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Avoid Winter Mishaps by Being Proactive

By Marek Krasuski

Last month’s edition of Ontario, Western and Eastern Trucking News honed in on a seasonally appropriate topic – winter running. But given our march toward the inevitable – likely sooner than later – the subject bears reinforcement and elaboration. There is much to prepare for, especially for Canadian drivers, most of whom face harsh and unpredictable winters that range from extreme cold to icy, snowy, and slushy conditions.
In addition to diesel supplements, lower viscosity oils, heating, gelling and corrosion issues discussed last month, drivers need to take additional measures to be adequately prepared. Checking air systems is a good place to start to eliminate contaminants. Air in cold weather that enters compressors brings with it cold, moisture and dirt which require cleaning to avoid blockages from impure air circulation.
For air brake systems there are air dryers that remove moisture before it enters the braking infrastructure and causes brakes to freeze. A high functioning air dryer, assured by regular maintenance, maximizes the ability to prevent moisture seepage and keep brakes running smoothly.
Further, consider the buildup of deposits over time. Diesel fuel is less refined than gasoline which renders diesel engines more susceptible to contaminants. This can reduce fuel economy which undermines the very reason for a diesel purchase in the first place – fuel efficiency. Regular cleaning of the combustion chamber, therefore, is important for smooth running. Complementary maintenance tasks include cleaning fuel filters, particularly in winter when the risk of gelling causes the formation of paraffin crystals to accumulate in filters. Also be sure to check glow plugs which, if defective, can result in failure to start the engine in cold weather.
As cold weather starts to become the norm it’s important that batteries are in top form. To do so it’s recommended to load test batteries, check charging systems, and clean electrical connections. Cold temperatures reduce a battery’s capability to charge, leaving the battery at a lower charge level which can reduce the life cycle of the battery. A battery tester will accurately measure the level of discharge. Battery life typically ranges from 4 to 6 years, so it might be time for a replacement if your battery is nearing its end. Batteries connected to Auxiliary Power Units (APUs) present further challenges as they are discharged at a lower rate. This can cause them to be damaged from freezing and/or not getting a full charge.
With the toll that cold weather starts take on batteries many drivers would just as soon prefer to leave engines running all night to avoid risk of a non-start when ready to roll the next day. Of course this weighs on fleet managers who try to contain costs and guard against excessive engine wear from prolonged idling. (More about that later.)
But not all is lost. There are engine restart systems that will start an engine during deep freeze conditions. The engine restart engages when the engine block dips to a certain temperature or when battery voltage plummets. But it’s a partial solution. It still consumes fuel to start the engine and for the length of idling time. The engine still is subject to additional wear and tear while the truck is running, and when the engine starts in the middle of the night the driver’s sleep will likely be interrupted.
In recent years a preferred choice of energy storage technology in trucks is the Ultracapacitor. This is complementary to battery powered solutions and greatly assists in reducing cold weather battery failures. Ultracapacitors are energy storage devices that allow drivers to repeatedly turn off and on trucks during cold weather nights and to start reliably. In contrast to batteries, ultracapacitors have higher power density. Batteries require more maintenance and replacement and are capable of performing thousands of charge/discharge cycles; ultracapacitors are more resistant to extreme temperature conditions and perform far more charge/discharge cycles – hundreds of thousands in fact!
Ultracapacitors essentially take over the starting function from the batteries which, on their own, cannot deliver the same high cranking current at cold temperatures as ultrcapacitors. Batteries, without the strain of cold weather start-ups, are free to power loads and electronics while being recharged once the ultracapacitor engine start module starts the engine. The secret to the advantage of ultracapacitors over batteries is in the way they store energy. Batteries store energy by way of a chemical reaction; ultracapacitors store energy via an electric field. This enables them to deliver higher amounts of power for a short time. Fleets and operators can look forward to larger ROI over the lifetime of a unit, especially since in recent years their price has fallen faster than batteries, and their shelf life is longer.
Fuel gelling is a topic that bears repeating. Fuel, particularly diesel in cold weather, gels and turns slushy due to the buildup of paraffin, a hydrocarbon in diesel that solidifies in low temperature. Anti-gel products effectively un-gel fuel in lines and in filters.
Diesel engines like it hot, so coolant heaters need to warm engine blocks in cold conditions. Coolants keep the engine warm and protect against the strain of cold starts, while saving on fuel that would otherwise be consumed to heat up the engine.
Remember that diesel engines without coolant heaters require 30 to 60 minutes of idle time to warm up. Coolant heaters eliminate unnecessary idling as they allow the engine to warm prior to starting, thereby significantly reducing engine wear and tear. (A pre-season all points coolant check should include inspecting the radiator, belts and hoses for wear and tear and possible breakdowns. As well, coolant should be at an optimal freeze point.)
Given current fuel prices, anti-idling coolant heat solutions reportedly yield a return on investment in 12 weeks for the average over-the-road truck. Moreover, excessive idling has significant repercussions for air quality. A Report from the University of California, Davis campus, entitled Heavy Duty Truck Idling Characteristics, found the average idling duration was 6 hours per day per truck in the US – signalling considerable impact on emissions and fuel consumption which averages about 1,600 gallons per year per truck for idling alone. The Report also found that drivers routinely set idle speeds higher than assumed by regulatory agencies in order to support higher accessory loads, thereby significantly underestimating actual levels of emissions.
About Condensation: With winter comes excessive moisture which can collect on the inside of fuel tanks and affect diesel engine performance. Moisture collects on the inside of fuel tanks as they cool once the truck is turned off. One way to minimize fuel tank moisture is to fill the tank at the end of the day. This leaves little room for moisture collection. Moisture contamination in tanks and in fuel systems will vary depending on region and levels of humidity. And while moisture will never be completely absent, there are water separators which collect and divert moisture away from fuel. Daily drainage of collected water from the separator is advised.
Engine exposure to cold weather conditions threatens the viscosity of lubricants which start to thicken as temperatures drop. This can lead to equipment seizure. Brian Humphrey, Technical Liaison for Petro-Canada, explained that a lower viscosity lubricant is better able to move around machinery at a quicker pace, thereby keeping components cool and running optimally. “A colder climate necessitates the need for a lower viscosity engine oil to ensure proper and adequate flow of oil to protect key critical engine components. In addition, the entire vehicle powertrain and hydraulic system can experience improved operating efficiency by utilizing the lowest viscosity grades allowed by the component Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) ambient temperature requirements,” he said.
There are many information streams including advice from experts like Brian Humphrey, manufacturer suggestions for optimal running, dealership recommendations and websites. Taking the time to access multiple sources is well worth the investment in keeping a truck running, and running well through the coming winter months.

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