Preparing Bobtails for Winter: A Year-Round Job

While some propane marketers are now preparing their bobtail trucks for the upcoming winter, Jim Krzywicki’s trucks are already done. Krzywicki, operations manager for Palmer Gas/Ermer Oil Co. (Atkinson, N.H.), starts preparing the trucks for winter earlier. A lot earlier.
He begins preparing his trucks the day after the previous winter ends.

“Things you do to prepare for winter you should be doing year-round for preventive maintenance,” said Krzywicki, who has been with Palmer Gas/Ermer Oil for 37 years.

But even though it’s now October, it’s not too late for a reminder of some items to check. Krzywicki mentions gas pedals and brakes as some of the more important items. Drivers climb in and out of the truck in wet conditions, and the hinges of the pedals get wet. Dirt builds up behind the pedals, the pedals stick, they don’t want to return, and the brake lights will sometimes stay on. Or after the driver uses salt to melt the ice, the salt will get on his boots and he will get salt on the pedals.

“The salt gets into the metal, and all of a sudden the pedals don’t want to move. They freeze up because of corrosion, not because of cold,” stated Krzywicki, who added that normal winters in his area average around mid-20 degrees, with some days below zero. “When you have salt on your boots and get in the truck, that gets into the dirt under the pedals, holds that material there, starts to corrode the hinges, and they get rusty and don’t want to operate properly. We actually just put in a commercial vacuum in our wash bay, so they will get in there and vacuum the dirt from under the pedal so it doesn’t happen.”

Rick Bowen, propane manager based in Shinston, W.Va. for Airgas (Radnor, Pa.), notes that his division starts preparing its bobtails for winter around July, working to do the DOT-required annual visual inspections, or VKs, on the trucks. He worked the schedule so that the company visually inspects all of its trucks at the same time before the busy winter season starts.

For additional winter preparation, Bowen’s team checks the work lights on the back of the bobtails and replaces wiper blades. The team makes sure the flashlights for the drivers are in working order and supplies extra batteries and extra gloves in the vehicles.
DOT requires hydrostatic pressure testing of cargo tanks every five years, so Bowen also makes sure to perform those tests before winter starts.

“Our meters have to be calibrated by the state every year, so we make sure we have all of them done in August,” he noted, adding that representatives from the state Department of Weights and Measures perform the calibrations. “We don’t do a lot of winter preparation in September because we have our summer fill-up specials. In October, we start with our hose inspections, and we put new tires on the trucks every year in October, because at the end of October here, we could start getting snow.”

Krzywicki also gets hydrostatic testing done early, well before the next winter. “The trucks that are going to be off the road, they’re getting their leak checks done and any maintenance that needs to be done as far as brakes, and of course we don’t have clutches anymore, but all that maintenance has been done,” he said. “By the time September gets here, the trucks are ready for winter.”

He also gets the trucks painted in the summer. A paint shop completely repaints the vehicle, including logos and lettering. His team also checks exterior lighting.  “Make sure it’s not falling apart,” he said. “A lot of the exterior lighting fixtures on these trucks are plastic, and over time they crack or start to break. Make sure they’re in good condition so they’re not breaking in the winter. They might be working today, but they crack and break. Fix that now. Don’t wait until the truck is on the road.”

Palmer Gas’ bobtails use additional back-up lights on the back of the cab, and those can be aimed, Krzywicki noted. “They’re angled off to the right and left, so when you put your vehicle in reverse, we have a switch on the dashboard that you can leave on so every time the reverse lights go on, these go on also, and it lights up the side of the truck so you can see if there’s anything going under your tires.”  

In addition, he advises lubricating all the moving parts on the trucks that will be affected by cold weather. Lube up the chassis, the brakes and suspension, reels, hinges on the meter box cover, and the springs that keep the meter box open.

Also all year, Krzywicki, whose company runs 55 vehicles including delivery trucks, service trucks, sales vehicles, and management vehicles, works to ensure the tires on the bobtails are in good shape. “Make sure the tread is good enough to more than pass inspection,” he noted.
The next tip might seem obvious, but clean the bobtails’ windows. Krzywicki stated, “A lot of times when you start getting into the fall, windows get fogged up, and what’s the first thing you do? You put your hand on the glass and wipe it trying to get the fog off before the defrost works. What is left is grease and dirt.” He also makes sure the trucks’ windshield wipers are in good condition after a summer of non-use. “Make sure the ends aren’t broken off so you don’t damage your windshield.” Another tip from Krzywicki: Make sure the bobtails’ mirrors are adjusted.
Bowen, whose company sells various packaged gases in addition to retail and commercial propane, checks to make sure the wheel chocks still have their cleats on them, because they sometimes break off or become worn.

All of Airgas’ propane trucks carry extra cones for situations in which the drivers might not be able to find a customer’s driveway under the snow. They also have orange rods they can use, but most of the time they use cones.
“Our main objective is getting our guys out and back where they can go home with their families,” Bowen stated. “We don’t want anyone getting hurt. We’re pretty much ready for winter at any time.”    —Daryl Lubinsky