While traditional maintenance shops of old housed a multitude of physical tools and hardware, like many things today, the landscape looks a bit different. Of course, actual tools will always have a solid place in every shop, but as technology increases, so do the abilities to catch needed repairs early and track maintenance — and new software and tech is here to help.
School bus technicians want to make sure that the critical components of every bus in the fleet are working in proper working condition. These components span many systems throughout the bus, from diagnostics to check fault codes to get the bus back up and running, as well as visual checks of mirrors, grills, windowpanes, head lamps, tires, oil, seals, vents, wires, filters, and more that must be inspected regularly.
“A technician’s position is evolving from being someone with automotive repair knowledge to a highly technical skill position that combines automotive repair with computer and analytic skills,” says H. Kevin Mest, senior VP and GM of passenger services at Zonar.
Because school buses are built using many of the same components as heavy-duty commercial trucks, school bus mechanics have many of the same tools at their disposal as other diesel techs, says Lee Lackey, product manager at Noregon. But though they often face similar mechanical issues, aftertreatment issues should be closely monitored, he says.
The difference in school bus maintenance comes down to the special features needed for transporting students, such as operational controls and extra safety measures like ensuring a door latch is engaged before allowing the vehicle to move. These safety requirements add another layer for technicians to consider when diagnosing the root cause of an issue with a school bus.
“Prior to 1996, on-board-diagnostics (OBD) was something only seen on Star Trek,” Darryl Carl, Sr., implementation consultant with Tyler Technologies, reflects. Since then, the ability for a technician to have diagnostic information and communicate directly with a vehicle at their fingertips has exploded.
“Long gone are the days of ‘listening’ to the engine to hear what's wrong,” Carl says. “Modern-day technicians are using applications that can read real-time data and diagnostics of vehicles in the field.”
Good bus maintenance starts with abiding by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) pre- and post- trip regulations, adds Mest. “These are in place because comprehensive maintenance and safety procedures are critical not only for day-to-day operations, but for the public’s faith pupil transportation,” he says. “The pre-trip vehicle inspection is of greater concern than ever before, making verifiability vital to vehicle inspections.”
So, what new products are available that you can use to enhance your maintenance work today? Here are just a few companies ready with solutions.
Automotive diagnostic products Autel offers three products it says are great for school bus shop techs: the MS906CV, MS908CV, and the MS909CV, all in the MaxiSys lineup. All of Autel’s tools work on all vehicle makes and models, coming in handy for districts or municipalities with a mixed fleet.
The MS906CV is a triage tool that gives semi-directional control and the ability to do regens on every engine on the road, injector cut-out pads and resets, and other light maintenance things, Chris Freeman, director of HD sales/training for Autel North America, explains. The MS908CV, he says, is the lower-level professional tool that gives full bi-directional controls and health reports. It displays live data in text, graph, analog, and digital gauge for easy review and analysis, and records and playbacks live data to pinpoint troubles with sensors and components. Autel says the latter is ideal for independent repair shops, owner-operators and various sized fleets who want a single-scan tool for all their needs.
Then, the MS909CV builds on the prior version, with additional features including advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) and battery testing functionalities that will be on buses soon.
MAHLE International offers a portfolio of spare parts and workshop service solutions for trucks and buses. Its vehicle diagnostic tools include the Brain Bee Connex, Connex BT, and Connex Smart, which uses WiFi to read control unit information, do activations, complete a VIN search, and more.
Its AC-9000 Bus Plus station also works with air conditioning systems for servicing buses with a capacity from 10 to 15 kg. An included database indicates the charge quantities of the air conditioning system and the types of oil used, which can be upgraded by a USB stick through PC download, enabling easy refrigerant and service management.
Noregon’s suite of products help technicians in various aspects of maintenance, from intake to completed repair. Its flagship offerings include JPRO Professional for in-shop diagnostics and troubleshooting, NextStep Repair for step-by-step repair instructions, Technician as a Service for remote assistance from top technicians, and TripVision, a remote diagnostic platform.
Remote diagnostics present major safety and uptime improvement opportunities for school bus fleets, Lackey says. “Real-time alerts can be the difference between a full school bus on the side of the road versus a trip back to the school to swap out buses.”
Because school buses stop and start often, aftertreatment systems should be thoroughly monitored and diagnosed, Lackey adds. “Though a forced regen is often required, forcing a regen when it’s not needed costs time and money by burning fuel and rendering the system too hot to repair. Techs should pay attention to which regen zone the vehicle is in, which is information presented in JPRO’s Aftertreatment Diagnostics feature.”
Versatrans Fleetvision is a Tyler Technologies module that integrates with Tyler’s GPS system and helps ensure school bus fleets are ready to go and that fleet managers are up to date on how buses are operating. The module collects important engine diagnostic information and has features ranging from preventive maintenance scheduling and notifications, component warranty tracking, automated inventory tracking, work order templates, and more.
Through Versatrans Fleetvision, staff is notified of recommended preventative maintenance for vehicles, as well as any past due notices. Parts inventory is tracked and updated when items are used for repairs. And, maintenance dates advance automatically for a work order while inventory updates prevent repeat orders. The company says Fleetvision was built with the busy mechanic in mind.
Craig Pelletier, computer routing tech for Midlothian (Texas) Independent School District's transportation department, says that their team uses Tyler's Versatrans Fleetvision at Midlothian ISD for tracking all repairs, total miles, and the fuel used for each vehicle, as well as for an inventory repository to track parts and the cost of repairs. “We use the Preventative Maintenance section for our registrations, inspections, and other standard vehicle maintenance,” he explains. “Our fleet has around 122 vehicles, which includes full size and special education buses as well as white fleet. Personally, I have used Fleetvision for 10 years now and would not be able to work without it.”
With the newest iteration of Zonar’s electronic verified inspection report (EVIR) solution, which resides on mobile devices, the product aims to standardize verifiability of school bus inspections to make them safer and ensure that they comply with FMCSA regulations. Mest says it enables drivers to be part of the school bus maintenance journey by having them be part of proper pre- and post- trip verified inspections and leverage telematics enabled by EVIR. When using EVIR, drivers scan mandated pre-trip inspection zones on the bus, ensuring that they are inspecting the vehicle and not ‘pencil whipping’ the information, the company explains. A digital record is then created and integrated via telematics into the school transportation’s maintenance software.
The company also offers telematics-enabled solutions such as Zonar FaultIQ. “Just one unplanned road call costs more to a school district than an entire telematics system costs for three years,” Mest says. “In addition to capturing diagnostic trouble codes, the data can then be analyzed to determine trends, like which make/model has specific failures and how those makes/models compare to others. As a result, telematics can improve preventive maintenance plans and affect purchasing decisions regarding parts or when to invest in new buses.”
Maximize Maintenance Operations
It’s important to critically evaluate the solutions chosen for your district and team, as all investments in your shop tools, technology, and technicians will save from unnecessary or additional expenses down the line.
Freeman reminds to not just think about what you need now, but also what you might need down the road. “You always want to be prepared with something that works for all makes and all models and to accommodate equipment turnover,” he says.
Transparency between technicians and decisionmakers is crucial to success, too, argues Kim Martin, industry engagement consultant at Tyler Technologies. “K-12 transportation requires creative thinkers to solve how to match the workload with the available resources. The technicians hold the key to those equipment resources,” Martin says. “And technicians are also stakeholders, so it is beneficial to involve them when making purchasing decisions during the demonstration stage. This way, they can weigh in on necessary functionality.”
Lackey recommends standardized diagnostic and repair tools within a school district so that all technicians are using the same applications and seeing and sharing the same information. He also recommends cutting down the number of applications purchased and picking a provider that offers solutions for all aspects of maintenance needs.
To allow shop operations to focus on preventive – or even proactive maintenance – Mest advises determining what integration capabilities and partners the maintenance software has. What you’re using for pre- and post- trip inspections is even greater when that system integrates directly into the maintenance software. “The true value is bridging the gap from an alert or fault code to having that code seamlessly integrated into the maintenance software,” he adds.
Of course, other products are also available that provide solutions to the even bigger picture, including tire monitoring pressure systems (TPMS), blind spot prevention, and vehicle monitoring systems, which can go a long way in preventing issues and increasing vehicle safety all on their own.
The Future of Maintenance
So, with all these helpful new technologies, what else could possibly be next? “General trends like electrification or fuel cell technologies will challenge maintenance departments in public transport and require new workshop equipment as well as additional trainings,” says Christopher Rimmele of MAHLE.
Martin says that going web-based is a must. “Technicians should be able to use a touchscreen device and close out work orders with accuracy and efficiency so they can move on. They shouldn’t need to sit down at the end of the day and type out everything they accomplished.”
Zonar reports that customers are also looking to modify engine trim parameters remotely using self-service configuration and governance features through over-the-air programming. “Over-the-air programming technology eliminates service visits and minimizes the downtime needed to change engine trim parameters,” Mest says. “The ability to adjust individual parameters remotely and at scale equips fleets with greater control over cost factors like fuel efficiency.”
Lackey says Noregon is watching three emerging trends: electrification, ADAS, and compressed natural gas (CNG) engines. The most obvious benefits with EVs are reduced total cost of ownership and maximized uptime. But, the voltage required to power these vehicles requires special tools and training.
“CNG fits well in the bus industry because it presents cost savings while maintaining a similar mechanical architecture to diesel buses,” Lackey says. “ADAS components can complicate repair jobs that were once considered routine … but the benefits are obvious and we should see widespread adoption within the school bus industry.”
Freeman says that Autel is watching ADAS tech, too, as well as TPMS, both of which he notes are starting to come as manufacturer built-ins. “ADAS is probably the fastest-growing and complex system out there today,” he says. “This is more understood in the automotive industry because they tend to get things first, but there are some nuances that will be important to understood for buses sooner than later.”