Management & Operations

Staying Safe and Warm All Winter Long

Posted on July 1, 2003 by Beverly Braga, editorial assistant

If the heat waves of this summer are any indication of what the cold waves will be this winter, bus operators will have to prepare themselves for lots of brutal weather. Unlike the western and southern regions where snow and sleet are practically urban legends, areas to the north and northeast experience enough of the white stuff to wish summer would sneak into the wrong season once in a while. During winter days, staying warm is what keeps people moving. The same idea works for the bus industry. Maintaining the function of buses and motorcoaches allows operators to continue doing business, especially when many people would prefer not to be out in the first place. And just as blazing temperatures can cause engine problems, unsafe driving conditions and passenger discomfort, who is to say freezing temperatures will not? Focus on the road Lack of visibility is a concern during the snow-inducing months for obvious reasons. Because of the cold outside temperatures, snow and ice will not wipe off windshields as quickly as rain and can also accumulate much faster. If a driver cannot see through a windshield, transporting passengers clearly becomes a safety issue. One way to resolve the situation is with HotShot, a hot wash cleaning device. Produced by Microheat Inc. of Farmington Hills, Mich., the de-icing system installs into any existing wiper unit, spraying hot fluid heated by the vehicle’s electrical system. “The device heats the wiper fluid to a precise temperature where ice and snow can be effectively removed from a windshield,” says James Foertsch, Microheat’s marketing director. The product is activated by a single dash-mounted button. By working purely off a vehicle’s battery, HotShot does not require engine heat to function. With the wiper fluid reaching temperatures of 145 degrees, the need to scrape winter frost from a windshield or back window is virtually eliminated. The initial heating process takes 30 seconds with fluid temperature and system pressure being maintained through sensing and control technology. “The temperature is not hot enough to crack your windshield or burn you, but hot enough to remove road vision obstacles,” Foertsch says. “An added benefit is that it removes condensation on the inside of the glass, preventing the windshield from fogging over.” The device is available in two models: GO provides on-demand heating and PRO offers a fully automated operation. Depending on the system, installation can be completed within an hour and both models work with all types of commercial washer fluids and solvents. HotShot comes with a three-year limited warranty. Fleet pricing starts at $174, but increases and decreases accordingly by quantity, installation and distribution. Addressing safety hazards Keeping windows clear is not the only thing to focus on, however. Keeping steps free from ice is also important. Because entry and exit doors are constantly being exposed to outside conditions, snow can accumulate and eventually harden into ice, creating a slippery slope for passengers. Lighthouse International offers a solution with its Warm Welcome step heaters. According to Lighthouse President Bill Dyer, since the heaters are applied directly to bus treads, drivers no longer have to spend time chipping ice off the steps. “The treads maintain their ‘grip’ in cold weather conditions, significantly reducing your company’s liability exposure as you increase passenger safety,” he says. Based in Spokane, Wash., Lighthouse initially manufactured step heaters for home and business applications before realizing the transit industry’s concern regarding slippery steps. The company currently offers transit authorities a selection of more than 75 heater models in 12- and 24-volt designs for both rubber and plastic treads. Although heaters for low-floor buses are available, many are in the design stages since the step is still relatively new. “We came out with the low-step heaters about two years ago,” Dyer says. “We have maybe 10 styles for them right now, but we’re still designing more.” Warm Welcome tread heaters are silicone rubber insulated heaters, with the rubber being resistant to acid, alkalis, ozone, water, fungus and most common solvents. With a thickness of 1/16 inch, they install easily between the tread and the step well. A variety of operational temperatures are used depending on the type of tread being heated. “Plastic treads have a much lower heat tolerance than rubber treads do,” explains Dyer. “So if we tried to heat plastic treads at the same level we heated rubber treads, which is about 160 degrees, the plastic would melt.” All Warm Welcome heaters come with a three-year warranty against manufacturer’s defects. Since costs vary by heater size and quantity, price quotes are available upon request. Pre-heating options In freezing temperatures, it’s nice for operators to climb into an already-thawed bus. Pre-heating can be achieved through auxiliary heaters such as the Thermo Series from Webasto Product North America. Used in the transit and motorcoach industries, these diesel fuel-fired units pre-heat the coolant in the engine to over 180 degrees. That eliminates cold starts, extends engine life and provides supplemental interior heat. Available as an option, a timer can be programmed up to seven days in advance to self-activate the unit. Another option is self-diagnostics software. Don Kanneth, Webasto’s OEM/aftermarket director of sales and services, says the diagnostic unit can test all of the individual heater components, such as the ignition coil and the water pump. Once buses have rolled out of the lot, making sure they continue to roll is where heat system manufacturers come in. “We have a new fuel-side heating system, which is somewhat derived from some of our existing heater systems,” says John Dennehy, vice president of marketing and communications for Espar Heating Systems in Ontario, Canada. “The difference here though is that this product is more compact, has a higher heat output and is more efficient.” Called the AirTronic 4, the heater is mountable into any compartment underneath a seat or the bus itself. A single unit can heat an entire vehicle by having ducting run beneath the seats and along the sides of the bus. Interior heating can also be accomplished by installing several heaters throughout the cabin. “Sometimes we’ll have [bus and motorcoach manufacturers] install them behind the stairs,” Dennehy says. “That way, when you enter the bus, it’s always warm and the snow on the stairs is melted as well. Basically, it can double up as a step heater.” Caloritech strip heaters, manufactured by CCI Thermal Technologies Inc. of Alberta, Canada, are versatile, fitting many applications, which include surface heating, process air heating, resistors and frost protection. According to the company, the heaters are constructed with a high-temperature alloy resistance wire that is coiled over the width of the product’s heated length. After being wrapped into an aluminized or stainless steel sheath, the final product undergoes controlled heating conditions that bake and semi-vitrify the material for a vibration resistant, heavy-duty heating unit. Strip heaters made of aluminized steel are suitable for applications where the maximum sheath temperature does not exceed 1,000 degrees. Stainless steel applications are not to exceed 1,200 degrees. Slotted mounting holes allow the heaters to be bolted to tank bottoms, tank sidewalls, platens, heating tables and presses. Are operators buying? In spite of all the new winter-related products available to operators, some are not doing anything out of the ordinary in preparation for this winter. “No, we didn’t buy anything new for this winter,” says Michael Wehr, director of maintenance for the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS). “We pretty much got our act together since the mid-90s, when we had some really cold seasons.” During the early 1990s, MCTS began installing Webasto’s DBW300 coolant heater, which is now the Thermo 300. Wehr believes the winters have since warmed up but knows that below-zero days still make an occasional appearance. “Below minus-20 degrees is our cutoff,” Wehr says. “At that temperature, we feel that a standard transit bus will not keep a passenger comfortable without an auxiliary heater.” MCTS has a fleet of about 500 buses, 29 30-foot coaches and the remainder in the 40-foot range. Starting in 1996, all new buses purchased by MCTS have been low-floor and auxiliary heater equipped. Also, a fuel additive was recently used to prevent waxing and gelling. As a result of these added measurements, cold bus complaints and road calls have been greatly reduced. At Cyr Bus Lines in Old Town, Maine, where temperatures below minus-30 have been felt, 90% of the company’s full-size Setra and MCI coaches are outfitted with OEM heaters. “We haven’t installed any of the heaters,” says service manager Matthew Gilman. “All the coaches included heaters from the factory, except for one — an MCI Renaissance that we retrofitted.” When asked what improvements could be made with the current product market, Gilman suggests more of a selection in the heating process, like perhaps an “on-demand” option. “In some ways, the heaters can be a little wasteful in that they’re constantly running, whether you need them or not,” he says. “During summer months, once you start the bus, the heaters will run and get up to temperature, even if it’s for only five minutes.”

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