Protect your tools and construction equipment in cold weather

Just under a year ago, residents of one of the country’s hottest states woke up to find there was a power outage, burst pipes and icy havoc everywhere. The massive frost that hit Texas on February 13, 2021 and lasted almost a week, claimed more lives than the Alamo and racked up billions of dollars in damage.

That should be enough warning to take winter seriously. Whether it’s your tools or your equipment, you need to understand the worst that could happen and prepare for it. Here is a checklist of the dangers and what you can do to prevent them.

Rule # 1

No set of rules could cover all eventualities for different brands and types of equipment, mobile, stationary, pneumatic, tracked, low and high power, diesel, gasoline, hybrid or fully electric. Rule # 1, therefore, is to check with the equipment dealer or original equipment manufacturer or consult the manual first.

Also, don’t do that sloppy or just every time you get close to it. Use our list here as a starting point, but then study your equipment and needs, come up with a plan of action and execute it, before it’s too late.

Power tools

Rechargeable batteries used to run saws, drills, flashlights and even some demolition tools should never be left out in cold weather. Below 40 degrees, lithium-ion batteries do not hold a charge and leaving them in freezing temperatures can permanently shorten runtime. Don’t store them in an unheated store or in your truck’s toolbox when freezing weather threatens.

If you are building a charging station to hold these tools, batteries, and chargers, make it portable so you can bring it indoors if needed, and always keep batteries and tools within the temperature range recommended by the manufacturer.

Pneumatic tools

Air-driven power tools like DA sanders, nail guns rely on gaskets, o-rings, and lubrication to function properly. When cold temperatures make these materials brittle or gel the lubrication, they do not fire properly and can be permanently damaged. Always store them indoors at recommended temperatures.

If using them outdoors in freezing weather, follow the manufacturer’s directions. If necessary, you can rotate the tools from the outside to the inside throughout the day to keep them working properly. Also consider using a cold weather air tool lubricant / oil.

Compressors

Air compressors will accumulate moisture during repeated exposure to rising and falling temperatures. Be sure to drain the compressor at the end of each day. Use air hoses that remain flexible in cold weather and consider using an in-line antifreeze such as the Kilfrost air tool and antifreeze lubricant to prevent blockages.

Store heat

Stores without a dedicated HVAC system will sometimes use gas or propane forced air heaters to warm the working environment. Be sure to follow all of the manufacturer’s instructions on ventilation when using them. And note that these sometimes create a thin film on many surfaces. You will not be able to see this film and it will not affect most operations, but it can prevent spray paint from adhering to surfaces if you want to paint anything that has been stored in the store. Additional degreasing on metal surfaces should alleviate the problem.

Electric heaters are sometimes used for small spaces, just be aware that they will dramatically increase your electric bill.

Gasoline Engines

There is considerable debate among construction and landscaping professionals about how to store gasoline tools for the winter. One camp says to completely empty the tank, shoot a small squirt of lubricating oil through the spark plug hole, and pull the starter rope several times to coat the inside of the engine with oil. Others say to fill the tank with gasoline treated with an additive.

Our tip: do what the owner’s manual says to do. If you don’t have the manual, most manufacturers publish them online.

Lights Equipment

As the shortened winter days approach, operators and foremen are tempted to keep working until dusk. Before that happens, check all the lights on your machines to make sure they are in good working order.

Consider Adding Auxiliary Light Kits: Today’s new LED lights can provide incredible illumination while conserving battery power. And place a towel inside each machine so that operators can clean the windshield of any condensation that occurs.

Diesel engines

Long ago, contractors would start their diesel engines early and do something else for five or ten minutes to let the engine warm up before starting or starting work. And in cold weather, they also let their diesels run lest they restart. This is no longer the case.

Today’s diesel engines only need about a minute to warm up and they have enough battery power to restart even in the coldest weather. Idling a diesel engine for long periods of time can actually cause carbon to build up in the engine, as the exhaust gas aftertreatment process does not get hot enough to burn it. Go ahead and start working within 60 seconds of booting. Your engine and its DPF and / or DOC systems will thank you. In extremely cold weather (states bordering Canada), you may need a cold weather starter kit that your OEM dealer can provide.

New machines and trucks typically run on low viscosity lubricating oils to improve fuel efficiency. The new 5W-40 and 0W-40 synthetics will perform well down to -20 degrees Fahrenheit. But if you are using thicker oils in your old equipment, check with the OEM before switching to low viscosity.

Keep it clean

While you still have above freezing temperatures, pressure wash your equipment, paying special attention to the tracks and undercarriages. If there is any ice or frozen mud on these, it will jam the entire undercarriage and you will not be able to move the machine until it thaws. And even if you move it, you could damage the pins, bushings, and rollers unless all of the frozen gunk is removed first.

Dirt and frozen grime will also mask seals and leaking components which, if left unattended, could create maintenance issues down the line. Salt and other road de-icing chemicals can also cause rust and corrosion if left on the machine for a long time.

Move it

Even if you’re parking your machines for the winter, it’s a good idea to start them periodically, move the gamepads, and walk a short distance. This keeps seals and fittings coated with lubrication and prevents ice build-up that could compromise operation when you need the machine.

Pushing fluid through the hydraulic system will keep valves and seals lubricated and in good condition. Also lubricate door hinges and other metal-to-metal parts to keep them swinging freely, keep moisture away and prevent rusting.

Tires and hoses

Repeated cycles of cold and thaw can create temporary small air leaks between the rim and sidewalls of your truck and equipment tires. In a matter of days, this can lead to a loss of 20 to 40% of the air pressure in your tires. Be sure to check your tires after the first cold snap and adjust the psi if necessary. Cold weather can also make tires brittle and more susceptible to damage, so walk lightly while running.

Rubber hoses are also prone to brittleness and cracking or loosening of their fittings in cold weather. Be sure to inspect them carefully before use.

DEF maintenance

Diesel exhaust fluid is primarily water and can freeze at 12 degrees Fahrenheit. Today’s Tier 4 and Tier 4 Final engines either have DEF system preheaters or will allow you to run them for a few minutes until the DEF in the lines and tank thaws. But keep an eye on it. If it does not thaw, the engine could degrade. If any problems occur, call your dealer for service.

If you intend to store your machine in freezing weather, drain the DEF tank. When restarting in hot weather, flush the DEF system with distilled water. And be sure to keep your DEF bulk storage somewhere it won’t freeze. Otherwise, you will not be able to do without it.

Fuel

Number 2 diesel performs well in the warmer months and is cheaper, but the hydrocarbons in diesel fuel can start to gel when it drops below 40 degrees. Number 1 diesel (which you can buy at truck stops or specify from your fuel supplier) has a lower viscosity and is less likely to gel.

At the end of the day, in cold weather, it is wise to refuel to avoid condensation and water. Use cold weather fuel additives if necessary, but always be sure to check with the manufacturer or dealer which additives to use. There’s a lot of snake oil there. An engine block heater can alleviate some of these gel problems by keeping the engine, fuel lines, and injectors at a more favorable temperature when the machine is not running.

Lubricants, greases and fluids

Prolonged cold temperatures can adversely affect engine oil, grease, and hydraulic fluid, making them less viscous and more difficult to pump. Check with your OEM dealer for best practices in your area and change these fluids before problems arise.

If your regular grease gets too cold, it can block the lines and make it impossible to get low viscosity / low temperature grease into the lines. Conversely, when temperatures start to rise, return to your normal fluid regime to prevent low viscosity fluids from damaging your equipment.

Hydraulic cylinders

If you’re planning to put a machine away for the winter, spray a protective coat over the chrome to protect it from rusting. Even slight surface rust creates enough pitting to cause the cylinder seals to leak when you restart.

Battery maintenance

Heavy equipment and truck batteries don’t like the cold. Check the terminals and connections to make sure they are tight and free from corrosion. Coat the battery clamps with dielectric grease to prevent mineral deposits or corrosion.

Left outside, batteries can freeze and take up to 30 hours to thaw. If this presents a risk, use a battery cover to keep your battery above 32 degrees. Have your battery and alternator tested before the onset of the cold season to make sure both can perform to specification.

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