Firefighters have a variety of material from which to choose when specifying apparatus bodies. Stainless steel, aluminum, plastics and even some high-tech composite materials are available, and all have advantages.
For decades, fire apparatus was made out of good old-fashioned steel. While there are a few mom-and-pop operations still using steel, most builders use aluminum. Many use stainless and some use polypropylene in the manufacturing of fire apparatus bodies.
Recently, Firehouse spoke with apparatus manufacturers and fire truck body builders to learn about material differences.
Sutphen Corporation, a fire truck builder in Dublin, OH, uses aluminum and stainless steel materials in the construction of apparatus.
“We build pumpers using stainless steel or aluminum,” said Zach Rudy, Sutphen’s director of sales and marketing. “Our aerials have aluminum ladders and stainless steel bodies.”
Justin Howell, Sutphen’s sales territory manager, said the company uses 3/16-inch thick aluminum to construct bodies—a much thicker material than some of its competitors.
“It’s stronger and welding is better with minimal warping,” Howell said, noting that welding thin material can weaken it, and warping requires filler to make body surfaces look even remotely smooth.
Bolted Stainless Steel Bodies
When Sutphen uses stainless steel to build a body, it is done in a modular way and panels are bolted together, said Howell. He added that it is challenging to weld stainless steel and requires perfect conditions and meticulous attention to welding speeds and temperatures.
Bolting the panels together avoids welding and also makes it easier to repair when collision damage happens, Howell said.
“You just unbolt [the damaged area] and bolt it back on,” he said. “It gets that $1 million piece of apparatus back in service quicker.”
Stainless is considerably more expensive than aluminum in most cases, Rudy said. The advantage, however, is that stainless is considerably more corrosion resistant than aluminum.
Because of recent tariffs on metals, the cost of raw metals has gone up 40 to 60 percent, Rudy said, noting that other components using metal, like engines, cost more now because of the tariffs as well.
“The cost of a truck has gone up $3,000 to $8,000,” Rudy said. “Cummins engines have gone up. Axles have gone up. Everything has gone up whether it’s our sheet metal, or parts, everything has gone up in price.”
Rudy said Sutphen has “taken the hit internal,” and not passed along the full cost of the tariffs to the customer. “We cut our margins as well,” Rudy said. “It’s not a fun topic to talk about.”
Customers in areas where there’s a lot of salt, brine or other chemicals used for snow removal will often specify stainless steel bodies, Howell said.
The heavier stainless steel body means the apparatus will need heavy axles and heavier suspension to handle the additional weight.