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Winter Driving Tips
Your engine should still easily come up to an operating temp in excess of 175F, diesels typically do not function efficiently below this temperature so the sooner you get it there the better. The First thing to consider is your thermostat; thermostats are a simple disc that is pulled open allowing coolant to flow through the radiator, it opens due to wax inside a small cylinder melting, expanding and pushing the valve open. Thermostats are available in different temperature ratings, I always install 195F units if available, and they wear out so replace it as soon as you notice that the vehicle is not heating or cooling like it used to. I replace mine about every two years as part of my cooling system flush.
Assuming that the thermostat is functioning properly the next thing to consider is making sure that your fan clutch is functioning properly. Typically the fan is attached to a pulley on the vehicles water pump and driven by a belt that connects it to the crank pulley, when the crank rotates the belt spins the water pump and fan. The fan is however, not directly connected to the pulley, it is connected via a viscous clutch which is thermostatically controlled much like the thermostat. When the engine is cold and not running the fan should spin easily by hand, when the engine comes up to temp a bi-metallic spring in the fan clutch locks it to the pulley causing the fan to be driven. With the engine at operating temp and not running (not a good idea to stick your hand in a spinning fan) the fan should be difficult to rotate by hand. If the fan does not spin when cold or spins freely when hot, the fan clutch is bad and needs replacement.
Assuming all else is well you will want to look at limiting the amount of cold air blowing over the engine you are trying to warm up. The most efficient way to do this is to install a “Winter front”. QA winter front is simply a device that blocks cooling air from blowing past the radiator, on over the road trucks it is often a vinyl bib with a zipper down the center allowing the driver to adjust the amount of air passing through, for medium to small size trucks companies manufacture inserts which block all or portions of the grille, the company LUND make models for most trucks. I insert a piece of 3/8” marine plywood between the radiator and intercooler of my 1998 Dodge ¾ ton truck which blocks about ½ of the air flow as soon as average temps drop below 50F and block the radiator of my wife’s ’67 Mercedes with a piece of waxed cardboard between the grille and the radiator.
If all of these items still do not yield satisfactory results you may want to install a coolant circulation pump in the VO circuit. Mercedes and other manufacturers routinely install coolant pumps to insure adequate coolant flow at low engine RPM’s to provide heat and defrost for the vehicle while idling. Installing one of these pumps and wiring it to run when the engine is running will increase the flow of heated coolant and thereby increase the amount of heat exchange to the vegetable oil system. In practice I have found that the addition of a coolant circulation pump to the Ford Powerstroke motor will cut switchover times by almost half.
VO Mixing –
Mercedes and Volkswagen diesel engines used to come with a tag reading: “If the ambient temperatures are expected to be below 17F the addition of up to 10% gasoline or Kerosene may be added to the diesel fuel”. I have routinely added up to 10% gasoline to vegetable oil in the winter with no ill effects.
Engine starting –
Be sure that your preheating system is functioning. Mercedes vehicles will illuminate the glow plug indicator for a longer period of time when the ambient temps are low. If the system is defective it will flash the light or not illuminate the light at all. Engines with glow plugs should be regularly tested for proper function as described in the shop manual for the vehicle, commonly this involves simply checking the resistance of the glow plug with an Ohm meter. Cummins engines utilize intake air heaters with similar function tests outlined in the shop manual.
Block heaters –
There are several different typical designs for factory and aftermarket block heaters. Factory block heaters are a resistive element installed in a threaded hole in the engine block and heat the engine coolant when plugged into mains power. Aftermarket systems include tank heaters and lower radiator hose heaters and magnetic heaters which all heat coolant, dipstick heaters and oil pan heaters which heat the oil in the pan. Oil heaters are used in racecars to preheat the oil preventing the high volume oil pumps from blowing out seals when the engine is started.
Block heaters are installed in a factory provided threaded hole in the block. Lower radiator hose heaters are installed by cutting the lower radiator hose and installing them, tank heaters are often installed in the hose feeding the heater core, dipstick heaters replace the factory oil level dipstick, magnetic heaters stick to the side of the block, and oil pan heaters can either be attached to the oil pan with adhesive or installed via a threaded bung welded to the side of the oil pan. All are plugged into mains power via a cord and can be plugged into a timer energizing the element several hours before the vehicle will be started.
Search the internet for "oil pan heater" and you will fins both stick on and magnetic heaters which when stuck to the oil pan and plugged in will warm the engine, performance shops like Summit Racing and JEGS also carry oil pan heaters from companies like Kats and Moroso.
Preheating the vegetable oil tank is not advised as it accelerates the oxidation and polymerization of the vegetable oil and a properly designed system should be capable of delivering adequately heated oil by the time the engine is at operating temperature via heat exchange.
Below 15F wax crystals will form in diesel fuel and clog the filter. Many of the commercially available in-tank heat exchangers are in fact simply coolant fed heaters designed to prevent diesel fuel from gelling at low operating temperatures like the “Arctic Fox”, these are typically not capable of sufficient heat exchange to be useful in VO systems except in warm climates, they will however prevent the diesel from gelling in freezing temps although additives can also be used for the diesel fuel (See VO Mixing above) including products from Howes Lubricator, Pri-flow, Polar Flow, Power Service Arctic Express and Motorcraft PM-23-A. All are available on-line or at truck stops. None of these additives should be used in the vegetable oil as chemical reactions will create an unstable fuel.
Battery & Starting-
Winter temperatures place a heavy load on your vehicles charging system, you are driving with the lights on, wipers going defrost on full, rear window defrosters, etc and if your charging system is weak, winter is when it will fail. Any competent garage will be capable of performing a charging system check. This check should include a starting, idle and fast run checkup. Typically garages will have test equipment available that will provide a printed result, they invest in this expensive equipment because it pays for itself in starter, battery and alternator sales and usually will perform the tests for free.
Before having your charging system checked be sure that your battery cables are in good condition and that the connections are clean and corrosion free, also check that the engine ground strap is in place and that the connections are clean, poor grounds are the number one cause of cooling and electrical system damage.
When temperatures drop below freezing a new battery can loose up to 40% of its cranking power. Batteries are rated in CCA or Cold Cranking Amps which represents the maximum amps that the battery can deliver at 0F for 30 seconds.
Install the best battery you can find, with the highest CCA can consult Consumer Reports for brand tests.
Battery heaters may also be used, these are electric blankets for your battery that keep the battery warm using electricity much like your block heater warms the engine. These can be founf all over the internet by searching for "Battery heater" made by companies like Kats and Powerblanket.
I drove a LandRover Defender I owned to the arctic back in 1998 and one particularly cold morning we were unable to get it running (2.5 TD), the batteries were low and she would barely crank. We messed about for an hour or two when a skiplane landed on the froozen lake we were camped next to, the pilot came over to chat and laughed when we told him of our issue. He told us to build a small fire on rocks or wood in a hole in the snow, then push the vehicle over the fire so that the engine was right above it and put a tarp over the front to warm the engine. We did and it worked. After that we took the batteries into the tent when it was really cold.
Safety and Comfort –
Carry emergency gear in a waterproof bag in your car, I pack items in heavy duty zip-lock bags and crush all the air out before closing them, then tape them shut with gaffers tape or duct tape. I have much of my emergency kit permanently stored under the rear seat in my crew cab. I have a fire extinguisher mounted to the floor in front of the front seats on the transmission hump with a rechargeable flashlight in its recharger right next to it and wired into the vehicle. I always keep a couple full water bottles in the car and the following items under the back seat in bags;
A Bic lighter in a baggie in the glove box and one in a bag under the seat (can't have too many lighters).
A mylar blanket, a polypro blanket (in my Mercedes I have my old down bag sealled in a plastic bag). When you replace your cold weather gear take the old stuff and vacuum pack it or seal it in a zip-lock and tape it up, toss it under the seat of the car or truck or in the trunk. You will be amazed how often you use it. I pick up those polypro blankets they have at stores after the holidays and put one in a bag in each vehicle and they get used all the time. Keeping children warm after swimming in summer, as a picnic blanket, keeping warm on the way to school before the car has heated up, I even used one for shade last summer at the beach, I use them when I move something fragile as a packing blanket, and put one over my mom when I was driving her home after thanksgiving, etc.
A couple of MRE (Military rations) - If you get them surplus by the case each meal has its own chemical cooking bag called a FRH (Flameless Ration Heater), you pour 1oz of water in and it gets to 100F in about 10 minutes warming the meal - and your hands! The meals are complete and actually quite good. I was stuck in traffic one evening after picking up my daughter from a play date, she was having a meltdown and I discovered that she had not eaten anything since breakfast! I gave her hot chicken pasta and a cookie for desert while we moved 4 miles in just over an hour bumper to bumper. It took about 3 weeks before she stopped asking for a meal every time we got in the car - I think she liked the cookie.
6 Road flares, great for marking the road if you breakdown on a blind curve or the highway, good for starting fires and as an emergency signal. I also carry some out of date Marine flares and a flare pistol (No longer USCG approved so they are no good on the boat but work well) they are in a waterproof box and as an attention getter, nothing works like altitude. If need be you could defend yourself with a flare pistol as well although the possibility of breaking down on a back road and having bears attack your vegetable oil fuel tank is unlikely.
A half a roll of large trash bags - I have made rain ponchos, waterproof hip boots, covered items I did not want wet, laid on them under a vehicle in the wet or snow, put them over the car seat when I was climbing in covered in mud, I once wrapped my daughter in a polypro blanket and put her in a trash bag like a sleeping bag to warm her up after she fell in waist deep water in January, etc.
A pair of polypro gloves in a baggie- You never know how nice dry gloves are until your fingers are tingling, aching and wet.
Duct tape, wire ties, string, a packing knife with extra blades.
Two rolls of TP in baggies, each with a lighter in a baggie inside the roll and smashed flat - Why two? Ever needed TP and discovered that the roll was wet? Better safe than sorry. Why the lighter? Because if you really need TP you are probably in a place without a toilet, you can skip into the woods, clear a spot off the path, do your business, burn the used TP and cover the remains with a pile of rocks, dirt or sand and put a stick in it. Also not bad for starting a fire.
A good first aid kit, buy the best first aid kit you can. I carry an expedition medical kit I have had for years containing enough stock to deal with a pretty major injury, most often it is the Band-Aids, tweezers and aspirin that get used but I have had occasion to get into the more serious stuff.
An axe and shovel are good things to have, you can get a survival multi-tool for less than $25 that has a shovel, axe, pick, saw, etc all in one small pack, the only thing I dislike about these tools is that none of tools are very good. The shovel has a short handle, the axe head is light, the saw is difficult to use, they are much better than not having these tools but just not as good as the real thing. You can get a shovel, an axe and a folding tree saw from the hardware store, spray them with WD-40 and wrap them in a piece of canvas or an old blanket, then in plastic. Bungee the bundle together tightly and tie strap them to the front or rear bumper, the ladder rack or just toss them in the trunk. When others are digging their tires out with CD cases and you pull out a full size shovel, you will be happy you made the effort.
Years ago I went winter camping in the Cascade Mountains of Washington, on my way out I found that a tree had fallen and taken out the bridge we had come in on. I checked the map and discovered that there was a logging road that looped around and back to the main road. 2/3’s of the way around the loop the road was blocked by a fallen tree, luckily I had a folding tree saw, a hatchet and a length of nylon line in the van and we alternately sawed and chopped through enough of the tree that we could tie the line around it and back up pulling the tree from the road enough to get by.
You can get all this stuff in a really small area, in my truck it all fits under the back seat next to a Blue Point tool kit in a plastic case containing a full socket and wrench set, pliers, wire cutters, crescent wrench and channel locks.
If all this is too much for you, you can make a simple “Foldger’s survival kit”. Start with a 3lb can of coffee, punch three small holes in the upper rim of the can equidistant to one another. Into the can put the following;
• 25’ of nylon line (can be used to cut 3 short pieces to suspend can for heating)
• 3 large safety pins (to pin to car interior to suspend can over a candle)
• A good quality 2” diameter candle (put it on the can lid under the suspended can to melt snow), several
small packets or soup, hot chocolate, tea, instant coffee, bullion cubes
• Small packets of candy and peanuts
• Small tube of fire starter tablets in a baggie
• A good utility knife or scissors (Packing knifes have 6 double sided blades stored in the handle),
• 3 strips of bright orange cloth or plastic at least 2” wide and 36” long (to be tied to the antenna or door
handle – Surveyor’s tape works well)
• A pair of socks and a pair of glove liners
• 2 bic lighters in baggies,
• A pack of pocket Kleenex or half a roll of TP and
• 2 large plastic leaf bags (keeps body heat in),
• A small radio
• Band-Aids & Aspirin.
• A thin plastic bright orange poncho
• Hotel sewing kit
• Dental floss (waterproof, strong and small)
• Large needle (eye large enough for dental floss)
• Some paper and a small pencil in a baggie
• LED flashlight
Put all that in the coffee can and put the lid on, put it in a knit stocking cap and drop the whole thing into a plastic bag.
If you have a pickup you will want to get some weight in the rear, your heavy engine is over the front axle but you have nothing over the rear. The typical solution is 50lb bags of garden sand, although it is also typical to see these bags stacked in the front of the bed against the back of the cab were they will do no good at all, place the bags at the rear of the bed and use tie straps or a length of 2X6 cut to the width of the bed and placed against the rear of the rear wheel arch in the bed to keep them there.
Chains are a requirement in the winter, if you have a 4x4 you will want chains for all four wheels, chaining up only the rears gives you traction in the rear where no weight is and turns your four wheel drive into a two wheel drive and your four brake vehicle into a two brake vehicle. I prefer self tensioning “cam chains” but chains with external tensioners are just fine. Remember not to exceed 30mph with chains on and to check the tension regularly, a loose chain can ruin bodywork in shirt order. Last year with mixed snow and clearing on the roads I wore through a set of front chains in a week, I was however able to keep moving when the rest of the city was not, I went up and down every hill marked “SNOW CLOSURE” and was able to take groceries to friends and family.
This year I was happy with a set of cam tensioned Laclede chains but the chains I have been most impressed with are made by Trygg of Norway but can be a little difficult to find in the US, White Mountain Chain is the only dealer I know of this side of the pond. There are real differences in chain design and quality, this is evidenced by the broken chains littering the roads after the first thaw each year. Quality chains will fit only a few sizes of tire, will have built in tensioning devices and be made of a quality alloy. Trygg in particular will out last and out perform other chains tenfold, many professional snow plow companies use them, semi trucks carrying loads at highway speeds and logging companies use them on their equipment.
I put chains on all four wheels of any car requiring chains, if you have no traction on the rear, you have no steering on the front and by taking the few extra minutes needed to put on another set of $40 chains you can keep from spending thousands on body damage or hours digging yourself out.
Do not drive at speeds beyond the conditions, just because you can go 60 mph does not mean you should. Consider traction, stopping distance, visibility and your familiarity with the road and err on the side of safety.
Remember that conditions can change in a heartbeat and keep an eye on the temperature. When I drive off road in the winter or during particularly bad storms I listen to a hand held weather radio to keep track of what to expect and watch the temperature. Knowing that a foot of snow will drop in the next hour can help make a lot of decisions about how far you are going and where to park.
Be cautious on bridges, overpasses, suspended roads (including multi level parking garages) as with nothing under the cement, ice forms more quickly and lasts longer. There is nothing worse than driving in a storm all day only to stack up your vehicle on the ramp of the hotel parking garage.
On rutted roads remember that you are not required to drive in the ruts, people always seem to do so but it is often the worst idea. If the snow has begun to melt then refrozen, the ruts will be filled with ice and the hump in the center can be high enough to “high center” and strand the vehicle or rip out an oil or transmission pan.
If you are pulling away from a stop be cautious when turning up hill, most of the people I see drive themselves into a real mess are trying to push the vehicle forward with the front wheels turned and most often, turned uphill.
Keep the wheels straight until you have some momentum and turn slowly. When going uphill always plan an escape so that if you loose traction, you have some idea of where you can roll back and turn around.
Slow before cornering, your foot should be completely off the brake when cornering in snow to allow maximum traction. Scrub off the speed before the corner and slowly accelerate after the corner, winter is not time to practice for the Gran Prix.
There is no substitute for experience, take your vehicle to the largest empty parking lot you can find and play with it, learn when the front will wash out and how to recover it. Play with regaining traction with the accelerator, most people begin to skid with the front wheels and they simply press harder and harder on the brake as they slowly slide into another car or phone pole. Often applying a little accelerator will transfer weight from the front wheels to the rear and regain some traction allowing you to at least control your direction, it is better to be in a bush than a Buick and better to be in a snow bank than in a stone wall. When entering a corner too fast and loosing front traction and therefore steering (understeer) people most often turn the wheel even harder and hold the brake to the floor, this makes it impossible for the tread of the tire to regain any traction, try straightening the wheel until control is regained then slowly turning, if you have left yourself room and are not speeding you should be able to remain on the road.
Winches & accessories –
I have a Warn 8274 winch on my truck, it is mounted to a custom made holder with a fairlead (the rollers the cable passes through) and mounted to a piece of heavy wall steel stock that fits into the 2” hitch receiver on either the front or rear of my truck. Power to the winch is supplied by quick-connect outlets front and rear, these connectors are very useful and I have made a 25’ set of jumper cables that also plug into them, best of all, no one will ever borrow your cables because they are useless to anyone else and will always stay with your truck. And accessory device with small battery clamps can also easily be attached to the quick-connect power source. I have a set of tripod mounted folding work lights on a 30’ cord that can be connected, a barrel lifting hoist and a fuel transfer pump, even a 12vdc coffee pot that all connect to the front or rear of the truck.
Back to the winch, the M8274-50 (now called the 38631) has the fastest line speed of any good winch on the market
(74 feet per minute) and carries 150’ of 5/16” stainless cable it can reel in with 8,000 lbs attached to the other end. It is not pretty or streamline but it has been around for better than 20 years for a reason. There are several commercially made winch systems that mount front or rear and Warn makes a system called the 26370 multi-mount Carrier Kit that can be used with several winches, I know of no one making such a kit for the 8274-50 and built mine myself.
There are three types of winches available, electric, hydraulic and PTO (power take off) of the three the only winch I will have is electric. The simple fact is that for self recovery many times your engine will not be running, that rules out hydraulic (powered by the power steering pump) and PTO (Driven by the engine). This alone should be enough to make your decision but just for an added point, only an electric winch can be moved from the front to the rear or visa-versa. Having a winch on the front of your vehicle when you are in a ditch with the back of the vehicle pointed in the direction you need to go does not help much.
In addition to the winch I carry a Warn Accessory Package (I think they call it a “Rigging Kit” now) which is a heavy duty bag containing a pair of gloves, a snatch block (pulley), a tree strap, several shackles, a heavy chain with hooks on each end and a tow strap. I have over the years added a roll of bailing wire and a roll of duct tape to this kit.
Pulling yourself out you can use a tree strap to go around a tree, you can put a tree strap around a tree and connect a snatch block to it, then run the cable from the winch through the snatch block and back to the vehicle, this will turn a 8,000 lb winch into a 16,000 lb winch. If no trees are available you can dig a hole then attach your cable to your spare tire or a log and drop it in the hole.
Whenever you are attaching a winch cable to another object make sure no one stands near the cable and place a coat, blanket or heavy tree limb over the cable at the ½ way point, this way if the cable snaps or the object it is attached to gives way, you will not cut anyone in half with the cable or launch the hook on the end of the cable back through your windshield.
When helping someone recover their vehicle give the other person simple instructions, if they can not follow them abandon the project. I once watched a jeep being pulled from a ditch by another jeep, the winching vehicles driver was standing to one side of the jeep when the winched vehicle came up over the edge with the tires spinning, gained traction and lunged forward hitting the front of the winching jeep and pushing it backwards off the other side of the road and down a hill, when the cable became tight the winched vehicle was pulled down the hill after the rolling winch vehicle as the driver stood slack jawed and watched. Last winter I pulled about 10 people from snow banks, the last person I tried to help I told the following: “I want you to put the brake on and don’t do anything, I am going to get my winch cable and connect it to the front of your car, DO NOT RUN OVER ME WHILE I AM CONNECTING IT, then when I put my hand in the air I want you to release the brake and slowly accelerate as I pull you out of the ditch, when I lower my hand I want you to stop accelerating and put the brake on again. I will come over and remove the cable, DO NOT RUN OVER ME WHEN I AM REMOVING THE CABLE, then you can turn down the hill and find another way to where you are going”. The driver agreed and I asked if I was clear “Hand up means accelerate slowly, hand down means stop and DO NOT RUN ME OVER”, heads nodding and all is well.
I walked to the front of my truck and connected the remote cable to the winch, I put a old wool blanket over my shoulder to lay across the cable once connected and disconnected the clutch on the winch, grabbed the cable and pulled it to the front of the car. As I leaned over to connect the cable the driver floored the accelerator and dug both rear wheels into the snow so deep that the rear bumper was sitting on the snow. I walked to his window and said “Was there some part of do not run me over you did not understand?” He said OK, Ok and I again repeated all the directions further stressing the DO NOT RUN ME OVER part and speaking clearly and slowly. As I walked around the front of the car with the cable I made eye contact and said NO NOT DO ANYTHING. He nodded. I bend down to connect the cable under his front bumper and again heard the engine rev and the rear wheels spin. I turned and walked the cable back to my truck, reeled it is and removed the remote, got into my truck and drove down the hill right past him as he stood in the snow holding his hands out in amazement. The moral of the story is; Some people are in crappy situations because that is where they disserve to be and if you try to hard to help them they will pull you in with them. Know when to walk away.