How do extreme climates affect trucks?

Weather poses an array of issues for cars and driving.
Weather poses an array of issues for cars and driving.
Photo courtesy of the United States Antarctic Program

For many truck owners, an automobile isn't just a way to get from point A to point B. It's a way to make a living -- or at least one component of it. For these drivers, extreme weather can have especially far-reaching consequences.

Weather poses an array of issues for cars and driving. Most of them are obvious, like a torrential downpour limiting visibility, or an icy hill creating traction problems for a truck hauling cargo. But it's not "just" about wheels slipping on an icy road. Weather reaches all the way under the hood. In fact, NASCAR teams (it doesn't get much more serious than NASCAR when it comes to "under the hood") test and tune their cars in different climates in order to avoid any weather-related surprises on race day [source: Union-Tribune]. There's even a way to mechanically supply air at a certain temperature, pressure and humidity directly to the engine's air intake so NASCAR mechanics can see exactly how the car is going to respond under particular atmospheric conditions.

That's for racing. Trucks don't typically need to go from zero to 60 miles per hour in three seconds. But it's the same general idea. Weather affects performance. With trucks, and any type of automobile, for that matter, under-the-hood climate effects tend to come down to two main issues: start-up and overall power.

In this article, we'll find out how extreme climates affect the way cars and trucks operate. We'll look specifically at battery and engine performance in very hot and very cold weather conditions, and we'll check out what drivers can do to prepare their vehicles for extreme temperatures. No one wants to be stranded in the middle of nowhere when it's 10 below (-10 degrees F or -23 degrees C).

Likewise when it's 110 degrees F (43 degrees C): Most people associate cold weather with battery problems, but extreme heat is actually even more damaging to a truck's power source.

Extreme Climates and Battery Life

In extreme cold and heat, battery power is strained.
In extreme cold and heat, battery power is strained.
Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

If the battery is out of juice, the truck's not going anywhere. It's what jump-starts the engine so you can get moving. But that's not all it does. It also runs the radio, power windows, stereo, cab lights and the GPS receiver.

With all the new technologies crowding the dashboard these days, a powerful battery is more important than ever. But in extreme heat and extreme cold, battery power is strained.

Most people are familiar with cold-induced battery issues. More than one worker has had to call in on a winter day because the car won't start. What's usually happening is that the cold weather is slowing down the chemical reactions that create the battery's power (see How Batteries Work to learn more) -- heat speeds up chemical reactions, and cold slows them down. So there's less power available to get the truck's engine running. When it's 0 degrees F (-18 degrees C), a fully charged battery has less than half its potential starting power [source: NASCAR].

The problem is compounded by the fact that the cold causes the motor oil to thicken, so it requires more power to get the engine moving than when the oil is warm and thin. The result is a greater power requirement paired with less power available -- and a truck that won't start.

This is the weather scenario most of us think of in relation to battery problems. But in reality, heat is even worse for a truck's battery. Extreme heat causes water to evaporate from the battery's electrolyte. With decreased water content, the terminals end up corroding. This reduces the amount of electrical power that can exit the terminals. Some experts believe that when batteries fail in cold weather, it's at least partly because they degraded during the hotter months and entered winter in a weakened state [source: PRN].

To avoid getting stranded with a car or truck that won't budge, you can:

  • Check connections, terminals and load before summer and winter, and replace a battery that seems weak.
  • Purchase a battery heater for extreme cold.
  • Avoid additional drains like stereos and cab lights if the battery seems to be struggling.

A dead battery is a big problem, but it's not the only extreme-climate effect truck drivers might encounter. The engine itself can feel the heat (or the cold).

Extreme Climates and Truck Engines

Weather poses an array of issues for cars and driving. SSLA
Weather poses an array of issues for cars and driving. SSLA

The battery is involved in the engine, of course, and we've already discussed one big weather issue affecting both components: very viscous engine oil. The thicker the oil, the more energy it takes for the engine parts to move in the crankcase. In this way, the engine can lose some of its power output in extremely cold weather.

The bigger engine problems, though, occur in extremely hot climates. First, there's the problem of overheating. An overly hot engine isn't as efficient as a cool one, and stop-and-go driving on a hot day can lead to 200-degree F (93-degree C) engine temperatures. This affects power output.

In 200-degree heat, water in the engine compartment is turning into vapor, which can sometimes block the flow of gas through fuel lines. This further affects power output.

And on a hot day, air is less dense (the colder the air, the more densely packed the air molecules). With fewer molecules in any given amount of air, there's less oxygen available to ignite fuel -- further affecting power output.

This last issue is also a problem on particularly humid days, because water vapor is taking up some of the space that would otherwise belong to oxygen. So a very hot, very humid climate is about as rough as it gets for a hardworking truck engine.

To try to avoid engine failure in extreme climates, you can:

  • Go with a multi-viscosity (winter-grade) engine oil in extreme cold.
  • Go with a high-viscosity engine oil in extreme heat.
  • Check radiator fluids prior to summer months.

With a little knowledge and forethought, truck owners can reduce the chances of getting stranded at the worst possible time.

For more information on extreme climates and automobiles, look over the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • Allen, Mike. "Debunking 5 Cold-Weather Car Myths." Popular Mechanics. Jan. 28, 2009.http://www.popularmechanics.com/automotive/how_to/4301503.html
  • Keep Your Cool While Your Car Sizzles. Exide.http://docs.google.com/gview?a=v&q=cache%3ABBiK3XIoAjUJ%3Alinks.exide.com%2Fproducts%2Ftrans%2Fna%2Fbattery_care%2Fkeep_cool.pdf+extreme+weather+car+engine&hl=en&gl=us&sig=AFQjCNHnn1bTChceeEFZQJAVcsIZmOl-1Q&pli=1
  • Jelling, Jakob. "What to Do When a Hot Engine is Hard to Start?" DoItYourself.http://www.doityourself.com/stry/hotenginerepairs
  • Make sure your battery is ready for winter weather. NASCAR.http://www.nascar.com/2008/auto/cct/12/02/car.care.winter.ready/index.html
  • NASCAR engine tests run on made-to-order weather. The San Diego Union-Tribune. Feb. 18, 2006.http://www.recall.uniontrib.com/uniontrib/20060218/news_lz1dd18nascar.html
  • The Nuts and Bolts of Batteries. Exide NASCAR Extreme.http://extreme.exide.com/facts_tips.aspx
  • Summer Heat Can Leave Motorists Stranded. PRNewswire. Aug. 13, 2007.http://www2.prnewswire.com/cgi-bin/stories.pl?ACCT=ind_focus.story&STORY=/www/story/08-13-2007/0004644533&EDATE=MON+Aug+13+2007,+01:57+PM
  • Tips to Make Your Car's Battery Last Longer. Automotive Online. Feb. 26, 2009.http://www.automotive-online.com/articles/2009/02/tips-for-battery-maintenance.html
  • Why does my boat perform differently on a hot day verses a cool evening? Mercury Marine.http://www.mercurymarine.com/serviceandwarranty/outboardfaqs/index.php#5