Utility Fleet

Working in a Winter Wonderland

January 2015, Government Fleet - Feature

by Stephane Babcock - Also by this author

Photo courtesy of Terex
Photo courtesy of Terex

For some, like the residents of Southern California, wintertime is just a reason to throw on a hooded sweatshirt and sometimes carry an umbrella. But for many, it means freezing temperatures, windchill factors, and lots and lots of snow. With this trifecta of terrible winter woes, fleets need to ensure their off-road equipment is prepared to take on the harsh conditions and punishing workload.

“No matter what time of year a machine is operating in, there are always best practices to follow for safe set-up, operation, and transportation,” said Joe Turnage, product specialist at Terex Construction Americas. “Particularly in colder weather when temperatures drop below freezing and stay there for an extended period of time, there are some specific things owners/­operators need to keep in mind in order to keep a piece of off-road equipment running and crews productive.”

But before diving headfirst into a winter equipment prep frenzy, it’s best to refer to the owner’s manual for proper winterization techniques and tips.

At a Glance

Fleets need to take steps to prepare for equipment use in winter, including:

  • Taking full fluid inventory
  • Checking machinery for proper lubrication
  • Checking tires, batteries, and heating and defrosting systems
  • Making sure diesel fuel won’t gel up.

“Following the manufacturer’s recommended guidelines for regular maintenance is important in keeping off-road equipment working safely and efficiently in the winter months,” Turnage said.

Checking Your Fluids

From your oil to your antifreeze, every piece of off-road equipment needs to have a full fluid inventory taken to prepare for the upcoming snow season. Changing your fluids and lubricants to cold-­tolerant products that are approved to handle the extreme conditions your ­machine will be operating in is the best first step, according to Gary Bryan, national warranty manager at Takeuchi US. But before taking this step, always reference your operator’s manual for the recommended specifications, and if questions arise, contact your dealer.

Dropping temperatures can also significantly impact a machine’s oil viscosity.

“When starting work in cold temperatures, the oil may be thick and sluggish, so it may not move fast enough to adequately feed the pump — a starved pump can cause severe damage to the machine’s hydraulic system,” Turnage said.

Since oils are engineered for certain uses, each oil has its own set of properties that allow it to work best in an intended application.

“For example, there are oils specifically designed for use in extreme temperatures — over 100°F and below 10°F,” Turnage explained. “Different viscosities of oil should be used for different ambient temperatures.”

Last winter’s polar vortex threw the entire country for a loop, causing damage to both vehicles and equipment alike. Unlike a normal winter season, these climate events are capable of causing sub­zero temperatures.

“Operators need to be especially mindful about cold-prepping their utility vehicles,” said Dan Muramoto, Kubota Tractor Corporation’s RTV product manager. “Antifreeze levels should be checked for the proper concentration and level, and changed out every two years, or per the manufacturer’s instructions.”

Deterring Losses with Lubrication and Inspection

By keeping your off-road fleet in tip-top shape, you are ensuring your department reduces losses due to failed equipment.

“Once a part begins to corrode from lack of lubrication, or low antifreeze levels cause engine and radiator failures, owners can be stuck with additional costs and downtime,” Muramoto said.

One way to ensure this is by making sure each piece of machinery has been checked for proper lubrication.

“It’s important to use low-temperature grease on pivot joints, and to use an engine oil viscosity that matches the outside operating temperatures,” advised Bryan from Takeuchi.

“Fuel and hydraulic filters, which have likely gathered moisture, dirt, and debris from the summertime, will need to be replaced," he added.

But it is not a one-time check for proper lubrication. To prevent corrosion and contamination from the sand and salt that is commonly used in the winter months, fleets need to wash and thoroughly clean all off-road equipment after each use. This should be completed while the machine is still warm.

“The wash-down process is the perfect time to remove any embedded foreign objects from the tracks and to lubricate all moving parts,” Turnage said. “It is also an ideal time to check for any loose, worn, cracked, bent, broken, or missing components — replace these items immediately.”

Keeping an Eye on the Machine and the Driver

A number of other components get affected by winter weather. Tires can also be severely affected by the dropping temperatures and snowy precipitation. Changing temperatures of warm to cold to freezing will deflate tires a little at a time, so check the tires regularly and check the operator’s manual for the proper PSI, Bryan advised.

“During the winter, we also see batteries die because they need to generate nearly twice the amount of amps to turn over a cold engine. Check your battery connections for corrosion and wear, which can lead to hard-starting problems. Also, make sure to perform a load test on your batteries before winter begins,” he added.

Heating and defrosting systems need to be checked out as well, but before winter begins, as part of the fleet department’s routine maintenance. It is also wise to check that the cab door and window are sealed tightly to not let the cold air inside the cab.

“This won’t have any effect on how the equipment operates, but it will help the operator stay nice and warm,” Bryan said.

Drivers also need to adapt their driving to these conditions. “Operators need to implement the same operating procedures as when they are working in mud, including driving slowly, making wide three-point turns; and avoiding abrasive, rugged, or sharp surfaces,” said Turnage. “Driving in extreme cold should be done with great caution.”

Turnage highlighted the rubber tracks on a compact excavator as an example, which become stiffer in freezing temperatures and much more susceptible to wear and tear.

Preparing for the Unexpected

Getting everything in line for a brutal winter goes beyond just prepping your off-road equipment. Fleet managers should also consider whether or not their equipment is properly outfitted to maximize the productivity of the operator and the unit, according to Turnage.

“In addition to an enclosed, heated cab for the operator’s comfort, make sure the equipment is equipped with an engine block heater to keep the diesel fuel from gelling up while the machine is off,” he said.

A built-in heating system for the machine’s vital components such as the hydraulics, auxiliaries, and the engine, can help keep these areas warm when temperatures drop below freezing. Operators must also consider the daily care of their equipment.

“For example, a cooling system that does not have the correct amount of antifreeze may freeze up and crack the radiator or engine block,” Turnage said.

Know Your Environment and Plan Accordingly

Winter does not affect every region similarly, but those who have survived the harsh (or mild) winters of a particular area know best not only how to prepare, but also how to operate within a specific winter environment.

In areas where there are freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall, Kubota’s Muramoto said operators should only wash utility vehicles with warm water and a mild soap. If necessary, they can skip washing altogether to avoid freezing.

“In icy conditions with or without snow, chains should be considered for additional traction and safety,” he advised. “Using an engine block heater overnight is a good way to ensure positive starting in the morning.”

Fuel gelling is also an issue, particularly with diesel, which can cause headaches for a fleet manager unprepared for this type of inconvenience. Since cold weather regions typically begin offering No. 1 diesel fuel in early fall, Bryan believes it is important to start filling off-road equipment with an anti-gel fuel before freezing conditions set in.

“Also, to minimize the risk of frozen or gelled up fuel lines, first check the operator’s manual, and, if possible, use manufacturer-­approved fuel additives,” he added.

If a machine is not properly outfitted, maintained, and ready for weather events such as last year’s polar vortex, it may cost the owner thousands of dollars in repair and machine downtime.

Finding Yourself in a Polar Vortex

Last winter saw the emergence of a (now) widely used phrase: polar vortex. To many, it just registers as meaning “extremely cold” or “dangerously cold.” No matter the thought or imagery that goes through your head, it’s best to understand the cause and, more importantly, the effects of such a snowstorm.

“Because a polar vortex is capable of causing subzero temperatures, operators need to be especially mindful about cold-prepping their utility vehicles,” Muramoto said.

The equipment might also require a built-in heating system for the machine’s vital components such as the hydraulics, auxiliaries, and the engine, Turnage explained.

And when you start your — and your equipment’s — workday, give it the time it needs to prepare — the equivalent of having a cup of coffee before heading out for the day.

“Both engine and transmission performance are affected by frigid temperatures, so it’s always best to warm up the vehicles per the manufacturer’s recommendations,” Muramoto said.

No matter how extreme the winter might hit your region, being prepared for the inevitable ­— and sometimes unexpected ­— begins and ends with prepping your equipment to handle the workload and the environment in which it must perform.

A Quick Winter Prep Checklist

When preparing equipment for the winter, include the following steps, provided by Joe Turnage, product specialist, Terex Construction Americas:

  • Test the antifreeze mixture to see what the lowest temperature the cooling system can sustain without freezing.
  • Clean and flush the radiator.
  • Add airline antifreeze to the air system. In cold weather, the moisture in the air system will freeze, and operators may not be able to build up the proper amount of air pressure needed to work the machine’s air-operated brakes and other air-operated functions.
  • Test the engine block heater. The engine block heater warms the water in the engine, making it easier to start.
  • Test the glow plugs. Glow plugs warm the intake care and make it easier for diesel engines to start.
  • Remove fuel from smaller equipment that runs on gas. During the winter months, the ethanol can separate from the other chemical components, and it will degrade.
  • Test the battery. Cold temperatures can drain the battery’s stored power.
  • Check windshield wipers and blades, and put de-icer in washer fluid bottles
  • Add diesel fuel anti-gel to fuel tanks to ensure proper engine performance.

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