How Cold Weather Affects Heavy Equipment

by Brian Frederick
February 1, 2018

Whether it’s figuring out how to pour concrete foundations in suboptimal conditions or trying to keep your employees warm, winter brings a new layer of difficulty to construction. Tasks that are relatively simple in warmer months are a whole lot more complicated when temperatures plummet. And your equipment isn’t exempt from its effects. Cold weather affects it just as much — or more — than anything else on the jobsite.

Here’s a look at exactly what’s happening to your machines when it drops below freezing:

The engine

Engines don’t like cold weather. Even low viscosity oils are considerably thicker when it’s freezing, which leads to more resistance to movement from internal parts. Couple this with a cold battery that has less pulling voltage, and it can be a real struggle to start a cold engine on a frigid day.

But once you get the engine to turn over, your problems aren’t over. The cold also leads to condensation which can lead to problems in the fuel system. Cooling systems generally operate with a 50/50 mix of coolant to water, but in the most extreme temperatures, the water is subject to freezing.

Hydraulic hoses can crack when flexing occurs in cold temperatures and uninsulated electrical components and wiring are vulnerable to breaking as they become more brittle. If the asset is put to work too quickly, without sufficient warm up, any parts under stress are more likely to fail.

Diesel engines especially struggle in colder temperatures, as fuel drops to its cloud point — the point where wax crystals start becoming insoluble in fuel and it takes on a cloudy appearance. As the temperature drops further, these crystals stick together, forming a gel that clogs the fuel filter. While this cloud point varies by fuel batch, most ultra-low sulfur diesels have a cloud point in the 20s. Cold flow treatments are an effective way to prevent fuel gelling, but they must be added before wax appears. Equipment operating on diesel exhaust fluid requires a heating element to keep flowing, as DEF freezes at 12 degrees Fahrenheit.

Low operating temperatures can also negatively affect emissions systems, as particulate filters will collect particulate more quickly. This negatively impacts productivity and fuel consumption.

But it’s not all negative: cold weather can actually give your engine a boost, thanks to increased air density. Because air temperature is inversely proportional to the number of air molecules, more energy is release in the combustion cycle. For example, the density from air at 85 degrees versus 0 is a drop of 10% in Kelvin. That means 10% more energy in each combustion cycle, or a 10% increase in horsepower.

Tires and tracks

Air density significantly affects air tires, with pressure dropping one psi for every drop of 10 degrees Fahrenheit. This impacts on fuel efficiency, wear and overall safety. Solid tires are still at risk for uneven wear, cracking and chunking caused by frigid temperatures outside.

Equipment on tracks tends to handle better in less-than-ideal conditions, but if mud and snow are allowed to accumulate on the undercarriage, problems becomes much more likely.

Both types of equipment are also subject to severe damage if they become frozen to the ground.

The exterior

Extreme cold temperatures can damage the exterior of your equipment. Cold and freezing weather can cause paint to chip and seats to crack, leaving your asset less attractive and damaging potential resale value. Small chips in glass can turn into large cracks from moisture that has seeped into them.

Operation

As if all the problems cold weather can cause for equipment weren’t enough, the worst hasn’t been mentioned yet — how it affects operation. As anyone who has ever run an excavator in sub-zero temperatures can attest, it’s no fun. It requires a different approach from warmer months, as bad conditions can cause dangerous situations if the operator isn’t careful.

Minuscule cracks in the seals around doors or windows can create an uncomfortable work environment as icy wind blasts the operator. Hidden patches of ice or frozen ground can cause equipment to slip, leading to collision and accidents.

If there is snow on the ground, what looks like a serene patch of untouched snow can actually be concealing a hidden obstruction or a frozen-over body of water. Operation in sub-zero temperatures requires an even greater level of caution than normal.

Cold affects every aspect of construction

Nearly every aspect of construction is impacted by cold weather, not least of all your equipment. But by being aware of the challenges winter brings, and how they affect your equipment, you can keep working year-round.

With ES Track, you can ensure you’re operating at peak efficiency, no matter what the thermometer says. Get up-to-the-minute reporting on utilization, status and location in real-time, so you can maximize your fleet whether it’s January or June.

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