Staying One Step Ahead of Winter

Sunday, October 31, 1999 in Municipal Solid Waste Management

By Mark Saunders

Although the weather outside might not be frightful yet, if you live and work in an area that gets a good dose of winter every year, you can bet your paycheck that old Jack Frost is lurking just around the corner-waiting to catch you unprepared. With the approach of freezing temperatures, snow, sleet, and ice, now is the time to make sure every vehicle in your fleet is winterized and ready to go.

On paper, winterizing a fleet of trash-hauling trucks is little more than devising a comprehensive system of preventative maintenance and sticking to it. It’s the practice of “sticking to it” that can save refuse and recycling haulers millions of dollars in tires, parts, downtime, and repairs. Says John Perugia, Browning-Ferris Industries’ (BFI) area maintenance manager for the northeastern United States and Canada, “Winterization is unbelievably important in this part of the country. The effort you put into a good winterizing program really pays off. If you don’t have a good program in place, you’re going to be flooded with road calls on the first really cold day.”

A bottom-line approach to winterization suggests that, as with any preventative maintenance program, it’s a good idea to follow the money. In other words, focus your efforts on the areas that are most likely to adversely affect your assets, customer service, and safety. “Your savings from preventative maintenance come from what you can control,” points out Rick Fitzpatrick, field tire manager for Waste Management Inc. And the best way to reduce problems is to stop them before they start.

Gentlemen, Start Your Engines

Although cold, ice, and snow affect all aspects of waste hauling, cold-weather starting is clearly one of the biggest hurdles. Freezing temperatures can make turning over a large diesel engine difficult for three basic reasons: not enough cold-cranking amps, fuel-related problems, or an engine just too cold to start.

You don’t need the worst of conditions to test the starting power of a trash truck’s electrical system. Gary Vasko of Vasko Rubbish Removal Inc. in St. Paul, MN, puts it succinctly: “If you don’t have the cold-cranking amps, you’re done. In the fall, we physically take the cables off, clean the contacts and check them for wear, and load-test the whole charging system from the alternator to the starter and straight on through.” Perugia agrees about the importance of load testing. “You’ve got to load-test your batteries. If we find a battery that isn’t delivering the power we need, we put it on a trickle charger. If it passes our tests after the charge, then it goes back on the shelf. If not, we purchase a new one to replace it. We can’t afford to scrimp on new batteries either. We request Delco for all our OEM batteries, and we do a lot of business with Interstate.”

Even if the starter motor is getting all the juice it needs to push the pistons and the cylinder heaters are working properly, that doesn’t mean the engine is going to start. In freezing temperatures, diesel fuel becomes cloudy because tiny wax crystals have fallen out of solution. Once diesel fuel has reached this “cloud point,” the wax crystals can quickly clog fuel-filter elements, which leads to fuel starvation that eventually shuts down the engine. To prevent this from happening, many operators run fuel-tank heaters and fuel-filter heaters. In-tank fuel heaters use coolant from a hot engine to warm the diesel to the ideal temperature and then automatically turn on or off as needed. “We run fuel heaters on all our vehicles,” says Vasko.

In extreme cold, however, the wax crystals may become too concentrated, clogging the fuel filter and shuting off the engine before the fuel heater has a chance to work. This is where a fuel-filter heater comes in handy. OEM and aftermarket fuel-filter heaters are electric and governed by a thermostat. With the flick of a switch, the driver can activate the fuel-filter heater before starting the truck. This way the wax crystals already in the fuel lines “melt” back into solution as they pass through the fuel filter.

Another temperature-related fuel-filter problem is condensation forming in the fuel lines or in the tank. If the temperature of the fuel is below freezing, this water will turn to ice in the fuel filter. “If water gets by the fuel separator, it will get trapped in the fuel filter,” explains Jim Zito, sales manager for Peterbilt Motors Company. “As soon as it drops below freezing, the water spreads through the filter material and the filter turns into solid ice so that there’s no flow across the filter. The only way to remedy this situation is to drop the filter, which often means a road service.” A heated fuel filter would allow the water to pass through the filter elements without freezing, which could prevent the expense, frustration, and lost productivity of installing a new fuel filter and perhaps of a roadside-service call.

There are dozens of fuel additives on the market that will depress the pour point, the lowest temperature at which diesel fuel can be poured (pumped). While these additives alter the size and shape of the wax crystals, which allow the fuel to be pumped at lower temperatures, they are not very effective at returning the wax crystals back into solution or preventing fuel-line plugging.

Electric block heaters are another way to overcome the problem of starting a vehicle in extreme cold. Heaters help keep the engine coolant hot when the vehicle is parked overnight. The hot coolant warms the cylinders, which makes them a more favorable environment for combustion, which in turn makes for easier starts. The heater is normally mounted through the side of the engine block, with the heater coils actually inside the coolant jacket. “Anytime the temperature drops below 20 to 25 degrees Fahrenheit, we plug in all the trucks,” says Bryan Pol, general manager of Pol’s Trucking and Disposal in Erie, PA. Pol’s is a family-owned company that handles residential and commercial collections in northwest Pennsylvania, shoehorned between New York and Ohio along the shore of Lake Erie. Pol’s runs OEM block heaters in its Sterling Trucks with Caterpillar motors. “We’ve had bad experiences with not plugging in the block heaters. There’s a big lake effect here, and the temperature can drop from double digits to single digits overnight, or you can wake up to blue skies and a couple of hours later have 2 feet of snow on the ground. When we don’t plug in the block heaters, we end up with two or three drivers on the 5 a.m. shift standing around because their batteries are dead.” In addition to the dead batteries, Pol’s bigger concerns are the additional wear and tear on the engines and the lost revenue as a result of downtime.“We don’t make any money unless those wheels are turning.”

“We’ve got block heaters on all our trucks,” says David Oathout, general manager for Anchorage Refuse (a division of USA Waste Services Company). Oathout says that Anchorage Refuse has a few vehicles with OEM fuel-filter heaters, but his operation doesn’t depend on them in the winter. Instead, his outfit gets around the problem of wax crystals clogging the fuel filter by switching to number-one diesel fuel in the winter. “By mid-October, we switch to a mix of number one and number two. About mid-November, we’re running on straight number one. We go back to the mix again in March, and by April we’re back to number two.”

Although Anchorage Refuse keeps its trucks outside year-round, Oathout’s sister operation in Fairbanks brings its trucks indoors to help eliminate cold-weather starting problems.

Another way to hurdle cold-starting obstacles is a more efficient use of human resources. “We have the mechanics start all our trucks, not the drivers,” says Perugia. “The advantage is that if there is a problem, the mechanics won’t run down the batteries the way some drivers would. Mechanics also know more about what to do when a truck isn’t starting. Maybe it needs a shot of ether, or maybe it’s something else. The mechanics usually know, and they’re less apt to damage the truck in their efforts. With the mechanics starting the trucks, the engine is already warm, so the drivers get out of the yard faster.” 

When all else fails, ether can be successful in starting an engine when temperatures dip below freezing because it allows cylinder combustion to occur at lower temperatures. Spraying ether into the engine’s air intake system is an effective way to quick-start an engine as cold as -10ºF. Ether should only be used while the engine is cranking, and even then, it should be used sparingly. Too much can cause damage to pistons, rings, and valves. Most manufacturers strongly urge against using ether in combination with any sort of block heater (OEM or aftermarket). Because ether is so combustible, spraying it into the intake manifold of a preheated engine can create a fire or an explosion, which can cause serious damage to the vehicle, not to mention severe personal injury or even death. “And when it comes to safety, you don’t get a second chance,” warns Fitzpatrick.

Rolling, Rolling, Rolling …

Dumping fees, drivers’ wages, fuel, and tires top the waste industry’s list of variable costs. Of these, dumping fees are negotiable (sometimes), drivers’ wages follow a typical guns-and-butter-what-the-market-will-bear economic trend, and fuel prices are controlled by King Fahd and the other ministers of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, but the amount you spend on tires has as much to do with a good preventative maintenance program as it does with how savvy your buyer is.

“The waste industry is the worst on tires: stop-and-go driving, constantly making tight turns, backing up in and out of landfills full of C&D materials, and running under a full load half the time and an empty load the rest of the time,” notes Terry Platz, BFI area maintenance manager for Eden Prairie, MN. Tires on a long-haul trailer outlasting trash-truck tires is a given, but there is still room to improve the life of each tire and the overall usefulness of each casing. “If you follow a good preventative maintenance process, you’ll see cost savings of 25 to 35 percent if your people are dedicated to the process,” says Fitzpatrick. “We ran a total tire maintenance pilot and found that strict adherence to air-pressure standards could save up to 50 percent of the money spent on tires. We also found that the process [man-hours] will pay for itself three to four times over just on the flats we found in the yard. When you attack the fleet with daily air pressure and preventative maintenance standards, you also improve performance and safety.”

Next to good brakes and conscientious drivers, the right tires for specific road conditions is one of the best insurance policies available. Matching tire type and tread to the conditions (temperature, wetness, and terrain) will increase traction, decrease accidents, and save operators money. “We knocked 35 percent out of our tire budget with the ‘torque master drive’ tread type on our recaps,” states Tom Garr, director of equipment maintenance for the City of Worcester, MA. “If I could get this kind of tread on new tires, I would. Before, we used the ‘gripper’ tread type, which was completely worn out after two months on the hills of Worcester.”

Daily air-pressure checks are not a popular idea among waste haulers because it takes about 15 minutes of a driver’s time that should be spent on the road. However, the information you receive is much more accurate and reliable than a visual inspection and a thump on the sidewall with a hammer. “If the drivers check their own tires, the results are OK,” says Platz. “But professional tire people do a better job, so we bring them in to do it for us. Besides, it’s dark at 6 a.m. during the winter, and it’s hard to read the gauges.”

Fitzpatrick believes that people don’t want to deal with tires on a daily basis because they are dirty, messy, and time consuming. Regardless of how steep the obstacles are, implementing an air-pressure standard could be a fleet’s most cost-effective preventative maintenance practice. “If you buy 60,000 tires a year and get a $5 savings on each tire, that’s a $300,000 savings,” he points out. “The right tire maintenance process, complete with air-pressure standards, can save a fleet $2.5 million when you consider road calls, lost productivity, the cost of the tires, and drivers’ salaries. Add angry customers to that list, and you’ve got a customer-service problem as well.”

Air pressure is particularly important in the winter months when a 30ºF drop in the ambient temperature can put everything in a deep freeze. “The biggest difficulty we face is temperature swings. Every 10 degrees equals a 1- to 3-psi change inside the tire. And when you consider that a 20 percent drop in air pressure equals a 30 percent decrease in casing life, the question is, ‘Can you afford not to check your tires daily?'” says Fitzpatrick.

Jack McCammond, manager for engineering support for Michelin North America, agrees with Fitzpatrick. “If there is a day when the temperature drops significantly, I would recheck the tires. If a tire leaves the yard with low pressure, it will overheat, which puts undue stress and strain on the steel belts, and the tire will have to work much harder. And the thick, short sidewalls used in the run-flat technology available in some automobile tires is a next-millennium technology for commercial truck tires.”

Anchorage Refuse stores its half-worn tires in winter and puts them back on trucks in the spring. This allows them to put tires with better traction on the road during the winter months and run tires with less tread in the spring and summer. “Purchasing can’t always be scheduled around the seasons, but fleet managers should schedule new-tire purchases for the beginning of the winter season,” advises Roger Stansbie of Continental/General Tires. “This is a good way to ensure safety in winter driving conditions, and the reduction of tread will generate less heat and rolling resistance in the summer.”

According to Fitzpatrick, the right valve cap is also a must. “A dual-seal valve cap, like the V2B caps, is effective between minus 30 degrees and 290 degrees Fahrenheit, and it can hold the pressure in even if the valve core is missing.” The flow-through nature of dual-seal valve caps also allows you to inflate your tires without having to take off the cap.

Charting tire wear is probably the most cost-effective way to prevent controllable problems. Several questions are important when looking into ways to improve tire life. From which truck did the tire come? From which wheel position? Why was the tire removed? Did it leave the yard under low pressure? When was the last air-pressure check? Was the problem preventable? Tires tell a “just the facts, ma’am” story of important operations such as alignment, wheel balance, suspension systems, and brakes. As Fitzpatrick puts it, “Next to the driver, tires are the best diagnostic tools on the truck, and tires don’t lie.”

Beyond the value of discovering other related problems, tracking tire life allows you to increase the life of each tire purchase by increasing the number of casings you get out of each new tire. Gone are the days when tires were seen as single-use products. “When you purchase a tire, you’re really purchasing a casing-a durable, repairable asset that will hopefully accept the maximum number of retreads. Nationwide, we see a return on our investment at three retreads per tire,” says Fitzpatrick. “Our company goal is an average of three retreads per tire. Five or six retreads per tire is great.”

Most tire manufacturers and recap specialists have computer software programs available to fleets that track the life of each tire. But even without the software, simply staying in touch with the inventory can save big bucks. “Tracking tire wear is a real revenue saver,” say Oathout. “Right now Goodyear, Bandag, and Oliver are all using us as ongoing test subjects to determine how we can get the most money and mileage out of our tires. They’re sort of keeping each other honest.”

Stopping Power

Unlike tires, brake maintenance remains fairly constant year-round because if the brakes don’t work, it doesn’t matter what the weather is like-you’re an accident waiting to happen. The biggest concern with brakes in the wintertime is condensation in the air system. A good air-dryer maintenance program is the best approach to solving the problem of condensation. “We service and rebuild our air dryers two or three times a year. The heating element in the air dryer must be working properly or else the joysticks and the brakes won’t work. This is especially true with the kind of cold we have around here. If you lose pressure or increase the moisture in the air system, nothing works,” says Vasko.

Even with air dryers and absorbing elements working perfectly, condensation during the cold season can still be a problem. One way to attack the condensation problem is to have drivers drain their air systems at the end of each day. This eliminates any condensation in the system and might give drivers a heads-up about air-line problems before they occur. Alcohol injection systems are another way to keep air systems dry. These systems meter small injections of alcohol, which bind with and absorb the water. This mix of water and alcohol is kicked out of the system at drain vents called “spitter valves.”

The changing of seasons can also be an ideal time to do routine brake inspections. “Around Thanksgiving, all the street sweepers are working for five to six weeks straight cleaning up leaves,” says Garr. “That’s when we bring in each trash truck and pull all the shoes and drums. We replace all the rear shoes, and if we find any front shoes that are more than half worn, we replace them too.” Platz adds, “We also inspect brake-pedal pads at the beginning of each fall.

Keeping Cool in Winter

Keeping your engine cool when everything outside is frozen might prove to be as important as keeping it cool in summer. However, Steve Ginter of Mack Trucks points out that going over a 60% mixture of antifreeze is counterproductive. “You actually get less protection from ethylene glycol in a solution greater than 60 percent.” With a higher antifreeze concentration, you run a greater risk of electrolysis.

Electrolysis occurs when the pH drops and creates an acidic environment in the cooling system. Bubbles then form overnight on the outside of the cylinder sleeve, and when they pop, they erode a microscopic section of the cylinder liner. “When the pistons rattle back and forth as they move up and down the cylinder, they dislodge the bubbles, which causes the bubble to implode,” describes Garr. “This implosion begins to break down the cylinder lining. The next bubble appears at exactly the same spot because of the tiny scratches in the cooling sleeve. This happens again and again, and if left untreated, the pitting will work its way right through to the cylinder.”

The flip side of the pH equation is silicone dropout, which happens when you have an alkaline pH and the silicone forms a gel and falls out of solution. “We strongly recommend using the proper antifreeze conditioners to prevent silicone dropout, which can really gum up a radiator,” says Peterbilt’s Zito.

There are a number of antifreeze additives on the market to create a neutral pH and reduce the formation of nitrates. Some truck manufacturers build-in antifreeze filters that keep solids out of the system and automatically condition the solution. To prevent pH-related problems in extreme winter conditions, Mack Trucks suggests changing the coolant annually or every 100,000 mi.

Truck manufacturers are generally in agreement against the use of winterfronts because they can cause excessive exhaust temperatures, power loss, and a reduction in fuel economy. “Mack’s official position is that we do not support the use of winterfronts,” states Ginter. “The condenser, charged air cooler, and radiator all work together to optimize the cooling module and create the ideal engine temperature.” Volvo Trucks of North America also does not recommend the use of winterfronts under “normal” circumstances. The Volvo operator’s manual for its XPEDITOR-series trucks states, “Winterfronts are properly used for overnight parking in the winter or very cold temperatures (below -5°F). In these cases, coolant and inlet-manifold temperatures must be carefully monitored and controlled.” Ginter adds, “If you do use a winterfront, you absolutely must use a pyrometer and check your other gauges to ensure that you don’t overheat the engine.”

Seeing is Believing

In the seemingly constant twilight of Alaskan winters, Anchorage Refuse decided to install onboard video cameras and monitors on all its trucks. The camera systems are part of the company’s ongoing program to improve safety. “We installed the rear-vision cameras so the drivers can see directly behind the trucks when they start to back up,” Oathout explains. “We went with the Clarion camera because it has a lens cover that keeps ice and snow off the lens when it’s not in use.” The protective shutter opens automatically when the driver shifts into reverse but is returned to the closed position for normal driving, unless the driver selects the manual override in order to get a better view of rearward traffic.

Bruce Smith, president of Safety Vision Inc. in Houston, TX, provider of Alaskan Refuse’s Clarion camera, explains that the motorized lens cover is only one element of the wet- and cold-weather protection features of the system. “We’re really sensitive to temperature and moisture,” he points out. “Water can kill a camera quicker than anything, so the entire unit is sealed, with threaded O-ring connectors for the wiring.” To prevent ice buildup on the lens and to keep the electronics happy, the camera unit includes a thermostatically controlled, built-in heater that comes on automatically when the temperature falls below a preset value. Alaskan Refuse’s rear-vision program is a complete success. “Since we installed the cameras, we’ve only had one case where the driver backed into a car that darted out from behind a building after the driver had already started backing up.” But the safety benefits don’t stop with being able to see cars behind the truck. “It’s a huge advantage to be able to see your swamper behind the truck. A driver shouldn’t back up unless he can see the swamper anyway, but the cameras act as our own personal insurance.” Reliability? “First rate,” Oathout declares, adding that the supplier’s 24-hour advanced trade-out policy virtually eliminates downtime. pay off.

Warm & Toasty

Another form of insurance is keeping your drivers and swampers on the job and healthy. For most people, being exposed to cold temperatures, snow, and foul weather for extended periods has a negative effect on their health. Although hypothermia isn’t a major concern for refuse haulers, the usual rounds of winter colds and influenza can make staffing your vehicles a formidable challenge. “We provide our people with all the cold-weather and safety gear and give everyone an allowance to buy boots with, but I’ve still seen guys out there in T-shirts when it’s 20 degrees below zero,” says Oathout. “Our swampers use US Army-issued bunny boots instead of steel-toed work boots. Bunny boots are much, much better at keeping your feet warm than Sorels are.” pay off.

To Build a Fireproof Progam

As with any preventative maintenance program, building a good winterization program is a process. Winterizing a modern refuse-hauling fleet comes down to safety, service, and profits. Your trucks need to start quickly, run safely, and provide your customers with exceptional service all winter long. The minute you fail to do that, profits-like the heat from a nice, warm fire-start to go out the window.

Anything you can do to ensure that your trucks will run smoothly, safely, and efficiently from dawn to dusk will help keep your profits in the black and give your customers a real sense of satisfaction through even the coldest of winters. Because, just like the mail, the trash service must go through.


Author’s Bio: Guest author Mark Saunders is a newspaper and magazine journalist based in Boulder, CO.

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