Posted November 20, 2019

Maintaining equipment in colder weather

Common sense tips to minimize equipment wear and tear in winter months.

Compiled by Ethan Smith, Equipment Trader

As winter approaches, it’s time to prepare  equipment for colder weather, especially in areas that will see snow and ice (if it hasn’t already). Fortunately, there are specific changes to the maintenance routine for your heavy equipment that can help optimize machinery’s performance all year long.

Inspect equipment daily
Extreme temperatures can significantly impact equipment, so increase the number of visual inspections as the weather gets colder, leading from monthly or weekly inspections to daily inspections during the freezing winter months. Take a look at electrical wiring, hydraulic hoses, batteries, tire pressure as well as the undercarriage of the machine. Look for signs of wear, damage, or clogged debris.

Check and change oil
As seasons change, use an oil formulation that is appropriate for the outside temperatures, including engine, transmission, hydraulics, and final drive lubricants. Low-viscosity oil flows more easily in the cold and puts less strain on the engine, making synthetic oil a preferable choice in the winter months even though it is more expensive. Even with synthetic oil, always check to make sure the oil is fluid enough for proper flow before starting any machine in extreme cold, checking each dipstick to see if the oil drips, which can indicate it is fluid enough to be used.

It’s a good idea to conduct a complete oil change before and after the winter season, and perhaps even perform a fluid analysis, which can help determine how oil, coolant, and fuel is used. It can also assist in optimizing that machine’s maintenance schedule.

Keep batteries charged
Batteries can lose a full third of their strength at 32F and over half their strength at 0F, meaning that equipment’s battery is must work overtime in the cold. Regularly check the battery’s electrolyte levels by removing the plastic cover and looking into each cell to see if the plates are emerged or close to being emerged. If the electrolyte level is low, do not overfill with water. That can dilute the electrolyte and increases the risk of the battery freezing. In extreme cold, the battery should either be insulated or removed and stored indoors at room temperatures on equipment in storage for the  winter.

Throughout colder months, be on the lookout for signs of a drained battery, including a grinding or clicking sound when turning the ignition, the machine being slow to turn over or the headlights dimming when idling, especially if the battery is three years or older.


Check and replace hydraulic hoses

In colder temperatures, hydraulic hoses can become inelastic and may even crack. To avoid cold-related damage to machine hoses, warm up the hydraulic system for up to an hour before operating the attachments. Another option: half-throttle the engine and engage attachments for a few seconds before full operation. Even with those precautions, it’s also a good idea to have spare hoses, seals, mounts, and fittings available during freezing weather.

Warm the engine
Before using heavy equipment in colder temperatures, run the engine until it reaches operating temperature, which helps ensure the intake and exhaust valves will not stick. Starting fluid can further facilitate starting, but use caution, as it is highly combustible and can ignite too early and damage the engine.

Block heaters can also effectively accelerate engine warming. Once the machine has run for a while, cycle through the equipment’s functions, which distributes warmed oil to each of the machine’s moving parts and helps the equipment operate easily. 

Check tires and traction
Cold weather can cause machine tires to lose air more quickly which decreases fuel efficiency and makes the engine work harder. Check equipment tire pressure at the beginning of every shift. Using dry nitrogen to inflate tires in freezing temperatures prevents the formation of ice crystals, which can hold open the valve stem and contribute to deflation.

Before driving equipment during snowfall, remove as much snow and ice as possible from the job site and conduct a sweep of the area to ensure that snow is not hiding any obstructions that could puncture the tires or damage the tracks. Maintain traction and control during icy conditions by taking things slow. When parking, clear off any snow or ice from the tires and park on planks to avoid the tires freezing to the ground.

Keep the tank full with the right fuel
If ignored, fuel tanks and lines can freeze overnight in extreme cold, so it is important at the end of each day to drain the water from the separator and refill the tank with fuel.

Fuel treatments may also be added to thaw frozen filters, liquify fuel that has thickened in the cold and remove moisture from the lines and tank. Consider using winter blend diesel, which includes kerosene in the formula to lower the temperature at which the fuel will begin to gel. Follow the equipment OEM’s fuel recommendations; the wrong blend can damage the engine.

Stay safe
This point is less about maintaining the equipment and more about maintaining your own well-being. Make sure the windshield and windows are kept clean and clear during the colder months. Frost and condensation can create dangerous blind spots and ice can form on steps, grip plates and grabs. Use caution when entering and exiting equipment and avoid touching frozen metal with bare skin to prevent serious injury.

In addition to gloves, workers in severe weather should have high-visibility vests, gear and accessories so they can be seen during possible sleet and snow flurries, as well as layers of warm clothing than can protect against the cold, especially if the equipment is not heated or enclosed. Upgrading your equipment’s lights to LEDs can also improve visibility and endurance in freezing temperatures.

The body must expend extra energy to keep itself warm in the cold, so workers will fatigue more easily and should have extra breaks to catch their breath, potentially have a snack and restore their focus.

Smart storage
Before storing equipment, clean the undercarriage of the machine, which may have collected snow, salt or other de-icing chemicals that can contribute to rusting. Ideally, heavy equipment will be stored inside a heated facility, which protects it from the elements and allows for a significantly faster and easier start-up. If it can’t be stored indoors, it should at least be covered to eliminate the need to take time to brush off accumulated snow. If your equipment is stored long-term over the winter, detach any attachments so the hinges and joints avoid unnecessary wear and damage from the constant pull of weight and gravity.