I usually try to plan my work according to the weather; I like working outside when it's sunny and warm and inside when it's cold. But I live and work in a cold climate, so my plan usually doesn't pan out. Here in South Dakota, temperatures may peak at 5 degrees F on a winter day.
As everyone who lives with cold weather knows, tools and equipment don't work the same when temperatures drop. Electric cords crack and break, electric motors frost over when moved from warm to cold spaces or vice versa, gas or diesel motors won't start, and batteries go dead. The list goes on and on.
In the construction industry, if your equipment doesn't run, you don't work. Here are some tips I've picked up along the way to keep you moving in winter.
Storage. If you store your tools in a cold area but will use them in a warm area, give them a chance to warm up before you use them. If you store your tools in a warm area and work in the cold, the temperature change can make frost develop in switches and armatures and cause motor brushes to chip or break. Always follow the manufacturer's recommendations for cold-weather oil or grease changes.
Cords. Electric cords are a major problem. They get walked on, driven over, and worst of all, they get picked up at the end of the day. Most of the cords supposedly made for cold weather don't work very well. That's why I try to leave my main-feed cords where they are every day -- without picking them up. If you have to move them, don't tie them in knots or make sharp bends.
I've had good luck with a green cord called the Frog for the smaller cords I run from my main lines to my power tools. It coils just as easily in cold as in warm weather. It takes a lot of abuse, comes with a lifetime warranty, and is worth every penny. I wish tool manufacturers would equip power tools with this type of cord. It would prevent the hassle of constantly replacing them or using tools with broken cords.
Pneumatics. My nailers and compressor are probably my most important cold-weather tools. When it's 5 degrees outside and I'm wearing heavy gloves, I don't want to think about how to get a nail out of my tool belt and drive it without hitting my finger. I use a nailgun or stapler for almost everything.
To winterize your pneumatic tools, first follow the manufacturer's recommendations for the proper cold-weather oil. Just as you use a block heater in your truck, I use a small magnetic oil pan heater on the side of the oil reservoir so my compressor starts more easily, preventing it from tripping breakers.
This technique also works for small gas motors, provided you keep the motors clean. Oil pan heaters get hot and could ignite oil accumulations. Keep the compressor tanks drained of moisture. I do not use the automatic drain valves, as they tend to freeze. Even the manual valves will freeze, so you may need to move your compressor into a warm area to let any accumulated ice melt and drain.
Don't keep your compressor in a warm area and run the air lines outside. That's a recipe for disaster. If the warm air creates frosts inside the cold hose, it'll block the air flow. The same thing will happen to a nailer. And be sure to use an inline tool oiler with an air line lubricant/antifreeze. Don't just use a winter-weight tool oil as many companies recommend; they simply don't work as well. I use Killfrost made by Elf Lubricants. I haven't found anything that works better. If a nailer or hose freezes, put a few drops of Killfrost directly in the hose or tool and the frost disappears.
Some people put automotive antifreeze in the air tanks, but that usually creates a gummy mess. Remember, keep your tools clean and in good repair, and they will keep working -- even in cold weather.
Jim Glover is a contractor in Pierre, S.D.