CAUTION: Working with Aerial Lifts in Winter

A pair of Altec aerial lifts is deployed during an ice storm. While cold weather can affect hydraulics and other aerial-lift operating systems, basic tasks such as clearing the windows, steps and decks of lift trucks can prevent slips, falls and driving accidents in foul weather. Photo courtesy of Altec.

Long before you and your aerial lift leave the yard this winter, ask yourself if you and the machine are ready for what the season can throw at you, from the time you depart to the time you return at the end of the job. Winter can mean different things depending on where you operate in North America, presenting cold and icy conditions for some and wet and sloppy for others. So, what do you need to know to operate a lift safely in these conditions?

“Transporting equipment anytime is a daily challenge that every tree service faces,” contends Lenny Polonski of the sales department at All Access Equipment. “The trailer-transport issue becomes an even greater challenge in the winter when you work where there is snow and ice,” he says, adding that winter also means road salt. “Road salt is never a friend of any equipment, rusting everything in a very short time.”

To that end, he offers, “All Access Equipment designed, and over the years refined, innovative lift-transport solutions, one being a truck-mounted solution and two new trailer solutions for the tree industry.” One he describes as being “one of the lightest-in-the-world, open-deck trailers,” and another as “an efficient, heavy-duty, enclosed trailer for tracked aerial lifts.”

He says the all-new, open-deck, 12,000-pound-GVW-rated trailer is “ultra-
light with a low, 12-inch deck height and equipped with a heavy-duty mesh floor, so tracked equipment cannot slide.” Polonski explains, “This can be a dangerous and costly problem for rubber-tracked equipment when on a sloped deck covered with snow, ice or mud. The trailer also features aluminum flip-up ramps with spring-loaded
pin locks and a dual-pin jack.”

According to Polonski, the newest enclosed, no-ramp trailer can lower itself to the ground in seconds. “The rear roll-up door opens with a flick of the wrist, so lifts can easily and quickly be driven in and out, without having to deal with add-on ramps, stabilizer jacks, barn doors or heavy door ramps, all of which take much time to deploy and use.”

Why are trailers so important? “A good, heavy-duty, enclosed trailer is not cheap,” Polonski maintains. “However, long-term, an enclosed trailer will pay for itself many times, as equipment is not only protected from weather elements such as rain, snow, ice or road salt, but tree services also can store tree equipment neatly inside. Now the trailer becomes a practical, enclosed mobile shop in which you can lock up not only the lift, but all tools together at the end of the workday.”

With respect to lifts themselves, Polonski touts the year-round versatility of the truck-mounted backyard lift. “This is the newest and neatest trend for backyard lifts. This tested and proven system allows the backyard lift to not only be easily transported on top of a flat-deck truck, but also to double as a rear-mount bucket truck.

“With this system, the lift rides on the deck of an under-CDL truck chassis,” he explains. “The lift can be used as a rear-mount bucket truck by simply lowering the outriggers to the ground and operating the lift from the rear of the truck. To use the lift as a backyard lift,” he continues, “simply raise the lift slightly off the deck, drive the truck from under the lift, lower the lift to the ground and drive through a 36-inch gate.” He adds, “This exclusive, proven and very popular system is possible with CMC 60-foot, 72-foot, 83-foot and 92-foot Arbor Pro lift models.”

Regardless of the machine, Polonski says, “No hydraulic equipment likes cold weather, hence a good maintenance program is essential for the best winter-weather performance.

“All Access Equipment suggests replacing the fuel filter, an often-overlooked detail, every time engine oil is changed. A plugged or frozen fuel filter in cold weather will definitely ruin your day. Fuel filters are so inexpensive. Make it a habit of simply replacing them with every oil change.”

An All Access Equipment CMC 83HD+ Arbor Pro lift on the job. “Make sure you purchase winterized diesel fuel only. Be aware that many gas stations do not purchase winterized fuel until their supply (of regular fuel) runs out,” says Lenny Polonski. Photo courtesy of All Access Equipment.

Also during oil changes, “Check the OEM specs to see if a lighter engine oil is recommended,” Polonski notes. “Lighter engine oil will allow a diesel engine to crank easier and faster in cold weather, since oils are known to thicken in the cold.

“Replace the air filter if the number of operational hours exceeds 200. Avoid the temptation to clean the air filter. It is safer to simply replace it,” he maintains.

“Make sure you purchase winterized diesel fuel only. Be aware that many gas stations do not purchase winterized fuel until their supply (of regular fuel) runs out. This could be as late as December, when temperatures may have been below freezing for weeks. If in doubt, add a few ounces of fuel conditioner. This will ensure that the diesel fuel does not gel up.”

In many cases, “For extreme cold-weather operation, you can safely add as much as 30% kerosene or fuel conditioner to your fuel tank; however, do not exceed this amount, as it could damage the diesel-injection pump and injectors, as there will not be enough lubricity in the fuel.” (Always check the user manual or check with your dealer or manufacturer.)

As an aside, Polonski relates, “This is what deep-sea fishing boats in the Northeast do to ensure they do not have a problem while fishing hundreds of miles off the coast in cold weather. Remember the movie ‘The Perfect Storm’? The author of this true story, Sebastian Junger, was a tree climber in Gloucester, Massachusetts,” Polonski says. “He wrote the book while recuperating from a chain-saw injury.”

Polonski reminds us, “Service battery cables and clean them with a wire brush until shiny, especially the ground strap on the frame of the machine. Most people only service battery terminals. Seldom does anyone check the frame strap. Use a grinder to grind paint and rust from the frame. Use copper anti-seize or dielectric grease liberally and tighten everything tight.

“Replace automotive lead-acid batteries if older than three years. Toss them out,” he says. “Three years is pretty much all you are going to get out of a battery reliably, unless it is an AGM-type battery.”

Also, “Change hydraulic filters as recommended by the OEM manufacturer,” Polonski notes. “A clogged hydraulic filter will significantly slow down the operation of any hydraulic equipment.”

“Any time you’re using an aerial device in winter, it’s crucial to pay attention to the various steps and platforms so they are not a slip hazard,” says Andy Price, tree care market manager for Altec. “It’s the first thing you should do before you get in your vehicle and start working. Whether it’s climbing on the truck, working with ladders or getting to your tools or the lift platform, don’t set yourself up for a slip or fall.

“It’s important to clean off the entire truck of snow and ice. All windows should be completely clean – not just a little hole you can barely see out of,” says Price. “Visibility in winter weather is limited to begin with, so it’s a matter of maximizing what you can see to the front, back and the sides.

The number-two consideration before hitting the road is to check tire pressures, Price says. He reminds us that significant shifts in atmospheric temperatures can have a dramatic effect on tire pressure and, therefore, the vehicle’s handling and safety on and off road. “A change of seasons means rises or drops in ambient temperatures, which affects tire pressures.” Price adds that properly inflated tires contribute not only to safety and stability, but to financial savings as well.

“Number three is to make sure the lift’s hydraulic oil is warm enough to ensure it is not sluggish and is operating not only up to spec, but also in the way you are accustomed to it operating,” he says.

Number four, “No matter the weather, we always recommend the use of outrigger pads for a safer setup.” This is even more important, however, in winter, he says, when you may not be able to see the surface of the ground due to snow and ice. “Regarding the stability of your vehicle, it’s important to watch out for potentially hazardous areas. For example, snow covering a ditch, or a piece of land that is recently unstable due to temperatures warming and melting the ground.”

Ben Lee Taft, president of Spimerica, a U.S. dealer for Italian-made Palazzani lifts and cranes, says all of his machines are diesel powered and hydraulically controlled and ready for the cold. “We have gotten with our manufacturer and explained winter conditions in parts of the U.S.,” he says, “and the biggest thing suggested is the use of different hydraulic oils for that situation. We discuss that with our customers, as well as how to work with our lifts in cold weather.

A Palazzani model TZX170 tracked, platform lift. While some machines can climb grades of up to 42% and set up on as much as a 44% grade, outriggers still need to be set level and not unevenly on the slope. Photo courtesy of Spimerica.

“We do offer a cold-weather package for the machines, such as hydraulic-oil tanks with a built-in heater to keep hydraulic fluid from thickening. Also, engines are wrapped to ensure fuel tanks do not get too cold and to ensure proper lubrication circulation.”

Continuing, Taft says, “From an operation standpoint, tracks are designed for all terrains, including conditions in mud, snow and ice. Some machines can climb grades of up to 42% and set up on as much as a 44% grade. Even so, it is important when setting up on a heavy grade to carefully select your set point for outriggers, which need to be set level and not unevenly on the slope.

“We always push the safety message when using one of our tracked lifts, to keep climbers and other workers safe,” Taft states. “As good as they are, any lift cannot go through every terrain. First, one needs clearance all around. If traveling through mud, snow and water, one needs to be careful not to get stuck. And on a cold day with the wind howling – you cannot use our machines in winds more than 35 miles an hour. We go through all this in the delivery process, how wind and other conditions affect the chassis, boom and basket in the air.”

“The one thing I cannot stress enough is maintenance. Maintenance, maintenance, maintenance,” says Mike Hrycak of Tracked Lifts. “Proper maintenance is more critical in winter than other times of the year. Lifts are particularly vulnerable to winter.

Fiberglass should be cleaned regularly and waxed with a proper dielectric wax prior to and during the winter. Photo courtesy of Tracked Lifts.

“Take fuel systems, for example. It is critical,” Hrycak says, echoing Polonski, “to make sure fuel filters are clean and are changed more regularly. The same goes for hydraulic filters.

“The movable parts of electro-mechanical safety switches must be cleaned and lubricated more regularly, because they are prone to freezing due to exposure to the elements in winter as well as to tree debris. Switches could freeze in place and not function properly,” he maintains.

As far as moving throughout a job site in winter with a tracked lift, Hrycak says, “It is important to keep undercarriages clean and well lubricated, since those moving parts can freeze, especially components for the proper contraction and spreading of the tracks, from wide to narrow and narrow to wide.”

Likewise, he says, “Proper lubrication of pivot points also is important, and I strongly advise using synthetic waterproof grease, which not only performs better in winter but all year long as well.

“With respect to electrically insulated machines, as far as machines with fiberglass booms go, they should be cleaned regularly and waxed with a proper dielectric wax prior to and during the winter to help preserve the characteristics of a dielectrically protected fiberglass boom,” he concludes.

If anyone has deep experience with operation of a lift in cold conditions, it should be Alain Pare of UP Equip, headquartered in the suburbs of Montreal, Canada.

“Operating an aerial lift in winter is not like operating it in summertime. It is much slower, given the thickness of the hydraulic oil. This will sound like a basic principle because it is a basic principle,” he says. “Hydraulic oil gets thicker in cold temperatures; therefore, it is putting more pressure on already small and compact pumps. Simple as that.

“Such pressure is carried to the shaft, and the motor can get into a heavy struggle to push warm oil in the cold hoses,” Pare says. “The oil in the lines gets cold as soon as it arrives at its destination. Exposed or not (inside or outside the boom) doesn’t make a difference for the cold. It gets to the hoses.” Therein lies the problem with working with hydraulics in the cold, according to Pare. “However, the oil in the tank is kept warm by its passage in the pumps, so warming up the lift motor for 10 to 15 minutes prior to use is mandatory.

“Some folks believe that leaving a unit indoors for the night brings certainty that it will start nicely at its destination. This isn’t directly related at all,” he says. “When you need to travel with your unit on a trailer, the temperature falls to around minus-60 degrees. The result is you get an ice cube at your destination. In order to work somewhat properly, the machine needs to warm up for at least 15 to 20 minutes,” Pare reiterates. “Many times, people will start using units with cold oil, without enough time to warm up, causing slow response from all functions, drive and boom operations.

UP Equip’s Easy Lift model 101-48AJ. Hydraulic oil gets thicker in cold temperatures; to work somewhat properly, the machine needs to warm up for at least 15 to 20 minutes, says UP’s Alain Pare. Courtesy of UP Equip.

“Another factor is the moisture that cold weather creates. The passage from cold to warm generates condensation and, ultimately, ice on metal surfaces. It’s important to keep greasing to prevent moisture in all pivot points. If pins seize, some structural damages are around the corner,” he predicts.

Pare agrees with Polonski that, “Salty roads in winter generate corrosion, and that is also a killer for a machine. Power-washing units to remove salt is highly recommended, but again, the washed unit must sleep overnight in a warm place so it can dry completely. The rest of the time a clean unit can stay outside if not used,” he says.

According to Pare, “Another thing to consider is the 12-volt battery. These units are sensitive to the proper amount of power provided by the battery, especially in cold temperatures. We offer the winter package as an option to our customers, so they can plan ahead and get their unit prepared before it is started. The package includes an onboard 12-volt battery charger, warming pads and super-start kit.”

“When it comes to operating whatever the lift is – truck-mounted, compact tracked, wheeled carriers or backyard buckets – it is the same winter and summer other than the ambient oil temperature,” says Bob Dray, vice president of sales and marketing for the forestry division of Custom Truck One Source. “The colder it is, the slower the lift runs,” he maintains, citing the company’s markets throughout the U.S. and Canada.

That is not to say there are not some other things to keep in mind. “Trucks, and beds especially, are all metal, likely steel, so you need to be very watchful for thin layers of ice,” Dray says, reiterating what others touched on. “Those surfaces need to be kept dry.”

The operators need to be cared for as well. “Crews are used to going out in the summer and fall perhaps with a light jacket for protection.” When the weather turns cool on the ground, Dray says, it can get cold at altitude. “At 50 to 75 feet in the air, one may have to keep from getting frostbite. There, it gets much colder than at ground level and it is worse in the canopy, where there is more wind.”

That brings him to employee training and conditioning. “Make sure lift workers are highly trained,” Dray says, “because in cold weather, movements are different, slower.”

Many aerial-lift trucks also are outfitted with chip boxes, which bear some extra attention in winter, he says. “Chips have moisture. If left in a truck overnight, they can freeze in place into one solid block, so it’s a good idea to dump the load that day.” For the same reason, he reiterates that tracks, wheels and moving parts be kept free of snow, ice and debris.

The CMC 83HD+ Arbor Pro lift from All Access. “Change hydraulic filters as recommended by the OEM manufacturer,” advises Lenny Polonski. “A clogged hydraulic filter will significantly slow down the operation of any hydraulic equipment.”

“Keep the lift clean,” he recommends. “Guys leave bits of tree debris in the bucket, plus snow and ice, which can build up if the lift is not covered. That can reduce the available weight. If the bucket is rated at 400 pounds, snow, ice, frozen chips and other debris will reduce the lift’s capacity.

“Make sure all your tanks are properly closed and covered,” he says. “If not, sometimes moisture can get into your hydraulic fluid.

“And be sure to plug in your diesels (engine heaters). It’s not so much of a problem as it used to be, but you do need to keep the engine a bit warm. It’s a lot more important with older equipment,” Dray concludes.

With snow and ice on the way, if they have not already made an early visit to your marketplace, it’s important to know that winter can be a persistent adversary. Your lift, whether it is a compact or truck-mounted device, can be one of your best allies, but only if you are loyal with its care and adjust your operations for the weather conditions at hand.

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