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January 28, 2011 8:00 AM, EST

Opinion: Truck Maintenance Tips: The Top 11 for 2011

By Steve Rober

Executive Sales Director

Schaeffer Manufacturing

This Opinion piece appears in the Jan. 24 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

As we head into 2011, it’s important to look back at the lessons of previous years. Let’s face it; nobody likes to make the same mistake twice. Maintenance professionals in particular always should be looking for procedures that have prevented downtime and failures in the past. Establishing those procedures as the basis for preventive maintenance allows us to concentrate on the daily problems and needs of our business.

The following list offers 11 tried-and-true measures that can help you keep your equipment on track for this year, particularly during these cold-weather months. I hope you’ll find that some will assist in making your fleet operate more smoothly this year. You may even save yourself a few headaches in the process.

1. Maintain a quarterly testing routine for bacteria proliferation and contamination in both the fuel and the storage tanks, especially for vehicles put in storage for extended periods of time. Sulfur serves as a natural biocide in diesel fuel, killing off the bacteria present. However, the reduced sulfur level in the now-standard ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel allows bacteria to survive and grow in your tanks. Measuring bacteria levels quarterly ensures that they don’t get out of control in your tanks and storage units. Add the quarterly tests to your calendar today.

2. Use a moisture-control treatment before or during the winter months to disperse and encapsulate water in the fuel to protect engine components and prevent water from becoming a habitat for those bacteria mentioned in tip number one. Without water, bacteria can’t survive, so cutting off the water will save your engines from all kinds of problems.

3. Keep an emergency supply of fuel anti-gel in each truck to keep fuel and diesel oils flowing despite cold weather and to help reduce downtime and towing costs. Prepare for frigid temperatures by having one gallon of anti-gel per expected fill-up. Deicer is an inexpensive way to prevent hundreds of dollars in towing fees, downtime and lost production. As with any additives, however, remember to check the relevant original equipment manufacturer warranties, making sure the treatment doesn’t void them.

4. Regularly perform a manual verification that every tire is properly inflated. Tire pressure changes when temperatures drop, reducing fuel economy and creating a greater risk of tire failure at high speeds. Underinflated tires also affect weight distribution, which in turn can cause problems with the framework, alignment, traction, steering and braking. Nobody likes checking tire pressure, especially in cold weather. That simple fact means educating drivers about the necessity for this key practice is an ongoing challenge, but one with a definite payoff.

5. Refuel only at quality fuel-supplier locations. Discount fuel is often out-of-specification, untreated fuel that quality suppliers already have rejected. You could wind up saving a penny or two on the up-front cost, only to give up 2% to 4% in fuel economy because of a low API (American Petroleum Institute) gravity spec. The math just doesn’t work.

6. Check the filter on your pump periodically. If it appears old, it probably is, and debris and dirt are now being pumped into your fuel tank — and possibly to your carburetor or injectors. It is also a good idea to make a practice of changing fuel filters in the fall.

7. Trucking professionals in northern regions know how cold their diesel can flow and can choose from several commercially available winter additives to help prevent the formation of large wax crystals that quickly can plug fuel lines and filters. It’s normal for a small amount of wax to be present in diesel fuel, but chemical changes in ULSD fuel have increased the wax content, making the particles more concentrated and harder to disperse.

8. Switch from conventional oil to the fully synthetic variety. The upgrade often pays for itself with better fuel economy, as well as almost eliminating the need to plug in the block motor heater except during extreme weather conditions.

9. Check your battery’s age before cold- and hot-weather seasons arrive. Ensure the battery is secured and the connections are tight to prevent any malfunctions. Replace the battery if it has exceeded 72 months. Nobody wants to hear the dismal “thunk” of a dead battery under any conditions, but at a dangerous -20 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s a sound that could cost you more than just time and money.

10. Be sure to lubricate fifth wheels and king pins in cold or icy weather. Properly lubricated fifth wheels keep trailers from binding and allow easier turning in snow, ice and slush. Pins and undercarriages are exposed to ice, salt and moisture more during winter months than any other time of the year. Grease may wash out or be degraded by road salt if relubrication intervals are too long.

11. Evaluate and track each truck’s usage and mileage for appropriate preventive maintenance needs on a regular basis. This is critical in determining what preventive measures need to be taken for each truck in the fleet. A regular maintenance program can help determine issues with the radiator, hoses, belts and cooling system.

Have a great 2011 and keep looking forward — but don’t forget to check your rearview mirror.

Schaeffer Manufacturing, which has headquarters in St. Louis, makes synthetic oils, fuel additives and other products.