Maintaining Equipment in Cold Weather Can Boost Year-Round Productivity

Rental Service Corporation


If you're like most people, you've experienced those dark, chilly winter mornings when your body just does not want to get going. Everything seems to move more slowly and require more effort.

In cold weather, the same can be said about machines and the liquids in their systems, such as oil and antifreeze. It's especially true with hydraulic fluids. Hydraulic equipment is affected by low temperatures because the fluid turns thicker and then the pumping mechanisms have to work harder to push it though the lines. That slows down the equipment and puts a lot of extra strain on it, which increases the unit's chances of giving out.

"Everyone involved in construction work in Northern climates knows there's always going to be cold weather to deal with, but there is still work to be done and schedules to maintain," says Orrin Knapp, Fleet Manager for RSC Equipment Rental in Alberta, Canada. "On the other hand, as long as proper precautions are taken, equipment can still be utilized in cold conditions."

A Range of Options
There are many ways to help maintain equipment's productivity in cold weather. On some job sites, an obvious solution is to bring pieces of equipment indoors if possible, or to plug them into electric heaters. There are also various types of portable heaters that can be mounted onto the side of an engine to protect it from freezing, and heated blankets or jackets can be wrapped around equipment to warm it and keep oil flowing. Another critical concern is to make sure the antifreeze in every radiator is maintained at proper levels and temperature ratings to minimize the risk of freezing up.

In some instances, contractors will even wrap unfinished buildings in plastic sheeting and warm the interiors with portable gas heaters and blowers. That makes it safer and more comfortable for workers on the site ­ frostbite is always a threat ­ but it also improves the way equipment functions when it is cold.

Rental companies such as RSC, that specialize in providing equipment solutions for particular or unusual project needs, have a vested interest in keeping those machines running well on a customer's job site.

"At RSC, one of the services we provide for our larger jobs is to go on a courtesy trip with our mechanic in the morning, to make sure our customers' equipment in the field is starting and running the way it should," explains Larry Reeves, RSC's district manager in Kansas City, Mo.

"That just makes sense for everybody, because if there is a problem with that machine when it is cold starting out, the equipment will not be doing its job, and we would be running around on maintenance calls all day."

One serious, but common, danger with cold equipment is when a cold engine will not turn over and somebody will try to start it with ether.

"That process can really tear up your equipment," Mr. Reeves adds.

Working With Frozen Ground
Even when equipment is running perfectly well, cold weather may cause other problems for machinery. Trying to excavate frozen ground can tear up buckets and blades, and it gets even worse if icy surfaces make the equipment lose traction.

Thawing frozen ground with insulated tarps, special heaters or warm-air blowers can be a smart investment in productivity. That is especially applicable for situations where the rest of a project is held up as a result of the freezing ­ like plumbing installations in a building's foundation.

Supplemental heat is essential when pouring concrete in freezing temperatures, and fortunately there are many options available. Large ground heaters or radiators can be used to thaw out surfaces where the concrete is to be poured, and then it helps to cover excavated soil with straw to retain more of that added heat before pouring.

After the concrete is poured, cover it with special insulated blankets to protect it from freezing. Be sure all edges and corners are covered well, as they may be most vulnerable to cold air and wind. Also remember that concrete setting times are slower in cold weather.

To further ensure successful concrete work in low temperatures, it helps to order the mix with less water than usual, because the more water that is in the concrete, the greater the risk of problems with freezing.

"Road crews cannot do their job when the ground is frozen," adds Mr. Reeves, "but other than that, if you make the right arrangements you can do whatever you need to do."

Additional Considerations
When attempting to heat up a piece of equipment, always follow the manufacturers' recommended procedures and use only the correct tools for the job. Keep in mind that tools, belts, hoses and other parts get more brittle when they are frozen, so be careful when working with them.

Another aspect to consider is the effect of extremely cold metal on bare skin: you will want to keep your gloves on until the equipment has warmed up somewhat.

When assessing your equipment needs for cold-weather projects, think about light towers or other portable light sources as well. If the site has some heat, and your crews and equipment are adequately dealing with the conditions, you do not want to have to stop working just because it gets dark early. Additional light in the winter is also an important safety factor.

"Even though there is usually a drastic slowdown from December to April, a lot of contractors cannot afford to shut down during winter," says Mr. Reeves. "It's good to know that there are cost-effective ways to deal with the cold and support your productivity when you need to."

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