Secrets to Winterizing Your Vacuum Truck

We share secrets to extending the life of tanks, and explain how to transition trucks from summer to winter.
Secrets to Winterizing Your Vacuum Truck
A number of components on your trucks will be affected by cold, freezing weather. Be sure to double check that this gear is working properly.

Climate variations can make a big difference in how you operate your portable restroom and septic pumping business. Midwest pumpers — and those of you who choose to work in frigid climes — have a unique job to do November through April when temperatures fall and snow piles up. 

You deal with freezing temperatures, frozen roads, locked-up valves and customers who need service desperately. For instance, the average Minnesota summer temperature is about 75 degrees; however, January averages 7 degrees and warms gradually until April, when the average mercury jumps to 37. 

Viscosity is the oil’s resistance to flow as measured by a viscometer. The thicker (higher viscosity) the oil, the slower it will flow. 

The lower the viscosity, the more wear and tear on the engine parts. That is why using the recommended viscosity oil is important. It protects in both hot and cold startups. Additives in the oil prevent it from thinning too much when heated, and also prevent oil from becoming completely useless in cold weather. 

When it comes to your truck’s engine oil, consult a certified mechanic or people you know and trust for accurate information. As for the oil in your vacuum pump, trust the manufacturer’s recommendations. All vacuum pumps are not the same, and they don’t require the same type of oils. Hint: The oil you use in summer is likely not the same oil you use in winter. 

Operating costs are higher for the operator in Minnesota versus the guy pumping in Florida or Phoenix. My guess is the pumper in Minnesota should charge more for services than the pumper in more temperate climates. 

After you’ve chosen the correct oils for your engine and pump, let’s turn to vacuum tank maintenance. Bitter cold temperatures and various chemicals put on the roads in winter can cause exterior damage to a steel vacuum tank. 

Those conditions can also lead to corrosion on the underside of the truck chassis. If ever there was a good situation for a stainless steel tank, Minnesota is it. Corrosion can really ruin a pumper’s truck and a stainless steel tank will short-circuit some of those issues. 

A number of components on your trucks will be affected by cold, freezing weather. Be sure to double check that this gear is working properly: 

Radiator: The radiator is an obvious place to start. We’re going to need some antifreeze to keep the power systems from freezing. The expected low winter temperatures in your area will dictate the antifreeze-water mix that will protect your radiator or — worse yet — your engine block from catastrophic freezing damage due to expansion.

In some cases, you’ll use 100 percent antifreeze. Follow directions carefully to minimize problems. If you want to end your day of winter pumping in a hurry, try waking up to a frozen radiator. 

Tires: Snow and/or ice are the greatest compromise to inadequate tires holding the road. If you expect the worst conditions, you’ll need to switch to winter or snow tires. And if your state allows it and it’s customary to use them, keep a set of tire chains in one of the onboard toolboxes. More important, know how to put them on your tires. I spent one of the most frustrating days of my life trying to figure out how to install chains in the middle of a snowstorm.

Remember, on older trucks, if you should begin to slide on a snow- or ice-covered road, don’t slam on the brakes. You’ll only lose control. Pump the brakes and you’ll have a better chance of maintaining control. The newer trucks have antilock brakes.

Check the air pressure frequently. When it’s cold outside, a driver tends to stay in the cab where it’s warm. Take a chilly moment and make sure the tires you’re riding on have the appropriate tire pressure and that you have the right type of tires on the truck.

Valves: Ball valves and knife gate valves can freeze in cold weather. There’s nothing like trying to open a valve to get the job started and it won’t move. If you have heated valves or need heated valves, now is the time to get them in place and operational.

There are several different types and brands of heated valves. They are often connected through the electrical system of the truck. Before the weather turns on you, make sure these valves are working properly. Don’t forget and don’t put it off.

Cab heater: Your job will be much more tolerable if the heater in the cab is in good working condition. It’s tough enough working in chilly, frozen weather, so warm up the cab. Don’t forget your gloves and the appropriate footwear to make the workday more tolerable.

About the Author
Bob Carlson is author of Pumper 101: The Complete Guide to Owning and Operating a Vacuum Truck and has spent many years building and repairing trucks for the portable sanitation industry.



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