Construction Fleet Maintenance Tips for Winter Operation and Storage

Winterize heavy equipment to keep it functioning through winter or ready for spring.

Most workers don’t love toiling outside in frigid weather, but if they dress appropriately they can get through a cold winter. Likewise, construction fleet maintenance practices that prepare equipment for winter weather can keep it working reliably all winter long or ensure that it’s ready for spring construction work after storage.

How to winterize construction equipment for cold weather operation

If you plan to use the equipment throughout the winter, take steps to help ensure the machine will start when you turn it on and won’t break down due to frigid temperatures.

Neglecting to winterize heavy equipment decreases its performance and puts additional stress on parts. Although the machinery may seem to work fine, breakdowns — accompanied by large repair bills — could crop up without notice.

Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for winter fleet maintenance

The owner’s manual is your best source of information on how to prepare equipment for winter. When considering lubricants, for example, follow the guidelines for the type and viscosity of engine, transmission and hydraulic oils. Some manufacturers list recommended cold-weather fluids for the engine crankcase, engine coolant and transmission. You may need to use low-viscosity grease on pivot points.

Warm the engine and the oil

Find out if the manufacturer recommends letting the engine warm up on idle before operating the machine to prevent intake and exhaust valves from sticking. Warmed oils circulating through the systems help parts function normally. Warming the hydraulic oil helps prevent hoses from cracking.

If you’re operating in an extremely cold climate, use an engine heater and/or oil heater. Check to see what the manufacturer recommends if the equipment doesn’t already have one.

Switch to a winter diesel fuel blend

In winter, fuel suppliers often switch from No. 2 (2D) diesel fuel to 1D. 2D provides greater heat value per gallon and has more paraffin wax for better efficiency. At low temperatures, though, the wax can gel and cause problems with fuel filters, lines and tanks. 1D consists of higher distillates (smaller molecules) and has better starting power for winter, but it’s less fuel efficient. To increase fuel efficiency while preventing gelling, fuel suppliers typically blend 1D and 2D for customers in colder regions.

Use fuel additives

Good winterization practices for diesel engines include using an anti-gelling fuel additive to prevent crystallized wax from clogging the fuel system. Some anti-gelling additives also boost fuel combustion, break down and remove engine sludge and clean the fuel system.

Consider a fuel line heater for diesel fuel

Fuel line heaters eliminate fuel gelling. They may allow you to use less additive.

Refill the fuel tank at the end of each day

Keeping the fuel tank full reduces the risk of condensation. Water in the fuel line can prevent the engine from starting.

Store your fuel, and DEF, indoors if possible.

Ensure proper tire inflation

Cold weather causes tires to lose air, so check tire pressure daily to ensure they’re inflated to optimal pressure. Under-inflation can cause uneven wear and increase the likelihood of a blowout.

Inflate tires in a heated area. Some manufacturers suggest inflating tires with dry nitrogen gas. The gas eliminates ice crystals and protects against deflation.

Clean and inspect the battery

When temperatures drop to freezing, a battery’s fully charged cranking capacity decreases by 35% and the engine starting requirements increase. Sub-freezing temperatures magnify these effects.

Rather than taking a chance on climbing into a cold cab and finding that the engine won’t start because of a battery problem, clean any dirt or corrosion from the battery with battery cleaner and a wire brush. Spray a battery terminal protectant on the terminals to help keep corrosion away.

Check the battery cables for cracks or breaks and clean any corrosion or dirt from the cable connectors. Any defect in the charging system or loose connections will cause a battery to discharge. For maintenance-free batteries, use a load tester to check the charge.

Inspect the hydraulic system

Hydraulic systems require regular inspection and maintenance. Cold weather conditions can crack hoses and harden seals. Look for leaks and signs of damage. Use caution when working with pressured hydraulic systems.

The manufacturer might recommend changing the hydraulic oil filter before the onset of cold weather to keep water and debris from entering the system. It might also recommend checking hydraulic tank breathers, the tank suction filter, the hydraulic oil cooler and the final drive. Operating manuals list the operating temperature, fluid levels and fluid grades for the hydraulic system.

Inspect the engine coolant system

Winterization includes checking for radiator leaks, cracked belts and ruptured hoses. Use a belt tension gauge to check belts for proper belt tension.

Check the coolant to make sure it remains at the right level, pressure and strength. Cold climates require a higher ratio of coolant to water to prevent freezing. Consult the operating manual for the correct ratio.

Protect the equipment from the elements when possible

Throw a tarp over it or park it in a shed overnight to protect it from wind and snow. If you won’t be using it for a couple of weeks, park it in an enclosed space.

How to store equipment for the winter

How do you store equipment for the winter if you don’t plan to use it again until spring? Start by moving it indoors if possible. Warmer indoor temperatures will protect sensitive electronic systems from freezing and thawing.

Beyond getting the machine out of the elements and the colder, drier outdoor air, you’ll want to prepare it for storage before you park it and forget about it. Check the owner’s manual for specific how-to recommendations, since every machine is different. In general, it’s smart to:

  • Grease the grease points (use low-viscosity grease unless you’re storing the machine in a warm, indoor environment)
  • Top off the oil, hydraulic fluids and DEF (leave room for expansion)
  • Either fill the fuel tank all the way or drain it
  • Fill the windshield washer reservoir with low-temperature washer fluid
  • Disconnect the battery or use a trickle charger
  • Remove any attachments
  • Raise the chassis
  • Give the equipment a good cleaning

With the proper fleet maintenance, your construction equipment can continue working, and earning money for you, right through winter. If you store it correctly, it will hit the ground rolling when busy season starts. Either way, winterizing construction equipment is a must.

Want help with equipment maintenance and service? Contact the United Rentals Customer Equipment Solutions team.

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