Marketplace — Racking & Shelving
Monday, September 10, 2007
In an age of high fuel prices made worse by extortionate levels of tax on both petrol and diesel, operators who have racking and storage shelving fitted to the cargo areas of their vans face a worrying problem.
Racking systems are becoming much more technical as manufacturers strive to reduce weight and increase strength so that everything stays in place during a crash. Steve Banner looks at the latest developments.
Install drawer units, cabinets and so on and you add permanent weight to your vehicle. That's going to be reflected in its fuel consumption and as a result will have an impact on your bottom line.
Piling on the pounds also has an impact on the vehicle's payload capacity. The heavier the racking system, the less you can carry and remain within the law.
It's a problem that racking companies recognised sometime ago and they're trying to do something about it; but without sacrificing the strength of the products they offer.
Earlier this year Bri-Stor Systems announced that it had re-engineered its Euro-Stor racking range to reduce its weight by up to 20 per cent. The exercise has involved the extensive use of higher-tensile, finer-gauge, steel resulting in payload gains of up to 30kg.
Bri-Stor has also come up with a lightweight system of roof bars for operators who want to carry goods on top of their vehicle. It employs corrosion-resistant alloy so that the entire package weighs around 25 per cent less than one made from steel would. It's stronger too says the company.
Not to be outdone, Sortimo has developed a load area storage system said to be 20 to 30 per cent lighter than what was on offer previously. Marketed under the Globelyst banner, it relies on an aluminium framework made up of a series of bracings.
Alloy and high-tensile steel aren't the only materials under consideration. “We've got a team of people looking at all sorts of things, including composites,” says QI Van Systems managing director, Roland Preece. “And when you think about it, items kept on high shelves in a van invariably tend to be light, so constructing those shelves out of a lighter gauge steel makes good sense.”
When suppliers aren't worrying about saving weight, they're busy carrying out crash tests to show what happens to their shelves and so on — and their contents — if the van they're in is involved in a collision.
They point out that in an crash a professionally designed storage system is likely to behave better and cause fewer injuries than one that's been knocked together in somebody's garage out of a few bits of old timber and angle iron. What's more, tools, parts and other items are less likely to go flying about inside the vehicle if they're safe in a locked drawer than if they're lying around loose on the van's floor.
“Even the smallest components can turn into lethal projectiles in an accident,” warns Sortimo public relations manager, Fatih Yilmaz. “During a collision at just over 30mph a screwdriver weighing just 200 grammes catapults forwards with a kinetic energy of 8kg. Would you want to be sitting in the line of fire?”
Sortimo has carried out crash tests at the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) in Berkshire that involved propelling two van bodies — one fitted with its own equipment, one with a home-made storage system — into a barrier at 50km/h (31mph). The tests were carried out in conjunction with ECE R17.
The first body was kitted out with 150kg of Globelyst equipment loaded with sandbags weighing roughly 365kg to simulate a cargo.
After it had been slammed into the barrier it was clear that, although the fixtures and fittings had distorted in the direction of travel, they hadn't broken away and their load had remained in place. Neither load nor equipment would have endangered anybody.
By contrast, the diy system — which weighed 446kg including its load — ended up completely smashed after the second body was tested. Bits and pieces hurled around the vehicle like shrapnel and the cargo broke free too.
QI, Edstrom and Tevo are among other companies that have carried out tests to the same standard, the first-named at German testing organisation TUV's site in Cologne, Germany, the last two at the Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire. They were successful in all cases.
So concerned is it about safety standards that the racking industry has set up the Commercial Vehicle Racking Association under the auspices of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. As well as representing companies in the sector it is busy promoting safer products and better installation practices.
Different types of onboard storage system are available and your choice will often be heavily influenced by the size of light commercial you are running.
Because it is so awkward to clamber in and out of a van the size of, say, a Citroën Berlingo or Renault Kangoo, some operators favour storage racks that can be slid out through the back doors for ease of access. They're locked into position while the van is in motion.
Festooned with baskets and bins of various sizes, a slide-out panel with associated equipment designed to meet the needs of a washing machine engineer, for example, generally costs around £500.
Bigger vans — high roof Mercedes-Benz Sprinters and so on — are often graced by heavy-duty cabinets and drawer units made from powder-coated steel. Like the frame that holds the slide-out rack, they tend to be bolted to locations in the vehicle already provided by the van maker to avoid any need for drilling.
Prices vary hugely, but such a modular package will typically set you back around £1,200 and will probably outlast the van it's secured to if properly looked after.
Drawers are usually designed not to fly open if the driver takes a corner too quickly. “Ours have an integrated positive catch mechanism to ensure this doesn't happen,” says Modul-System International general manager, Kevin Tillotson. “Lifting the drawer handle up releases it.”
Modul-System offers customers the option of upgrading to ball-bearing runners if the drawer has to carry extra-heavy loads or regularly has to be pulled all the way out of the unit.
As we pointed out earlier, a van's roof can be used to transport items, although you should take care never to exceed the maximum recommended load.
One drawback of fitting a rack to a high roof van is the difficulty of accessing whatever it holds. Slip while you're clambering up and you may suffer a serious injury.
In response, several load area storage system suppliers, including QI and Bri-Stor, have come up with products that allow drivers standing at the back of a big van to unload and load heavy ladders without help and without any climbing.
You're likely to pay upwards of £300 for such a device, but you are unlikely to feel that you've wasted your cash.
Pipe carriers can of course be carried on a van's roof rack, and are likely to prove invaluable if your vehicle's cargo area isn't long enough to accommodate some items, or if it's always crowded. Typically 3,000mm long and with a diameter of 100mm, they come with lockable end caps, should be padlocked in place, and cost up to £70 apiece.
Most racking companies have nationwide networks of approved agents that will install their systems. Edstrom's line-up includes firms such as Scott Brothers of Glasgow, Van-Plan of Wigan and Mayfair Designs of Birmingham.
Storage equipment makers will usually fit packages at their premises too. Bri-Stor does so at its Hixon, Staffordshire headquarters under the Pronto! banner and expects to handle around 10,000 vehicles this year.
As well as installing racking it fits security equipment, tow bars, additional lighting and a host of other extras, including the van's livery.
Some suppliers design systems precisely tailored to fit the needs of individual fleet operators. That's one of QI's specialities says Preece.
With a 4 acre site in Telford, and listing Severn Trent Water and Scottish Water among its customers, QI will send its specialists out with the customer's drivers — who are typically mobile engineers — to see what they have to carry and how they actually use their vehicles. It will then design a package that takes into account their requirements while at the same time taking good care not to overload the van.
“One thing we do is place labels on all the racks, shelves and so on to tell people how much weight they can put on each one,” he says.
“After the system has been designed, the next step is to install it in a vehicle so that it can undergo field trials,” Preece continues. “It's also inspected by health and safety experts.”
If they're happy with it, and the trial is a success, then the package could end up installed in hundreds of vehicles destined to go into service nationwide.
“What regularly happens is that a fleet driver will bring his old van to us, all his equipment will be transferred to the racking that we've installed in his new vehicle and he'll drive it away ready to start work,” says Preece.
Customers can of course install units themselves. Edstrom racks and shelves can be supplied for self-fitting, while Bott has come up with a fit-it-yourself package purpose-designed for the best-selling light vans on the market.
It includes up to eight storage shelves, 30 tilt bins, three plastic service cases, a perforated panel with clips to hold tools, a locker, a first aid kit and a fire extinguisher.
The lot is delivered as a flat-pack, complete with instructions and no — or very little — drilling is required. It's been crash tested by Bott at the Motor Industry Research Association's centre near Nuneaton in Warwickshire to ensure that it meets ECE R17.
“The integrity of the installation exceeded the required standard,” says a Bott spokesman. Anybody who isn't confident about their abilities as an installer can always have the package and other Bott products fitted at the firm's sites at Ashby de la Zouch in Leicestershire, Bude in Cornwall or Cumbernauld in North Lanarkshire.
Some firms supply load containment products in addition to the racking they market.
Sortimo, for instance, produces lashing tracks that can be used with plastic-coated alloy restraint poles fitted with gas-pressure dampers to make it easier to engage them in the lashing rails. It can also supply load restraint nets.
“Always secure your load, even if you're only travelling a short distance, and bear in mind when opening the doors that your cargo may have shifted its position during the journey,” says Yilmaz. If the lot falls on you it's liable to spoil your entire day; and don't forget that the police and the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency are taking an increasingly keen interest in poorly secured loads, with prosecution awaiting those responsible.
In this context it's worth noting that the Freight Transport Association has been carrying out crash tests in conjunction with TRL to show the damage an insecure load can do to the interior of a van. In one of the crash tests conducted an assortment of items including a generator and a road breaker — none of which had been lashed down — smashed through the bulkhead.
Net result? The driver would have been seriously injured or even killed; food for though the next time you hear your cargo sliding about.
The racking industry is taking the safety aspects of their products very seriously these days and quite rightly so. The energies involved in even a low speed collision are colossal and operators need to know that the contents of the load area are not going to end up in the cab should an accident occur.