Hot topic for truckies
It’s summer in one of the hottest countries on the planet with some of the longest working hours for truckies. So what are the rules on bunkrooms, cab bunk cooling and day cabs running long distance? Steve Skinner writes
WITH THE advent of air-conditioned single bunk rooms and integrated sleeper cabs, it’s easy to forget just how tough long-distance truck drivers used to do it in the old days.
Sharing a bunkroom with a dozen other farting, snoring blokes with maybe a swivelling fan for relief; heads hanging out of dog-box doors to get a bit of fresh air; swags under the trailer; stretching out across the bench seat; and so on.
Thank heavens that’s all just a thing of the past, right? Well, no.
There’s no doubt sleeping conditions have greatly improved in many ways for many long-distance drivers, to the point of single motel rooms being commonly provided. But there are still some primitive cases out there.
Take some dealer and operator bunkrooms. We’ve previously reported on shared bunkrooms in dealerships and depots which are right next to the noisy TV/lunch room or clanging workshop; and even one which other drivers had to walk through to go to the toilet. That’s not to mention demountable bunkrooms right next to trucks and forklifts coming and going all day, with no sound barrier in between.
At least bunkrooms mostly seem to be air-conditioned these days.
However, there are still some long-distance sleeper cabs with no air cooling whatsoever, even though the truck’s driver might need to sleep in them during the day – for example, if they’re waiting for a changeover or can’t get back to base, or simply have a pennypinching boss.
Try that in the middle of a sweltering summer day, knowing there is no need for it. And remember, there is a lot more night driving and attempted day sleeping than in the old days.
In those sometimes impossible summer conditions, our advice is to crank up the 550hp air-conditioner under the bonnet. (If you do that, it’s widely advised to lift the engine idling revs to about 1200rpm so you don’t glaze the bore.)
Ditto if you’re unlucky enough to need to sleep in a day cab truck.
We’ve noticed what seems to be an increasing number of these on long-distance and even interstate work, and they are usually owned by the bigger fleets.
You can bet the company managers who send drivers out in these day cabs have never experienced a delayed changeover, or a breakdown halfway up the highway, or simply needed a 20-minute power nap to keep themselves going in the early hours of the morning.
One day-cab driver we spoke to always carries an oversized bag so he can stuff it between the seats and stretch out if he needs to sleep. And he has no hesitation in running the truck air-con.
ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL
So what do all the government agencies, peak trucking and customer bodies, and university experts have to say about sleeping conditions for truckies in the Australian summer?
From what we’ve been able to see and hear, nothing. As far as we can tell, among what seems like millions of words on fatigue, there are no standards whatsoever for bunkrooms, sleeper air cooling or the use of day cabs.
The Australian Design Rules for new trucks have all sorts of rules for sleeper cabs, but don’t say anything about cooling.
There are dozens of pages of guidelines for operators accredited under the basic and advanced fatigue management schemes – and reams of paperwork they have to fill out – but the term ‘air-conditioning’ doesn’t rate a mention.
Neither do the Australian Trucking Association’s (ATA) TruckSafe nor the Australian Logistics Council’s Retail Logistics Safety Code specify anything about a cool sleeping environment.
Meanwhile, day cabs seem to enjoy just as good a rego deal as sleeper cabs under the Federal Interstate Registration Scheme (FIRS). And there’s nothing specific about bunkrooms or sleeper berths under the chain of responsibility legislation on fatigue, although we reckon poor sleeping conditions could make for a very interesting test case one day.
In fact, the only specific rule or official piece of advice we can find anywhere is that, according to reports on the internet, trucks in Western Australia have to have airconditioning if operating north of the 26th parallel between October 1 and March 31. We don’t know if that includes sleeper air-con or not.
The WA Department of Transport didn’t know anything about it when we emailed them, and suggested we contact WorkSafe. We couldn’t find anything on the WorkSafe website and, like many busy trucking operators, we didn’t bother calling.
So, in the absence of any official guidance, here’s what some of the
best in the business are doing to ensure drivers get the decent sleep they need and deserve.
Firstly to individual airconditioned bunkrooms, which fortunately seems to be a growing trend. We have been told about each of the following from drivers who have benefited from them.
First prize goes to Westar Truck Centre at Derrimut in Melbourne. Westar is a dealer for Isuzu, Western Star, MAN and Dennis Eagle.
Not only are the rooms quiet and dark, with towels and linen provided, but they each have their own toilet and shower as well. There is free WiFi, a self-service cappuccino maker, and even complimentary continental breakfast.
Gilbert and Roach at Huntingwood in Sydney (Isuzu and Kenworth) also has individual rooms well located away from noise generated by the workshop and waiting day drivers.
So too does Westrac Caterpillar at Hexham in the Hunter Valley, with a big TV lounge area, laundry, and even computer terminals along an office-style bench.
There is no peak body for bunk air cooling suppliers, so we visited supplier Truck Art at Wagga Wagga in southern NSW on the crossroads between Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane.
Owner Terry Gibbs also has cooler installation workshops in Adelaide, Melbourne and Perth.
One of his early ventures was manufacturing sleeper cabs in the days before widespread bunk air cooling, about 15 years ago.
“It was a no-brainer for me to see the industry needed something in the sleeper cabin,” says Terry, who sold his first Viesa to Paterson’s Transport at nearby Narrandera.
“I still remember the driver, he was an older bloke, coming in after it had been fitted and thanking me. He said, ‘This is the first time in my life that I’ve been able to have a proper sleep in summer.’
“It wasn’t long before people had to have it, and I think the main thing is it was fatigue management … and that helps overall with insurance costs because tired drivers have accidents.
“Drivers expect it today. Once it was a luxury but now they need it and, not only that, I think if there was an accident due to a man not sleeping, and he didn’t have air cooling, the company could have something to answer for.”
NO IDEAL SOLUTION
Truck Art’s cheapest product is the evaporative Viesa cooler, manufactured in Argentina and a common sight on Australian roads these days.
They are priced at up to $3600 installed, with the annual service to clean the filters and so on costing about $150.
Terry says that, contrary to some opinion, a small amount of humidity can’t possibly rot the cabin; the water drains back into the tank on the back of the cab when not in use; and the unit can’t run the truck battery flat because there is a cut- off mechanism when the voltage gets too low.
He says of course there can be problems with cool air quality and quantity if Viesas aren’t cleaned for four or five years, “which we often see”.
There seem to be several advantages of an evaporative system over the next one up in the pecking order – a battery- operated refrigerative system such as the Pure Air or Koolkat, which Truck Art supplies.
Terry says a Viesa uses only eight amps of power per hour, and will give the driver a sleep on a very hot day by at least blowing moist air over them.
On the other hand, a battery refrigerative system draws a lot more power and may not be able to overcome an extremely hot day at all.
These can run for between four and seven hours depending on how hard the compressor is working, and Terry says they are best suited to night time or a few hours during the day.
They cost from about $5000 to $9000 for a unit with its own batteries and big enough to cope with a big- cab Kenworth for half the day in the sun; and they are more expensive to maintain than evaporatives, for example, with gassing.
“It’s horses for courses and some people love them,” Terry says, adding the truck needs to be driven for as long as the air- con has been running to charge the batteries, whether the unit runs off the truck or is independent.
Top of the range of course is diesel- powered refrigerative airconditioning, such as the wellknown Icepack, which now offers a 1000-hour extended service interval.
Truck Art’s offering is the Ecowind, with single- cylinder Lombardini engine using about 700ml of fuel an hour and costing between $10,500 and $13,000 depending where on the truck it is fitted.
The Australian Trucking Association’s Volvo Safety Truck runs one of these.
As the ATA points out, in 2013, after its lobbying efforts, the Tax Office ruled that the fuel used in truck sleeper cab air- conditioners is now tax free.
As a result, the ATA estimates
trucking businesses could save up to $300 per truck per year.
Diesel-powered units can pump out cold air indefinitely if need be, regardless of the outside heat, but their downside, of course, is noise for other truckies trying to sleep nearby.
The Ecowind is relatively quiet at 60 decibels, but Terry acknowledges the noise issue is becoming a problem.
“We are finding in certain areas now, especially up towards Queensland, there are service stations with signs saying you are not to run air-conditioning motors when you’re stopped.”
The bottom line from all this on sleeper air cooling? “There’s no perfect product out there yet.”
“The industry needed something in the sleeper cabin”
Not snookered – Gilbert and Roach has good facilities for waiting drivers
Well camouflaged – a diesel-powered Icepack
A diesel-powered ‘Ecowind’ system on the ATA’s Volvo safety truck
Relaxing in air-conditioned comfort at Westrac Hexham
Above Right: Relief from the heat – the Viesa outlet inside the cab
Right: Two examples of comfortable driver bedrooms. The Westrac bedroom (left) even has a slimline wardrobe; and (right) inside Westar’s Suite 4 at Westar Truck Centre Derrimut
Above: A Koolkat refrigerative airconditioning system