Top Tips for Driving in the Winter
Every month, Scot Barney, a truck driver with over 18 years of experience, including ten years with LGT, will share safety and maintenance information based on his research and personal experience. This month, Scot is providing tips to help drivers prepare for the winter season.
Winter Challenges in Trucking
As the world turns, different parts of it get closer or farther away from the sun... In some places it can be pretty dramatic. Some folks really look forward to it. I know I didn't really think much about it at all until I had the brilliant idea to move to Minnesota and then winter and I developed a whole new understanding. I discovered that it is better for the temperature to drop to about 10 degrees and stay there rather than oscillate around the freezing point. The roads thaw during the day and freeze at night making morning drive time a demolition derby exhibition. The salt trucks scare the crap out of some folks and you can be stuck in long trains of people afraid to pass them. Some of them think they have to drive 15 mph while others are driving like it is just another day and are ignoring the snowpocalypse entirely. Fun times.
A cold winter makes the big truck towing companies a lot of money. The temps drop down below zero and catch some of us unaware. You see some folks limping along the interstate with their fuel gelling, huffing out long plumes of white smoke until they sputter to a stop on the shoulder. I think it was the winter of 2019 when I counted over 50 big truck breakdowns over the course of 2 days.
Understanding Fuel Gelling
Lower cetane fuel will start to gel at around 15 degrees and clog up diesel filters. Fleet Maintenance Manager, Christian Spaccarotella, covered the science involved in this article: How Negative Temperatures Affect Diesel Engines.
It doesn't really take super cold temperatures for this to happen. I've actually had it happen to me in Louisiana when I left my truck at a low fuel level over a thirty some-odd degree weekend in Texas. I drove a couple hundred miles at significantly reduced horsepower, added 3 bottles of red power service, and had my filters changed in Hammond, LA before the issue was resolved.
Many of the truck stops offer #1 diesel blends during the winter. Kwik Trip, which is all over the Midwest, sells premium year-round and TundraMaxx diesel during the winter which is good to -35. I ran premium almost the entire time I worked up here and never regretted the higher cost. My truck just felt like it ran better with higher cetane fuel.
Here are some links to the details some of the big brand winterized fuel offerings:
Preventing Wiper Blade Damage
A few other lessons that I learned through trial by ice were that standard windshield wipers are not very good for snow and ice and that a driver can get really hot if they have to run the defroster on max to keep the windshield from freezing. Also, if the windshield does ice up, it will tear up the wiper blades really fast. You could stop occasionally and slap the blades against the windshield but I also discovered that, if the ice is thick enough, you can crack the glass doing that. I started leaving my visors down all winter. It keeps more of the heat from defroster circulating on the glass instead of blowing back into the truck. I found that method to be more effective than what I had been doing before. I also bought some heated wipers off of Amazon. I think they were a few hundred bucks but it was some of the best money I ever spent on my truck.
Warming your Truck
Another big issue I had during the winter was that even with a block heater at the drop yard, it took a ridiculously long time to warm up my truck. I know some people just fire it up and let it rip, but after an expensive fuel/oil leak repair, I checked the Cummins manual. It recommends a minimum operating temperature of 130 degrees. When it was 10 or 20 below, I couldn't get the truck up to 100 degrees, so I bought a winter front kit. This was very helpful, not just with warm-up time but also with the effectiveness of the defroster.
Avoiding Slips and Falls
It's worth mentioning that winter time is also dangerous when one is just walking around on the ground. Ice is really slick, especially when one has been in a vehicle with the heat circulating around their feet and their slippery shoes are hot enough to melt that ice a little bit. Last winter, 2022-2023, I fell down a lot. I was far too lax about wearing my cleats. One night, as I was getting out of the truck at the grocery store in Monticello, MN to restock on provisions for the truck, I made a compound error. I didn’t strap the cleats on over my boots and I also exited the cab in a manner not at all approved by our safety department, you know, with only 2 points of contact, as if I was just walking down to the basement to get some canned soup.
Well, what I discovered when I arrived at ground floor of planet Earth was that there was a large patch of really, really slick black ice. As I stepped down, my risky 2 points of contact rapidly became a very unexpected zero points of contact. I landed flat on my back and found myself looking up at the constellations. Time was on a string like slow spinning humiliation. After I turned about 720 degrees and knew that only my pride was injured, I started to laugh like a crazy person and continued to turn.
Tips to avoid slips and falls
- Try to park where access to the truck is clear and dry.
- Use 3 points of contact when entering or exiting the cab.
- Face toward the truck on entry and exit.
- Keep your hands free.
- Take small steps to maintain your center of gravity.
- Wear slip-resistant footwear that is in good repair.
- Be aware of the condition of the terrain around you.
- Allow time for unexpected delays during adverse conditions.
- Be aware of the state of the road surface at all times, especially when temperatures are around 32 degrees. When the road thaws and freezes again is particularly dangerous. Watch for road spray from the tires of your neighbors, or check your mirrors for spray from your own drives. In low light, use your work lights to get a good look.
- Use treated fuel or fuel treatment additives in cold weather to avoid costly breakdowns.
- Be prepared for limited visibility from falling snow, snow blowing across the road, and ice accumulating on your windshield and wiper blades. If you do a lot of winter driving, heated wipers are a great investment.
- Warm up your engine to the manufacturer's suggested minimum temps to avoid damaging pumps and seals in the fuel and oil systems. Use a block heater when you can’t idle your truck to avoid long warm-up times. Also, installing a winter front on your grill can ensure that your engine will run in the recommended temperature range out on the road and will help the HVAC while idling.