significant fuel savings,” MacLeod says.
Composite materials can be lighter and also have characteristics that absorb noise, rather than amplify it in the back of a truck or van, says Jarid Ison, director of fleet & commercial sales for storage equipment company, Decked LLC.
Banda of Navistar says fleets should look for racks that are as light as possible but have enough of a cross section to protect cargo and drivers.
“Aluminum is one lightweight option,” he says. “The other is structural steel, but it must be coated with a paint that can tolerate exposure, like salt brine in the winter, and abuse, like sliding or hitting of cargo.”
Culp of Dejana suggested looking for composite, durable, and lightweight materials that will stand the test of time.
“A metal shelf, once bent, is going to be bent forever,” he says. “Manufacturers that incorporate composites and extrusions provide products that have enough give to handle the torsion and flexing that happens to vehicles in motion, but also the support to prevent a heavily-loaded shelf from bending or warping under the dynamic motions that occur during driving. One manufacturer I know of demonstrates the quality of the product by having a salesperson stand on a shelf and bounce up and down. I wouldn’t try that on a metal shelf.”
In the future, Ison of Decked says fleets will see more options on the market.
“As technology continues to improve, materials are becoming more lightweight and the use of more than one material to construct is becoming more prevalent,” he says.
Which System is Right for My Fleet?
Your rack and bin solution will depend entirely on your specific needs. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, since every industry — and even every technician — will have its own requirements for a productive configuration.
“Every user is different. Even within the same vocations, we see differences,” says Todd Goldmeyer, marketing manager for vehicle upfitter, Adrian Steel Company. “Some companies may only service residential buildings. Some companies may only service industrial companies. Some do a combination of both. This impacts the cargo they need to take to the job site and the cargo management products they carry.”
Before shopping for a solution, the first questions to ask are, “What’s working for our technicians now?” and “What’s not working/what could be improved?”
Schoetz of Mercedes-Benz USA recommended buyers perform a needs assessment before they start shopping.
“A fleet manager should put together a list of pain points for their current vehicles and a wish list of what they’d like to have,” he says. “This helps our staff point them in the right direction. For example, if their vehicles carry a lot of weight, they may need composite racks and bins. If durability is a priority, we’d point them to steel or aluminum.”
MacLeod of Masterack says getting technicians’ input should be a key part of a needs assessment.
“Speaking with the techs in the field and the people who are going to be using the trucks every day is crucial,” she says. “Take the time to ride with them and ask what they like and don’t like about the current vehicle storage options.”
Culp of Dejana advises thinking through key questions like how the vehicle will be used in the field, what the driver will be doing, what the driver will need to carry, and how often he or she will need to climb in and out of the vehicle.
“Let the job requirements drive the storage spec,” he advises. “Think outside the van. Just because you did it last year doesn’t mean it’s the best thing to do this year.”
If fleets are hesitant to try a new solution, Cowie of Ranger Design recommends selecting a pilot vehicle, then asking a variety of drivers to take a critical look at what worked and what didn’t before rolling it out fleet-wide.
What Qualities Should I Look For?
The qualities to look for may depend on your use, but in general, most fleets should look for a solution that is durable, adjustable, safe, and offers a suitable warranty.
Culp of Dejana says durability is important because if racks and bins are damaged, they’re not likely to be replaced — and that means they lose their effectiveness.
“Even with a well-managed replacement cycle, many fleets are going to keep these vehicles for a long time,” he says. “If the shelves bend, warp, or pull away from the wall/anchor points, they are going to stay that way for the remainder of the vehicle life.”
For that reason, Jose Reyna, national fleet and commercial manager for equipment company, A.R.E., says longevity should take precedence over price.
“Don’t look at the price point; look for quality and durability — those are the features that will pay off,” he says. “Think about how the equipment will stand up to weather and how well it will carry your tools, equipment, and liquids.”
Banda of Navistar says erosion protection can maintain the life of a rack and bin solution and recommends a galvanized powder protective anti-corrosion coating to do the job. He also suggested bins and racks designed with sliders that use bearings so they can be easily opened and closed — and protect the technician, too.
“It’s no different than when you open the silverware drawer in your kitchen. You want it to open smoothly, otherwise you force it and silverware goes all over the kitchen,” he says. “In that scenario, your family is probably there to help you clean it up. But in the field, many technicians are working alone — and worse, they can get hurt if they drop their tools.”
Overall, a rack and bin solution should last the life of a truck at least once. Banda says some are sturdy enough to get two truck cycles out of one body.
The ultimate goal of a rack and bin system is to maximize the available space. To do so, Culp says adjustability is key.
“With fixed shelves, say, 15 inches apart, if the cargo is only six inches tall, you’re wasting 9 inches of usable space,” he says. Adjusting the shelves to fit the cargo allows fleets to use that remaining space.
Braun of Sortimo says another important factor is the ability to actually remove bins and transport them easily to the job site.
“The technician is more productive if boxes and bins with tools and parts can be easily removed from the van and carried to the workplace in one run,” she says.
Fleets should make sure racks and bins are safe and easy to use in order to protect the well-being of technicians, and should also make sure equipment can be properly locked down to protect their investment.
Reyna underscores the importance of racks and bins to minimize liability.
“Let’s say you have a company of 5,000 employees. Not every driver will follow the rules and not every driver will follow the proper procedures. So, looking for racks and bins that are easy to operate in a safe way is important,” he says. “If you’re purchasing a ladder rack, for instance, you want to make sure it can safely hold the ladder you’re carrying. You’ll also want to make sure it can be safely positioned and locked in place on top of the van. A padlock is important to have, too, to prevent theft.”
And, don’t forget about the importance of safe installation.
“If the van shelving and boxes are not secured professionally inside the vehicle, racks and bins can shift while the van is in motion or hurt the driver in an accident. The safest option is to go with a high-quality and crash-tested van solution,” Braun says.
A rack and bin solution can be a major investment, so it should come with a sufficient warranty. Reyna says the warranty should cover the lifespan of the vehicle, which is usually three to five years.
“Fleets should consider how easy it is to complete field repairs and how they can get service from an authorized dealer,” he advised.
Banda says buying factory-direct bins and racks allows buyers to maintain the vehicle warranty.
“That way if something goes wrong during the upfitting process, you’re protected, because the factory authorized the work prior to you buying the equipment,” he explained. “For example, trucks carry a two-year unlimited miles/hours warranty on the truck/chassis. But, if the body company drills a hole on the chassis and it causes a fracture that cracks the frame, the damage to the chassis won’t be covered under the warranty because you modified it after you bought it. At our factory, we pre-pierce the chassis so the right holes are there for when the body is installed.”
What Are the Costs?
Costs will vary depending on the vehicle platform and specific solution for that vehicle, says Ison of Decked. In general, as size goes up, so do costs. Culp of Dejana notes fleets in low-skill, low-labor-cost industries can buy a basic shelving system for about $2,000, whereas a utility company with more specialized needs may spend $10,000 to $12,000 on a van upfit package.
When calculating the return on investment of a solution, Braun of Sortimo says improved technician productivity pays off.
“In recent research, Sortimo found out that more than 30 minutes per day, per technician, can be saved through our organization and mobility solution,” she says. “Calculated with a $30 hourly cost for a technician, 218 working days, and 2,000 technicians in the field, that can be a savings of more than $6.5 million per year.”
Banda of Navistar says the lowest cost option is to transplant a pre-owned body on a new chassis. The most costly is to buy everything brand new; while that investment is more significant, the upside is the associated warranty.
Fleets should always take the weight of a rack and bin system into consideration and ensure there is enough available payload after installation.
“If the body is too heavy, the truck will be dangerously close to the gross vehicle weight limit and you won’t be able to carry anything,” says Banda of Navistar.
Weight also has an impact on fuel economy — the heavier the solution, the lower the MPG.
“Studies show that every 10% weight reduction leads to a reduction of fuel consumption by approximately 7%,” says Braun of Sortimo. “A more fuel-efficient vehicle with a higher MPG yields a more productive driver in the field. A vehicle that drives further on a tank of gas helps the technician spend less time refueling and gives him more time to get the job done.”
Dejana’s Culp says beyond which racks and bins fleets choose, fleets should also be selective about what items technicians carry in them.
“I once asked a technician why he needed three heavy hammer drills in his van. His reply was that there was, ‘this one job back in ’07 where I would have been up the creek if I hadn’t had that third one,’” he says. “The ‘pile’ in the van obscures what’s really in the vehicle, and in this case added extra weight, which erodes fuel economy.”
Work With the Experts
While fleets may have a thorough understanding of their needs, they aren’t likely to be the experts at configuring the most effective rack and bin solution to meet them. Manufacturers and upfitters are.
“I can’t tell you how many times we have worked with end users and they simply didn’t know of better ways to organize their cargo van,” says Goldmeyer of Adrian Steel. “The upfitter has the experience and knowledge to work with the customer to provide them the best solution for their needs.”
MacLeod of Masterack says manufacturers can oversee vehicle loading and unloading scenarios and ensure that the selected storage system maximizes efficiency.
Upfitting experts can help companies make the most of their space and avoid common missteps, too.
“Experts can help ensure you do it right and avoid mistakes,” says Schoetz of Mercedes-Benz USA. “They can draw on their many years of experience to ensure you find the right package.”
Advice from Towe of GM Fleet? “Don’t go it alone. Ask for help,” she says. “A knowledgeable dealer understands gross vehicle weights, towing/hauling capacities, etc., and is able to properly spec a work truck or van. Adding too many or not enough upfit options can be a costly mistake.”