Winter Construction Maintenance

15 Winter Maintenance Tips to Keep Your Construction Equipment Running

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Your construction equipment is built to endure some of the toughest work conditions. Whether you're excavating stubborn rock, lifting and transporting heavy beams, or fighting extreme weather, your equipment helps you get the job done. These worksite challenges intensify when you operate construction equipment during the winter.

No matter how hearty your equipment is, it requires additional measures to perform well in winter conditions. Just as you and your crew suit up to face freezing temperatures and hazardous weather, your equipment needs extra attention, precaution, and maintenance. To prepare your construction equipment for cold weather, consider these winter construction tips to help protect your machines and prevent breakdowns. 

1. Keep Engines Properly Lubricated

An important step for maintaining heavy equipment during the winter season is to keep your engines thoroughly lubricated. In normal operating conditions, motor oil works to reduce contact and friction between an engine's moving parts. When you're working on extremely warm or cold days, the temperature affects oil's protective abilities.

Engine temperatures significantly impact motor oil's viscosity — which is the measure of its resistance to flow. Depending on whether the engine is too hot or too cold, motor oil may become thinner or thicker. In both scenarios, the temperature shift affects the ability of motor oil to lubricate moving engine parts. If your equipment is running on oil that doesn't protect the engine parts, you may notice accelerated wear that could lead to necessary repairs.

During the winter, your oil may thicken and force your engine parts to work harder to move through it. To avoid adding strain to your engine during the winter, switch to an oil that can withstand lower temperatures without thickening. A 5W-40 synthetic oil works well in cold temperatures, as does a 10W-30 or 15W-40 multi-grade oil. When selecting a winter lubricant oil, be sure to follow your original equipment manufacturer (OEM) guidelines to ensure it will work with your equipment. 

2. Check for Proper Coolant Proportions

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Another way to prepare your fleet for winter is to make sure your coolant follows recommended winter guidelines. Coolant is often mixed with water when added to an engine, which can cause issues in freezing temperatures. If your equipment has too much water or your coolant degrades and boils off into water, you may face the following chain of events: 

  • Your coolant may turn to slush in the engine.
  • The slush may prevent a frozen radiator from defrosting.
  • Your radiator may not be able to cool water that has been heated in the engine
  • Your engine may overheat.
  • Your equipment may need maintenance, resulting in downtime.

To prevent coolant issues in the winter, ensure your equipment has a 60 to 40 coolant to water ratio. If your equipment came with an extended life coolant (ELC), check the freeze point with a refractometer before the winter. If you find your coolant needs topping off, be sure to use the same type. For protection, all winter long, perform regular freeze point checks to keep coolant balanced. 

3. Ensure Adequate Tire Tread

Tire tread is always important for construction equipment, but it plays a critical role in winterizing equipment. Your tires are the first line of defense to prevent dangerous accidents that may cause injuries and downtime. If your worksite is covered in snow, ice, or sleet, your equipment operators may have issues gaining the traction they need. 

There are two ways to address the issue:

  • Replace current tires: If you notice tire performance issues on your equipment during the summer or fall, they will likely become worse in the winter weather. Traction is essential for delivering the amount of force your equipment needs to dig, push, and transport materials. Consider replacing your tires before the winter to make sure your equipment is ready to deliver no matter the weather.
  • Purchase snow tires: If you know your worksite may be subject to extreme weather, it may be wise to purchase snow tires for your equipment. Snow tires can provide 51 percent more pull in snow and 28 percent more pull on ice. This extra traction may be crucial to your crew's safety, effectiveness, and productivity.

You know your equipment and worksites best. Use your judgment to determine whether your tires need an extra boost to keep them functioning during the winter. In the end, extra precaution could prevent costly accidents and repairs. 

4. Ensure Adequate Tire Pressure

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In addition to tire tread, adequate tire pressure is an important factor to keep construction equipment running in winter. Operating equipment on under-inflated tires may have several adverse effects, including:

  • Tires may wear out sooner than expected.
  • Equipment may not function as effectively.
  • Fuel efficiency may decrease and warrant higher fuel expenditures.
  • Tires may blow out and need replacements.

Cold winter temperatures add to this list of risks. For every 10-degree drop in temperature, tire pressure decreases by one pound per square inch (psi), possibly accelerating pressure loss during winter construction projects. 

To monitor tire pressure and keep your equipment operating smoothly, follow these tips:

  • Check tire pressure monthly: Use a tire gauge to get a pressure reading each month. To get an accurate reading, make sure the tires are cold and the equipment hasn't been driven in a few hours.
  • Watch for tire pressure warnings: Many newer equipment models feature tire pressure monitoring systems. If your equipment has this technology, pay attention to any warnings that indicate low pressure in between your monthly checks.
  • Inflate to recommended psi: When you need to inflate tires, check the manufacturer's guidelines to find the recommended psi. Adhering to the guidelines will help your tires function at maximum capacity. 

5. Prepare Your Diesel for Winter

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The type of fuel you use during the winter is vital for maintaining your heavy equipment in cold weather. Although solids in your diesel can cause problems in the engine during any season, cold winter weather provides the perfect conditions for fuel solids that may slow you down. Some issues connected with cold weather and fuel include:

  • Ice: If your diesel has water in it during the winter, it may freeze. Ice crystals act like particulates in your engine and can be abrasive, block filters or pipes, and prevent fuel flow altogether.
  • Gelling: Diesel is mostly made from hydrocarbons, which turn into a waxy substance when they reach their freezing point. The thick clumps cannot flow through the engine, creating problems.

To prevent ice and gel build-up in your fuel supply, you may need to switch your diesel fuel grade. Most Cat® construction equipment runs on No. 2-D diesel. While this type works efficiently in warmer temperatures, it does not resist gelling in colder temperatures. No. 1-D diesel has a high resistance to gelling, which may make it the best choice to keep your construction equipment running in the cold.

6. Follow Diesel Best Practices

In addition to switching your fuel grade, preserving your diesel can help maintain your heavy equipment this winter. For the best operating conditions, your goal should be to prevent water collection and ice crystal formation in your fuel. To understand the importance of this measure, it's helpful to understand how water can get into your fuel supply.

Diesel fuel has some water "in solution," which means it is dissolved into the fuel. Sometimes diesel may collect "free water," which remains separate from the fuel. Because of density differences, free water will sink to the bottom of a fuel tank. 

There are a couple of factors that might cause free water to collect in your fuel supply, including:

  • Temperature changes: When warm diesel is cooled rapidly, suspended water may settle from the fuel. This could present a problem in the winter when warm fuel is placed into a cool outdoor tank. The water could freeze and form ice crystals in your fuel, which will inhibit your equipment operation. 
  • Condensation: If condensation forms on the inside of your storage tank, it may turn into free water in your fuel. Fuel that has been stored for a long time may experience increased condensation. The more free water in your diesel, the greater the chance of ice crystal formation. 

Besides the threat of ice crystals, water in your diesel may cause injector wear, power loss, fuel system corrosion, and plugged filters. Take these steps to help avoid those risks:

  • Drain water from fuel when you detect free water.
  • Top off fuel each night to prevent condensation.
  • Allow fuel to acclimate in your storage tank before pumping it into your equipment.
  • Store fuel indoors during the winter to prevent extreme temperature shifts from day to night.

7. Address Winter Battery Concerns

As you prepare your construction equipment for the winter, it's essential that you check the battery. Batteries have relatively short lifespans and usually last between 48 and 72 months. Even well-functioning batteries experience strain during the winter, because of their makeup.

Batteries generate an electric current when a connection is made between positive and negative terminals. This current is supplied by a chemical reaction that generates electrons. When you try to start a battery in cooler temperatures, the chemical reaction happens more slowly and produces less current. When a cold battery becomes run down, it cannot create a strong enough current to operate normally.

A cold battery may prevent you from starting your equipment in the morning. Here are a few steps and tips to keep your batteries functioning at full capacity:

  • Replace old batteries before the winter begins.
  • Allow your battery to heat up to at least 40 degrees before using your equipment.
  • Never charge or jump-start a frozen battery, as doing so might cause the battery to explode.
  • Store equipment indoorsto keep it warmer and reduce the chance that your battery may freeze.

8. Grease Machinery for Winter Effectiveness

When you're operating construction equipment in cold weather, grease helps your machines run smoothly. Under normal operating conditions, grease helps prevent moving portions of your equipment from grinding together and causing damage. In frigid winter temperatures, grease may not perform as intended.

Like motor oil, grease needs to maintain its viscosity to effectively lubricate your equipment. That means in freezing temperatures, the wrong type of grease may act as a glue that inhibits your equipment components' movement. To ensure your equipment stays agile in the cold, consider a grease that uses a PAO-base oil.

PAO-base oils offer some of the following benefits:

  • Performance at negative four degrees and below.
  • High viscosity index.
  • Low friction coefficients.
  • Boundary fluid-films to reduce start-up wear.

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Make sure the grease you use on your construction equipment can face the extreme temperatures at your worksite. The right grease can help prevent winter wear and reduce maintenance costs for the season. 

9. Clean Undercarriage Regularly

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Another important construction equipment winter tip is to keep up with undercarriage cleaning. Debris of any kind can become a barrier to your equipment in any season. Mud, dust, and dirt can build up in tracks and wheels during the warmer months. In winter, excess snow, salt, and ice can get stuck in the undercarriage and affect your equipment's performance. 

In the winter, you want to prevent undercarriage debris from freezing. If it freezes, the debris may become abrasive and heavy, which can cause wear and decreased fuel economy. To avoid wear due to debris build-up, use shovels and pressure washers to clear out the undercarriage after workdays in messy conditions. The cleaner your equipment is at the beginning of each day, the better it can face harsh winter weather. 

10. Change Air Filter Before Winter

Though dust isn't a huge concern in the winter, a great way to prepare construction equipment for the winter months is to replace your air filters. This is especially important if your crew worked in extremely dry conditions over the summer. 

Air filters prevent dust from damaging your equipment's engines. The compound silica, which is found in dust, becomes abrasive within an engine, which is why air filters are so important. Many filters have a visual indicator to show when they need to be replaced, and newer equipment may have a sensor that activates an in-cab warning. 

Even if you don't receive a replacement warning at the end of your summer work session, it may be best to remove well-used air filters and replace them for the winter. That way, you'll be ready to go when things get dusty again.

11. Give Equipment Warm-Up Time

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An essential tip for running construction equipment in the cold is to give your equipment time to warm up. Most engine components function best at temperatures above 40 degrees. Using your equipment before it reaches these temperatures may increase the possibility that it doesn't work as expected. 

One way to accelerate this process is to use a diesel engine block heater. These provide several benefits, including:

  • Decreased warm-up time. 
  • Increased engine power and economy.
  • Increased effectiveness for a cab heater.
  • Better temperatures for engine lubrication. 

You may also decrease warm-up time by storing your equipment indoors. However you address cold equipment, it's important that you give it adequate time to warm up. Weeks of consistent cold-starting can cause wear and damage to your equipment that may cause downtime in the winter and decreased effectiveness by spring.

12. Protect Air Compressors 

If your crew uses air compressors in the winter months, they may notice some of the same issues that engines experience in the cold. Specifically, thick lubricant oil and water in the air transmission line can wreak havoc on your air compressors. 

To protect your air compressors in the winter be sure to:

  • Replace cracked or worn hoses and belts.
  • Utilize a winter grade oil.
  • Dump excess water from the tank.
  • Store your compressor indoors.
  • Inspect hoses and belts before starting up.
  • Allow the compressor to heat up to 40 degrees before use.

If you have an air compressor that doesn't get used much throughout the winter, it is wise to start it up and allow it to reach at least 40 degrees at least once a month. 

13. Check Fluid Hoses for Cracks

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Extremely cold temperatures put extra strain on fluid hoses and make it easier for them to crack, due to the hose material's composition.

The cover and inner tube of a rubber hose are made up of elastomers. At low temperatures, these elastomers become stiff and brittle. If these elastomers become cold enough, they reach their glass transition temperature. A hose that has reached its glass transition temperature may shatter like glass under great force.

Even without significant force, a cold hose may develop radial cracks on the outside cover and inner tube. To prevent damage and slowdowns from fluid hoses, take these precautions in the winter:

  • Change cracked hoses before the winter begins. Frozen fluids may expand and put extra pressure on weak hoses. 
  • Regularly inspect fluid hoses to catch cracks quickly. Make sure your operators keep close tabs on your equipment hoses to track their status and prevent potential breaks.
  • Switch to winter hoses designed to withstand extreme temperatures. If you're working in extreme cold, make sure the hoses you're using are rated for cold-weather operation.

14. Store Construction Equipment Inside

One way to cut down on the amount of winter strain your equipment experiences is to store it indoors overnight. This is an especially effective method when your storage area is equipped with heaters. 

Some of the benefits of leaving equipment indoors overnight include:

  • Less time spent defrosting ice and clearing snow off of equipment.
  • Prevention of rubber tires from freezing to the ground.
  • Fewer hours spent getting fluids and engine up to temperature.

Not every job will afford the opportunity to store equipment indoors overnight. If this is the case, aim to park equipment on raised planks, tires, or another raised surface. Raise any attachments off the ground as well. This will help prevent your tires from freezing to the ground and save you time on start-up. 

15. Perform Daily Inspections

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Winter weather presents an increased amount of hazards to your equipment's performance. Daily inspections can be a crucial way to track your equipment's condition and catch any wear before it leads to serious and expensive issues. 

If you already have a daily inspection checklist, be sure to pay special attention to areas we've discussed, including:

  • Oil and grease lubrication.
  • Coolant and fuel water.
  • Tire tread and air pressure.
  • Fuel grade and tank level.
  • Battery function.
  • Undercarriage cleanliness.
  • Air compressor protection.
  • Fluid hoses.

In addition to those elements, ensure your equipment's wipers, lights, brakes, heaters, and defrosters are functioning well. These components are especially important for safety and comfort during winter construction.

Choose Thompson Tractor for Your Winter Preventative Maintenance Needs

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Winter may be tough, but it shouldn't stop you. With the right kind of maintenance, you can do construction in the winter and serve your customers all year long. At Thompson Tractor, we offer a Preventative Maintenance Program to protect your Cat equipment during winter and beyond.

Thompson Tractor is equipped for anything you need. As an industry leader, we have the technology and expertise to take care of your equipment. As a local business, we care about our customers and have been building relationships for 60 years. For trustworthy and quality service, contact Thompson Tractor today about our Preventative Maintenance services.