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Servicing diesel engines in extreme temperatures

Thursday, November 1, 2018 - 06:00
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One evening seven years ago, after a particularly rough day working at the head office of a Japanese vehicle manufacturer, I scanned the on-line job postings and noticed an ad from a remote, arctic mine site that sounded similar to the one I was doing at the time.

I submitted a resume I had on file along with a generic cover letter, clicked “submit” and didn’t think anything else about it, chalking it up to a mental escape after a tough day. Six weeks later I got an email offer to fly to a tiny, remote northern town for an interview and six months after that I was working at the site in some of the harshest conditions on the planet – seriously.

During the winter there’s maybe an hour or two of daylight – and yes, it’s brutally cold, down to -80F at times. The trucks and buses need to run at that temperature because they’re considered shelters.

Conditions on site are so harsh we don’t even order parts for “arctic” or “extreme cold” conditions because they’re never suitable for the environment we work in – we’d just have to take them off and make up our own stuff that can handle the job. And the parts we do order can take months to get to site. There’s no parts store on the corner – there’s not even a road 10 months of the year until the ice road gets built. Parts are flown in based on priority and can often get bumped for groceries or other, higher priority parts. It’s not uncommon to get techs flying in to site to bring parts up in their personal luggage and to patch up vehicles in the meantime so they’re safe to drive.

And not only that, since the pick-up trucks and buses on site are used as emergency shelters as well as for transportation and protection against curious or aggressive wildlife, the vehicles simply have to work because someone could freeze to death (or, in theory, get eaten) if they don’t – which is even more important when you have live and work with the people counting on you to keep their protective-shelter-transportation working, and you kind of like having them around.

Not only do the vehicles have to run reliably, oil or coolant leaks from the vehicles are simply not acceptable because any and all leaks have to be reported to the government agencies and the company can be fined or shut down if they don’t—which is obviously not good at all. And any contaminated soil needs to be flown off site and disposed of at huge expense. Ugh.

Perhaps the biggest difference, though, is how important the company’s safety record is and how this affects to their ability to keep operating so there’s an unbelievable amount of pressure to work safely and keep the workplace clean – more than I’ve ever seen, anywhere including the Japanese manufacturer. The company is fanatic about safety and shortcuts or unsafe acts typically get a person banned from site for good.

This is the view from the front of camp at lunch time – note the sun only comes up a little bit in the winter, and barely sets at all in the summer (which makes it tough to sleep on nightshift).

Aside from these differences though, the methods used to keep vehicles running in these harsh, remote conditions are similar to the ones used everywhere – pay attention to details, be ready for common repairs and listen to the customers.

But I’ll give them all the credit, techs working in this harsh environment definitely know how to keep vehicles running and overcome tough repair challenges while keeping the costs reasonable. And since many of the challenges we face up here are faced by techs all over the country, here are a few tips from the frozen  north which may help make any repair go smoothly when conditions are tough, resources are scarce and the vehicle simply has to work.

Common problems

Techs on site are split into two groups, the heavy equipment techs who keep the large equipment and heavy duty units working, and the light vehicle technicians who keep literally anything else with an engine that can be moved or dragged across the site operating well.

Mostly these are Ford 4x4 diesel trucks with crew cabs, but there are also school buses, highway trucks, firetrucks, ambulances, pumps, small engines, man-carriers, snowmobiles, ATVs, boats, portable heaters, geotechnical equipment, elevated work platforms  and light plants… and just about anything else you’d imagine on a worksite that’s cold and dark 9 months of the year.

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