Investing almost $500,000 in a vacuum truck to serve a handful of customers in a niche market can be a nerve-wracking prospect for contractors. But at Trackvac Services in Ottawa, Illinois, taking such a leap of faith was a little easier because the truck was a versatile, multitasking Guzzler Classic.
The Guzzler, built by Guzzler Manufacturing (a subsidiary of Federal Signal Corp.), is an interesting crossbreed: a conventional vac truck that, in a matter of minutes, converts into a rail-ready vehicle that can efficiently suck up spills on and around railroad tracks. The truck is central to operations at Trackvac, a company formed in summer 2014 in response to requests from local silica sand suppliers, says Kevin Kuntz, co-owner and general manager of the company.
“About 90 percent of the time we use the Guzzler to vacuum up spilled silica sand, either in railroad yards or at sand mining facilities,” Kuntz explains. “The high-rail package gives us more versatility. Many times we’re cleaning along multiple (railroad) spurs, with train cars on both sides that limit accessibility. Or there’s other obstructions or no road alongside the tracks. That’s what makes this truck so unique — it can get places where other trucks can’t go.”
Trackvac paid around $480,000 for the truck, and the high-rail package accounted for about 25 percent of that cost. The truck also features an 18-cubic-yard debris tank; a 5,300 cfm blower made by Hibon (a division of Ingersoll Rand); a 16-foot-long boom that telescopes to a maximum length of nearly 22 feet and can rotate 320 degrees; a half-opening, hydraulically powered rear door for discharging debris; a tank vibrator; a 400 hp Cummins diesel engine; and a nine-speed Eaton Fuller transmission.
“The nice thing about the Guzzler is that it can vacuum dry or liquid materials — or even both at the same time,” Kuntz points out. “Some vac trucks can only do strictly one or the other. This machine has the ability to vacuum up sludge or even very fine powder, like cement — even rocks. It’ll vacuum anything that’ll fit through the 8-inch hose, from coal to ballast rocks off railroad tracks.
“With a 5,300 cfm blower, it really doesn’t matter what you’re vacuuming up,” he adds. “It provides so much suction that whatever you’re working on, it’s going to go.”
One of the tougher jobs the Guzzler has tackled involved removing packed-down sand between railroad tracks. The sand had built up for years, so it was about 8 inches thick and so compressed that it was as hard as rock, Kuntz recalls. “It took a lot of effort, but we kept on raising and lowering the boom, and it finally sucked it all up,” he says.
Kuntz lauds the truck’s safety features, particularly the eight exterior cameras strategically mounted on the front, rear and sides of the vehicle, which maximize visibility for drivers. The cameras also make possible another unique feature: a rear-mounted exterior operator chair that allows the operator to safely and easily control the rear-mounted boom.
“Our operators can run the truck while they sit behind the debris body, which increases visibility and safety,” Kuntz says. “The downside is that it exposes the operator to the elements. In bad weather, they wear rain gear or even snowmobile suits — we’ve worked in rain and in temperatures as low as 10 degrees. If the weather is really bad, then we don’t work. But for everything else, you just dress for the weather.”
The truck is also equipped with remote control operation. That’s an advantage because the operator — one of two people needed to run the truck — doesn’t have to remain on the vehicle. “The driver can assist his partner who’s maybe doing a little shoveling or some other task. … He can get a little more involved in the actual job, rather than just sitting on the truck,” Kuntz says.
“This gives us a little more versatility and it’s also a great safety feature,” he continues. “That hose is pulling so much vacuum that if something happens — maybe something gets stuck in the hose or it vacuums up something you didn’t want to — the operator can shut power off right away, even though he’s not on the truck.”
The high-rail package is engaged at railroad crossings. When the truck is properly positioned over the rails, one of the operators turns on a master switch that activates the hydraulics. After that, one of the operators manually lowers the two rear rail wheels onto the railroad tracks. After the rear rail wheels are set, then the two front rail wheels are activated. When the truck is in full rail mode, its two front tires are completely off the tracks while two of the rear wheels actually touch the railroad tracks and bear a portion of the truck’s weight. In so-called “creep mode,” operators can vacuum up materials while the truck slowly “creeps” along the rails, Kuntz explains.
When it’s not plying the rails, Trackvac uses the Guzzler for a variety of applications at local silica sand plants. Those jobs include everything from vacuuming up sand from under scales used while loading railroad cars to cleaning process conveyors and plugged up elevators. “We’ve also used the truck to clean tanks at a company that makes plastic pellets,” Kuntz says. “At that facility, we work in ‘tire mode,’ but it’s nice to have the ability to work on their rail tracks as well, if needed.”
Kuntz envisions eventually using the Guzzler for more than mostly silica sand cleaning operations. “We’re looking to expand our services,” he notes. “I don’t like all our eggs in one basket. This truck is capable of working in any industry, such as refineries or concrete plants, for instance. It definitely gives us the versatility to do many different things.”