Kentworth T880; Photo courtesy of Kentworth
Kentworth T880; Photo courtesy of Kentworth

We’ve heard it a million times—the downturn is easing off. With sales edging upward again, now might be the time to invest in a new vehicle or to consider upgrading your fleet. But buying a truck can be daunting. What should you buy? How much will it cost? New or used? And what’s the difference? Before you ask your truck dealer, ask yourself: What do I need?

Bob Johnson, director of fleet relations at the National Truck Equipment Assoc­iation, says that you ought to establish the basics before you go shopping. “Decide exactly what you need the truck to do, and decide exactly how you want to do that job,” Johnson says. How far is your average delivery? What do you haul, and how far do you haul it? Johnson says your average medium-duty work truck might cost anywhere from $80,000 to $200,000, depending on the type of truck and the onboard equipment it carries. But before you sink some cash into the purchase, he recommends you try to spend only as much as you need. It can be a hard target to hit: Buying too small can put too much daily strain on the truck, especially if you have a weighty piggyback like the kind made by forklift manufacturers Moffett and Princeton. But buying too large can end up wasting fuel and space. “Knowing how you use the truck can save you a lot of money,” Johnson says. According to the 2014 Building Materials Operations Comparison survey of roughly 150 dealers, the average dealer spends about 3.06% of its annual revenue from delivered sales on truck maintenance and fuel.

Knowing when to buy a truck can also be tricky. Jon Davis, a former senior vice president at Star Lumber & Supply, in Wichita, Kan., uses delivered sales to predict how stressed your trucks are. “Let’s say you average $2 million in delivered sales per vehicle,” says Davis, who now works as a consultant. “But then, your business grows, and now you’re averaging $2.8 million per vehicle. More than likely, your fleet is being stressed and your on-time delivery is suffering.” Keep in mind, delivered sales per truck isn’t always the best indicator of fleet stress. “If you’re using a semi and big trailers with a piggyback, you’re going to expect to get far more deliveries per truck than if you were using a flatbed with a 16-foot bed,” Davis says.

When Golden State Lumber, in Petaluma, Calif., decided to phase out its older trucks in 2012, fleet manager Brandon Deering talked to his company’s in-house mechanics and vendors first. By asking the guys on the ground, not crunching sales figures, he was able to get a feel for which vehicles he needed to replace first and which still had some life left. “The life of the truck’s going to depend on a few factors, like maintenance, miles traveled, and operator care,” he says. “We’re on top of our maintenance, but it really depends on our drivers, as well.”

Another thing to consider before you buy are emission standards, which vary by state. Of all the dealers in the U.S., for those located in California, it’s probably most complicated. “When the state of California says it’s going to something, you better listen,” Deering says with a chuckle. In addition to a rule requiring that truck engines be from 2010 or later, California dealers must also keep truck idling below five minutes at a time and submit to random inspections to verify that diesel engines are in compliance with the rule. On top of that, older engines must have an aftermarket emissions filter installed that Deering estimates can cost up to $10,000 to $30,000. That said, Johnson points out that most, if not all, new trucks should fulfill nationwide emission standards.

But what to buy? After all, there are plenty of manufacturers to choose from. ABC Supply, which topped the ProSales 100 list last year, added 54 brand-new Kentworth T880 trucks to its fleet earlier this year in March. Golden State Lumber, which purchased more than 50 new trucks since 2012, also went with the Kentworth brand, model T800. Other manufacturers include Ford, International, Peterbilt, and Mack.

There are advantages and disadvantages to buying used and new vehicles. On one hand, buying used can help reduce the overall cost and perform the same job as a new truck if you do your homework. On the other hand, a new truck might come equipped with fuel- or weight-saving technologies such as wide-base single tires and LED lighting.

“The impact on fuel economy is not huge,” Johnson says. “But if I can get 10 technologies on there that each give me 1%, all of a sudden I’ve got 10% fuel economy.”

Telematics is another feature you should consider researching. The risk of truck thefts, notifying customers where their delivery is, and careful route-planning all require onboard GPS, but the telematics software from companies such as Fleetmatics and DQ Technologies can also perform specific tasks like monitoring fuel consumption and driver behavior and auto-alerting customers when the delivery is close by.