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Winterizing ExcavatorsExcavators are some of the hardest-working machines on any jobsite. Throughout the spring, summer and fall, these workhorses perform a variety of tasks, from digging to placing pipeline.

When the weather turns cold, a new set of challenges face excavator owners and operators. Like most diesel-powered equipment, excavators need special attention for wintertime use and storage.

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Winter Storage
In many ways, storing an excavator for the winter is harder on it than using it. That is because the frigid temperatures can cause problems with the machine’s fluids and systems if they are sitting idle for extended periods.

To prepare your excavator for winter storage, and to be sure it starts up and is ready to go in spring, be sure to take into account the steps below:

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Today’s diesel engines are designed to work harder and run hotter. That means the fuel that is returned to the fuel tank is hot. As the fuel tank level is drawn down, moisture in the atmosphere condenses in the tank, resulting in water in the fuel. One of the first things you should do before storing an excavator for the winter is to drain this water. You should also drain the water from the fuel filter and water separators, thus preventing any damage from freezing.

Once any excess water is removed from the machine’s engine and fuel system, the fuel tank should be filled completely with new, fresh fuel (that has not been stored for extended periods of time) mixed with an anti-gel additive. Even fresh diesel fuel can coagulate and thicken under cold temperatures.

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Fuel gelling can be a big problem. It causes waxing in the filters and clogs the fuel filter media. Anti-gel additive prevents that from happening and will help save time and money when the machine is started for the first time in spring.

Be sure to fill the tank completely, as this will also help prevent any corrosion resulting from condensation on the inside of the tank. Also, it’s not enough to just fill the tank. You also need to run the engine long enough to be sure that the new fuel — with the additive in it — cycles through the engine and all of the fuel filters. This will ensure the entire fuel system is protected from harsh temperatures.

Other Fluids

In addition to the fuel, there are other fluids and systems that require attention for cold-weather storage.
The first is engine oil. Dirty engine oil can absorb contaminants as it ages. Dirty, contaminated oil sitting for extended periods of time in the engine can cause components to fail and reduce the life of the engine. It’s important to change the engine oil and all fuel filters prior to winter storage, replacing the existing oil with a cold-weather oil as recommended by the engine manufacturer.

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Hydraulic oil has a much longer life and does not pose the problems that engine oil does. All you need to do to prep for winter is top off the hydraulic oil.

In all cases, be sure to consult the engine and machine manufacturers’ maintenance manual for all fluid recommendations, including oil, fuel and hydraulic fluid. Failure to follow manufacturer specifications may not only lead to engine damage, but may also void any warranties.

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Batteries are especially vulnerable to extreme cold. Left for extended periods of time, they can lose their power and even cause damage and corrosion to the engine. So, it’s important to disconnect and remove batteries from the excavator. This will not only preserve the battery’s life, but will also help prevent unauthorized use and theft of the excavator. Ideally, batteries should be stored inside to ensure they will still be usable in the spring.

During the winter, excavators — and other machines — are left unattended for three or more months. This can invite problems related to safety and security — from curious kids climbing and playing on the machines, to vandalism, to theft. So, it is crucial that machines be parked for the winter in a secure location.

Winter Operation

One of the best ways to prevent the punishment that comes from keeping an excavator idle for months on end in harsh winter temperatures is, of course, to not keep it idle. Excavators are made to work, even when the weather turns bad.

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Still, there are some precautions and preventive measures you should take to ensure your excavator continues to run smoothly throughout the winter.

Cold temperatures affect fluids more than anything else. Oil, fuel, hydraulic fluid and other fluids become more viscous in the cold and can inhibit the operation of the engine or other systems, and even cause damage. Hydraulic oil is the most critical fluid that needs to be kept flowing freely. Cold, thick hydraulic oil can cause pumps, lines and hydraulic coolers to fail.

It is important to consult applicable manufacturer manuals and specifications to determine the recommendations for cold-weather fluids, then change all fluids according to those guidelines. For extreme cold, it may be necessary to consider arctic weight oils. This is especially important in engine oil and fuel, as it can lead to the most problems with the engine.

If the excavator will be operating in extremely cold temperatures, you may need to equip it with fuel-fired heaters. These will help keep the coolant, engine oil and hydraulic fluid at a high enough temperature to prevent gelling and will keep the machine and all its systems running smoothly.

Besides the fluids, the machine itself can be affected by the cold. Steel, when subjected to freezing temperatures, can become very brittle. This can lead to cracks or even breaks in key components. So, if you’re operating the machine in extremely frigid temperatures, be sure to operate the machine with care.

Matthew Hendry is a Hydraulic Excavators Product Consultant for John Deere Construction & Forestry.