Machinery Chatter

Cold Weather Hard on Batteries, Diesel Fuel

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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Batteries need special attention in the winter to prevent failures. (DTN/The Progressive Farmer photo by Jim Patrico.)

The phrase "polar vortex" was introduced to all of us recently as temperatures plunged to the below-zero-degree Fahrenheit range. These are not weather conditions you would want to spend much time in.

Some folks, however, don't have much choice. Farmers and ranchers still have livestock to feed even when the mercury drops to these frigid levels. They depend on tractors and trucks to get the feed to the livestock.

If you don't take proper steps before the cold air hits, machinery will not be able to operate.

The two facets of machinery which seem to be hit the hardest by blasts of arctic air are batteries and diesel fuel. I think most everyone has stories about dead batteries or diesel gelling in the cold.

My story is pushing snow out of my aunt's driveway many years ago after an early season snowstorm; the tractor's untreated diesel gelled up. After several hours of diesel fuel treatments (and many hours of blocking a residential street), I finished the job.

Extreme cold weather can put a heavy drain on batteries in farm-related vehicles, according to the website The cold will slowly cause batteries to fail.

Another cause of battery failure in farm settings is not securing the battery properly, the website says. Vibrations can shake the active material from the battery plate grids. This, in turn, will cause failure.

Other possible factors that can cause battery failure include corroded terminals, sulfation due to inactivity and electrical shorts in the battery itself.

Operators should keep terminals clean and also should keep fluid levels in the battery at proper levels. If the fluid level is low inside the battery, add distilled water.

Diesel fuel is also a risk factor. It forms waxy, solid crystals at low air temperatures, according to a publication from Iowa State University Extension. The temperature at which this begins to happen depends on the diesel refining process, but several online sources stated it is around 10-15 degrees F.

Operators of diesel-powered machinery have a couple of options to keep their machines running in the cold.

First, they could switch from No. 2 diesel to No. 1 diesel in the cold weather months. The second plan is to use diesel fuel additives to keep the diesel from gelling.

I know farmers who have always utilized No. 1 diesel in the winter, and I know just as many farmers who use fuel additives. There are advantages and disadvantages of both methods of fuel management.

According to ISU, using No. 1 diesel reduces the potential for plugging filters or fuel injection systems due to its lower "cloud" point, but fuel energy per gallon is also slightly reduced. If you already have No. 1 diesel in the tank, you don't have to worry about adding fuel additives and the added cost of purchasing fuel additives.

Of course, if you already have put fuel additives into the No. 2 diesel, then you don't have to worry about the hassle of finding No. 1 and putting it into the fuel tank of your tractor or truck.

On our farm we have used both No. 1 diesel and diesel fuel additives. If I plan out far enough and get some No. 1 diesel, this usually gets us through the winter with the tractors that grind feed, remove snow and feed hay.

Sometimes winter comes sooner, and it is more convenient to just buy some fuel additives and put them into the fuel tanks of our tractors.

What is your cold weather diesel fuel strategy?

Russ Quinn can be reached at



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Bonnie Dukowitz
1/21/2014 | 8:18 AM CST
Fuel additives do help, but do not make #1 fuel out of #2. In Mn., we can also purchase bio-free #1 in Winter. While we promote and have used bio ever since it was available, it does start clouding at higher temp. than diesel. To prevent moisture build up and separation, we do add a conditioner and on occasion we recirculate the stored fuel within the storage tank with the use of the pump (Summer and Winter) In extreme cold, we will cover the tractor with a small tarp to use heat from the engine block to warm the filters while feeding. Also, if one turns off all electric in any motor vehicle prior to turning off the engine, the battery will have a chance to charge a little. Get trapped in the skid steer with the door closed and a haybale on the spear for while, one learns to prepare a bit.