Life-Saving Winterization Tactics for Your Truck

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TORONTO, Ont. – This is Canada, eh? We’re supposed to be tough. A little thing like winter? Break out the skates. A wind chill? Bring it on. We can use it to chill our beer.

Granted, the onset of colder weather hardly means good news to anyone who needs to maintain a truck.

Cold temperatures thicken the all-important lubes that protect components; the salt used to clear roads will corrode all things metal and fine cracks in rubber components can transform into gaping splits when exposed to plunging temperatures.

Few fleets face harsher winter conditions than those responsible for clearing roads in Canada’s near and far north, but the maintenance managers in charge of protecting this equipment can offer some cold weather advice that will ensure your wheels continue to roll.

First of all, your maintenance regimen should include some sort of check-up every fall.

The maintenance managers we talked to tend to schedule annual inspections at that time of year – offering the chance to conduct a pre-winter check-up and meet the needs of programs such as Alberta’s Commercial Vehicle Inspection Program (CVIP) or Ontario’s Commercial Vehicle Operator’s Registration (CVOR) at the same time.

“We try to do the same type of preventive maintenance all year long, so the truck should be ready for winter,” adds Arnie McGruther, service centre manager for Moose Jaw, Sask.

Since oils and greases are the first line of defence for metal components, operations about to experience severe temperature shifts may want to consider synthetic or semi-synthetic fluids that will flow more freely than their mineral-based counterparts when exposed to colder temperatures.

Whitehorse, Yukon, for example, uses a semi-synthetic 75W90 in the rear ends of its tandem tractors.

“At -30 degrees, they get pretty stiff (with mineral-based oils),” says equipment maintenance supervisor Richard Fox. And graders are equipped with a 0W30 fluid in the transmission, rather than 10-weight oil.

Still, some choices are a matter of trial and error.

“We’ve yet to find a decent grease in our auto slack (adjusters),” says Mike Mostow, fleet supervisor in Kenora, Ont., noting that severe temperature shifts require them to be re-adjusted as often as three times a winter.

Most of Whitehorse’s equipment is parked inside at night, but anything parked outside is equipped with a block heater, oil pan heater and battery blanket.

To ensure they’ll work when required, AC plugs leading to the block heaters are tested every fall.

“Wherever you get a lot of resistance because of loose connections, it burns there,” Fox says.

In the last 15 years, McGruther’s fleet has been spec’ing trucks with a common plug for the oil and coolant heater, complete with a spring-loaded chrome cap and rubber seal to protect the connections from the elements.

“You should never have a corrosion problem if you buy it right the first time,” he says.

Air dryers are particularly important in winter, when moisture can quickly lead to frozen brake valves. But to ensure a supply of dry air, it’s also important to check the compressors that create the pressure in the first place.

“If that air compressor is passing oil, it will contaminate an air dryer in no time,” Fox says of a problem that can accompany worn rings. “Run it up and, when it exhausts, you’ll get a bunch of oil coming out if you have a problem.”

Mostow also changes air dryer cartridges on an annual basis, regardless of the number of hours that they have accumulated. It’s cheap insurance, he says.

“And make sure there’s no sludge (in the dryer).”

The compounds used to clear roads of ice and snow can be the bane of a mechanic’s existence at the best of times, and these fleets have trucks loaded with the stuff.

“Edmonton uses a fair bit of sand and calcium chloride on the sand,” admits Doug Todd, Edmonton’s director for fleet maintenance, asset management and public works.

“It helps (the sand) adhere to the road … and helps it to adhere to mechanic’s wrenches and everything else.”

To say it’s pervasive is an understatement.

At the height of winter, Whitehorse steams its vehicles twice a week to clear away as much of the fluid as possible. (A simple power wash might work with salt, but it has little effect on the new solutions.)

But fall inspections should include a complete check for corrosion, before components are caked with ice and snow.

Fox, for example, pays particular attention to the areas behind brake chambers, where the components bolt to the chassis.

“That salt and water will lay in behind there and they’ll rust the pot through,” he says.

“You can’t really see it that well unless you loosen off the bolts and look behind there.”

“Mainly we see it in the centre of the frame, the hardest area to wash,” Mostow adds.

Since his sanders and plows are all parked inside overnight, the melting ice and snow can wick into every crack and crevice – taking salt with it.

“We may be creating our own death,” he says.

Still, for the last three years, the fleet has had the equipment coated with a rust inhibitor.

“I think it has paid off,” he says of the lessened corrosion. “But the guys curse you when they’re working on the truck.”

Lights and electronic components can be one of the earliest victims of corrosion.

Mostow, for example, recommends unplugging ABS control modules, to see how tight the connection feels when it’s pushed back into place. If it feels too snug, corrosion may be forming inside, even though the surface looks fine, he says.

“And I think the calcium chloride is tougher than the salt (on corroding connectors),” Mostow says.

“You wash it down, it dilutes enough to get into the connectors.”

His 50 sanders can require two new flashing amber lights and three electronic flashers a year because of it. But the lights last as long as they do because they’re installed properly in the first place.

“We have always used the double-walled shrink tube,” Mostow says, noting that an errant strand of wire can poke through its single-walled counterparts.

“We don’t use crimp connectors.”

“There’s nothing better than solder and shrink tubing, and dialectric grease in the plugs if you’re using plugs,” McGruther agrees.

It’s simply easier to inspect for problem components when temperatures are warmer. Ensure fuel-water separators are in working condition, inspect the thermostat and test the starting system. (It will face its greatest challenges when trying to crank an engine with a thickened lube, after all.)

Equally, it’s important to subject cooling systems to a pressure test to ensure hose clamps are secure, and test antifreeze to ensure that the formula hasn’t been diluted.

You’ll also want to ensure a warm supply of air in the cab once the cold winds begin to blow. When inspecting heaters, International suggests replacing cabin air filters, blowing debris from heater cores, and ensuring that any shut-offs are on.

And cracks found in flexible components of any sort are a cause for worry. Fox, for example, replaces hydraulic lines that show the earliest signs of cracking.

“As soon as it gets cold, that will split in half,” he says.

It’s simply a matter of being prepared.

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