MIRA LOMA, CALIF. — Ask any plumbing contractor about the one thing that makes their work easier, and they will most likely answer, their tools. Good tools make for good work. Nowhere else is this more important than when it comes to the work vehicle. So when it is time to replace or step up to a new truck or van service body, quality pays for itself in terms of usability, durability and looks.

But how do you know which service body to order to meet and exceed your needs? Competitive bodies look very similar. To ensure that you get what you pay for at the dealership, you have to dig deeper into the details of design, construction, the quality of materials used, and several other factors that differentiate service bodies. Knowing this information helps you get the most for your dollar at the original time of purchase, during the entire service life of the truck or van, and even when you go to sell it.

Security: Of all the considerations on a plumber’s mind, security must rank as the most important. Here, details spell the difference between having thieves see your vehicle as an easy mark, or too much trouble to try to break into.

To start, outside handles should be made of sturdy material, like hardened chrome. These should operate metal locking rods — plated with an anti-corrosive material like zinc — at each corner of the cabinet doors, as well as a center cam.

Added strength comes from welding steel brackets onto the interior of each door behind a hinge block. The latter securely grips the wall of the compartment, so that the door can’t be pried out from the bottom. Check for steel rivets to hold all locking hardware in place.

A popular add-on for security is a master locking system. This is achieved by the use of long rods that extend inside the length of the body, one on either side.  The rod is engaged by pulling or twisting a handle at the rear of the body, at which time a male and female stop are mated.

“Many doors on utility or service vehicles lock at just one or three points,” said Dudley DeZonia, president of Paramount, California-based Royal Truck Body, an innovator in the design and building of specialized truck bodies for contractors and tradesmen since 1971. “We prefer to use a five point system of defense that incorporates all of the above and includes concealed access latches for added security.”

“The locking features on the service bodies we use include individually locked boxes, as well as a bar that locks the whole side of the vehicle,” said Anthony Pouliot, owner of AAP - All American Plumbing. His fleet of 10 trucks and vans provide complete plumbing services from its base in Mira Loma, California. “Thieves would have to disable both of these locks to try to get inside. It would seriously discourage them.”

Design: When it comes to the actual construction of the service body, the features that make a service body a success in the field begin on the drawing table or computer screen in an engineer’s office. This is because of the complexity of today’s engine and electrical systems.

Even something as simple as a brake light is now tied into the Controller Area Network of the vehicle. In certain states, diesels must utilize complex urea systems that require an extra filler neck near the back of the truck. Even crash-worthiness specifications play a part.

“Service body manufacturers have to certify that their product meets all government regulations in order to satisfy the standards that OEMs like Ford, GMC, and Dodge must adhere to,” said DeZonia “For that reason, look for a manufacturer that is a selected partner or preferred ‘upfitter’ of the ‘big three.’”

One way of ensuring that a given service body meets these standards is to check to see if the manufacturer is a member of the Service Body Institute of the National Truck Association and has attained MVP status.  Also, ask about whether or not the manufacturer supplies any major fleets.

Design considerations also extend to how the service body looks. Appearances count for a lot. A professional looking truck or van implies professionally delivered services.

“I appreciate clean lines and flat forms because it makes it easy to put an advertising wrap around the vehicle,” said Pouliot. “We cover the box entirely, and if a lot of cuts and angles have to be done for the wrap, it costs more. But the Royal design is very conducive to a wrap. We once got awarded truck of the month by a national plumbing magazine.”

Convenience: Large capacity shelving should be adjustable at several levels. Gas shocks account for an easier way of opening and holding vertical doors and top compartments in an open position than metal struts.

Other convenient details include rope hooks to secure items to the ladder rack and tie downs along interior walls of the truck bed to hold cargo in place. Small things like roll-out drawers and portable storage trays also help speed a job.

“The storage bins fit in perfectly so there is not a lot of swishing and sloshing around; everything remains in place,” continued Pouliot. “It’s obvious that these were designed with the plumber in mind.”

A retractable utility bed cover facilitates convenient access to the truck bed. Extending access beyond that point are electric roll tops that telescope onto themselves for compact storage. Push-button operation helps prevent accidents since the worker does not need to climb into the bed to manually open or close the top.

Convenience should even extend to overhead racks with swing-away crossbars for easier loading and unloading of tall items, and tailgates that permit one-hand operation. These should have no chains or side brackets to get in the way. 

Any truck body manufacturer should also offer craft-specific customization to make the job easier.

“The biggest feature for my plumbers is the enclosed housing for the sewer machine,” explained Pouliot. “The last thing I want when my guys are pulling these heavy machines out and lifting them is to get injured and go on workers compensation. So Royal designed a self-enclosed compartment that has a power lift and winch to pull the snake in and out. This greatly reduces the chance of injury.”

Quality of materials: Consider first the grade and type of metal used for the cabinets and racks. For example, A-60 galvanized steel with a heavy zinc coating currently represents one of the best materials for keeping rust and corrosion at bay.

How that metal gets coated is equally important. An automotive-style high gloss finish maximizes gloss retention and durability. For example, acrylic-urethane enamels provide resistance to chipping, corrosion, UV, and chemicals. Items subject to very heavy use, like ladder racks, bedliners and bumpers, should have their metal surfaces protected by sprayed-on powder coatings which provide much greater permanence and won’t wash away through usage.

The use of composites for the fender flares is an important element, as composites will not rust. Automotive style neoprene weather stripping around shelving and cabinet doors provides resistance to water, ozone, UV degradation, freezing and compression.

Workmanship: The service body should be supported by several steel crossbeams. Tailgates should be double-paneled with heavy duty machined hinges. Hinge rods with oversized blocks provide maximum strength. Doors should also feature strong, double-steel construction.

Seams between service body parts should be caulked inside and out. Modular wiring harnesses protected by a plastic loom or similar will help prevent water and physical damage from causing electrical shorts.

Attention to detail extends to how ladder racks are constructed. One piece, mandrel-bent legs, versus rust-prone welds, ensures that metal integrity is not compromised. Beyond visual inspection, details like internal spacers within the rack tubing strengthen the legs and prevent the tubing from collapsing as it is tightened during the manufacturing process.

Note that service body manufacturers that install the bodies on the truck frame at the plant or through company owned branches can maintain better quality control over both installation and workmanship, as opposed to third-party distributors.

Assurances like multi-year/multi-mile warranties add credence to claims of quality workmanship.