A Sprinter’s opened door with an extended ramp used to easily unload heat generators.
When Columbus, Ohio-based Varment Guard began performing bed bug heat treatments eight years ago, the firm did what everyone else was doing: transporting heat generators with a pick-up truck and trailer. What everyone else was doing, however, wasn’t working.

“[The trailers were] accident prone and we were having difficulties finding drivers that were skilled at pulling trailers,” said John Livingston, vice president, Varment Guard. “We were backing into small places and hotels where there’s traffic and you have to park near a building’s door.”

With incidents ranging from “jack-knifing” to dings and dents, a new approach was needed. The Varment Guard team — which included Jim Vaive, president; Scott Steckel, vice president of operations; Andy Lear, pest manager; and Livingston — began brainstorming with Hilliard, Ohio-based J.D. Power Systems on how to create a customized, all-in-one vehicle for heat treatments.

THE DRAWING BOARD. The blueprints and collaboration resulted in customizing a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter with built-in compartments for all generators and equipment. “We experienced a dramatic reduction in driver incidents, got better gas consumption, and became more efficient [at getting] equipment out of a vehicle and into a customer’s location,” Vaive said. “It just became so much easier and self-contained. That was a great result for us.”

Both the generator and the Sprinter run on diesel fuel, so there are efficiencies when refueling, but what sold Varment Guard was the Sprinter’s excellent fuel mileage. Other cost savings are the result of consolidating to one vehicle. “With the trailer, you have to buy two license plates, trailer tag, truck tag, six tires instead of four,” said Jeff Leach, business manager for J.D. Power. “Having that in one vessel instead of two is a lot more user friendly.”

CUSTOMIZE ME. Leach said J.D. Power worked closely with Varment Guard. “We did a lot of aluminum customizing,” Leach said. “You roll the heaters up to the hat post railing. They slide into brackets and they get pinned so the heaters don’t move.”

Having the first Mercedes-Benz Sprinter for four years, Vaive said the company was ready to upgrade to another Sprinter in July, but with additional improvements.

The first Sprinter was designed with built-in shelving that put the heaters in the far corner of the vehicle, under fans and cords and extra cabling. Vaive said that set-up slowed technicians down because they had to unload the equipment in front of the heater in order to get the heater out.

Inside a Sprinter organized with items such as an exhaust fan, heaters, industrial fan, etc.
With the new model, Lear said, “we did the same thing as we did previously, but we got a larger Sprinter by an extra five feet. If you look at those two vehicles side by side, the new one can get the job started about 20 minutes earlier because of the way the vehicle is set up.”

An important PCO consideration with these vehicles is weight. The Varment Guard/J.D. Power team took into account USDOT and ODOT (Ohio Department of Transportation) laws governing the 10,001-29,000 lb. weight class. Many PCOs do not realize how easy it is to hit this limit, not realizing the extent of liability and possible fines involved. “As of right now, Ohio is exempt from that rule, but we would not be able to service our clients outside of Ohio with the typical truck and trailer unit. So we chose to stay in Ohio only for those units in that 10,001+ lb category,” Livingston said. “As we went to the drawing board this was a big consideration. All of the truck/trailer combinations exceeded the 10,001+ lb limit and most box trucks do as well. The Mercedes/Freightliner Sprinter, as well as the Nissan, Ford and Dodge commercial vans come in at 9,990 GVW, just under the 10,001 lb limit.”

Other upgrades included moving from a 75-kw engine to an 80-kw engine and customizing a ramp up the side door to allow for loading and offloading of the heaters.

PRICE. Varment Guard’s heat treatment fleet includes two Sprinters and two truck-trailer mounted systems. The trailers are still used, Steckel said, but the company is looking to upgrade to more Sprinters.

Livingston said the Sprinter itself costs about $50,000 and the price of heating equipment ranges from $40,000 to $60,000. This combined price of about $110,000 does not include the customization. “We’ve sold two of our oldest trailers as we’ve moved up to our Sprinters,” he said. “We’re moving towards the Sprinter set up permanently.”

Though the investment is steep, the Sprinters are paying for themselves, Vaive said. “From the frustration point of view, it’s saving technicians one hour of extra work from the old truck to the new truck. It’s lowered the cost $5,000 to $10,000 in small accident repairs from human error.”

LOOK LOCALLY. Steckel advised companies to find a provider that fits their needs. He said he never knew J.D. Power customized vehicles, and didn’t find out until he bought the industrial generators and discussed the option with the company. Also, Steckel said don’t overlook local providers.

As for adding more Sprinters, Steckel said he will base that off the need for more bed bug treatments in the future and how the other vehicles are holding up. “My guess is that I have one of my trailers that is probably nearing its end of life, and I will be trading it out for a Sprinter.”

The author is an editorial intern with PCT.