The Big Chill’s not over: How to protect and winterize your vehicle fleet
Winter has settled in to stay for another month or so. It’s crucial to winterize your vehicle fleet if you skipped it last fall. More than 116,000 Americans are injured and over 1,300 are killed on snowy, slushy or icy pavement every winter, says SafeWinterRoads.org.
Before you send your fleet back out on the roads, follow these steps to keep your vehicles – and your employees – safe.
Fuel up – and keep it that way
1. Keep your gas tank close to full, even if your fleet consists of hybrid-electric vehicles. Should drivers get stuck in a traffic jam or in snow, they’ll need more fuel than anticipated. More gas in the tank also helps prevent the possibility of a frozen fuel line; plus, it adds weight to the vehicle, providing better traction.
2. Diesel fuel in winter. Diesel fuel contains paraffin (wax) which unfortunately causes fuel to gel when temperatures drop. This can lead to engine roughness or possibly engine failure. Drivers should check the cetane rating at the gas pump (the higher the number, the easier it is for diesel trucks to start during the winter months). If your fueling locations carry a winter blend fuel, use it in cold conditions. Check with your engine manufacturer to get approved recommendations on fuel treatments.
Because diesel fuels have water suspended in the solution, you’ll need to keep an eye on your water separator. The water results from condensation that forms inside a cold fuel tank that has warm fuel. To minimize risk, you’ll want to check your water separator daily and invest in a new fuel filter, says FleetCleanUSA. Keeping your gas tank at least half-full minimizes the risk of water freezing in the fuel line.
They also recommend using a block heater to reduce any large fluctuations in engine temperatures. Here’s why: Diesel engines are more difficult to start in cold weather than gasoline-powered vehicles because of their need for higher cylinder temperatures. Simply put, they like it hot.
Related: The hard, cold facts of winter, and how you can prevent damage
Check the fluids when you winterize your vehicle fleet
3. Check oil levels. A proper-running engine needs constant lubrication from oil. Cold weather reduces oil’s effectiveness: The lower the temperature, the thicker your oil becomes. Thick oil doesn’t circulate through your engine as easily as thin oil. To prevent engine damage, consider changing your oil to one with a thinner consistency. Consult your owner’s manual to find the proper viscosity of oil you need in the winter for different climates.
4. Check other fluids as well. Check and top off power steering, brake, windshield washer and battery fluids. AAA attributes 60 percent of engine failures to engine coolant problems, so it’s important to adjust your engine coolant ratio for winter. You may want to perform a winterization inspection of the cooling system, ensuring your coolant is at the optimum freeze point.
Kick the tires
5. Check tire pressure and tread. Did you know a tire can lose up to 50 percent of its pressure without appearing flat? Underinflated tires wear faster and adversely affect vehicle handling, and are a leading causes of tire failure. On the flip side, over-inflating tires increases the risk of tread separation, allowing for easier damage by road debris, curbing or potholes. Tire pressure decreases by about one pound per square inch for every 10-degree drop in outside air temperature, so it’s vital that you check the air pressure regularly in winter weather, consulting your owner’s manual for proper inflation. As you winterize your vehicle fleet, remember: the more tread depth, the better.
If your vehicles are operated in cold conditions with lots of snow and ice, all-weather tires may not offer adequate traction. Consider outfitting your fleet with winter tires that offer a better grip in icy conditions and even on cold, dry roads. A good snow tire has a deeper tread designed to cut through snow and reach the pavement. More importantly, the rubber that makes up that tread is chemically formulated, and softer, to better grip the asphalt in cold weather. Check spare tires as well. If the spare is needed, your stranded driver doesn’t want to find out the hard way that it’s flat.
Related: How your employers can keep employees safe from cold weather work hazards
Power up your batteries
6. Keep those batteries cranking. The most common cause of winter breakdowns is a weak or dead battery. Battery capacity is reduced by cold weather, so give your batteries, cables, terminals and fluid a thorough inspection. This is particularly important for diesel engines which require strong batteries that can hold a good charge with enough cranking amps to start the engine, says FleetCleanUSA.
A typical battery lifecycle is 48 to 72 months. Alert your drivers to look for signs that a battery is weak and may need to be replaced, such as a starter motor that cranks the engine slowly when the ignition key is turned or headlights that dim noticeably when the engine speed drops to idle.
Check your fleet’s battery cables for cracks and breaks and change them promptly, because cold weather only makes them worse. Ensure battery terminals all fit comfortably with no loose connections. Check battery fluids by opening the refill hole: If the liquid is below the bottom of the cap, top up with clean water. Battery maintenance should include cleaning and securing connections and mounting brackets.
It’s a good idea to test your battery’s remaining voltage, using a hydrometer to measure the amount of liquid to water ratio. Many batteries have a built-in hydrometer that tells you how much charge (voltage) remains but if you can’t find one in your vehicles, you can use a handheld hydrometer instead.
Related: Winter freeze-up prevention
More tips to winterize your vehicle fleet
7. Inspect brake pads and shoes. A top safety priority is ensuring brakes are in working order. Alert drivers to notify you if brakes are making a squealing sound when stopping, so they can be replaced.
Be sure to perform proper air dryer maintenance on commercial trucks. The air dryer will remove air system moisture and contaminants before they enter the brake system to prevent water freezing in the lines. Frozen air lines can result in the loss of braking function in commercial vehicles.
8. Examine belts and hoses. Frigid winter temperatures can wreak havoc with belts and hoses, becoming a major safety risk if breakage occurs when you’re driving in a remote area. Check accessory drive belts for signs of fraying or cracking and replace any belts with even a hint of a crack to help avoid a breakdown.
Inspect the cooling system hoses for leaks, cracks or loose clamps. Squeeze the hoses and replace any that are brittle or excessively spongy to the touch.
9. Check spark plugs. If an engine misfires, feels rough, jittery or simply doesn’t want to start, it may be faulty spark plugs. Inspect spark plugs, cleaning or replacing them if needed as you winterize your vehicle fleet.
10. Maintain windshield wipers. Most likely wiper blades get the most use during the winter months, so inspect and replace your windshield wiper blades as necessary. You may also want to consider using heavy-duty winter wiper blades for tough ice buildup.
To protect windshields from cold, heavy grime, select a washer fluid with an anti-freeze solution that will cut through slushy, dirty sleet. Remind drivers not to use boiling water on windshields to get rid of frost or snow, as this can cause the glass to crack. Instead, equip them with an ice-scraper and a can of de-icer.
11. Lubricate locks. Tell drivers not to try to warm frozen locks lock by breathing on it as the moisture from your breath will condense and freeze. Instead, spray vehicle locks with WD-40 to help keep them from freezing. Applying Vaseline can be an effective and low-cost way to stop doors sticking in cold weather.
12. Keep vehicles well-lit. Visibility – to see and be seen – is even more crucial in the winter months when days are shorter. Inspect vehicles to make sure all lights are working properly.
13. Check the tailpipe. Remind drivers to always check their vehicle’s tailpipe to make sure that it is free of snow before driving. Packed snow blocking the vehicle’s exhaust pipe can result in carbon monoxide poisoning.
Plan for emergencies
14. Train and provide for an emergency. Even with the most thorough inspections, breakdowns occur. Or accidents happen, stranding your employee and vehicle. If your business sends out its fleet to an area with heavy winters, remind your drivers of emergency safety tips. Ensure your entire fleet is fitted with emergency packs that include blankets, a flashlight, high-visibility vest or jackets and a towrope in case of a breakdown.
A well-stocked emergency kit will also include a battery-powered radio, jumper cables, fire extinguisher, first aid kit, gloves, tire chains, bottled water, non-perishable foods, maps, tire repair kit, and flares and the telephone number for a 24/7 breakdown service provider. You may also want to include a bag of sand, salt or kitty litter, along with a shovel, to be used for traction by pouring it under the car’s wheel; the added weight to the car will improve traction if the vehicle is a rear wheel drive.
Icy Road Safety has a number of online courses, videos and articles that can help you both train and remind your drivers about winter driving safety.
15 tips for driving safely on ice and snow
18 winter preparation tips for car owners
Preparing for winter: How to cold-proof your fleet
This article was originally published in the Arrowhead Tribal blog. It has been modified and updated to better fit the needs of our insurance carriers and self-insured entities.