Winter often presents a variety of challenges to contractors. To keep jobs moving as temperatures drop, the ground freezes and snow and ice cover worksites, it’s important to understand the capabilities and maintenance requirements of equipment. Compact utility loaders (sometimes called compact tool carriers, mini skid steers or mini track loaders, depending on the manufacturer) are versatile machines now found on many jobsites. Equipped with the right attachments, compact utility loaders or CULs add value in any season. In addition to standard jobsite tasks allowed by the weather, CULs can be equipped with blades and buckets to remove snow or spread salt. As snow accumulates and space on jobsites narrows, the machine’s maneuverability and compact size come in extra handy.
CUL features vary by make and model. Contractors looking to maximize productivity during the cold months of the year should consider:
- Traction control: A traction control system helps operators of all skill levels run the machine with ease and precision in various conditions.
- Tires and tracks: For CULs equipped with wheels, tires chains can provide additional traction for snow and wet soil conditions. The traction gained from tracks depends on the track pattern. When choosing between tires and tracks, it’s best to consider the equipment’s use throughout the year.
- Four-wheel drive: CULs equipped with tires should be equipped with four-wheel drive to further reduce the likelihood of getting stuck in tough conditions. Also, maintenance can be reduced with chainless systems.
- Cold start: To reduce the risk of start failures due to frigid temperatures, CULs equipped with cold start features can be highly beneficial. One way a cold start system functions is by gradually increasing the motor speed over a prolonged period until the motor reaches full speed. CULs with gasoline engines utilize an engine choke system to assist with cold starting. Diesel engines also include cold start features, such as a glow plug system, which preheats the air in the engine cylinders for easier starting. Additionally, when the CUL can’t be stored inside, or when overnight temperatures are below 10 degrees Fahrenheit, then users can consider utilizing a magnetic engine heater (obtained from a local retailer). The magnetic engine starter can be attached to the diesel engine oil pan and/or to the metal hydraulic tank or frame around the hydraulic tank to warm the hydraulic fluid and allow the warm oil to flow and reduce the load on the cold engine.
- Power optimization: Prevent bogging down in heavy conditions by automatically controlling the machine speed and optimizing performance with power optimization.
- Controls: In cold weather, operators are bundled up for a good reason. Consider how easily and accurately the CUL’s controls can be used when wearing winter gloves. Joysticks are great for functionality in the cold months and throughout the rest of the year.
- Available attachments: In addition to the machine’s capabilities, it’s crucial to ensure the attachments available for the CUL align with jobsite needs. Also, for additional weather protection, users can consider including three-sided non-heated canopies that fit around the operator area to keep the operator protected from the harsh weather conditions.
Optimize Time Spent
Cold weather can bring issues with starting equipment, machine performance and more. With a little bit of know-how, many would-be problems never arise.
- Start well: When starting an engine in cold conditions, running at mid-throttle for two to five minutes before increasing to high throttle can be helpful. If the outdoor temperature is below freezing and there is access to a garage or other building, store the machine there to keep it warmer and aid in starting. Never run an engine in an enclosed area.
- Run at the right speed: When a hydraulic system is cold — meaning the air temperature is at or below freezing — running the engine at high speeds could damage the hydraulic system.
- Use the correct fuel: Using an improper fuel grade in the machine may result in engine failure, or the engine may start but not continue running. Using clean, fresh (within 180 days of purchase) diesel and biodiesel fuel is important for optimal performance. Most machines also benefit from ultra-low sulfur content and cetane ratings of 50 and higher. Around mid-September, winter-blend gasoline and diesel fuels are delivered to fuel stations. When temperatures reach around 32 degrees Fahrenheit and colder, diesel fuel is acceptable to gel. Additionally, there are options for fuel additives for diesel fuel to lower the fuel gel point and raise the cetane to improve the ignition point for enhanced cold starting. At lower temperatures, winter-grade fuel provides a lower flash point and cold flow characteristics, which aid in starting and reduce filter plugging.
- Protect your charge: Keeping the CUL’s battery fully charged is especially important to prevent battery damage when the temperature is below freezing. It’s also recommended to ensure the charger doesn’t get wet and is protected from rain and snow. With lithium-ion batteries, electric machines can discharge at a quicker rate in temperatures around 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and it can lower the runtime. Additionally, there are temperature sensors in electric CULs that may prevent the motor from starting until the temperature is above the threshold or above 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Become familiar with all controls: By understanding the controls before starting the machine, operator errors are minimized — as is time spent in the cold.
Also, be sure to perform recommended maintenance tasks daily. This includes conducting a thorough visual inspection, topping off fluids, keeping filters clean, lubricating properly and performing a safety check.