For many companies, that familiar chill in the air means it’s time to put some machines to bed for the winter. For others, it’s also a signal to pull out the snow equipment. No matter what the coming months bring, it’s critical to take care of your equipment now so it can keep taking care of you.
Winterizing equipment isn’t something you can bill for, but it’s still one of the most important jobs your company performs.
A good winterization program helps ensure that you’ll hit the ground running next spring instead of wasting precious time fixing machines. It also makes all the difference for snow and ice contractors as crews attempt to start machines on cold, snowy nights.
It can be tempting to put this task on the back burner. After an intensely busy season, maintenance is often the last thing anyone wants to deal with. For contractors who stay busy year-round, it can be hard to squeeze it in between mow season and snow season.
But skipping a thorough winterization program is a costly mistake.
“I cannot stress how important this is,” says Todd LeJeune, shop manager for Bill’s Landscaping, Enfield, Connecticut. “If you don’t do it, you can come into the season with nothing but nightmares.”
Contractors who put off winterization “until a more convenient time” quickly learn that there’s nothing less convenient than an unexpected breakdown—especially one that could have been prevented with good maintenance.
“It may seem trivial at the time,” says LeJeune. “You may think you’ll come back to it later, but nine times out of ten, no one ever gets back to it. Then when the season comes and you need your equipment, you start having problems.”
Keeping the fleet ready to roll involves multiple steps performed according to manufacturer’s recommendations for each machine.
For items that will be put away for a few months, the task typically includes a thorough cleaning, inspecting and replacing parts, making sure all systems are functioning properly, lubricating, draining or stabilizing fuel and proper storage.
Washing is a key step. It gives you a chance to take a good look at your equipment and even helps make it less appealing to unwelcome furry visitors.
“Anytime you let leaves and debris remain in your equipment, you increase the risk of rodents,” says Steve Bjorgan, operations manager for Reliable Property Services, St. Paul, Minnesota. “They like to nest in mufflers and chew up seats.”
Ed Cole, manager of technical services for Toro’s landscape contractor equipment, suggests blowing machines off with compressed air, then washing them. While some use pressure washing, he advises against it because this could introduce water into places it shouldn’t go.
Checking and replacing parts and fluids and making sure everything works as it should is another primary goal of winterization. This usually includes a complete multi-point inspection based on the manufacturer’s guidelines.
For We Care Lawn Care, a Holland, Michigan landscape maintenance and snow-removal company, the winterization process starts in late fall.
“Once fall cleanup is done, we usually have the last week of November and the first week of December to get all the equipment taken care of,” says Matt Darby, owner. “Before we put mowing equipment away, every fluid is changed; every filter is changed; every blade is sharpened and put back on. Our goal is to have every thing done before snow flies, so in spring we don’t have to do anything but check the air pressure and take off.”
Darby says this allows employees to keep working a little longer. “It’s also fresh in our minds. If there’s a problem with a machine, we may as well get it taken care of right now. In the Midwest, spring is such a hectic time of year. We can go from snowplow damage repair, to spring clean-up to mowing in a matter of two or three days. If your equipment isn’t ready to go, you have big problems.”
For Reliable Property Services, a big part of the job is getting the fleet of trucks ready to push the large volumes of snow dished out during a typical Minnesota winter.
“We have more than 100 pickups,” says Bjorgan. “We run about 20 in summer and all of them in winter. All of our trucks are maintained by the start of winter. All oils are changed, filters are changed and tires are replaced, if needed. Brakes, steering and gear boxes are checked. Anything I can do now will help later—resulting in fewer phone calls that I’ll get when these guys grab them for the first snowstorm.”
Stabilizing or draining fuel in gasoline engines is another important step for machines that are going into storage. The organic compounds that make up fuel change over time, forming new compounds that alter the characteristics of the fuel. As fuel is exposed to elements from the surrounding environment, it can form a lacquer that gums up fuel lines, carburetors and injectors.
Fuel stabilizer extends storage time and prevents contamination by forming a barrier on the surface of the gasoline. This protects the engine and helps prolong its life.
“On big machines, add fuel stabilizer and run the unit to ensure it’s mixed and distributed completely through the entire fuel system,” says Cole. “This is good for approximately six months of storage.”
For storage longer than six months, Cole recommends draining and running the system dry. He also advises this for smaller machines. “On small machines, it is generally easier to simply run the system dry instead of storing it with fuel in the unit.”
If you don’t take care of fuel, you could be in for an ugly surprise in spring.
Starting up equipment periodically can reduce surprises . . .go out and start your machines from time to time and run them for five minutes or so.
“Condensation collects in the tank and carburetor,” says LeJeune. “The fuel can turn into a varnish, which can cause it to seize up.
You might be looking at completely rehauling or replacing that carburetor, which could cost $200 or more. ” That’s if you have someone like LeJeune on staff. “Companies that don’t have a maintenance guy will have to bring the machine in and wait for someone to repair it,” he points out. “This can quickly turn into a $500 or $600 bill.”
Proper storage is another crucial part of the winterization equation. Cool and dry is the goal.
Reliable Property Services has ample indoor storage but also purchases used, watertight sea containers to protect equipment stored outdoors. “Forty-foot sea containers have been a nice way to store things,” says Bjorgan. “They can be purchased from local companies who will buy a lot of 50 or so and sell them for between $1,500 and $4,000.”
Once your equipment is put away, don’t just forget about it. Checking every so often for rodents is a good idea. Starting machines up periodically can also reduce surprises.
“We recommend that you go out and start your machines from time to time and run them for five minutes or so,” says Deloran Payne, assistant service manager, Grassland Equipment and Irrigation Corporation, a Latham, New York distributor and service center. “This swaps out the fuel and keeps fresh gas in the carburetor.”
Staying ahead of the maintenance game
One of the biggest mistakes people make in seasonal maintenance is failing to address seemingly minor issues right away. For example, says Bjorgan, constantly putting air in a tire without addressing the reason it needs air is asking for trouble.
“Air doesn’t just disappear,” says Bjorgan. “A tire that someone is adding air to today will give you problems down the road. A low tire builds heat and explodes on the road.”
At this point it’s not just a productivity issue; it’s about liability. “Sometimes other employees may think I’m being too cautious,” says Brjorgan, “but I can’t over-emphasize the importance of being thorough. When you see something that’s not right, you need to address it. Stop and do it now, and save yourself a bigger problem later.”
Without this attention to detail, inexpensive issues can easily become expensive ones. LeJeune illustrates the point with snowblower maintenance.
“You have to make sure the skids are adjusted to the right height so the scraper blade isn’t damaged,” he says. “When you have damaged blades, you can get into damaged buckets. To replace a bucket, you may be looking at around $2,000. At this point, a lot of people end up throwing equipment away. There could be nothing wrong with the engine, but you need a new bucket because you never adjusted your skids.”
Establishing a fail-proof, replicable system for winterization is key.
Most employees have the best intentions, but without a reliable system it’s easy for life to get in the way.
“We’ve gotten to the point in our business where this is just like going out and mowing lawns, clearing leaves or removing snow,” says Darby. “It’s a job that has to get done. And we make sure it does get done. It doesn’t generate revenue, but if you don’t do it, you won’t be generating revenue with the equipment you have because it’s going to be broken.”
Darby, a self-described “stickler for maintenance,” developed this attitude from mistakes he made in his early days.
“I wound up paying so much because I didn’t maintain anything for awhile. I learned the hard way. If I would just have spent $100 or $200 servicing a machine regularly before I put it away, I’d have had much fewer problems.”
There are many ways to track and prompt maintenance, from checklists to reminders programmed into an electronic calendar, to business management software that includes equipment tracking tools. There are also specialty software packages for man aging vehicles and other equipment.
“We use a system called Fleet Mate for our trucks,” says Bjorgan. “It allows us to keep track of all vehicles and any repairs and maintenance. It helps with DOT audits and helps us isolate problems. If a vehicle is having breakdowns more frequently, it helps us find out who’s been using it and tells us if we should stop using it in particular applications.”
Who’s minding the shop
Depending on the size of the company, contractors may service their own machines with in-house staff or have winterization performed by local service centers. Regardless of who is doing the work, reliability is key.
For those who don’t have an inhouse mechanic, it’s especially critical to establish a good working relationship with a reputable servicing center. They should know your company enough to understand your needs and partner in your success.
“We try to give priority to contractors because we know they’re trying to make money with their machines,” says Payne. “Knowing they have a place to go when things break down or need maintenance gives them piece of mind, especially if they’ve already established a good working rapport. We take care of those guys first.”
For contractors who have their own mechanic or team of mechanics on staff, it’s important that they have a professional attitude and a big-picture understanding of your business and the industry as a whole. This will help them prioritize and continually look for ways to prevent downtime.
Some companies, like Bill’s Landscaping, keep a part-time shop manager on staff. Good communication systems and a team-oriented approach help this scenario succeed.
Bjorgan emphasizes the importance of staying up-to-date. He regularly attends seminars on issues that will impact the company. He also reads a lot. “You’ve got to read,” he says. “We receive many periodicals, and I read as much as I can. I want to see what else is out there and what’s changing.”