The big chill

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.

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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.”

Blom installs new wiper blades made for winter on his truck in November. If the replaced blades are still good, he’ll throw them under his bunk as a spare. Make sure the washer reservoir is full of washer fluid and free of water. “We go through a set of blades per month per truck,” Bourgeois says. “The chemicals, salt and debris from the road eat that rubber casing.”

Bourgeois checks his tires for adequate tread and pressure. Sometimes, he will change out summer rib tires for ones with a lug-type tread to improve traction on trucks headed to routes in the Midwest and Northwest. He also checks the rubber end caps on brake chambers. The caps keep out water that can freeze and play havoc with the brake adjusters.

Blom will remove all exterior light bulbs on his tractor and trailer, clean them, apply electrical grease and re-install them. He says bulbs can dry out, and road chemicals can cause them to short circuit. He wire-brushes and greases the prongs on his tractor light outlet that connects to the light cable from the trailer. He also removes, cleans and greases fuses from the outside fuse box. He carries electrical grease in his cab.

Many of Dixon’s trucks carry chains year-round. All chains are inspected, and faulty ones are trashed and replaced.

Blom says it takes him 8 to 10 hours to prepare his tractor and trailer for winter. He does most of the checks and replacements himself, except for the air dryer test and battery crank test. “You’re talking about $200 to spend for preventive maintenance,” he says. “That about covers one service call when you’re stuck on the side of the road.”

Bourgeois says when he and his mechanic first imposed his checklist last February, they found all kinds of things that could have or did put their trucks on the side of the road that could have been avoided. “I could have saved a couple thousand or more in towing fees,” he says.

Don’t Leave Home Without Them
When winter hits, General Fleet owner Arden Bourgeois makes sure his six company drivers are prepared. He gives each of them a heavy jacket – to motivate them and to keep them warm. “We encourage them to take extra jackets and blankets with them,” he says.

Some of his drivers will carry flares or an auxiliary heater that plugs into the cigarette lighter. Either can be used to heat the underside of a frozen truck enough to help get it started. His drivers also carry a chain to hook to another truck to get pulled out of a ditch.

To keep his trucks running in cold temperatures, Bourgeois gives his drivers jugs of de-icing fluid and fuel additives. Drivers of the company’s older trucks pack an extra fuel filter, in case they have to replace a frozen filter.

Winter Prep Main Checklist
✔ Check antifreeze level and concentration.
✔ Ensure no moisture in fuel tanks.
✔ Inspect any fuel heater.
✔ Clean and inspect electrical system.
✔ Clean and inspect heating system.
✔ Have a mechanic look at the air dryer.
✔ Re-check all belts, hoses and clamps.
✔ Install new wiper blades.
✔ Evaluate tire condition.
✔ Remove exterior light bulbs and clean them.
✔ Keep a set of tire chains, just in case.

Remember Your A/C in Winter
Even though you’re preparing for winter, don’t forget your air-conditioning unit.
The A/C unit is part of your truck’s heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system. In the winter, it draws excess moisture from the air, which enables your windshield defroster and heater to be more efficient. Following are tips from Red Dot Corp., which designs and manufactures mobile HVAC units for trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles, to prep your HVAC system for winter driving:

  • Turn on the defroster and feel for air leaks under the dash. Fill in holes in the ducts.
  • Check your heating system’s filters for dust and other impurities. You can vacuum a paper filter or wash and dry a foam filter.
  • Inspect your heater’s water valves to make sure they open and close completely. Replace actuator cables that are worn or stretched.
  • Check for a malfunctioning blower motor.
  • When you check your cooling system, look for worn hoses or leaks, as evidenced by bits of crystallized antifreeze on the radiator tank tubes, water pump or other hose connections.
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