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Maintaining truck uptime when the temperature drops

Dec. 5, 2019
From the diesel tank to tires to drivers, routine maintenance must be performed to get ahead of winter's woes.

Editor’s note: This is part two of a three-part series on readying fleets for harsh winter weather. Read part one here.

When the ball drops on New Year's Eve, it appears more trucks start to drop as well. Roadside failures increased by 22% from Q4 2018 to Q1 2019, according to a benchmarking report done by the American Trucking Associations Technology & Maintenance Council. That’s the same as it was the previous two years.

Breakdowns in the winter not only expose your driver and truck to the elements longer and delay your customer’s delivery, they also appear to cost more. A roadside repair in Q1 2019, which hit an average of $33, was 15% higher than Q3 2018.

There are the common preventative checks to run before winter, such as ensuring each truck has proper tire air pressure, working lights, tight connections and secure hoses. Also, don’t forget to top off fluids and invest in good wiper blades, (which can even be heated). For your sake, by now most of this list has already been completed. Fleet managers must also relay to drivers that winter is a relentless foe and preventative maintenance is a daily battle.

Diesel tanks

This battle begins in the dark recesses of the truck's diesel tank.

“It’s really critical that drivers drain their fuel tanks and their water filters every single day,” warned Brent Bergevin, VP of transportation for Gemini Motor Transport, a subsidiary of Love’s Travel Stops and Country Stores. The company uses 850 trucks and 1,200 drivers to haul fuel, crude oil and other materials to Love’s and Speedco locations.

“Diesel fuel grows water by condensation. If you don’t drain those, bacteria will start growing in your filters and your tanks. That’s going to be the number one problem that crops up and bites you," he continued.

This diesel “algae” (which are actually insidious microbes and fungi) dine on hydrocarbons, growing in size to smother filters, damage injectors and damage rubber gaskets. If you believe a tank has been contaminated, professional testing or a pH testing strip will confirm your suspicions. Several diesel biocide additives are available to snuff the little buggers out before they cause severe damage.

Tires

For snow and ice, your team’s maintenance strategy will need to be even more vigilant, particularly with tires. These 18 wheels get right into the thick of winter, and routine tread checks will keep them fighting fit.

You may have technicians in the yard to check tires are free of cracks and have the correct tread depth, and Love’s TirePass assessment system is available in the diesel lane at its truck stops. But you don’t always know what you’re going to get with trailer, said Bergevin.

“If you get down to 5/32 in. [down from 12 or 14/32 in.], you’re really starting to run very low tread depth and it’s not going to channel the snow or the moisture very well,” he explained. “You get down to 3/32 in. on a steer tire, 2/32 in. on a trailer or drive tire, you’re just risking a blowout.”

The rule of thumb, or head, is to take a nickel and stick it in the tread wig-side down. If you can still see all of Thomas Jefferson’s head, it’s time to replace the tire, Bergevin said. Quarters can also be used, though pennies are now thought to be too small.

Gemini Motor Transport was named the 2018 North American Safety Champion in its mileage division by the National Tank Truck Carriers. The carrier drives about 90 million miles annually and has an accident frequency of 0.291 per million miles. Add to that the fact these trucks carry containers full of highly flammable liquid, and we’ll consider Bergevin’s safety advice reliable.
His final maintenance advice is the wisest of all: “If you don’t take care of your trucks, your trucks are not going to take care of you,” he offered.

On some roads, no matter the tread, the snow has the advantage. While driving on Interstate 80 in Wyoming, near Sisters Pass, owner-operator Richard Anderson found that activating Insta-Chain, an automatic snow chain system that spins under the tires at the push of a button, was the difference between life and death. That stretch of I-80 is also known by truckers as the “highway to heaven,” so these chains were like mechanical angels clearing a way for the tires.

“[Richard Anderson] was able to control his truck and avoid hitting the truck that just passed him,” relayed John Atkinson, president of the Utah-based Insta-Chain. “He knew that if he hadn’t had Insta-Chains, he would have hit the trucks and probably would have died.” 

They fit on trucks and trailers and cost $2,000 per axle; each takes about seven hours to install. They are available in 6- and 12-chain configurations and operate at 30 mph.

Drivers

Whether you use a nickel or twirling robo-chain, all those logistical chess moves and planning are for naught if the drivers aren’t ready for their entire environment to literally change overnight.

“It’s not business as usual when you get into winter,” said Tom DiSalvi, vice president of safety, driver training and compliance at Schneider National. The Green Bay-based logistics provider treats winter with the same reverence and readiness as the local NFL football team treats the playoffs.

“For us, it’s all about preparation,” the Schneider employee of 28 years said.

This began about when DiSalvi started, as the company noticed a quantifiable increase in sliding off the road, towing and accidents during the winter. They wanted to “drive that spike down,” so the company implemented a broad training program that includes an annual computer training module, using a training simulator and delving into winter survival guide handbooks. This starts in October and goes through December. Drivers without winter experience are assigned one-on-one sessions.

The training outlines having the proper clothing, proper tools, such as a hammer and steel rod to loosen frozen trailer brakes, and keeping emergency supplies such as a shovel, salt and kitty litter in the cab. The company also distributes Ergodyne Trex Ice Traction Devices which slip onto shoes or boots to act as ice cleats.

Safe winter driving habits such as safe following distances on icy roads, and how to react to skids, are honed in the simulator. Any driver can use the simulators, and southern drivers are encouraged to test out the simulator, as you never know when Atlanta or Dallas will feel a deep freeze. Schneider said its winter safety program led to a 7% year-over-year improvement in winter-related incidents and reduced driver-associated injuries by 18% in 2018.

DiSalvi said the most important thing to teach drivers is that they control their own destiny, they are the “captains of their ships,” and thus can decide when to seek safe harbor.

“It’s more important than anything else for our drivers to know that they have the ability to determine when they believe it’s not safe to continue,” said DiSalvi, who noted Schneider telematics are set up to track weather alerts based on preset thresholds. “And we always encourage them to when in doubt, make that call and find a safe place to stop—and that we will support them on that decision,” he continued. “We would much rather that than something serious happening.”    

About the Author

John Hitch | Editor

John Hitch, based out of Cleveland, Ohio, is the editor of Fleet Maintenance, a B2B magazine that addresses the service needs for all commercial vehicle makes and models (Classes 1-8), ranging from shop management strategies to the latest tools to enhance uptime.

He previously wrote about equipment and fleet operations and management for FleetOwner, and prior to that, manufacturing and advanced technology for IndustryWeek and New Equipment Digest. He is an award-winning journalist and former sonar technician aboard a nuclear-powered submarine.

For tips, questions or comments, email [email protected].

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