Utility Fleet

How to Handle Extreme Weather

January 2014, Government Fleet - Feature

by Daryl Lubinsky

At a Glance

Two Air Force units in Alaska take various steps to keep vehicles and equipment running in extreme weather conditions:

  • Use of an electrical pad, blanket, or trickle charger to keep a battery from freezing
  • Use of Arctic-grade hoses, tires, and fluids
  • To unfreeze the vehicles, use of parachutes to cover the vehicle, and an internal heat source such as a generator to warm the vehicle.

It’s a chilly November day at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. SMSgt. Robert Stewart gets a status report on the snow vehicle fleet to ensure the base has the equipment it needs to handle any adverse weather. How adverse?

“Right now the outside air temperature is 10 degrees above zero,” said Stewart, vehicle fleet manager for the 354th Logistics Readiness Squadron. “It’s the time of year when it’s kind of up and down. You get some warm weather — and when I say warm, that’s 30 to 40 degrees — and then it will get below zero.”

About 300 miles away also in Alaska is another U.S. Air Force base, Joint Base Elmendorf-­Richardson, 673rd Logistics Readiness Squadron. Vehicle management chief SMSgt. Ronald Cole oversees maintenance of more than 100 vehicles that support snow removal operations. Those operations include “clearing the roadways so the base populace can get around, as well as keeping the airfield open so the airplanes can take off and land,” Cole said.

Members of the 354th Logistics Readiness Squadron vehicle maintenance shop work to repair a broken bulldozer in November 2013. They use a portable heater to warm the frozen bulldozer underneath a giant parachute, which traps in heat and helps thaw the vehicle. Jump-starting a frozen battery without first thawing it can cause it to explode, and technicians have to be careful to avoid frostbite while working on vehicles. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ashley Nicole Taylor
Members of the 354th Logistics Readiness Squadron vehicle maintenance shop work to repair a broken bulldozer in November 2013. They use a portable heater to warm the frozen bulldozer underneath a giant parachute, which traps in heat and helps thaw the vehicle. Jump-starting a frozen battery without first thawing it can cause it to explode, and technicians have to be careful to avoid frostbite while working on vehicles. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ashley Nicole Taylor

The two Air Force bases operate separately from one another, but they are similar in various ways. Both operations lease their cars and light-duty trucks from the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). In addition to passenger cars and trucks, Stewart oversees equipment such as snow brooms, snow blowers, snow plows, graders, and dump trucks. No day is typical, but many days after he gets a status report on the snow vehicles, he will check on the rest of the vehicle fleet to ensure it is ready for cold-weather duty.

“If it’s cold weather, we may get an increase of mobile maintenance calls where we actually have to get out in the field and jump-start stuff that’s cold,” he said. “Of course we’re always concerned about personnel safety when it gets real cold. We’re not sending people out when it’s 50 below.”

Both Air Force bases must deal with vehicle management issues that normal weather fleets rarely confront. One example: The electrical demand on a frozen battery can cause it to explode. An electrical pad, blanket, or installation of a trickle charger plugged into an external source are a few methods to keep a battery from freezing.

The 354th: Heat Pads On Oil Pans, Trickle Chargers for Battery Heat Blankets

“We manage the vehicle fleet here in support of the Arctic operations,” Stewart said of the 354th Logistics Readiness Squadron’s work in the extreme-weather environment. “We support all of our flying operations.” Vehicles include pick-up trucks, sedans, and heavier-duty trucks that tow aircraft. Equipment include graders, runway snow removal equipment, construction equipment, and “flight line support” such as airplane refueling equipment. Cars are a mix of Fords, Chevrolets, and Dodges. Military and civil service personnel drive the cars and pickup trucks around the base for general work purposes. Typical lifecycle for pickups and sedans can be as much as 15 years. Heavy equipment lifecycle is around 10 years.

Stewart’s Logistics Readiness Squadron performs all the maintenance on the vehicles from the time the unit acquires them. He describes the maintenance facility as organized with a floor plan but not like a typical mechanic’s facility. Because of the diversity of the equipment, the shop is large enough to accommodate various vehicle and equipment types.

Upon acquisition of a vehicle, winterizing it is the first step. That includes installation of heat pads on the oil pans and transmission fans. Installation of the trickle chargers for the battery heat blankets is another step.

Journeymen work to repair a frozen bulldozer underneath a giant parachute. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ashley Nicole Taylor
Journeymen work to repair a frozen bulldozer underneath a giant parachute. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ashley Nicole Taylor

The squadron installs engine block heaters as well. Stewart says block heaters can plug into a 110-volt electrical outlet, and they will maintain the engine coolant, engine oil, transmission oil, and batteries “so that when it is 50 degrees below and you turn the key on, the thing actually starts.”

Stewart calls MSgt. James Umholtz his “right-hand man” for the unit. Umholtz said vehicle problems in extreme climates can occur when the vehicle is left outside for a long period. Even with the winterization systems, parts are susceptible to freezing. To unfreeze the vehicle, the squadron uses parachutes to cover the vehicle, then pipes in heat through an internal heat source such as a generator. That warms the vehicle so the team can work on it.

During extremely cold temperatures, rubber and steel components become brittle and can snap. When someone initially starts a vehicle in that climate and turns the steering wheel, a power steering line can break.

 “You either have to let it warm up or go to an Arctic-grade type of hose or steel,” Umholtz said. “Synthetic lubricants help.”

 “Sometimes you have to do a little research and realize you can buy Arctic-grade hoses, Arctic-grade tires, and Arctic-grade fluids,” said Stewart, who has been stationed in Alaska for eight years. “As a fleet manager working in an environment like this, it’s very important to know those types of things are out there for you and to use them.” His unit gets parts much like in the rest of the country. A Napa Auto Parts location is in the area, as well as a Caterpillar dealership. The unit does a lot of the parts ordering online.

 “Or we have to go down to Anchorage and get them. We can order a lot of it locally. But due to where we are, a lot of times it’s not available. Even the local vendors we deal with have to go down to the lower 48. It’s a pretty good learning curve for any fleet manager in the workforce because we move around so much. To spend your whole career in a warm climate and then come up here and try to maintain vehicles in this type of environment can be a struggle.”

Umholtz and Stewart came to the Air Force as mechanics, working on aircraft support equipment and construction equipment. “We basically started out as maintainers or analysts, and as you move through the ranks, fleet manager,” Stewart said. Knowledge of what the Arctic elements can do to a vehicle is an important aspect of his position. The climate causes premature wear, and mechanics perform maintenance more frequently than in a warmer climate.

Driver safety is important in all climates, but it is a main focus in Alaska. Although Stewart’s squadron does not manage the drivers, he and his team conduct an annual safety briefing to the leaders of the organizations that use the vehicles.

The unit will occasionally go on a mobile call to repair a vehicle in the field. Sometimes, the extreme weather prevents the group from getting to the vehicle.

 “The only way to get there is with a snowmobile or an all-terrain vehicle,” Stewart said. “Sometimes we have to use different means to get out in the field.”

Comment On This Story

Name:  
Email:  
Comment: (Maximum 10000 characters)  
Leave this field empty:
* Please note that every comment is moderated.

Article News

Popular Stories

FleetFAQ

Public Fleet Tracking And Telematics

Amin Amini from Verizon will answer your questions and challenges

View All

Recent Topics

Hello All, We are developing a formal training program for light and heavy equipment technicians. Our goal is to recruit and train...

View Topic

I am in the early stages of creating a central fleet maintenance department. Would anyone be willing to share an org chart for their...

View Topic

Fleet Documents

974 Fleet Documents (and counting) to Download!

Sponsored by

Zipcar is a membership-based car sharing company founded in 2000.

Read more