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October 2006

Winter Weather Basics

Bobcat loader moving snow

Bobcat loader moving snow

When you own a rental store, your compact equipment has to be ready to go when customers call — even if it's 10 below zero with a foot of snow on the ground.

Though construction slows in colder climates when the temperature dips, that doesn't mean rental store owners get to kick back and put their feet up. In fact, wintertime can be just as busy for these on-demand stores. To ensure their equipment stays in peak operating condition, rental store owners must begin thinking about winterizing their compact equipment as soon as the first leaves hit the ground.

Of all the compact equipment in their rental fleet, rental store owners say skid-steer loaders are the machines most commonly used in the wintertime. In addition to the contractors who use the machines for general construction work, others rent skid-steer loaders to help supplement their snow removal operations.

As with any equipment maintenance, compact equipment owners should refer to their manufacturer's owner's manual where they'll find a checklist of seasonal maintenance items and oil and fluid recommendations. Any compact equipment operator will attest that there are several basic maintenance procedures and inspections that should be performed before starting a skid-steer loader. As weather turns colder, items that should be checked include fluids, oils and fuels, tire pressure, battery life and cold-climate comfort features such as heating, defrosting and defogging systems.

"Cold temperatures can affect the machine in different ways," says Mike Fitzgerald, loader product specialist for Bobcat Company.

Fluids, Oils and Fuels
Some of the most important winter checkup items are a skid-steer loader's fluids, oils and fuels. If a skid-steer loader doesn't have the proper engine oil, engine coolant, hydraulic oil and fuel for operating in colder temperatures, then a contractor will find that his skid-steer loader's performance isn't up to par. Fitzgerald says rental store owners should refer to their operator's manual for instructions on filling their machine with the correct fluid in the correct increments. For example, when the temperature turns colder it's important to have lighter engine oil that matches the outside operating temperatures.

Rental store owners should not overlook the hydraulic oil filters on their skid-steer loaders. These should be changed as they may have collected water and debris over the spring and summer. Changing the hydraulic oil filter will help minimize future maintenance problems, Fitzgerald says.

As with any automobile, engine coolant — or antifreeze — is also an important wintertime fluid for compact equipment that should be tested prior to the weather turning chilly and according to manufacturer’s specifications.

Not only can improper oils and coolants cause maintenance problems in the winter, but so can using the wrong fuel. While it's typically not required to use anything other than normal No. 2 grade diesel fuel, rental store owners in far northern regions may want to look into an alternative diesel fuel because in extreme cold weather conditions, diesel fuel can gel. Fitzgerald says that compact equipment owners will want to match the machine’s fuel with the working conditions.

In warmer weather conditions, No. 2 fuel is more powerful because of its thickness and excellent burning properties. However, when temperatures dip to 25 or 30, No. 2 fuel begins to gel. "At that point, you might want to consider switching to an arctic fuel or blended fuel," Fitzgerald says. "Arctic fuel is refined to harness the power of No. 2 fuel while retaining the movement properties of a lighter fuel."

Some equipment owners blend No. 1 and 2 fuels to match the dipping temperatures throughout the fall and winter. For example, Fitzgerald says they may start off at a 10 percent No. 1 and 90 percent No. 2 mixture in the fall, and then move to a 50/50 mixture at the start of the winter and a 75/25 mix in the middle of a harsh winter. Again, operators should check their owner’s manual for their machine’s recommended fluid mixtures.

Tires, Batteries and Other Items
It's common knowledge that when temperatures drop, so does the air pressure in tires. One of the first physical signs of cold weather will be a skid-steer loader's sagging tires. Low tire pressure can translate into lower lift and push capabilities, especially for those rental customers who intend to use the loader for clearing snow. Rental store owners should check the owner’s manual for the proper psi and inflate the tires accordingly.

"If the tire had a small leak or a nail stuck in it, and you filled it up once or twice a week in the summer; in the cold weather, you’ll be filling it up once or twice a day," Fitzgerald says. "It's better to take care of these problems before the machine is on the jobsite to avoid downtime."

Downtime is unavoidable if you have a dead battery. There's nothing worse than having a customer rent a skid-steer loader and take it to the jobsite only to find that it won't start the next day because of a dead battery.

Cold weather plays havoc on batteries because it requires them to generate nearly twice as many cranking amps in order to turn over and deliver oil to the engine. That's why rental stores in colder climates go through batteries faster than those in warmer climates. So it's imperative that rental store owners take the time to have a load test performed on their compact equipment batteries before the first snow hits the ground. They should also check the battery wires and connections for any wear or corrosion because such defects could result in loss of amps.

Once you've made sure your skid-steer loader fleet will perform at its optimal level in the winter, you'll next want to ensure the operator's comfort features are working properly. Features popular on skid-steer loaders in northern states include heating, defogging and defrosting systems. To keep operators comfortable and productive, inspect each system and perform routine maintenance as specified in the owner's manual, Fitzgerald says. Also, inspect the cab's door and window seals to ensure heat won't seep out, and install a new windshield blade and antifreezing washer fluid. Snow removal contractors can spend as many as 12 hours a day inside the cab of a skid-steer loader, so it's vital that they stay warm and comfortable.

By following these simple maintenance tips and those spelled out in their owner's manual, rental store owners can be confident that their skid-steer loaders will stay up and running all winter. When Old Man Winter blows, they'll be ready.