To construct and maintain a covered and protected parking area can cost one-third as much as it costs to store vehicles outdoors in a 50-year facility life span. 
 -  Photo:  Weston & Sampson Engineers

To construct and maintain a covered and protected parking area can cost one-third as much as it costs to store vehicles outdoors in a 50-year facility life span.

Photo: Weston & Sampson Engineers

A fleet of vehicles can represent a multi-million dollar investment in equipment for a public agency. To protect this investment, it is best to store vehicles in an indoor/­protected facility. These facilities provide safe, long-term cost-efficiencies and benefits in public safety, employee safety, cost savings, operational efficiencies, equipment protection, and reductions in impacts to abutters and the environment.

However, a less expensive solution is outdoor covered storage, and there are several ways to keep vehicles warm in cold climates.

At a Glance: 

While protected, covered parking is ideal, less expensive options include:

  • Lean-to storage
  • Covered canopies with open sides
  • Fabric structures

Construction Investment Can Pay Off

Ironically, a vehicle and equipment storage garage is one of the most inexpensive spaces to construct, but it is responsible for protecting the single largest investment in equipment in many communities.

Cost/benefit analyses identify the most cost-effective, efficient, and safe storage of fleet vehicles and equipment based on a comparison of the cost to construct, maintain, and operate a new storage garage versus the additional costs incurred by storing vehicles outdoors (increased maintenance, reduced vehicle life expectancy, and non-productive labor for vehicle preparation).

The data shows that the cost to store vehicles and equipment outdoors over the life of the building will cost approximately three times the cost to construct, operate, and maintain a new vehicle/equipment storage garage.

For example, for a fleet with 60 vehicles, the cost to construct, maintain and operate a new 41,000 square-foot storage garage (approximate measurements) over a 50-year anticipated life span is calculated at $13 million. The cost to store vehicles outdoors over the same time period is approximately $38 million. This total includes such factors as additional vehicle maintenance costs, reduced life expectancy, non-productive labor due to events such as storms, and reduced employee safety. The following items may result in additional costs:

  • Potential injuries to the public due to unsafe conditions resulting from inclement weather and/or delayed response times.
  • Impacts to abutters.
  • Property damage or infrastructure damage resulting from delayed response times to emergencies such as water main breaks or sewerage system blockages.

Many organizations have tried to resolve the problem of insufficient vehicle and equipment storage with equally insufficient ideas. Some take whatever available covered storage space they have and jam trucks and construction equipment bumper to bumper, pack drive aisles, and block fire escape walkways, creating very unsafe conditions. All this over-capacity parking is done in the quest for warm engine starts.

Unfortunately, some of these municipalities have lost large numbers of vehicles and equipment in their fleets, while others have lost the entire fleet plus buildings and materials from late-night fires as a result of improper and overcrowded storage. There have also been vehicles and equipment stored in salt storage facilities, which results in fast corrosion of the chassis and accelerated failure to diesel engine supercharges from the hydro­scopic action of the salt. 

However, because of funding challenges, many agencies in need of safe indoor vehicle storage must forego new facility construction. In such instances, less expensive short-term systems, though not ideal, can be constructed to provide vehicles with safe protection from the elements.

Alternatives such as lean-to storage, covered canopies with open sides, fabric structures, or even parking under viaducts can help prevent vehicle exposure to rain, snow, and falling debris.

Cold Climates Present Special Challenges

Fleets in colder climates have special challenges. Cold weather engine starts can be unreliable, resulting in additional maintenance and delays in vehicle response times. Idling to warm up a cold vehicle can result in increased carbon monoxide emissions and wasted fuel.

Research has shown that a minimally heated environment enhances the performance of fleet vehicles, eliminating potential delays associated with cold engines and frozen equipment and reducing the incidence of unscheduled maintenance.

For outdoor, covered vehicle storage, component warming systems can help prevent some of the problems associated with cold starts. These component warming systems typically operate from a vehicle’s on-board DC battery or fuel supply and feature in-line and in-tank heaters that utilize engine coolant through efficient heat exchangers to prevent fuel from gelling. The same principles are used in hydraulic fluid systems that warm fluids, promoting smooth operation and less wear on system components.

Other technologies include heat exchangers for various liquid-to-liquid and liquid-to-gas systems, such as reservoirs for grease oil, water, and other liquids. These types of systems have been used successfully in extreme cold weather conditions such as in Alaska.

In some cold weather applications, the benefits include freedom from fuel blending and an added economy of using No. 2 diesel fuel year-round. In hydraulic applications, users extend pump life and cycle their equipment faster for true cost savings.

Other past and proven options to improve component life in colder climates include:

  • Installation of electrical block heaters. Plugged into an electrical outlet, the block heater keeps engine coolant warm while the unit sits idle. One drawback is  expense of operation, and vehicle operators sometimes forget to unplug them before attempting to drive off.
  • Diesel-fired coolant heaters. These allow engines to be preheated before starting without the use of external power. The hot coolant produced can also be routed through heat exchangers to warm fuel, hydraulic reservoirs, and batteries.
  • Battery heaters (blankets). Blankets increase available cold cranking amps and extend effective battery usage by reducing required battery recharge time.
  • Diesel in-tank fuel warmers. Fuel warmers surround the fuel standpipe with coolant for maximum heat rise in the fuel.
  • Electric fluid reservoir heater. Similar to blanket heaters, reservoir heaters come in 12- and 24-volt DC and 110- and 220-volt AC units. They can be used to warm hydraulic rams, reservoirs, oil pans, and diesel fuel tanks. They have a peel-and-stick application for easy installation.
  • Hydraulic fluid heaters. These save thousands of dollars annually by routing a stainless steel loop through the hydraulic tank to warm fluids, thereby reducing damage to hydraulic pumps. Hydraulic fluid heater systems eliminate operators from stalling hydraulic systems to generate heat, which can create cavitations, metal wear, and blown seals through the excessive pump pressure.

Thermostatic options ensure protection when heating fuel or fluid is a concern, along with the use of biodiesel applications.

Through the use of such technologies, diesel engines and hydraulic systems stored outdoors can operate at maximum efficiency.

Design, operations, and maintenance experts can help determine the most cost-effective ways to incorporate best management practices for fleet storage into your program and provide objective recommendations for long-term storage and management options.

About the Author: Roger Thompson is a fleet management specialist at Weston & Sampson Engineers. Thompson is a former fleet manager with more than 25 years of experience.