With winter weather setting in across North America, fleet maintenance can be the difference between uptime and downtime for your operations. Colder weather can bring about cooling system failures, frozen air systems, battery drain, and a drop in tire pressure equal to 1 psi for every 10-degree drop in temperature. Not to mention that if a driver's equipment breaks down on the road, winter is one of the most uncomfortable times to to be stranded.
“Winter is the worst time for downtime,” said Ben Deisig, senior mobile diesel tech for Cox Automotive, based in Michigan. “Maintenance is your best bet against lost time, which is invaluable to customers.”
But what exactly should that maintenance look like, and when? Along with Deisig, Jeffrey Nichols, senior mobile diesel tech for Cox Automotive in Ohio, and Larry Fowler, senior manager of vehicle operations support for Cox Automotive in Indiana, teamed up to answer several of your pressing winter maintenance questions.
How soon should fleets perform winter maintenance?
Fowler: It varies geographically but generally around September/October.
Deisig: Start getting fleets ready by October—the sooner, the better.
What are some common mistakes people should avoid when caring for vehicles in the winter?
Nichols: Ensure the coolant maintains the proper freeze point, drain air tanks regularly, and adjust tire pressures with temperature changes.
Fowler: Avoid jumping a cold battery without checking the charging system, which can lead to additional problems.
Are there any processes that should be prioritized during the winter months?
Nichols: Focus on air and cooling systems, using the right fuel additives, and maintaining overall cooling system integrity.
Fowler: Prioritize starting and charging systems, along with starting aids like block heaters and intake heaters.
Deisig: Battery maintenance, block heaters, coolant freeze protection, and keeping fuel treatment on hand.
What advice do you have if a driver gets stranded, and how can fleets prepare for that?
Nichols: Be prepared with blankets, warm clothing, food, drink, and a phone charger.
Fowler: Plan routes, keep in contact, keep fuel tanks above half, and do a thorough pre-trip.
Do you have any advice for areas where harsher winter months are not as common but could still have unprecedented weather or cold months?
Nichols: Prepare for weather extremes, dress appropriately, and keep emergency supplies.
Fowler: Pay attention to starting aids and heaters, even in warmer climates.
How do salt and other road treatments affect fleets and their maintenance needs?
Fowler: They affect frame and suspension components and electrical connections.
Deisig: Salt is a major issue, causing rust and corrosion, particularly affecting wiring.
Nichols: Regularly washing fleets helps reduce the damage.
How often should fleet vehicles be inspected during the winter compared to the warmer months?
Nichols: Perform daily pre-trip and post-trip inspections and complete inspections every few months or when issues are noted.
Fowler: Add a "dry" inspection between fluid changes when expecting cold weather.
Are there any signs or symptoms drivers should be trained to recognize indicating that a vehicle requires immediate maintenance during cold weather?
Nichols: Look for fluid drips, leaks, odd noises, and vibrations.
Fowler: Watch for hard starting, low voltage indicators, and weak or dim lights.
Deisig: Hard starts and slow-operating liftgates can indicate upcoming issues.
How can fleet managers best educate and train their drivers about winter driving and vehicle maintenance?
Nichols: Remind drivers to keep fuel tanks full, check fluids, and report any defects. Emphasize the importance of visibility and safe driving in inclement weather.
Fowler: Stress the importance of a good pre-trip and involve maintenance teams in training for mechanical insights.
With a proactive maintenance plan, inspection vigilance, and preparation, fleets should have no problem weathering the demands of the winter months.
Jane Langland serves as the corporate communications manager at Cox Automotive. She initially joined the company in July 2023. Prior to joining Cox Automotive, Langland worked at McMaster-Carr for nearly a decade.