Cold Man Winter Versus Your Equipment
By Tom Inglesby
Tis the season to be chilled, regardless of your location north of Miami. When workers are bundled up, shouldn't your equipment be protected as well? Here are some cold weather tips for your gear that will keep you working.
While masonry depends heavily on labor and hand tools for much of its work, there are pieces of equipment that can be important on every jobsite. Going high? You need scaffolding and, in many situations, motorized mast climbers or crank lift scaffolding. Making mortar in a portable mixer? There are gears and motors that need attention to keep functioning when the temperature goes down. Hoists and lifts of all kinds require winterizing and protection to be there when you need them.
Normal, year-round maintenance is often enough when dealing with moderate weather conditions, such as those found in much of the Southeast or Southwest parts of the U.S. That changes significantly when you go further north, to Michigan, Minnesota or Maine, though. When the weather is warm enough to work, but cold enough to freeze equipment, that's when you need to know you planned ahead properly.
On the Ground
One of the simpler pieces of equipment you will be working in cold weather is the mortar mixer. Warren Faler, mixer product manager at Multiquip, Carson, Calif., suggests following normal maintenance procedures year round. Keeping it clean and properly maintained adds to reliability under periodic severe conditions. "I recommend spraying the mixer prior to every use with concrete form oil or any type of environmentally safe oil. This will help prevent mortar buildup and will make any ice that accumulates easier to dislodge. Mixers should be periodically greased, pulleys and hardware checked for tightness, v-belts inspected for fraying, and wheels checked every six months or so for lubrication. Visual inspection of the tow pole and coupler for damage is logical regardless of the weather."
He also adds these tips for when the needle heads toward freezing, "Be sure to change the engine oil for a lower viscosity or a lower multiple viscosity such as 5W-20. It's important that the engine be thoroughly warmed at idle speed before engaging the drive system. Also, be sure that no ice or slush has accumulated in the drum that could obstruct the blades when they rotate. Check the air filter to be sure it is clean and clear and remove the spark plugs to check that they are properly gapped according to the engine specs. When not in use, don't store the equipment outside in the weather; store it inside a warm building. And under extreme conditions, start the engine and allow it to run at idle while the equipment is being transported to the jobsite."
Damian Lang, president of Lang Masonry Contractors, Waterford, Ohio, and coincidently the developer of EZ Grout equipment, cautions users of Grout Hogs to be sure all hydraulic oil in the system is warm before using the equipment on cold days. "All hydraulic equipment, not just the Grout Hog, should be thoroughly warmed up before use to prevent damage to the controls and lines. Cold hydro oil is thick and adds a lot of resistance to the system. Of course, you should warm up any motor or engine before expecting it to work right in cold weather. When storing the Grout Hog in winter, set it in the dump position so ice build up in the hopper doesn't cause the paddles to break when they are engaged. It's also a good idea to use a cover if the gear is stored outdoors."
Getting a Cold Lift
The snow is flying but building material dealers must keep deliveries on schedule to keep their customer's projects going. Mason contractors can learn some cold weather tips from the way dealers prepare and work their truck-mounted forklifts. Here are some tips from Princeton Delivery Systems, Canal Winchester, Ohio, manufacturer of Piggy Back truck-mounted forklifts. Most of these will also work with jobsite forklifts and those used in material yards in the winter.
Princeton cautions that cold weather and frozen precipitation present special safety considerations for drivers. Considering the jobsite environment is often much rougher than a highway many of the same driving tips come into play for lift drivers.
Watch your traction is on the top of the list. When driving the forklift on an ice covered hill or road, make sure that there is adequate traction for steering and stopping. Drivers need to watch their personal traction, too. Carefully move on and off the forklift because ice buildup can occur during transport or site storage. Make sure they use the "three-point" rule: one foot and both hands must always be on the grips and steps.
Know the terrain. Snow is no obstacle to forklifts but snow can hide material that can damage the lift. Snow also can fill-in hazardous holes that can cause the load to be dumped or worse, cause the lift to tip. Drivers should take additional time to check that the driving path is clear and stable. Never drive across frozen water.
See where you are going. Snow can reduce visibility. Drivers should never guess where they are going. If there is any question about visibility, the driver should either stop or ask for help from a spotter on the ground.
If you use adjustable scaffolding, such as The Beast from Non-Stop Scaffolding, Shreveport, La., there are other items to consider in the winter. Justin Breithaupt, Jr. co-owner of Non-Stop, says bluntly, "When the block stops going up, the money stops coming in. You bought adjustable scaffolding to get the job done faster, without stopping. Now winter is here and you want to keep using it. Yes, it's a piece of cake to enclose frame scaffolding, just erect them and wrap them with poly. But how do you enclose a work platform that's always moving?"
The solution came from northern mason contractors who used to routinely enclose their frames, made the switch to adjustable scaffolding, and demanded they be able to keep using it in the winter. There are two basic ways to do it. Let's look at each, but first let's examine a fundamental issue that cannot be overlooked ? tying the scaffold to the structure.
As Breithaupt colorfully points out, "When the scaffold is enclosed with polyethylene it's not a scaffold anymore: it's a sailboat. The force the wind can exert is amazing. Enclosed frame scaffolds have been blown over even when every frame was tied in with #9 wire! Granted, it was storming and no one was on the scaffold, but this is an excellent demonstration of what can happen."
The lessons to be learned are:
- Do not work on the scaffold in windy or inclement weather; and,
- The scaffold must be tied to the structure with solid, rigid ties; the usual #9 wire is not enough.
Usually a one-time visit with a structural engineer and a phone call to the manufacturer of the scaffolding will enable you to establish the method that will work best for you regarding the horizontal and vertical frequency of the ties, and the attachment method.
Wrapping the Tower
Breithaupt offers some tips on winter-proofing the work platform: This is not too different than enclosing an entire run of frames. First, you erect your towers at the wall and usually add an extra extension tower to make the entire structure about six to eight feet higher than the wall. Second, and most important, tie this structure to the building as often as required. The next step is to attach a "roof" to drape the poly over. This can be done with the manufacturer's hardware but is more commonly done with tube-and-clamp-type connectors and pipe. The entire structure is tarped in, heated, and the scaffold is cranked up and down within this heated envelope.
Some manufacturers make an enclosure system that will enable you to enclose only the area where the men are working, and optionally, the wall underneath the scaffold. Advantages of this method include the reduced wind load on the structure, and the ease of installation. The towers are typically tied to the wall at the top first, and then ties are added as the work platform ascends. On open sites, with no existing structure, the tops can be guyed back in both directions with cables and held down with earth anchors.
The system starts out as a basic skeleton encircling the work area. How you finish off the enclosure can be tailored to your favorite practices. The roof can be planks or plywood; many users favor plywood if rain is expected. It can be notched around the towers, drilled and wired down to the skeleton. The poly is wrapped around the work area, and can be extended all the way up to the existing backup wall, usually through the use of a telescoping member.
You have several options about how to enclose the underside of the work platform. Some users let the poly stop at the masons' feet and put the heaters on the scaffold. Others hang an optional bracket under the masons' walkway and put the heaters there. It also keeps more of the wall warmer because the poly extends down underneath this lower bracket. The rest tie the poly to the backside of the towers and let it extend all the way down to the ground. It can be unrolled as the platform ascends and the heaters are placed on the ground. This is the best procedure when the wall must be kept warm for 72 hours or more.
As Breithaupt says, enclosing your elevating scaffolding in winter is much more flexible than appears at first look. Keeping the masons working at peak speed can mean the difference between making a profit or not in the lean winter months. And in his words, "Remember, when the block stops, the money stops."
Mast climbing scaffolds, like mixers, often use a Honda industrial engine rated from 8-20 horsepower. This power plant, properly cared for, will function reliably in any weather or climate. However, like the engine in a car or truck, it has its weak spots ? the battery and oil. Oil needs to be changed and some engines are hard to get at. Human nature being what it is, that often means the engine runs for a long time past its recommended oil change period. Worse, in cold climates, summer weight oil remains in place well into the cold weather, leading to hard starting and bearings damaged from lack of oil circulation. Periodic maintenance helps increase efficiency and reliability, which are key functions of any equipment.
The battery has been the winter sore spot for internal combustion engines since it replaced the crank on early cars and trucks. Technology has made that less of an issue with sealed units and environmentally improved cases. Many batteries don't even have any way to check, much less replace, the fluid. But they all have the connection points ? the posts ? where cables are attached to send the power to the engine. A simple test instrument applied once a month ? or once a week in severe climate ? to check the output of the battery will help head off weak performance and non-starting conditions.
Some contractors still follow the tradition of removing the battery from stationary equipment (and even their trucks if they are stored outside in sub-zero temperatures) overnight and over weekends. That's probably not necessary with today's units but some extra caution might prove beneficial when the forecast is really looking down ? temperature down, snow coming down, and battery power falling down.
Other Maintenance Tips
Cold weather changes how equipment performs and places additional stresses on certain systems. Truck-mounted and many other forklifts use diesel engines. Follow the machine's pre-start procedure to ensure the glow plugs have time to warm the engine for starting. Never use starting fluids that are sprayed into the intake manifold. Starting fluids can seriously damage the engine and will likely void the engine warranty.
Forklifts are designed to be quickly put into use. In cold weather, however, engine and hydraulic system performance will be improved if the unit can be allowed to warm-up for a few minutes.
Proper maintenance ensures that the lift is ready to work in the most challenging weather. As mentioned before, engine-driven equipment usually relies on a battery to get started and the battery relies on proper maintenance to be there when you need it. Check the battery and replace it if it is old or weak. Some manufacturers offer a dual battery option with external jumper terminals to ensure a lift is not stuck instead of going to work.
Anti-ice road chemicals are the enemy of all equipment. As often as possible, you should wash the salt and moisture trapping dirt and gravel off the machine and all the various components inside the frame. Perform regular lubrication. Make sure specified points are regularly greased. Pay special attention to the mast chains; most chains wear and kink because they are not regularly lubricated and they are fully exposed to moisture and road chemicals.
Special attention to the unique safety, operating and maintenance requirements of equipment in cold weather will help ensure that your forklift, mixers, scaffolding and workers will all perform as efficiently as the weather allows and keep your projects on schedule.
About the Author
Tom Inglesby is a San Diego-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous online and print publications. He is the winner of the Construction Writers Association's 2002 Boger Award for Special Reports.