Preparing and Storing Farm Equipment for Winter

January 10, 2024
Preparing and Storing Farm Equipment for Winter

By Zachary Curtis; Penn State Extension

Each winter, cold, dry arctic air masses collide with warm, moist tropical air masses to produce heavy precipitation and variable temperatures across the Commonwealth. While cold temperatures themselves can have impacts on farm machinery, the variability of weather conditions tends to be more detrimental to equipment stored across the state. To combat this, producers must take caution to store batteries, fuels, lubricants, electrical components, and farm machinery appropriately to prevent damage due to condensation, low temperatures, and moisture infiltration.

What do major farm equipment manufacturers recommend?

Most major farm equipment manufacturers have generated a winter management program for their machinery. Their individual winter recommendations can be found at the end of this article. Although brands may vary, their recommendations all cover some basic points of maintenance:

  1. Clean equipment and protect exposed surfaces
  2. Check fluid levels and fill accordingly
  3. Plan for and make major repairs
  4. Check your owner's manual for suggested actions
  5. Check batteries and tires and charge or inflate accordingly
What do major farm suppliers recommend? Antifreeze

Engine coolant serves an important function by cooling a machine, but it also protects against freezing damage in the winter. Machines with old coolant should be checked for freezing protection with an engine coolant hydrometer. These testers contain a small float or ball that measures the specific gravity of the coolant as it is drawn into the testing chamber. An engine that contains more ethylene glycol will show a higher specific gravity, so the float or ball reads "higher", indicating greater freeze protection in cold weather.

A more involved coolant test using a test strip kit allows you to test the condition of the coolant in your engines. Coolants, like engine oils, contain conditioners and additives that help reduce corrosion and lubricate an engine's cooling system. Testing coolant condition periodically can help determine if a cooling system is ready to be flushed out and new antifreeze added to guard against system corrosion and damage.

Batteries

Batteries must maintain a charge through their storage period to prevent freezing and damage over winter. Check voltage levels prior to winter storage - 12-volt batteries should be charged to 14.4 volts for safe storage. Check voltage levels periodically - a fast discharge indicates electrical issues within the machine or the battery. If the battery is allowed to discharge too much, the acid inside may freeze and damage the plates and the casing. Remember to disconnect equipment monitors and controller boxes left in tractor cabs to reduce the chance of parasitic voltage draw. If you suspect parasitic voltage draw from a certain machine is discharging a battery, disconnect the battery and store it in a warm location. You may also wish to rotate a small battery maintainer or "float" charger among your machinery to keep battery voltages at their maximum during storage.

Always provide adequate ventilation when charging or jump-starting batteries around your farm. Remove any external sources of ignition near charging batteries, such as cigarettes, flames, or space heaters. Lead-acid batteries produce quantities of hydrogen gas as they charge, which can cause an explosion in confined areas when gases accumulate.

Diesel Fuels

Number 2 diesel fuels contain a naturally occurring wax called paraffin wax. Paraffin wax offers lubricating properties to flowing diesel but causes issues as temperatures drop. At around 32 degrees Fahrenheit, paraffin wax molecules begin to clump together, forming hazy, cloudy "gel" that restricts fuel flow through a fuel filter and causes plugging. Cold weather additives change the shape of these wax particles to allow fuel to continue to flow at colder temperatures. However, number 2 fuels will still reach a point at which they no longer flow through a filter. Some fuel companies will switch to a winter fuel blend, which contains a percentage of number 1 diesel fuel. Number 1 diesel fuel has a lower gelling point, which helps prevent issues in colder operating conditions.

Keeping fuel tanks full during extreme temperature fluctuations will reduce the amount of air in the tank, therefore reducing the amount of moisture that can condensate out and contaminate the fuel. Excess fuel from the fuel pump is also returned to the fuel tank, where it produces condensation as fuel warmed by the fuel pump meets cold fuel in the tank. Keeping tanks full reduces this condensation issue.

Do not use any source of heat to warm fuel filters or tanks to force clouded diesel fuel through a transfer pump or engine. Doing so may introduce moisture and contaminants further into the fuel system of your machinery.

Engine Heaters

Block heaters may come integrated with an engine as part of a factory-ordered package. Block heaters help to heat engine coolant, and indirectly, the engine block to reduce drag from thick engine oils and increase core engine temperatures needed for adequate fuel combustion. Block heaters should be checked prior to cold weather to verify heating elements are still in working order. Equipment that is used daily may be plugged into a timer to allow the heater the 1-3 hours it may need to heat the block sufficiently.

Glow plugs are small, pencil-shaped heaters that sit inside the combustion chamber of an engine cylinder. These small heaters help to heat the air inside the combustion chamber, where, with the help of extreme compression inside a diesel engine, they heat the air to over 400 degrees Fahrenheit so the incoming air-fuel mixture can combust and start the engine. Do not use starting fluids when cycling glow plugs, as the heat generated by the glow plugs can cause the starting fluid to explode outside of the combustion chamber.

Manifold heaters are a small array of heating coils located within the intake manifold of an engine. They help to heat the incoming air so the fuel-air mixture has adequate heat to initiate combustion. Never use starting fluids if an engine uses a manifold heater, as the starting fluid may explode and severely damage the engine or injure the operator.

Gasoline

Though gasoline does not face the same paraffin wax concerns as diesel, it may still contain enough moisture to cause issues with freezing or corrosion. Moisture intrusion of fuel systems can be caused by buying poor quality gasoline, allowing clean gasoline to become contaminated, or by ethanol-blend gasolines absorbing moisture from the atmosphere. Ethanol is somewhat hygroscopic, meaning it can absorb atmospheric moisture and "bond" it to the ethanol molecule. This moisture can freeze within the fuel line, or cause corrosion of metallic components inside fuel pumps, carburetors, or fuel injection systems. Gasoline additives are commonly used to draw moisture from fuel systems, helping to stabilize fuel over longer periods of time. Fresh gas should be treated prior to storage and should be used in a timely fashion. Long-term stored equipment should be stored with an empty fuel tank.

Just like with diesel, keeping fuel tanks full during extreme temperature fluctuations will reduce the amount of air in the tank, therefore reducing the amount of moisture that can condensate out and contaminate the fuel. Excess fuel from the fuel pump is also returned to the fuel tank, where it produces condensation as fuel warmed by the fuel pump meets cold fuel in the tank. Keeping tanks full reduces this condensation issue.

Oils

Engine, transmission, and hydraulic oils contain detergents and additives to trap moisture, debris, and fuel contaminants. Certain oils also have hygroscopic properties that allow them to trap moisture and contain it within the oil to prevent damage to internal components. Follow the manufacturer's recommended service intervals based on the individual machine - systems that use the same fluid in the brake, steering, hydraulic, and transmission components will likely see faster degradation than systems that are run separately. Consult your equipment's operating manual to determine service intervals for fluid and filter changes.

All oils will degrade after use, accumulating moisture, acids, and contaminants from engine deposits and worn components. If a machine is nearing its recommended oil change interval prior to winter storage, it is best to change that oil before storage. That way, any acids or contaminants will be removed prior to 3-9 months of sitting untouched, where it could otherwise attack bearings, linings, and oil seals. This oil change would also be an appropriate time for an oil analysis, allowing specialists a chance to look for excessive wear within an engine or transmission you wouldn't otherwise know about.

Just as with fuel, keeping oil reservoirs full during extreme temperature fluctuations will reduce the amount of air in the tank, therefore reducing the amount of moisture that can condensate out and contaminate the oil.

Tires

Tires are best stored indoors, out of sunlight, and away from sources of extreme heat. These stressors can damage the rubber compounds in tires, leading to premature cracking along the bead, sidewalls, and cleats. Another recommendation from manufacturers is to store tires away from electric motors or generators; the brushes in the motors release ozone which can lead to premature failure. When temperatures drop, air inside tires contracts and leads to a decrease in tire pressure. Each 10 degree drop in temperature can decrease tire pressures by about 3 psi (pounds per square inch). Prior to storing equipment in one place, or running equipment over uneven ground, double-check tire pressures and adjust accordingly to maintain proper internal structure. If equipment will be stored over winter, consider moving the equipment each month to prevent deformation, or safely place equipment on jacks to remove tire sidewall strain. Clean any solvents, oils, grease, or petroleum-based fluids from tires prior to storage, as these materials can also degrade rubber compounds within the tire. Tires filled with calcium chloride should be stored with valve stems between the 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock positions to prevent fluid from freezing in the stems and causing air leaks.

Other Best Practices Clean-Up

Thoroughly cleaning machinery at season's end is a great time to examine it and make a list of any needed repairs. Make a note of areas where paint is discolored, metal filings have accumulated, or metal has stress cracks. These may be signs of damage or heating from bearing failure. Paying special attention to areas where grease, crop residue, and dirt gather can help prevent moisture accumulation in sensitive areas. Avoid spraying degreasers or high-pressure water at sensitive electronic components, bearings, and chains or belts. Some producers note it takes much less time to wash equipment if they blow it off with compressed air first. Forage crop residue can be especially harmful to surfaces, as the high moisture and sugar content is extremely corrosive to metals. Also pay close attention to any equipment that handles fertilizer, because the salt within the fertilizer will cause metals to corrode much faster than if they are clean. Allow washed machinery to sit out in an open area with a light breeze until dry. Running machinery after washing may also help it dry faster. Never park wet machinery in enclosed spaces with high humidity or you may encourage corrosion.

Consider applying touch-up paint to dings or dents, or light machine oil to bare metal surfaces that see occasional wear. If applying oil to metal surfaces, do not allow it to contact plastic or rubber surfaces, or drive belts. Oil will accelerate degradation of these materials and can cause drive belts to slip.

Rodent Management

Avoiding rodent infestations is easiest when machinery is thoroughly cleaned before storage. Grain residues, dried hay or chaff, and even insulation material in combine or tractor cabs are suitable food or nesting materials for small rodents. Wiring harness insulation damage is not uncommon underneath machinery hoods or under sheet metal panels. Avoid leaving tailings or residual grain inside a combine by opening all traps and doors and blowing them out with compressed air. Remove built-up crop residues from forage choppers, hay balers, and tractor transmission housings before storing indoors. Moth balls, rodent traps, and carefully managed rodenticides can help prevent unpleasant surprises come springtime.

Storage, Indoor or Outdoor

Preparing equipment for long-term storage can be a waste of time if the storage location is not protected from the weather. Certain machinery, like combines or balers, may deteriorate rapidly if stored outdoors for a few seasons. Other machinery, like tillage equipment, rarely sees a benefit from being stored indoors. Sunlight and moisture take a sharp toll on tires, rubber and plastic components, paint, bearings, and sheet metal that collects water. Machinery with a high proportion of electrical components, exceptional resale value, or extreme sensitivity to sunlight and moisture should take precedence over other machinery for indoor storage.

If possible, avoid storing machinery in the same building or structure as hay, especially if the building contains a farm workshop. A small accident in the workshop can quickly lead to a serious loss of stored forages.

Uptime Service

Uptime service is a popular service offered by equipment dealers to even out their seasonal work demands and keep technicians busy in the off-season. Uptime service is performed outside of the "normal" cropping season (usually between December and March) with technicians comparing machinery condition to expected wear and making any necessary repairs or adjustments. Uptime service is a useful option for corn planters, balers, combines, and tractors. Uptime service can be very in-depth, sometimes involving removing corn planter units from the planter and testing output and accuracy on a stationary tester. Other forms of uptime service can be rudimentary; technicians simply compare clearances and measurements to book values to determine if machinery is out of specification.

Winterization

Check that equipment containing fluids are properly winterized before cold weather sets in. Pesticide sprayers and preservative applicators should be flushed and drained as completely as possible. Using a non-toxic, RV-type or manufacture recommended antifreeze, add enough antifreeze to the system to completely submerse the pump, strainer bodies, and any lines or hoses that couldn't be completely drained.


This summary article was written using technical resources provided by major farm manufacturers, such as AGCO, Caterpillar, Case IH, Cenex Fuels, Deka Batteries, Duracell Batteries, Kubota, NAPA, and Shell Rotella, as well as land-grant University Extension programs from Ohio State University, Louisiana State University, and North Dakota State University.




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