Mike Butts
Tom Gennara Mike Butts

You’re probably hearing lots of news about how hurricanes Harvey and Irma, plus the West Coast fires, are affecting the lumber and building material supply side of our industry. But there’s another part of our business that’s been hit but rarely gets discussed: fuel for our vehicles.

In the three weeks since just before Hurricane Harvey struck the Texas coast and crippled local refineries, the average price for a gallon of gasoline nationwide had risen by 28 cents, to $2.68 a gallon, and diesel experienced a 15-cent gain, to $2.76. In my home state of Michigan, I saw a 50-cent jump. Odds are, those prices will go down a lot more slowly than they went up.

But that’s not the worst of it. Your costs also could increase as a result of contaminated fuel. As someone who messes around with boats and cars, I agree with claims that most engine failures are the result of poor fuel quality. That problem, in turn, can clog fuel filters, cause premature fuel pump failure, damage fuel injectors, and cost you in terms of time and revenue. All can be directly attributed to a diesel engine trying to burn contaminated fuel. (Truckinginfo.com has a nice summary on this topic.)

Whether you have a problem depends in part on how you store your fuel. Above ground tanks are less likely to be contaminated. In-ground systems are more likely to be subject to contamination from water, debris, dirt, mold, and other organics.

One of my clients had several thousand gallons of diesel stored below ground and serviced by a regional fuel supply company. The tanks became contaminated and that fuel was then pumped into delivery trucks. The result? Down time, missed deliveries, and expensive tow and repair bills. What to do if that happens?

One viable option is to contact a company that specializes in just this type of situation. I’ve used Diesel Fuel Doctor of Grand Ledge, Mich. You can find others by searching online for “diesel fuel cleaning” or “fuel polishing.” This service is much more than simply providing additives; it’s removing fuel from your tanks and pumping it through a series of filters, thus removing all contaminants.

We can’t do anything regarding how the recent natural disasters affect the cost of fuel for our vehicles. But we can try to control as many costs as possible. From my time as the manager of a lumberyard, I know all too well the unexpected financial burden of a truck that’s taken offline for unscheduled maintenance. Then, there’s the need to scramble to schedule deliveries, put other equipment in the lineup (if you have other equipment), and apologize to your customers for missing delivery times.

Below-the-line costs such as fleet maintenance can be effectively managed and controlled to a point. There will always be the breakdown we can’t anticipate, but a fuel maintenance program wouldn’t be a bad initiative to consider, along with discussions with your suppliers to ensure they’re maintaining fuel quality at every turn.

Equipment downtime costs us dearly. While this may be a front-burner issue for many of you right now, others of you haven’t been directly affected by the recent disasters. But harsh weather is a possibility come winter. Think about your fuel quality before those cold months arrive.