Bracing for Winter

Armed not only with CBs but with cell phones and Qualcomm, today’s truckers are equipped to survive the harshest winters. Too bad their equipment often isn’t as ready.

Most of us owner-operators didn’t have CB radios when I first started driving,” recalls owner-operator Bill Rode of Eagle, Idaho. That meant a winter breakdown could be a matter of life and death. “If you made it through, good. If not, they’d come looking for you in the spring.

Armed not only with CBs but with cell phones and Qualcomm, today’s truckers are equipped to survive the harshest winters. Too bad their equipment often isn’t as ready.

Flaws that seem minor in summer – corroded wires, worn belts or hoses, dirty fuel tanks, leaky compressor seals, weak batteries – can stop a truck in winter and put a different kind of chill on a small trucking business.

These pitfalls can be avoided with some simple preventive maintenance. Here are the basic areas to address.

Some of the most common cold weather problems are fuel-related, such as moisture in the fuel.

The water comes mostly from condensation inside storage and saddle tanks. Large drops sink to the bottom. Below freezing, the accumulated water becomes ice.

“It will float around in your tank,” says owner-operator Joe Rajkovacz of northern Wisconsin. “I’ve been shut down by a chunk of ice that got sucked into the uptake.”

Each fall, Rajkovacz puts the steer wheels of his 1997 Peterbilt 379 on 4-inch blocks. “All the water and sediment flow to the back of the tanks after the truck sits for a while,” he says.

He uses a small hand pump to empty the tanks. On newer trucks it’s easier to remove the tank drain plugs, but tanks and plugs on older trucks often oxidize together.

To cut down on water problems, be especially mindful of where you buy fuel in winter. “Stay with name-brand fuel stops that sell good fuel and turn over their supplies frequently,” Rajkovacz recommends. “You might pay a little more, but if you’ve ever had 200 gallons of fuel pumped out because of water in it, you’ll know a few cents more per gallon is worth it.”

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Also note the truck stop’s storage tanks. Underground tanks gather less condensation than aboveground tanks.

BP Amoco salesman Paul Kraft advises taking advantage of at-the-pump fuel treatments. “If they’re treating it, then you might not have to. And if you’re going further north than you have before, you might want to get some treated fuel or some additives. That’s because in cold weather, the wax in diesel fuel jells and clogs fuel lines and filters.”

Different fuels have different cloud points, or temperatures at which the wax starts to jell. Jelling is controlled by blending No. 2 diesel with wax-free No. 1 diesel, and also by using winter additives.

“Additives generally contain de-icers that lower the freeze temperature of water,” Kraft says, “and they make sure the wax molecules don’t adhere to one another so they’ll flow through fuel systems and won’t clog injectors or filters.”

Use of blends or additives involves a compromise, says Mark Betner, Citgo’s heavy-duty products manager. “You get better startability with winter fuel, but you lose some energy BTU.” Moreover, “The benefit of the additives depends largely on the quality of the fuel you’re buying.”

The high price of fuel favors additives, says Ed Kramer, president of Power Service, a fuel additive manufacturer in Weatherford, Texas. “Right now No. 1 diesel is 20 cents more a gallon than No. 2,” he says. That means a 50-50 winter blend will cost 10 cents more per gallon.

Kramer says additives enable No. 2 diesel to flow like a blend, but for only about 4 cents a gallon and without any power or mileage loss. “Our additives also add lubricity and boost cetane levels for easier starting,” he says.

In extremely cold weather or if the truck has been shut off a long time, fuel heaters are helpful. Placement is critical because the fuel must be heated before it reaches the filter. To minimize heat loss through the fuel line, mount in-line heaters near the filter and in-tank heaters near the uptake.

Ice plays havoc with a truck’s air and brake systems. “Air compressors produce a lot of moisture, it freezes, and you have malfunctioning or non-functioning brakes,” says Tom Soupal, Meritor Wabco’s chief engineer. “If you have a good air dryer, and you’ve maintained it, you won’t have any water getting past.”

Clean the electrical connections and replace the filter if necessary. If your air dryer has a heater, make sure it works. Air tanks should be drained daily, not only to remove water but to see how well the air dryer and compressor are working.

Air system leaks make the compressor work more. “This sends more water into the system,” Soupal says. “So you’re overworking your air dryer, too.” If the low-air warning buzzer comes on at start-up after an overnight shutdown, have the system checked, Soupal says.

Regularly check air lines, too. “The worst and most common failures in the air system are with the line from the compressor to the air dryer,” Soupal says. Make sure the line is clean, runs downhill to the air dryer, and has no loops, kinks or low spots where water will gather and freeze.

At your daily brake inspection, “Look for motion of the slack adjusters during a service brake application,” Soupal says. “Loops in the lines are trouble areas where moisture can gather.”

Some drivers pour alcohol or antifreeze into air brake lines. “We don’t recommend that because that alcohol attacks the system’s rubber parts,” Soupal says. “Even antifreeze will shorten the system’s life.” Some air systems have built-in alcohol injectors, but Soupal says they are unnecessary if the dryer works.

Tires do not become brittle or otherwise suffer in cold weather, but tread depth is important, especially in the drive position.

Fall is the time to make tire changes, says Goodyear’s Al Cohn. “It’s just better to have fresher rubber for the winter because any time you have new tires you have better traction.”

“Lugs” or drive tires need at least 20/32-inch tread depth for maximum traction, Cohn says. On “ribs” or steer tires, “You don’t want to be below the 10/32 to 12/32 range.”

Keeping tires at the right air pressure can be tricky during winter because tires warm while running, raising the pressure, and cool while sitting. While running, tires should be at about 100 psi. But if the truck stands overnight in subzero weather, the pressure will decrease significantly.

Check the pressure at both cold and warm temperatures to gauge the effect of temperature changes. “Use a calibrated gauge, not one you’ve been using for 20 years,” Cohn says.

Cohn also cautions drivers to install tire chains properly and to avoid using bleach or other chemicals to melt ice when tires get stuck. “That will mess up the rubber,” he says.

Cold can give oil the consistency of tar, at which point it no longer lubricates.

“If you start your engine cold when it’s 15 degrees, it probably equals the same wear as 100 to 150 starts,” says owner-operator Bill Rode.

Pushing engine parts through cold-thickened oil at start-up also strains the starter and drains battery power, says Citgo’s Mark Betner. It might be 10 minutes before the oil warms enough to properly lubricate the engine, he says.

While 15W-40 engine oil is most commonly used, it’s not always the best choice, especially during winter, Betner says.

“We’re seeing the 5W-40 taking off because it offers improved cold weather performance, lower maintenance costs and better fuel economy,” he says. “At start-up, 5W-40 is going to flow and get into your bearings better at the real cold temperatures, and at normal operating temperature, it’s still going to behave like a 40-weight oil.”

Most 5W-40 oils are synthetic and cost more, but fuel and maintenance savings and increased performance more than offset the higher price, Betner says. He recommends 5W-40 for auxiliary and reefer engines, too.

Synthetic lubricants give better cold-weather performance in transmissions and differentials, too, Betner says. He says 75W-90, traditionally a synthetic, protects to 40 below, but 80W-90, while thicker, has a conventional mineral base and protects only to 15 below. Meanwhile, 85W-90 – thicker still – protects only to 10 degrees above zero.

In extremely cold weather, engine block and oil pan heaters will ensure that even higher viscosity oils provide maximum lubrication at start-up. Thorough preparation for winter means checking these components for proper operation.

Driving through road salts requires that you pay close attention to truck washing and chassis lube.

“They’re putting calcium chloride down on icy roads now, and that stuff is incredibly corrosive,” says owner-operator Joe Rajkovacz. “It will melt metal. It ate away the aluminum flashing around my trailer doors.”

Washing your truck more frequently during the winter helps. Make sure to rinse the road de-icers from the underside.

“Look for chassis grease that’s corrosion resistant, has better staying power and gives longer service intervals,” says Citgo’s Mark Betner.

Conventional greases are suitable for indoor maintenance, but synthetics are easier to use outdoors in cold weather. Be sure that any grease used in cold weather pumps freely for relubricating the chassis and fifth wheel, Betner says.

Winterizing the cooling system means flushing and checking for leaks. The Technology Maintenance Council recommends pressure-testing the cooling system at 15 to 18 psi after turning on the heater control valves.

“Every fall I empty the cooling system, flush it with an over-the-counter flushing solution, and then refill it with a 50-50 mixture of antifreeze and distilled water,” says owner-operator Joe Rajkovacz. He also uses a coolant additive. “It’s usually required by the warranty, and it prevents pitting that can destroy a cooling system after about 400,000 miles.”

Use mineral-free distilled water, not tap water or undistilled bottled water. “The minerals will cause deposits in your cooling system that can clog it,” Rajkovacz says. The 50-50 mixture will give protection to about 35 below. “If it gets that cold, you never shut your truck off anyway.”

For normal operation, TMC advises using no more than 60 percent antifreeze, because excess antifreeze damages coolant heaters, interferes with proper heat transfer and contributes to a high concentration of total dissolved solids. But if the truck has to be shut down for a long time when it’s 35 below, use 100 percent antifreeze.

Coolant heaters – circulating-tank, immersion-block and fuel-fired – make subzero start-ups easier. They usually require minimal maintenance but should be inspected before the cold sets in.

Replace cracked, worn, swollen or dried-out belts and hoses. Squeeze hoses to find soft spots and fine-line cracks.

Owner-operator Joe Rajkovacz recommends synthetic hoses over rubber hoses. “I put synthetic hosing on my truck when I bought it, and it’s almost all still there,” eight years later, he says.

“Check your hoses in the fall,” Rajkovacz says. “If your hosing has over 100,000 miles on it, and it’s rubber, you should replace it before winter with new hosing, especially if it’s near a hot spot under the hood, like near the turbocharger.”

Inspect the truck’s electrical system, especially the ground wires. Cold weather will make dirty, worn or corroded wires brittle. Calcium chloride used as a de-icer “gets into your wiring and corrodes it,” Rajkovacz says. “Calcium chloride forms a white powder around electrical connections.”

Where possible, disconnect wiring connections, clean and coat with corrosion-resistant grease before reconnecting.

Other systems to check include in-cab heating, windshield wipers and washing/de-icing fluid, batteries, door seals and latches and, if you have it, an ether injection system.

Also keep in mind the truck’s history. Does its engine run below ideal operating temperature? Maybe it needs a shutter or winterfront over the radiator. Does the defroster effectively de-ice the windshield?

Winterization enhances safety, keeps the truck in top condition, preserves its resale value and avoids costly, time-consuming breakdowns. Winterization brings peace of mind from knowing your truck is ready for Mother Nature’s worst moods.

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