Precautions for the Cold: Winterizing Equipment
AS AUTUMN COMES TO A CLOSE, dropping temperatures and burgeoning Christmas lights serve as a reminder that winter is just around the corner. In the landscape industry, this means two things: first, it’s time to get the snow plows out; second, it might not be a bad idea to keep your equipment properly maintained so it can handle the coming chill.
There’s a plethora of parts, machines and blowers that need to be kept in check at all times to ensure that they continue to function smoothly for years to come. During the winter, much of this equipment will be out of commission. After all, why keep a mower or trencher fueled up and ready to go when snow has been covering all of your clients’ lawns for three weeks straight? For this reason, it’s absolutely crucial that you make sure your equipment is stored away in tip-top condition if you want it to continue to operate once spring hits.
“We usually start our winterizing in October,” says Steve Miserocchi, president of Cara-Tera & Statuary, Kirkwood, Montana. “Right now we’re having a lot of rainy days, so on those days we’ll do a lot of storage and clean-up work. It gives the guys some time to be productive when they may not have anything to do in the field, plus it gets all of our stuff ready for the winter.”
Many things need to be addressed during the winterization process. You must make sure the equipment you plan on stowing away is in good working condition and that all the fuel is either drained completely out of the machine or mixed with a fuel stabilizer. You then have to put everything in storage for the winter and make sure that all the items are covered so they are safe from precipitation. And if you offer snow removal services, you must make sure you have enough plows attached to enough vehicles so that they can successfully tackle the snow-packed streets when the big storm hits. These are all the steps of winterization, in a nutshell. Now let’s open up that nutshell and look at each step one by one.
Some companies have mechanics that will inventory each piece of equipment before it is stored. At All-American Turf Beauty in Van Meter, Iowa, for example, a mechanic will look at every engine, performing oil changes and making sure everything is working properly. If there are issues with a piece of equipment, the proper repairs will be made before it’s put in storage. This way, once the winter is over, nobody has to worry about the equipment malfunctioning when it’s time to put it to use once again.
“We’ll service the engine and change the oil for most of our small engines,” says Kevin Johnson, president of All-American Turf Beauty. “Sometimes we’ll try to get all the gas out, other times we’ll put the fuel stabilizer in there. It depends on how much gas is in there.”
Cara-Tera Landscape & Statuary follows the same protocol. Before items go into storage, the company will have scheduled inspections for each piece of equipment, looking for flaws such as cracked muffler covers or frayed wires. “This way, everything will be 110% when we put it away for the winter,” says Miserocchi. “By next spring, we won’t have to worry about anything.”
You should make sure that all the oil filters and fuel filters are changed. Then take a look at hydraulic fluids and wear points for excessive damage. Keep an eye for worn tires that might need replacing, check the bearings and check the batteries and air filters to see if they need to be replaced.
“We have a full-time mechanic who will run down the checklist and make sure everything’s checked off before storing it away,” says Mike Cioffi, sales and services manager at Borst Landscape & Design, Allendale, New Jersey.
Unattended, gasoline tends to gum up inside the carburetor as it loses its octane value. The more the fuel interacts with air and moisture, the gummier and stickier it will get and the more likely it is to cling to the sides of the fuel tank. For these reasons, contractors should not store gasoline inside an engine’s fuel tank for any longer than two months if they don’t plan on using the engine during that time. The fuel should either be drained completely or mixed with a fuel stabilizer.
“Fuel stabilizers keep the gas from going sour,” says Miserocchi. “It gives it more longevity. We’ll use a stabilizer made by Champion which is pretty effective.”
Stabilizers should be added in the fall only on machines that won’t be in use for the winter. After you’ve filled the tank with the stabilizer, the engine should be operated for several minutes. This will draw the stabilized gasoline into the carburetor. Even after you’ve mixed the fuel stabilizers with the gas and put them in storage, it’s a good idea to take the equipment out several times during the winter and turn each unit on. “We try to pull the equipment out and run it once or twice a month in the winter because we think it’s good for the engine,” says Miserocchi. It’s best to add fuel stabilizers if you have machines whose fuel tanks are nearly full come winterizing season. However, if those fuel tanks are approaching the empty mark, you’re best off draining the tanks completely. Most machines come with an owner’s manual that will provide detailed information about how to drain the fuel system. After following each step in the manual, you should collect the leftover gas in a storage container. It can be used to power the vehicles that will be in use during the winter.
This way, no fuel is wasted. If your machines run on diesel fuel, draining or mixing fuel stabilizers shouldn’t be necessary. Diesel fuel doesn’t lose octane as quickly as regular gasoline, so most grades will be able to hold up over the winter. Diesel-powered machines should be taken out and operated now and again, though, for the sake of caution. The coolant should also be tended to. Adding antifreeze into the water is necessary in order to avoid freezing during the winter. “We’ll add antifreeze to anything that has water in it,” says Johnson. “If that water freezes, it will do major harm to the equipment.”
Once you’ve performed all necessary repairs on your equipment and attended to the fuel, it’s time to stow it away. Some landscape companies have large warehouses in which to store equipment. “We’re fortunate in that we have a large three-bay door warehouse where we can store all of our gas-powered equipment inside over the winter,” says Miserocchi. “We also have a carport where we’ll keep any vehicles we won’t be using.”
“We keep our lawnmowers and our spray equipment stored inside after they’ve been winterized to absolutely eliminate any chance of them getting damaged,” says Cioffi. Not all companies have warehouses in which to store equipment. Also, they may not have much space to work with inside their facilities. In these cases, a common solution is to store the equipment outside. “We try to store as much indoors as possible, but because of all the equipment we have, some has to be stored outside,” says Johnson. “We’ve got all kinds of equipment. It takes a pretty concentrated effort to make sure that it all gets taken care of, so for our lawn spray equipment, we’ll put it all out in the yard on a palate. We’ll put a tarp on top of it to protect it from precipitation.”
According to Johnson, small pieces of equipment are better left inside, as they’re more liable to get stolen or misplaced outside. Large pieces of equipment such as lawn sprayers take up a lot of room and, in circumstances where inside space is especially tight, should go outside. Nonetheless, it’s ideal to store everything inside whenever possible. Leaving your equipment outside should be considered a last resort for when you’re particularly crunched on space. “Really, the only thing that’s left outside for us are the pickup trucks and the plow blades,” says Miserocchi. “Our leaf axes go underneath a large carport, so they’re protected from snow. I guess the important thing is, if you have to leave anything outside, just make sure the snow won’t be able to touch it.” PVC piping can offer contractors a great way to design a makeshift outdoor storage area. The pipes can be laid to form a teepee-like structure.
A tarp can then be stretched out over the pipes. What’s left is a small, easy-to-transport and inexpensive storage tent. “It’s so light, you can just lift it up and over your equipment,” says Miserocchi. “It keeps snow and rain away from the equipment and makes corrosion very minimal Some companies bring in extra revenue during the winter by plowing the snow from their clients’ properties. Those that do should start preparing their vehicles in the fall to be able to handle whatever elements come their way. “To let our trucks sit idle would be like if we owned a factory and shut down for the winter,” says Cioffi, whose entire fleet of trucks is outfitted with plows at the end of every fall in preparation for the snow removal season. “It’s just not a very practical thing to do. Snow is one of our main revenue streams.”
First and foremost, any vehicle that will be put to use on snowpaved streets should be properly lubricated, as exposure to salt can cause equipment to rust. All spring mechanisms and brake pads should be lubricated. There are also joints along the plow that should be assessed each winter to determine if any welding is necessary. Markers can be attached to the side of the plow so drivers can see how far the plow extends to avoid hitting curbs and other vehicles. In addition, items such as spreaders and snow blowers should have their fluids checked and refilled if necessary.
“Every plowing truck we use during the winter gets a tool box,” says Cioffi. “Inside are things like flashlights, spare plow pins and spare hydraulic lines so that if the driver blows the line he can replace it. We also send our people out to stake the properties we’ll be plowing ahead of time.” Not every plow has to be attached to a truck. Some contractors will fit their mowers with plows to handle tight spaces. Four-wheelers are also well suited for plow attachments. “We’ve been thinking about using ATD four-wheelers because they’re very versatile,” says Miserocchi. “They’re great on big sidewalks because they’re smaller and have better maneuverability. We can also fit spray tanks onto the sides to apply herbicides and pesticides.”
What winterization comes down to is planning and preparation. Planning for the cold that threatens to freeze the fuel in your equipment and preparing your equipment and your vehicles for the storms that loom ahead. A good contractor should not underestimate the winter season. After all, a landscape business cannot exist without equipment, and there are plenty of natural forces that threaten to harm it, especially in the winter. “A lot of this has to do with planning,” says Cioffi. “You have to have everything up to snuff, but if you haven’t done any planning, it will lead you nowhere.”