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Keeping Stride

Leading fleet managers say school districts that have kept up with preventive maintenance, inspection schedules during COVID-19 closures should be able to start new school year with few mechanical problems.

Summer came early and abruptly, not only for the students and some staff members, but also for school buses. They were prepared to transport students for another two to three months, when COVID-19 caused schools to close nationwide. However, as the school buses prepare to rev up again for the new school year, will there be complications from many of the vehicles being parked for so long?

School Transportation News queried the 2020 Garage Stars (profiles begin on page 20) for their perspectives. They all agreed that sitting buses aren’t a big concern, that is if operations are staying on top of maintenance. Many shops have continued working during school closures to keep their fleets in shape, either so the school buses could deliver food, school supplies or Wi-Fi internet access, or as to simply not be bogged down when school starts up again. Essentially, they said, school bus maintenance should have been and should continue to be business as usual.

“Inspections and preventive maintenance schedules,” pointed out David Brewington, senior technician at the South Carolina Department of Education (SCDE), when asked for the two most important aspects of keeping fleets in working order. “This basic one-two punch are the two most important components for keeping a fleet at the highest level of safety and efficiency. Of course, there are many more ingredients to a comprehensive program such as driver and technician training.”

Brewington, who has over 50 years of experience in the school transportation industry, said the SCDE maintenance staff have taken advantage of the additional downtime to work on predictive maintenance. He said they leveraged historical maintenance data to replace components before they fail. In addition, his technicians have also been working on routine preventive maintenance items such as oil, fluid and filter changes during the closure.

“However, it is important to remember that a true predictive program requires more than simply replacing a part or component at a predetermined time or mileage,” Brewington explained. “Several other factors should be considered. Quality of part, correct application, use and misuse, and related factors such as lubricants, adjustments, etc., if applicable.”

Brewington knows the fundamentals of a good inspection program, as he worked alongside Marshall Casey, the now-retired director of fleet maintenance at the SCDE. Brewington said Casey was hired as a technician at the same shop Brewington worked at. He added that when Casey became the director of maintenance, he set out to make fleets safer and more efficient, which is how his formal, more detailed inspection program came about. The National School Bus Inspection Training encourages student transporters to exceed the federal and state minimum requirements. It is scheduled to be taught at the STN EXPO Indianapolis on Oct. 9.

“The program contained a comprehensive training, testing and certification component that became the cornerstone of ensuring that safety was paramount, and that the entire fleet of over 5,000 buses statewide were all meeting the same level of safety and quality,” Brewington said.

He noted that prior to the current state superintendent being elected, the SCDE had the oldest fleet of school buses in the nation. “We were operating buses that were over 30 years old and had over 500,000 miles on the odometer. I’m not sure we could have been able to survive during those times without a solid, well-planned inspection program,” he said.

Brewington added that a good maintenance and inspection schedule helps to alleviate the stress and concerns of the buses sitting for so long, as his team has continued to perform their scheduled inspections and services, which require the buses to be started and operated. He said this helps prevent potential fuel or electrical problems.

While Brewington noted sitting fuel does have the potential to cause challenges, several preventive measures can help eliminate them. These include frequently starting the buses, adding biocide in the fuel, and keeping fuel tanks (bulk storage and buses) full.

Meanwhile, Tony Lavezzo, fleet supervisor for Tahoe Truckee Unified School District near California’s northeast border with Nevada, said his staff kept the fleet up to date with 45-day inspections and performing repairs during the COVID-19 “downtime.”

“Our schedule is a little different than other school districts, as we do not have a backlog of repairs that we are waiting to do during the summer,” Lavezzo said. “We do major repairs as needed all year long to keep consistent workflow throughout the year. Right now, we want to keep our inspection schedule consistent, so that when we go back to transporting students, all of our inspections are not bunched together.”

Several garage experts also told STN that they have maintained their inspection and service checks “as normal.” However, Lavezzo noted that his district has some concerns about buses sitting for months on end. He said his staff treated fuel to limit the amount of algae growth and they start all the buses on a weekly schedule. “Starting the buses help keep internal engine components lubricated and help extend battery life,” Lavezzo said.

Scott Miller, head mechanic for Brockport Central School District in New York state, said his mechanics don’t allow the buses to sit idle. Instead, they keep the vehicles moving frequently. “The wheels on the bus go round and round,” he added, alluding to the popular children’s song.

He also noted that fuel isn’t an issue, either, as they treat all of their diesel and gasoline fuel with additive.

While these Garage Stars are continuing their routine from where they left off when schools closed, Mark Smith, the lead technician for East Allen County Schools in Indiana, confessed that transitioning back into the garage amid COVID-19 hasn’t been as easy for his district. In addition to only being able to work at half capacity for the first several months, Smith said his staff struggled with dead batteries, a short supply of personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.

“When we first found out that we were going to be out for an extended period, I contacted our fuel supplier,” Smith recalled. “Together, we developed a plan that should allow us to be in good shape with fuel. Our greatest concern is battery life. We have had to change out nearly a third of our fleets batteries, which is up considerably over the last few years.”

Meanwhile, Andy DeBolt, lead equipment manager for the San Jose Unified School District in California, shared that staff was initially sent home in March. However, the following month, the district partnered with the City of San Jose to increase meal delivery counts, which called school buses back into action.

DeBolt said he and his team returned to the shop to support that effort. They worked to ensure that the buses being used to deliver meals were available and ready to use, but the rest of the fleet remained grounded indefinitely.

“From the outset of the shutdown in March, I figured we would be in this for the long haul,” DeBolt explained. “We made sure as the [last] day ended that the buses were all fueled, and the diesel exhaust fluid was topped off. We also stayed late that Friday afternoon and disconnected all the batteries on the buses to prevent mass failures on startup.”

He said preventive maintenance, plus a little extra time and money spent before problems arise on the buses, saves the district down the road.

Related: COVID-19 Uncertainty Keeps School Bus Garage Experts on Their Toes
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Related: What Works for One During COVID-19 Startup May Not Work for Another

DeBolt noted that San Jose didn’t have too many concerns about school buses sitting for an extended time, except for vandalization or theft. He said the same night the district closed; staff ensured all the buses were secured.

“We engaged all the vandal locks and locked all the doors,” DeBolt said. “Since we really had no idea when or if we would be back, we thought the best course of action was to take these preventative measures. It turns out we were right. We had several instances that the buildings and other vehicles were damaged or vandalized, but never an issue with the buses.”

Because the operation burns through fuel quickly, he noted that storage in underground tanks was only one to two months old. Therefore, fuel sitting for an extra month or three wasn’t going to cause any issue for fuel quality. He shared that San Jose Unified uses high-quality Neste renewable diesel fuel that starts out with a higher cetane rating than regular No. 2 diesel. He also said that renewable diesel contains less particulates and “stuff” that could cause gelling or cloudiness.

DeBolt said as the district is now prepping for school startup, he is fortunate that the school buses are within an average age range. He said their oldest bus used daily is a 2017 Thomas Built Buses Saf-T-Liner HDX, so the required upkeep has been minimal.

As of July, he said the district was focused on getting the fleet back into compliance after the long shutdown. Staff was performing their 45-day or 3,000-mile inspections and working on getting half of the fleet recertified with the California Highway Patrol.

Editor’s Note: As reprinted from the August issue of School Transportation News. 

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