Bottom Line
‘I’ll take winter for $600…’
When it comes to trucking in winter, how well do you know your stuff? If you don't, your income could be in jeopardy

By Jeff Barker
contributing writer


As the last warm days of summer turn to fall, many find it hard to wrap their minds around the inevitable smack of Old Man Winter that lurks around the corner.

Truck owners can take advantage of the last bit of nice weather to get their equipment prepared ahead of time and lessen the possibility of expensive tow bills and repairs on the road. It’s easy to procrastinate, but with current freight rates being lousy at best, who wants to make matters worse by taking a chance with a truck that isn’t properly maintained and ready for the cold season?

The air system
Many truck owners often fail to pay attention to the trucks’ air systems until it’s too late and something goes wrong. Unfortunately, it’s also one of those areas of a truck that is the most vulnerable when it gets cold enough for any moisture in the system to freeze.

After a while, the desiccant that’s used in them for removing moisture will lose its effectiveness. This is especially noticeable if you bleed your air tanks daily and there’s a lot of moisture blowing out.

It may seem cheaper to buy an air dryer rebuild kit and rebuild it yourself, but factor in your time to do the job along with getting a warranty on the replacement dryer and it is more cost-effective to replace it with a unit that has already been rebuilt.

During the winter, air governors are notorious for freezing up, preventing the air pressure from building. This is especially true when the engine is cold after being shut off for a while. Usually, a few gentle taps with a hammer will get it going. But if not, it might need a replacement. It’s cheap enough to buy one for a spare to keep in your toolbox so you won’t have to scrounge for a replacement part on the road when your truck won’t move.

Air compressors wear out over time and can eventually pump the engine oil they use for lubrication into the air system.

Take the air supply line off of the compressor and see if it has an oily residue in it. If so, it’s time to replace the air compressor and flush the air system to get rid of the oil in it. That mixture of oil and water can freeze and cause problems, especially in the tiny passages in the brake valves.

Maintain the air system every few weeks by bleeding the air pressure to zero. Remove the supply line from the compressor and put a few ounces of air line antifreeze into the line with a funnel. The vapors will keep any moisture in the system from freezing.

An OOIDA member in Wisconsin who maintains a fleet of construction equipment and dump trucks used for snow removal work installed Schrader valves on the air dryers of the vehicles. They are used for injecting the air line antifreeze with compressed air into the system to make sure it’s distributed throughout. Do not use alcohol for this; it will dry out rubber parts in the brake valves and chambers over time.

Make sure that the air lines are secured so the weight of ice accumulation won’t cause them to drag or be broken at the fittings. This is especially true on trailers with sliding axles that have the air lines from the frame to the tandems supported by springs. Tying them up securely with rubber tarp straps will keep the lines from catching something in the road and tearing off. No one would want to even think about what would happen if the trailer brakes were to suddenly set themselves, locking up on a slick road after losing pressure in the emergency air line. 

Winter fuel
Many of us have been learning the hard way about the new ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel gelling up at higher temperatures than the low sulfur diesel. Some have reported gel-ups at 15 to 20 degrees when shut off for several hours or more.

Being a lifelong resident of south Texas, I didn’t know anything about gelled fuel before it happened to me in Des Moines, IA, back in 2000 when the mercury dipped below zero. I learned a thing or two in a hurry since I hadn’t put any additive into my fuel.

My APU ran off one tank but the other tank that my truck’s engine drew off of was gelled. I had a hell of a time getting it started.  

Sometimes, even if you have an APU, you may have to give in and keep the engine idling while you’re parked – if it’s allowed – to avoid the dreaded gel-up.

Using a quality fuel additive will help prevent gelling. I’ve had great luck with FPPF Polar Power ever since a Canadian driver suggested I try it, but others out there work well, too. It’s never a bad idea to buy some when they’re available and cheap.

If a bottle of fuel additive leaks, the vapors will be circulated throughout your cab via the heating system. Try to lock them up in a frame-mounted toolbox or anywhere else other than in your cab.

Try to avoid overuse of the fuel additives, which can create problems in your fuel system. This is a case of more is not better. Also, some engine manufacturers advise against the use of fuel additives, so check with your manufacturer first to make sure you won’t have warranty coverage issues.

Brent Calcut, a chemical specialist with Detroit Diesel Corp. said most common fuel additives out there do not contain ash (as in calcium and magnesium) and thus are suitable for use in trucks with diesel particulate filters.

He also mentioned that blending No. 1 diesel with No. 2 diesel will work as well; the ratio depends on how cold it gets.

Biodiesel has its advantages, and many truck operators have embraced the use of it. Unfortunately, the higher the percentage of biodiesel in your tanks, the sooner it will gel.

It’s cheap insurance to carry some fuel treatments, just in case your fuel still gels up. Power Service 911 and FPPF Melt Down are common products for this. Also, carry at least three spare fuel filters for each type of filter on your truck and a good siphon hose to fill them. If your fuel gels, you will need to replace them a few times until all of the solidified paraffin wax is out of your fuel system.


Heating system
When the weather is still warm, I doubt many people even wonder if their cab heaters are working. However, it is a good habit to use them once in awhile to circulate some engine coolant through the heater core.

The cab heater is tied into your truck engine’s cooling system. You need to make sure your cooling system is up to its job by checking the antifreeze protection levels, supplemental coolant additives, and the condition of all belts and hoses.

If your coolant level is low, it can keep your cab and bunk heaters from working properly.

If you smell antifreeze vapors in your cab or sleeper – which can cause headaches for some people – you may have a small leak in your heater core. Of course, this will be more obvious if you find antifreeze dripping out of the evaporator drain tubes on either the cab or sleeper. Get it fixed before you go anywhere because coolant vapors can cause serious respiratory problems.

Electrical system protection
Many states and provinces use harsh chemicals on roads for de-icing. While their application makes winter travel significantly safer, that stuff can cause serious corrosion in electrical systems.

Before winter hits, clean all open electrical connections (such as battery terminals, cables, and ground straps) and spray a few coats of terminal protector on them. Also, every connection you can safely get to in the lighting system on both the truck and trailer should be cleaned and coated with a layer of dielectric grease before being put back in place.

LED lights are designed to last longer than incandescent lights, but their useful life is often cut short because of corrosion forming at the connector base behind them, which eventually rots away the contacts. Do yourself a favor and protect your investment in those expensive lights.

Long-term parking
Most over-the-road trucks are equipped with engine block heaters that can be powered by 120-volt outlets. If your truck is going to be parked for a long period with the engine off in extremely cold temperatures, plug it in.

If you can, turn off all 12-volt accessories in the truck and connect a trickle charger to the batteries to keep them charged. Put a note on the steering wheel to remind yourself – or anyone else – to unplug the extension cord from the block heater and to remove the trickle charger before moving the truck.

Be sure your fuel has the proper amount of additives to prevent gelling and the engine has run long enough to circulate it throughout the fuel system. LL

Editor’s note: This article is for information purposes only. If you’re not sure about performing the work yourself, it’s advisable to seek the help of a competent professional.

Jeff Barker is an OOIDA member and a former certified diesel mechanic. He can be reached at