by Duff McCutcheon
Trucks have come a long way since the days when they wouldn’t start if the temp dipped below freezing. The smell of ether permeated the air on any cold winter morning in most truck terminals back then. Thanks to electronic engine controls, ether is hardly necessary anymore. But that old demon, moisture, is still a factor. It freezes, and it corrodes: both can be problems for drivers. Here’s how to minimize the risk of a freeze-up, and how to protect your electrical system from the ravages of salt-laden water.
Air Lines Since moisture in air lines could be one of your truck’s biggest enemies during the winter, it’s best to keep it at bay by draining your air tanks daily, as well as ensuring your air dryers are in good working order. The maintenance crews at Manitoulin Transport don’t take any chances with the fleets’ air dryers. “We replace all the air dryers in every power unit every year,” says Bob Chatwell, Manitoulin Transport’s director of maintenance.
Manitoulin Transport also hedges against moisture problems by using alcohol injectors in all its trucks, making sure the dispensers are filled up every fall before winter sets in. “We’ve found it’s better to be proactive and to go ahead and make sure you get a new air dryer every year, as well as an alcohol dispenser kit.” He says by using both, his drivers have very little, if any, trouble with freeze-ups on trailers and trucks during the winter.
If replacing the entire air dryer isn’t an option, at least ensure the heater element around the discharge port is working, and the desiccant cartridge is not at the end of its service life.
Wayne Kelly, service manager at Sudbury’s Cambrian Truck Centre says the most important routine wintertime preventive maintenance job you do on your truck is draining your air tanks on a regular – daily – basis. “If there’s water in there, it’s going to move around with the air during the day, so I highly recommend you drain it daily. You should also make sure everything involving the air tanks is very clean, especially the gladhands.”
Of course, components other than brakes need clean dry air, like transmissions. If you notice the range shifts seem sluggish, have the air lines cleaned out. Oily water can accumulate in the thin lines and ports, making shifting impossible if it freezes.
Fuel As winter approaches, be aware of what grade of diesel’s going into your tank. In northern Ontario, for example, most fuel companies start selling winter fuel that’s good for -40°C around December 1. That’s all well and good if you’re running in an area where the same grade of fuel is sold everywhere, but if you’re hauling between, say, Toronto and Thunder Bay, it will pose problems if the No. 2 fuel you bought down south starts gelling in the colder temperatures.
In most cases, winter fuel is a blend of No. 2 diesel, No. 1 diesel, and additives designed to minimize waxy crystals that cloud and thicken the fuel; plugging fuel filters and causing your engine to choke and sputter. The recipe differs by region: winter fuels contain a heavier dose of No. 1 diesel (kerosene) the further north you are. It’s also more expensive and its poor ignition quality takes the edge off the power your engine is capable of delivering and it has almost no lubricating properties.
But don’t let that stop you from using it. If you fill up down south and get caught in a cold snap up north, once that fuel starts to gel, it’s a losing battle. The only remedy is to warm the truck in the shop until the fuel can flow easily again, flush the fuel system, and fill the tanks with fuel suited to the weather.
It’s also a good idea to give your fuel system a thorough once-over as part of the winterizing process. The regimen includes draining the water sump on the fuel-water separator (ice can be as detrimental to a fuel filter as wax crystals); flushing dirt, water, bacteria, and fungus out of the tanks; and inspecting the fuel lines and fittings for wear.
Biodiesel If you’ve taken a shine to biodiesel, be aware that its cloud-point is higher than regular diesel. Even the biodiesel advocates don’t recommend anything stiffer than a B-20 blend in the winter, especially where it gets really cold. Other than the threat of freeze-up, biodiesel should pose no other difficulty during winter.
Batteries Most trucks come with three batteries, “but we put four in,” says Chatwell, just to be safe. He says Manitoulin Transport performs a load test on all the batteries during the winterization process, “and if there’s any bad ones we switch them out at that point.”
Cold will challenge even a strong battery. You don’t need bad connections to make the problem worse. It won’t hurt to clean all the battery terminals with emery paper or a wire brush, and then tighten the connectors to ensure good contact. After you tighten them down, cover the connectors with di-electric grease to keep moisture out. Do the same for all connectors, including lights, the trailer pigtail, and the starter and alternator connectors.
Cooling Systems Check all hoses: make sure they’re not cracked or kinked and the routing is good so there are no restrictions in the coolant line. “And open up all the coolant taps to make sure there’s no leaks and that they’re working all right,” says Kelly. Make sure the coolant is up to a good level so there are no freeze-ups at –45°C.
Cold temperatures amplify problems with belts and hoses, which may already feel the strain of the aggressive fans and pulleys on big diesels today. Look for signs of leaks, like bits of crystallized antifreeze on the radiator tank tubes, water pump, and other places where a hose attaches. Tight clamps, or maybe the wrong kind, can cut into the hose surface. And have your cooling system checked for the proper glycol mix.
Heaters Make sure all the speeds are working and ventilation is good. “One thing we see a lot of is dirty cabin filters,” says Kelly. Dry dusty air during the summer can clog filters up and if it’s plugged, your heater motor’s going to be working twice as hard and you still won’t get enough air to keep your windows defrosted. It’s a five-minute check but it goes a long way, says Kelly. Chatwell says his team checks block heaters and oil pan heaters with an ohmmeter to make sure they’re working; as well as checking all heater control cables, and slides for heater control.
Tires There’s not much to winter-proofing your tires except to make sure the pressure is correct. Regular pressure checks should take care of that, but bear in mind that tires at -20C will show less pressure than at 20ºC. After topping up the tire, bleed a little burst of air out of the valve to remove the moisture that may have collected in the valve stem. Some shop air compressors pump a lot of moisture, you don’t want that freezing inside the valve – you won’t be able to add more air ‘til it thaws.
An hour or two under the truck on a warm Autumn afternoon is better than lying in the snow with a flare trying to thaw a frozen brake valve, so make the best of the good weather – it’ll be rotten, again, soon enough.