Behind the Scenes of County Vehicle Maintenance

Published on August 22, 2019

One could drive right by the Arlington County Trades Center without noticing it, but it is arguably one of the most important places within the County.

At 2700 S Taylor St., you'll find Arlington's Recycling Drop-Off Center, Earth Products YardInert Materials and Scrap Metal Drop-Off Facility (get your free paper shredding!), Fire Training Academy, and more. It's also home to the Equipment Divisiona full-service vehicle maintenance and repair facility that operates 17 hours a day

The 52,800-ft vehicle repair shop services nearly 1,300 County vehicles, from lawnmowers to snowplows, fire trucks to police cruisers, and everything in between.

"Our fleet is like the bar scene in Star Wars," said Chris Allison, Arlington County Equipment Bureau Chief. "We've got all kinds of characters."

But maybe the most important responsibility of the Equipment Division is the safety and maintenance of the Arlington Public Schools Bus Fleet.

Working around the clock, County mechanics provide constant upkeep of APS' 182 school buses, performing preventive maintenance, which is critical to avoiding breakdowns. The most common repair is regenerating the engine, followed by brake jobs, both the result of the short, stop-and-go routes driven by the buses throughout the County.

APS operates school buses from three major manufactures — Blue Bird Corporation, Thomas Built Buses and IC Bus — which means each mechanic has to be three-times the bus expert.

"The nature of repairs has become more complex and technical," explains Allison. "A mechanic now is almost like a technician, due to the complex computers and electronics within vehicles."

And that's especially true for the school bus fleet — depending on the brand, a bus can have seven to eight separate computers under the hood, all with their own software and operating manual.

Every day, the Equipment Bureau works on 10-15 buses.

"We don't get behind on school buses," said Allison. The Virginia Department of Education mandates that buses "be inspected and maintained ... at least once every 45 school days."

And while students may get a break during the summer, the same cannot be said for school bus maintenance. Arlington's camps and summer schools keep 60-70 percent of the fleet on the roads. During the winter, the work starts even earlier. Staff that work on school buses arrive two hours ahead of schedule when the temperatures start to dip in Arlington, to ensure the fleet is operating well. 

"Severe temperature changes cause issues," explains Raja Waseem, an "electrical guru" of a mechanic who has been with the County for 12 years. "As oil gets thicker in cold weather, buses can 'freeze up.' It can take two or three jump-starts for a bus the Monday after school has been closed over a cold weekend."

Free school bus transportation is provided to and from school for students living beyond a one-mile walking distance from elementary schools and a 1.5-miles walking distance from middle and high schools. For more information about school bus routes and bus stops, visit the Transportation section.