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Prepare Your Medium Duty Vehicles for What Lies Ahead

By Marek Krasuski

At the time of writing this article in mid-August with temperature and humidex running into the mid-30s it seems unrealistic to be focusing on winter preparation for medium duty trucks, the theme for this month’s edition. But experience proves time and again that the seasons pass quicker than most of us can keep pace with. So as the sun dips below the horizon line noticeably sooner than it did a month ago, and the chill of the night air gets us reaching for jackets, turning to thoughts of winter preparation is a topic well suited for discussion – before the snow flies. Commercial trucks, especially, can ill afford to ignore the warning signs. Preparing for winter running is a priority for safety, on-time deliveries, and the avoidance of CVOR penalties for equipment ill-suited for winter running.
Though winter preparation is a necessity for all vehicles, particularly commercial ones, some practices apply more readily to medium duty vehicles – typically Class 2-4 builds ranging from 6,001 lbs GVWR up to 16,000 lbs GVWR. Think box truck and city delivery trucks to get the general idea of size and application.
A major threat to vehicle longevity is rust. Vehicles are prone to rust in winter with the application of road salt on highways. According to reports, corrosion costs about $50 Billion a year and, despite rust inhibiting agents on the market, it is actually worst today due to new ice-melting products applied to North American road surfaces. Rock salt, also known as sodium chloride, traditionally did a good job of melting snow and ice, but several years ago transport authorities in Canadian provinces and snow-prone American states realized that instead of salt, magnesium chloride and calcium chloride, if applied in liquid form, would accelerate the de-icing process on roadways. They could also be applied before the onset of snow and ice which eliminated the need to put road crews on call where trucks idled, fuel was wasted, and maintenance costs climbed. Added to these pre-wetting agents has been the use of such materials as beet juice, a sticky substance that prevents the liquefied compounds from draining off road surfaces. These products do a better job melting snow and are cheaper for cash-conscious municipalities and governments to use, but they are far more corrosive and cause significant damage to car and truck components. As vehicles pass over these pre-wetting agents on road surfaces they are pulled up into undercarriages, thus exposing metal surfaces to greater amounts of moisture, the primary cause of corrosion.
To be sure, there are effective corrosion retardants on the market, but bear in mind that more is not always better. Experts caution against the perception that a thick and heavy wax or tar coating is the best method of protection. If moisture, which is the principal cause of corrosion, is trapped by an impenetrable coating, the result is condensation without evaporation. Water is locked between metal surfaces and a thick undercoating, an unfortunate condition that accelerates the rusting process. Instead, the better option is to opt for a lighter product capable of penetrating and protecting metal surfaces most susceptible to corrosion. Corrosion industry experts agree on at least one crucial point: The key to any rust inhibiting material is its ability to separate moisture from metal.
For medium duty trucks the use of non metallic box liners can reduce the volume of metal subject to corrosion on a vehicle. Box liners made from alternative materials can also be adapted to dump truck applications. Of interest to everyone looking to minimize rust, heed the advice of experts: Be wary of purchasing vehicles with aluminum/steel combinations in which the weaker metal is more vulnerable to corrosion. This may be easier said than done. Some stakeholders are convinced that new builds manufactured from the metal of older, scrapped vehicles contain corrosive properties that remain throughout the recycling process and carry over into new builds.
A major problem with corrosion is that it affects the steel rails underneath the vehicle. It reaches into transmission casings, motors, and is especially hazardous to wiring harnesses, one of the biggest problem areas for operators, fleets, and maintenance personnel.
Preparing for the winter running of medium duty trucks includes routine measures that can apply to all vehicles in a fleet, but some are more relevant to medium-duty applications. For example, medium duty trucks are normally equipped with block heaters to keep the engine oil warm by heating the engine coolant. This heats the engine block so cold weather starting is made easier. Newer medium duty builds, however, may be equipped with oil-pan heaters which heat the engine and oil directly. The result is a smaller and more efficient alternative to conventional block heaters. In either case heaters, regardless of type, require checking and maintenance.
Of note are the additional costs associated with engines lacking heaters. Trucks running in cold climates without the benefit of coolant heaters, for example, will see an escalated deterioration of the vehicle. Further, most diesel engines without the benefit of heaters require 30 to 60 minutes of idle time to warm up. When used, coolant heaters eliminate unnecessary idling as they allow the engine to warm prior to starting, thereby significantly reducing engine wear and tear. And given today’s fuel prices anti-idling coolant heat solutions reportedly yield a return on investment in 12 weeks for the average over-the-road truck.
Winter preparation would not be complete without addressing the viscosity of lubricants and their changing patterns under cold conditions. Viscosity refers to the malleability of oils. If temperatures dive, lubricants thicken and become pasty, causing engines to work harder and heighten the risk of equipment seizure. The lower the viscosity the more fluid the lubricant, and the greater the ability to do its job by penetrating key engine components. This leads to enhanced operability of the entire powertrain and hydraulic systems. Low viscosity testing confirms fuel savings ranging from. 5% to 1.5%.
For medium duty trucks it’s advisable to check diesel exhaust fluids (DEF), particularly in northern climes where temperatures plummet. Diesel Exhaust Fluid will freeze at about – 11C, but will thaw in about 45 minutes under normal running operations. Regular checks of DEF system leaks should be integral to the winterization process.
If there is one area of operations that demands full attention in preparation for winter driving, it’s tires. At the very least tread thickness should be 5/32-inches for winter driving, and tires should be properly inflated. According to Pressure Systems International (P.S.I.) delivery vehicles running in cities should be equipped with tires that are resistant to the chipping and chunking of tread. Tread design should also prevent stone holding so as to maximize the number of retreads in the tire’s life cycle. For trucks principally dedicated to city driving, zigzagged grooves are recommended for better traction.
Finally, a word about general common sense procedures that bear repeating in the interest of safety and profitability. Check belts and hoses and replace when necessary, keep windows clean and free from snow and ice, replace wipers when needed, ensure exhaust systems are free from leaks, and clean battery connections as batteries are more likely to fail in winter due to harsher starting loads.
Despite the sweltering days look to September as the optimal time to prepare your rig for the months ahead. Sooner or later, and maybe sooner, the snow will fly.

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