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April 01, 2005  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Technicians Name Their Most Essential Garage Tools

Whether it's the software program that tracks everything from work orders to mileage or the indispensable technician whose knowledge you couldn't live without, it's imperative that a garage have the tools necessary to get the job done right.

by Albert Neal, Assistant Editor


It’s been said that a man's best friend is his dog, but visit some transportation garages across America and you might change your mind. A dog can barely elicit the kind of excitement that a pneumatic air wrench or a toolbox full of polished-chrome sockets, drivers and ratchets can.

Wielding a solid, well-crafted hand tool makes some technicians feel like they have a third arm or extra hand. That perceived "extra" provides a kick that helps make heavy workloads easier to manage and technical jobs a little less complicated. Inside your toolbox
Speed, efficiency and accuracy — these are the words mechanics choose to define reliability in a good tool. Mark Huskins, head mechanic for Blue Earth (Minn.) Area Schools, says his Chicago pneumatic air wrench is reliable and that he depends on it greatly.

"I've never had a problem with it," he says. "I've been with this district for 14 years, and it's one of the best tools I've ever dealt with."

The tool of choice for mechanic Randy Souther of Maranacook Community Schools in Readfield, Maine, is the district's 25,000-pound, four-post lift. As he is the district's sole mechanic, Souther has good reason for naming the lift his No. 1 tool. He is responsible for regularly maintaining 23 school buses and 15 others when he has the time.

Maranacook Community Schools' fleet logged 280,000 miles last year transporting 1,359 students to its six schools. Souther maintains all the equipment and occasionally drives for the district as well.

Danny Evans, systems and records specialist for fleet services at DeKalb County Schools in Tucker, Ga., does all the procurement of bus parts, sets up service schedules and maintains the department's database. It's this database that he values most at his garage.

Kerry Rees, DeKalb's director of fleet services, used Microsoft Access to create the database based on the needs of the department from previous years.

"It's unbelievable," Evans says. "It'll tell you what you're spending on a bus down to the penny."

The database maintains mileage and repair history on the entire fleet and tracks expenditures on fuel, tires, and parts and labor.

Tool envy
David Hottenstein is the sole mechanic at Iowa-Grant School District in Livingston, Wis. The school district sits in the middle of a cornfield and consists of a combined grade school and middle school and one high school. Drivers transport about 550 students per day from five surrounding villages and towns to the country, which is where the rural district is located.

The one thing he doesn't have to worry about is tool envy.

As Hottenstein works alone, there is no one else to share or borrow his tools. The school district pays for larger equipment such as transmission jacks, but he is required to have his own hand tools.

He favors his Craftsman Phillips head screwdriver and his Napa seven-ton airlift jack, but his most essential garage tool is his Omni Tech computer, which he uses to do routing, mileage, maintenance records, scheduling, driver timesheets, basic maintenance and parts numbering.

{+PAGEBREAK+} Hottenstein also runs Lynx Transportation Software from a company in Baraboo, Wis. The transportation department at Bowie County Schools in New Boston, Texas, operates as a co-op and is owned by all 13 school districts in the county. The shop's six-member team maintains a fleet of 200 school buses and eight utility vehicles.

Cranford Graves, maintenance supervisor at the district, says techs there do occasionally experience tool envy. Bowie County Schools' transportation department is allocated a budget of $85,000 for tools, but mechanics are free to spend their own money on whatever tools they want.

"There's one guy here who'll spend every extra dollar he gets on some new tool off the Snap-on truck," says Graves, "He keeps adding tools to his fleet of tool boxes."

Some of the younger mechanics will cast a covetous glance at this tech's fancy repertoire, but the seasoned vets know to stick to the basics, says Graves.

Source of pride
Ask any realtor and they'll tell you that location is everything. Blue Earth Area Schools' Huskins can appreciate the adage.

He buys many of his tools from a store called Bumper to Bumper, which, he says, is similar to the popular Napa Auto Parts. Both stores are within six blocks of Huskins' garage.

Huskins prefers the Craftsman brand for open box wrenches and ratchets and will shop at Bumper to Bumper to take advantage of its lifetime warranty on tools. Napa is only a block away from the garage. Huskins can call Napa and have tools delivered directly to his shop.

A Snap-on Tools representative visits Maranacook Community Schools' garage to provide its special services to the district's only mechanic, Souther.

He uses Snap-on brand impact wrenches on axles, brake drums and rotors. "Snap-on stops by here every so often," Souther says. "They replace everything. And all their tools are guaranteed."

They make things convenient too, Souther adds. "You can buy a $100 tool from Snap-on and pay only $10 a month."

Hottenstein, meanwhile, swears by Craftsman tools. His wife works for the Land's End department at Sears, which means he can purchase Craftsman tools at a discount.

"The store isn't too far away. I have a lifetime warranty and I just exchange them," Hottenstein says.

Occasionally, Mac Tool salesmen will stop by Hottenstein's shop, but they rarely make a sale. "They're just too overpriced," he says.

Hottenstein is also proud of his 275-gallon bulk oil tank. Molo Oil Co., a vendor in Dubuque, Iowa, supplied the approximately $800 worth of equipment to Hottenstein for using its brand of oil.

The tank consists of the oil pump itself, a hose reel and a digital gun that dispenses oil into the engine. "A lot of people don't know about these kinds of arrangements," Hottenstein says. “But all you have to do is ask.”

{+PAGEBREAK+} Shop talk
Technicians rank high at DeKalb County Schools, Evans says. With a fleet of 1,043 buses clocking 14 million miles a year to transport 78,000 students, all 38 mechanics are essential to the daily operations of the transportation department.

“The techs do things to help us reduce the costs of maintenance and operation of the buses,” Evans says.

Mechanics also extend themselves to cultivate professional relationships with district drivers.

We handle our drivers the way a car dealership handles its customers,” Evans says. “We meet them at the door, greet them, inquire about any strange sounds or rattles or anything outside of the monthly service and note what’s been reported on a work order for follow-up.”

DeKalb County has allotted its transportation department a $400,000 budget for tools and equipment and does not require techs to provide their own hand tools.

At the other end of the spectrum is the $500 tool budget for Maranacook Community Schools” transportation department. Not much is needed with just one mechanic, so Souther says the budget works fine for his operation.

“I can buy anything pertaining to my job,” Souther says. “I replace anything that’s worn out.”

Souther wears a Leatherman Supertool on his belt every day. The utility belt consists of pliers, Phillips and flathead drivers, a knife, a file and other useful tools. He also gets plenty of mileage out of his Dewalt 18-volt cordless drill, especially when changing the lights on a bus.

At Bowie County, the district picks up the tab for any power tools, Graves says, but techs must supply their own hand tools.

Safety first
Seasoned veterans know the tricks of their trade and have been around long enough to know the ins and outs of their field. Safety should always be considered first, they say, and quality should always outweigh price when purchasing tools.

“Don’t always go for the flash when it comes to buying tools,” Hottenstein says. “Snap-on, Matco and Mac are great tools, but you can get the same quality for less with a Craftsman.”

“Most tools go on sale if you look around,” Huskins says.

Souther suggests that technicians avoid the packaged tool sets. “Once you’ve been a mechanic for a long time, you know which tools you need,” he says. “Buy those only.”

As far as safety is concerned, Graves warns against taking short cuts. “Do it right the first time,” he says, “and you’ll be fine in the end. Remember that haste makes waste.”

“Common sense is the basic rule of thumb,” Evans says. “Don’t try and go beyond the call of duty when it comes to lifting, pulling or pushing something.”

Evans also suggested that all garage personnel wear steel-toe shoes and protective eyewear. “Your eyes can’t be replaced,” he says.

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