The big chill

| October 19, 2008

Prepping for winter is a spend-to-save proposition, but well worth it in the long run.

Fall is here, and it’s time to prepare your truck for winter driving, especially if your destinations include the frigid temperatures, snow and ice of the north country. Aim to perform your cold weather checklist by Nov. 1 – earlier if the weather turns nasty.

Failure to get your truck ready for winter weather can have dire consequences. Ask Arden Bourgeois, owner of General Fleet of Richmond, Va. “We had to learn the hard way,” he says. “I had a truck break down in the middle of nowhere because there was too much moisture in the air dryer and it froze up. A $30 part ended up costing me more than $600 in towing fees and more than $100 for a motel room for my driver. It could have been prevented if we had a checklist then.”

Stan Blom starts preparing his 2002 tractor in early November for a possible UPS contract to deliver packages during the holidays. The owner-operator from Grimes, Iowa, has landed the short-term job the past six years. “To get that gig and keep it, you have to have a truck that doesn’t break down,” says Blom, who drives with his wife, Kerry Roddan. “If you break down too many times, you don’t get your contract renewed.”

Making sure his nearly 100 trucks are winter-ready is vital for Jimmy Dixon, vice president and maintenance director of Dixon Bros. The Newcastle, Wyo., firm delivers petroleum products in Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, the Dakotas and Canada. “Our customers depend on us to make our deliveries on time,” he says. “We start in mid-October at our terminals getting ready.”

Add these items to your own winter-prep checklist:

Antifreeze levels and concentration should be monitored year-round but definitely check it again in November or earlier. Make sure it’s spec’d to 35 to 40 below. Check the nitrate levels to ensure a minimum of foreign metal parts. Blom changes his coolant every 250,000 miles. Bourgeois says low points like the oil pan are places where you have to worry about freezing.

In your fuel tanks: Moisture collects during the summer months and can freeze when temperatures drop. When it starts getting cold, Dixon starts blending diesel with a fuel additive. Blom uses a double dose of a treatment designed to go after water and also changes the fuel filter. He keeps an extra disposable filter and canister filter in his cab, along with products that enable him to refill and repump a new filter. “That is as important to me as having a winter coat,” Blom says. “If you spend $10 on the filter, it might save you $300″ in that service call to someone to come out and restart your truck.

Some fuel heaters are electric and some are water-to-fuel heaters. Make sure water is turned on to the latter. They use coolant from the engine to heat the fuel. If you have an engine with a 12-volt heater to aid in heating, check for a blown fuse or loose wire, Dixon says. “We check engine block heaters and plug-in cords to make sure they’re not worn out or burned from the previous season,” he says.

Electrical systems need a solid inspection and cleaning, particularly of the battery cables and connections. Load test the batteries, too. “If the battery needs to be recharged, we replace it with a new one,” says Bourgeois, who handles maintenance on his six trucks and the trucks of six owner-operators who drive for him. “I don’t want weak batteries in my trucks, because when it gets cold, those batteries will fail.” Also, test alternator output and starter draw.

“I have the mechanic take the cable off the starter, clean the connection and reconnect with a new nut on the starter connection,” says Blom, who does most of the winter preparations himself. “If you have an inverter, check the connections, too, because that will drain twice as fast.”

For the heating system, turn on the coolant lines that go to the heater in your cab and sleeper and check for leaks. Replace the cab air filter and blow out any debris from the heater core fins, Bourgeois says. Blom uses an air hose or vacuum cleaner to remove dust and dirt that’s accumulated on coils or elements. Check that the defroster hose isn’t leaking and is blowing hot air from the dash.

If the air dryer isn’t working properly, moisture, oil and debris will build up in the air-brake system. Blom replaces the filament in the air dryer every two years and has it checked by a mechanic every fall.

Checking belts, hoses and clamps should be part of your regular maintenance, but an extra inspection before winter is recommended. “When you have a bit of dry rot on a belt or hose, it’s not a big deal at 80 degrees,” Bourgeois says. “When it’s 20 below, that dry rot can make the hose brittle and crack.”

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