Prepare customers for winter with PM, the right products

Bill Headshot
Updated Nov 23, 2021
Truck driving on snowy expressway

[This article was originally published in 2019 by Trucks, Parts, Service. It has been updated to include more timely information.]

Along with winter comes below-freezing temperatures, snow and corrosive road chemicals, leading to gelled fuel, air and fluid lines that freeze or crack, dying batteries and failing electrical assemblies, among other problems that can sideline a truck or trailer.

Fortunately, aftermarket experts understand what problems to expect and explain which parts, products and services help drivers get back on the road.

Riding out the storm

Richard Nagel, director of marketing and customer solutions, air charging, Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems, says one of the top issues affecting heavy-duty trucks in the winter is the air dryer not operating properly. This can lead to excessive moisture and water in the service tanks, especially during freeze and thaw weather cycles.

“Once you get water into those service tanks and it gets into the lines of the different valves in the truck brake system, [during] prolonged cold that water then freezes and you start to get malfunctions in the brake system, which can leave the truck inoperable,” Nagel says.

[Related: Bendix Tech Tips touches on winterizing wheel-end, air systems, electronics and controls]

Another common problem is when the vehicle’s fuel partially or completely gels, clogging up the filter, says Steve Muth, chief chemist, The Penray Companies.

“Using a quality anti-gel additive like Penray’s Winter Pow-R Plus or Winter Blend to prevent crystallization and gel formation will eliminate most of these problems,” Muth says. “Even then, plugging can still occur if the fuel is contaminated with poor quality biodiesel, which often contains significant amounts of water and monoglycerides.”

If proper preventive measures have not been taken, or poor-quality fuel is in the system, Muth says a recovery product like Penray’s Winter Thaw is needed.

“We often hear from drivers or techs, ‘My fuel looks fine, but my filter [looks like it] is full of mayonnaise.’ Don’t throw out that filter. Pour in some Winter Thaw and put it back on the truck.”

When a vehicle has been sitting in cold weather, Muth suggests using starting fluid, which is easier to ignite than diesel fuel, “and burning even a small amount in the engine can flash-heat the combustion chambers to enable compression ignition to happen. In diesel engines, it is important to use premium starting fluid with high ether content.”

For vehicles exposed to harsh weather and de-icing chemicals, Phillips Industries suggests trucks should be spec’d with premium, sealed electrical harnesses and non-corrosive components such as non-metallic noseboxes and nylon plugs and sockets. The anti-corrosive properties of nylon will outlast its metal counterparts because of their susceptibility to corrosion.

Phillips also suggests frequently washing equipment to reduce magnesium and calcium chloride build-up. Phillips, however, warns against power washing, which can force water into tight areas and cause corrosion.

Phillips & Temro Industries (PTI) offers battery blankets that can wrap around batteries as well as a silicone pad heater that sits under the batteries. When plugged in overnight, these heaters, which use low wattage, keep the core of the starting battery warmer, enabling it to accept a charge sooner in very cold weather and help to extend battery life, according to the company.

PTI also offers an all-in-one system, the Thermostat and Immersion Heater System, that includes the engine block heater, thermostat, Y cord and receptacle. The system “turns the block heater on and off based on coolant temperature. Over the course of a winter, the savings on electricity can be as much as a third of the power used [versus] without the benefit of a thermostat solution,” says Ian Vriese, director of global sales.

[Related: Combating rustjacking is an industrywide effort]

“We typically see air system failures,” says Tim Grabow, vice president of operations, Blaine Brothers. “With an air system freeze up, the best practice if the truck is in the shop is to let the truck warm up and drain the air system and service the air dryer.”

Another common problem Blaine Brothers sees is gelled and iced fuel. When a truck sits overnight, the water will separate from the fuel. “If the fuel isn’t treated or maintained, the likelihood of ice in the tanks, lines or filters is quite high,” Grabow adds.

Should a driver get stuck on the side of the road or parking lot with a truck that quit running or won’t start, Blaine Brothers has 30 service trucks to come to the rescue.

Grabow says the calls for roadside service greatly increase in the winter because of blown hoses and various systems freezing up. He adds that all of the service trucks are equipped with most of the items needed to make on-site repairs. Blaine Brothers stocks up on block heaters, windshield washer fluid, wipers, batteries, starters, alternators and diesel additives.

“Many of the road service calls or breakdowns come from the out-of-towners that really don’t know how cold it gets up here,” Grabow says.

Columbia Fleet Service Inc. also offers roadside service with its fleet of 14 trucks.

“If we get a cold snap on a Saturday, we know Monday will be crazier than crazy because a truck will sit for a couple days,” says Kevin Murray, owner, Columbia Fleet Service Inc. “If drivers are going to have a problem, that’s when they’re going to have it.”

Columbia Fleet Service sees the typical problems trucks have in winter, such as locked up brakes and gelled fuel. The company is sure to stock its shop and service trucks with parts and products its customers will need during the winter months. The company makes sure it’s fully stocked with batteries and fuel additives, one to unfreeze the fuel and another to prevent the fuel from getting to that point, say Kevin Murray and Pat Murray, general manager and Kevin’s son.

“We go through a lot of red and blue air lines between the truck and the trailer because the plastic air lines get brittle in the cold,” Pat Murray adds.

In addition to parts for the entire air treatment system, brake line antifreeze, fuel treatments and diesel starting fluid, Midwest Wheel is sure to stock extension cords, salt, engine fuel heaters, ice scrapers, wipers and tire chains during the winter. The company also supplies many service garages.

“If you have it, you sell it,” says Michael Callison, Midwest Wheel chief operating officer. He says many products sold in winter are “truck down or truck frozen up” items, and they’re “not something a customer will wait for.”

Preparing for winter

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The adage holds true when it comes to prepping trucks before Old Man Winter makes his presence felt. PM service, along with providing must-have winter products, will give drivers and their trucks a better chance of getting through winter relatively unscathed. And, experts agree, it’s cheaper to prepare vehicles for the elements than to fix them if they go down during the cold weather.

Normal repairs plus wintertime issues “bring a level of chaos to our shop with emergency repairs or problems because equipment didn’t get PM service or winterization,” says Dean Dally, Blaine Brothers president and owner.

Another issue of ignoring PM before winter is the cost to the truck owner. “Typically the cost of doing preventative maintenance is much lower than having to deal with a service issue if it happens out on the road,” says Nagel.

Many aftermarket service providers don’t offer winterization services, per se. Instead, checklist items for winterization service are part of the companies’ regular PM they provide their customers.

“We start the winterization process as the regularly scheduled PM service comes due in [the fall]” says Dally. “Up here [in Minnesota], anyway, September and October are when we’re trying to get all of that done so all of our regular service fleets that we take care of are ready when the cold hits.”

Blaine’s winterization list includes checking the cooling system, including belts and hoses; load testing batteries; checking electrical connections on alternators and starters, among many other components; servicing the air dryer; and checking crank case and diesel exhaust fluid filters, says Grabow. “And we always make sure to check that block heater,” he adds.

The PM Columbia Fleet Services provides doesn’t change depending on the time of year. For example, if there’s a problem with the cooling system in July, Columbia will address it immediately, and battery terminals are cleaned all the time. If a vehicle doesn’t have extended life antifreeze, the customer will be notified, regardless of the time of year.

“Everything is done whenever we see issues. So when a guy comes in for a PM a couple times a year, we’re going to treat that vehicle the same all the time. Everything has to be right regardless of the season,” Kevin Murray says.

“If you have a comprehensive PM [schedule] and you stick to it all year, you really don’t have the issues a lot of people have that just change the oil. That’s what I stress to everybody,” he says. “I hate to see someone come in and just want an oil change and grease job. I just feel like they’re trying to save a buck by doing that, but it can cost them in the harsher weather.”

Midwest Wheel “offers our customers educated knowledge on what they should be doing. If a customer comes in and buys air brake antifreeze, our counter staff’s first question will be, ‘Are you draining your air tanks?’” Callison says. “Air brake antifreeze dries up the O-rings and the valves and it will cause some issues in the future. It should only be done in emergency cases. You’re having that problem because something else is wrong.”

Callison says it’s a similar situation with customers who purchase emergency fuel treatment because they’re not treating their fuel. “If you treat it, you wouldn’t have to use the emergency fuel treatment,” he adds.

Nagel says winterization of fleets typically occurs September through October and should include checking air dryer cartridges, purge valves, brake line connections, early signs of corrosion on the air dryer, pneumatic lines and wiring.

“As they say, heat kills batteries, they just don’t die until it gets cold,” says Muth. Topping off the water level with distilled water and cleaning the terminals with a battery cleaner will help cold weather starting, he says.

Other aspects of the vehicle that should be part of winterizing are checking the glycol content and freeze point of coolant and to add corrosion control supplements as needed. Muth adds PM before winter is the best time to replace fuel filters because it will be that much easier for gelled fuel to stop up old filters completely.

Stock up early

Not only do suppliers prepare early to make sure they have enough product on hand to meet demand from aftermarket distributors, parts and service providers must buy early or risk not having enough product on their shelves or paying more once the winter season begins.

“If you don’t buy by the end of September, you’re not in the game because there can be a 10 to 20 percent increase in price once you’re in season,” says Callison.

“We tend to err on the side of [ordering more] and if we have a little bit of stock left over, we’d rather have it and get the sale than not have it and not get the sale,” he says. “These products don’t go bad, so having a little bit of carryover isn’t the end of the world.”

PTI has booking programs in the summer enabling distributors to stock up on the most commonly used parts. The company says it also works with various product managers at the OES level to educate their dealers on what to stock for the upcoming season.“

Most large aftermarket distributors place their winter stocking orders between April 1 and June 15 each year,” says Vriese. “That gives PTI enough time to produce the required parts and have them on our distributors’ shelves by Labor Day in preparation for most fleets’ fall and winter PMs.”

Bendix starts heavily promoting its winter parts in the middle of the summer. The company says big sellers tend to be complete air dryers, air dryer cartridges and purge valves.

“We would advise customers to start early (August, September and October) in terms of bringing in stock. You don’t want to get left without a part on your shelf. Being in the market first and promoting vehicle winterization is always a good stance for a distributor to take,” says Jerry Conroy, former Bendix North American regional vice president, aftermarket sales.

Conroy cautions there are house brands available with marketing that represents Bendix’s trade names but aren’t Bendix products. “If you don’t ask for the genuine Bendix product, you might not know what you’re getting.”

Greg Mixon, director of sales, heavy-duty division, Penray, says the company offers an annual promotion on fuel and winter products in parts of the third and fourth quarter, and distributors “should have products on hand by late summer/early fall.”

He says they should be stocking diesel fuel additives, anti-gels, battery cleaners and general cold weather products, including windshield spray de-icer, windshield washer antifreeze and starting fluid.

“So few companies bulk up on inventory. There are some, but it’s so important that you have these products on your shelf or you’re not getting the sale because customers need it now. If you can’t get it to customers the same day or, at most, the next day, it’s too late,” Callison says. “And, if you don’t have it, you’re not getting the call for something else.”

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