Winter Vehicle Maintenance: Top 12 Checks
We’re not talking about stocking caps and long underwear here (though we’d never undersell their importance in keeping you comfortable.) No, we mean your vehicle fleet. Is it ready? Really ready?
A long, cold winter can be especially brutal on cars, trucks, buses, heavy equipment and other machines you maintain. Ice, snow, sleet and deicing chemicals can do a real number on every moving part. Plummeting temperatures thicken vital fluids. Weak batteries finally call it quits. Worn parts break. Tires give out. If you haven’t prepared your vehicles for the rigors of winter weather, you can’t be certain they won’t let you down just when you need them most. In short, you’re setting yourself up for failure before the first snowflake falls.
More Cold, More Breakdowns
Data indicates that winter weather brings more breakdowns and roadside repairs than at any other time. A carefully planned maintenance protocol can help protect you from those incidents. Think of it as a sort of low-cost insurance program. Sure, your equipment will stand a better chance of remaining running and productive. But you’ll also catch potential problems earlier, helping to avoid expensive repairs. You’ll also be helping to increase the safe working conditions of drivers/operators, in what are often the worst and most unpredictable of weather and road conditions.
We’ve included our Top 12 Winter Checks to look over before winter, and monitor throughout, to get your fleet ready for whatever winter can dish out. We can’t make winters less harsh. But we can help put you in the best possible position to make it through unscathed.
- Engine Fuels
Perhaps the most important yet regularly overlooked issue with starting and running diesel engines in cold weather is choosing the correct diesel fuel. Diesel fuel contains an ingredient called paraffin (wax) which causes fuel to gel as temperatures drop. This can lead to roughness while operating the vehicle or even an engine failure in some cases. You’ll want to check the cetane rating at the gas pump (the higher the number is, the easier your truck will start during the winter months). Most fueling stops carry a winter blend fuel, so make sure to fill up with that winter blend if you’re going to be operating your vehicle in cold conditions. Check with your engine manufacturer to get approved recommendations on fuel system additives.
- Engine Block Heaters
Diesel engines are more difficult to start in cold weather than gasoline-powered vehicles because of their need for higher cylinder temperatures- simply put, they like it hot. When your truck is parked for any length of time in cold weather, it’s a good idea to use a block heater to reduce any large fluctuations in engine temperatures. Test the block heater on all your vehicles in advance, including those that run on gasoline.
- Water Separators
Diesel fuels have water suspended in the solution. That water comes from condensation which forms on the inside of a cold fuel tank that has warm fuel. To minimize risk, you’ll want to check your water separator daily and invest in a new fuel filter. Keeping your gas tank at least half full minimize the risk of water freezing in the fuel line.
- Engine Oil
In order for your engine to run, it needs proper lubrication from oil. Just like with fuel, selecting the type of oil is imperative, as using the wrong oil in the winter can cause unnecessary wear on your engine. Cold weather reduces oil’s effectiveness. The colder it is outside, the thicker your oil becomes, and thick oil will not circulate through your engine as easily as thin oil. Consequently, if your engine doesn’t get the lubrication it needs, you’ll be left with a truck that won’t start. To help prevent damage to your engine, consider changing your oil to one that is thinner to begin with. To find out the proper viscosity of oil you need in the winter, consult your operators’ manuals, which will have information on proper viscosity levels for different climates.
- Brake Pads and Shoes
Making sure that your brakes are in working order is a top safety priority. If your brakes are making a squealing sound when stopping, it’s most likely time to replace them with a new pair. Additionally, it is imperative to make sure you’re performing proper air dryer maintenance. The air dryer is designed to remove air system moisture and contaminants before they enter the brake system to prevent water freezing in the lines. Frozen air lines can result in the loss of braking functionality in commercial vehicles.
All-weather tires may not offer adequate traction if your vehicle is operated in cold conditions with lots of snow and ice. Consider outfitting your fleet with winter tires as they offer a better grip in icy conditions and even on cold, dry roads. Underinflated tires are one of the leading causes of tire failure. Underinflating also causes tires to wear faster and adversely affects a vehicle’s handling; a tire can lose up to 50 percent of its pressure without appearing flat. That being said, you don’t want to over-inflate tires either- that increases the risk of tread separation, and the tires can easily be damaged by road debris, curbing or potholes. The correct amount of air for your tires is listed in your vehicles owner’s manual. If you’re still not sure, contact your truck tire vendor.
The most common cause of winter breakdowns is a weak or dead battery. Cold temperatures drain batteries faster and diesel engines require strong batteries that hold a good charge with enough cranking amps to start the engine. Typically, the lifecycle of a battery is 48 to 72 months. Some signs that a battery is weak and may need to be replaced are: a starter motor that cranks the engine slowly when the ignition key is turned or headlights that dim noticeably when the engine speed drops to idle. Battery maintenance should include cleaning and securing connections and mounting brackets.
One of the best times to check your vehicle's fluids is before winter is in full-swing. Check and top off power steering, brake, windshield washer and battery fluids. Have one of your techs perform a winterization inspection of the cooling system. A coolant test will make sure your coolant is at the optimum freeze point.
- Belts and Hoses
Frigid winter temperatures can weaken the belts that help make your engine run smoothly. A worn-out belt could end up being a major safety risk for you and your vehicle; especially if you happen to be driving in a remote area. Make inspections part of your regular routine; check accessory drive belts for signs of fraying or cracking and replace any belts with even a hint of a crack to help avoid a breakdown. Inspect the cooling system hoses for leaks, cracks or loose clamps. You’ll want to squeeze the hoses and replace any that are brittle or excessively spongy to touch.
- Spark plugs
If your engine misfires, feels rough, jittery or simply doesn’t want to start, it may be due to your spark plugs. Make sure to inspect your spark plugs and clean or replace them if needed.
- Windshield Wipers
Make sure to inspect and replace your windshield wiper blades if necessary. Windshield wiper blades are easy to replace and should be changed at least once a year. Getting into a routine of replacing them at the beginning of winter is a good idea since this is when you likely will use them the most. You may also want to consider using heavy-duty winter windshield wiper blades for tough ice buildup.
- Lights and Vehicle Exterior
In the darker winter months, visibility is very important. You want to make sure that you can see the road ahead clearly and other drivers can see you. Inspect your vehicle to make sure all plow lights, warning lights, strobe lights and other lighting equipment are working properly. Consider regular year-round fleet washing as a way to protect the exterior of your vehicle against the elements. Cold temperatures can be hard on paint too, and this maintenance technique may prevent long-term body damage to your vehicle.
Even if your vehicle is up to date with routine maintenance and you’ve followed this checklist of precautionary measures thoroughly, breakdowns can still occur. Make sure that you’ve not only winterized your vehicle, but that you’ve prepared yourself for winter as well. Keep an emergency kit inside your truck with supplies and equipment, things like a battery-powered radio, flashlight, blanket, jumper cables, fire extinguisher, first aid kit, gloves, tire chains, bottled water, non-perishable foods, maps, tire repair kit, flares and the telephone number to a qualified and reliable 24/7 breakdown service provider in the event that you become stranded as a result of inclement weather.