Don’t Let Snow Put Your Business On Ice

Featured in: Compact Equipment

By Chapman Hancock, Ditch Witch product manager of CTS and service parts

It’s hard to avoid winter temperatures, especially when living in the depths of the Midwest, coastal New England and the rolling mountains of the West. While hats, gloves, boots and down coats can help keep underground construction operators warm on a job, there is no apparel that will do the same for their equipment. Operators must winterize equipment to keep it in tip-top operating shape through the bone-chilling months. Just because there’s snow on the ground doesn’t mean you have to put your business on ice.

Fueling Your Business Through Winter Months

Winterizing equipment can save you valuable time and money as temperatures drop, the ground freezes and snow begins to fall. The amount of winter care your equipment needs is dependent on the type of machine, how it’s being used and the climate you’re operating in. As a best practice, always check your operator manual for guidelines on servicing your equipment throughout the year, and keep the following tips in mind:

  • Prepare for frost. As temperatures drop, the first step on a job is to dig a pilot hole or trench to see where the frost line is located. Year-to-year frost depth can change, and it can slow down production and make it easier to break a chain. In hard, deep frost conditions, treat operations as though you are digging in hard rock conditions. The best chains for these conditions include alligator tooth chains and weld-on Shark® tooth chains. In soft, less deep frosts, combo chains will work best. For best chain recommendations, see your local Ditch Witch dealer.
  • Keep fresh teeth on hand. Teeth wear faster in cold temperatures, particularly when working in frost conditions and hardened soils that are more abrasive. As a rule of thumb, check your teeth twice a day during winter months, once in the morning before a job begins and once at the end of each day. Have fresh teeth on hand to quickly change out when needed to keep your equipment working efficiently in cold conditions.
  • Check chain tension. In colder climates, it is especially important to have the proper tension on your chain. The climate can alter the temper of steel chain components, causing them to wear faster and potentially crack. In addition, proper tension will help reduce the amount of debris that can enter and eat away at chain components.
  • Properly grease your machine. To reduce friction on moving components and improve longevity of your equipment, be sure all components are properly greased. Before winter sets in, have all grease points serviced.
  • Monitor coolant and fluid levels. Provide protection by using the recommended antifreeze/water mixture for the lowest temperature expected during operation. Service your machine before the winter season to help ensure all fluids are running properly through the machine and oil and filters are changed.
  • Maintain the battery. Remove cables, clean cable ends and posts, and clean and tighten terminals on the cranking motor. Never charge a frozen battery. 
  • Warm your machine prior to operation. Prior to beginning a job, start your machine to warm hydraulics and oils. In extremely cold temperatures, once you start the machine, keep it running. This will save time getting it to start and keeping it warm before operation. 
  • Let your machine determine the pace. In extremely cold temperatures, machines will not work as fast as they do in non-winter months. Don’t force your machine, as it might stop production all together. 

Case in Point: Minnesota Valley Electric Cooperative Retains Yield Through Long Winters

Minnesota winters are not for the weak. The cold temperatures can last as long as five months out of the year and linger at degrees lower than zero with annual snowfalls of as much as 170 inches. Despite the frigid climate, Minnesota Valley Electric Cooperative (MVEC) works year-round installing electric lines underground to commercial and residential customers across nine Minnesota counties using trenchers.

The co-op relies on Ditch Witch RT ride-on trenchers for a majority of their installation projects. When the cold sets in, most of their units have plows removed and special frost trenchers installed. “During the winter months, we deal with frost two to three feet deep,” said Randy Breeggemann, MVEC. “In these conditions, we can’t use plows so we transition to frost trenchers with a different chain formation to effectively dig through frozen ground.”

Standard chains use a cup tooth to scoop soils. This type of tooth is not effective in cold climates. Frost chains primarily use carbide teeth with a definitive point to effectively chip away at frozen soils. The teeth are also spaced differently, with stations pitched at an angle. Even when using a specialized chain, however, MVEC has found winter maintenance is a key to their success. 

“With many winters under our belt, we have found keeping teeth fairly fresh is important. We change our teeth more frequently in the winter, on average every 10 days if we’re trenching a lot. And it works best if you change all teeth at once, versus a few at a time,” said Breeggemann. 

As part of their winter maintenance routine, MVEC ensures all gears and bearings are well greased and chain tension is tight, to help keep debris and sand from eating away at the components. In addition, the fleet of trenchers are kept in a heated building when not out at a job, making sure all components have time to dry out and gears have time to thaw. 

“On really cold days, we start our machines in the morning to warm up hydraulics and oils. We leave them running whenever possible as well. It is harder on the machine to start and stop it in cold weather,” added Breeggemann. 

Another way MVEC stays productive through the winter is with the help of their local Ditch Witch dealership—Ditch Witch of Minnesota and Iowa. “From servicing to spare parts, they are always responsive and working to meet any request we have,” said Breeggemann.

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