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Posted on: March 7, 2019

Mechanics keep City equipment running despite cold weather

Donnie Ortmann mechanic

Donnie Ortmann is one of the City's mechanics who keeps a wide variety of equipment maintained and running.

No one will be happier when warm weather finally returns than Rick Duncan, Donnie Ortmann, Joe Cutaiar, Chris Willoughby, and Jerry Johnson.

The five men are among the mechanics who keep the City of Minot’s equipment running smoothly, a process made significantly more difficult by cold weather. Needless to say, they’re looking forward to the warmer temperatures of spring.

“Things that work at zero degrees do not work at minus 10 or minus 15 degrees,” said Willoughby, who, along with Ortmann, maintains the City’s heavy equipment. “The cold is really tough on things like hydraulics, cutting edges, and fuel filters. And anything with air has problems in cold weather; tires, air lines, they all leak in cold weather.”

During the recent stretch of subzero weather, the City shop was often full of equipment in need of repair. Hoses break because of the cold, sometimes more than once a day. Fuel filters clog in the cold. Hydraulics don’t work like they should.

“We’ve had days when we couldn’t fit any more equipment in our work bays,” said Duncan, the shop’s foreman. “In those cases, you have to prioritize what absolutely needs to get back out there and what can wait a little bit. But eventually, everything needs to be fixed.”

During winter, snow plows top the priority list. Cutting edges on the machines are replaced daily, often twice per 12-hour shift. In fact, the City orders 800 of the cutting edges at a time and has stacks of them in the shop. With the snow plows in almost constant use, the machines require a lot of maintenance.

“On average, our road graders take about three or four hours of maintenance for every 24 hours of snow removal,” Willoughby said. “Ice and snow buildup is a real concern. These machines work hard every day during winter.”

Snow plows present a wide variety of concerns: Lots of hydraulics that can freeze up. Cutting edges that are constantly worn down. And there are the snow gates at the end of the blade used to help prevent snow from being left behind across driveways during plowing. The gates don’t stop all the snow from being left behind, simply because in times of deep snow, the white stuff spills over the top of the gate, even when the plow operator drops the gate down when approaching a driveway.

The gates are custom built by employees in the City of Minot shop. Because each plow can be a little different, each gate is built to fit a specific plow. When a gate is broken, the mechanics can’t simply replace it with a new one. Repairs usually involve welding, perhaps making modifications to strengthen the gate or make it more efficient. Broken snow gates are generally not an easy, or quick, fix, Ortmann said.

In fact, the City’s wide variety of equipment brings with it unique challenges that are magnified by extremely cold weather.

Garbage trucks? “Garbage trucks often don’t work well in extreme cold because of all the hydraulics on them,” Willoughby said. “The cold is really, really hard on hoses, and those trucks have a lot of hydraulics.”

City transit buses? The hardest thing with buses is to keep them warm inside,” said Cutaiar, who maintains the City’s fleet of buses. “Some of them are out on routes for 12 hours, so that’s a long time to run when it’s really cold outside. It takes a toll on equipment.”

Police vehicles? “We have a lot of issues with the cooling systems and reservoirs on our police cars when it’s really cold out,” said Johnson, who spends much of his time maintaining the City’s police vehicles. “Ford has told us that, essentially, it’s a unique problem because of our cold weather. But we still have to deal with it.”

Sometimes, the mechanics have to “deal with it” at odd hours because City crews often work overnight shifts, especially during snow removal efforts. That means one of the mechanics is on call at all times.

“I was called in just the other night,” Ortmann said. “A plow needed some hydraulic repairs just so we could get it driven back to the shop. So, you go and do the repairs because it needs to be done. It’s part of the job.”

The mechanics’ working relationship with equipment operators is key to keeping the machinery properly maintained. Operators don’t just hop in a snow plow or other piece of heavy machinery and take off; there’s a pre-inspection that helps discover any issues before they become major problems.

“We have to give kudos to all the operators in every department. They report troubles to us before they get bad,” Ortmann said. “You have to trust the operators, too. This equipment can be pretty complicated. You have to listen to the music your machine makes.”

Willoughby said that while mechanics and operators work together to make sure equipment is properly maintained, the staff also has improved its process for preparing equipment. “We’ve changed our seasonal inspection process and we do a lot of prep work to get ready for each season, but especially for cold weather,” he said.

Meanwhile, while the cold temperatures continue, there’s plenty of prep work getting ready for when spring and summer actually arrive. That means making sure street sweepers, mowers, and any other equipment necessary for warm weather work is ready to go.

“We maintain roughly 780 pieces of equipment, including mowers, weedeaters and things like that,” Duncan said. “So while we’re doing all this work on equipment in cold weather, we’re also working to make sure all the warm weather equipment is ready, too. We try to keep Donnie working ahead on things for the next season, but we often have to pull him over to work on snow equipment, because that’s obviously a priority right now.”

On March 1, Ortmann was working on one of the City’s street sweepers. It won’t be long before the sweepers are out in full force, cleaning the streets after a long winter. Ortmann, by his own admission, has extremely exacting standards when it comes to the sweepers. It’s probably the reason he does most of the work on the machines.

“Smell that?” he asks while standing near a sweeper. “Smells like sweaty feet or rotten cheese doesn’t it?. That’s from leaves and other debris that builds up in a couple of spots on the underside of the sweepers. It rots and can be corrosive, so I need to take things apart and make sure they’re clean.”

Even when the sweepers are nearly new, Ortmann disassembles the machines in the off season to make sure everything is in proper working order.

“How can I tell my supervisor or my superintendent that a piece of equipment is ready to go unless I know it’s ready to go?” he asks. “So I have to take it apart so I can tell my bosses that this equipment is ready for the season. It’s my reputation as a mechanic on the line.”

That feeling is clearly shared by all the mechanics, and their dedication is not lost on their supervisor.

“Hats off to our mechanics,” Duncan said. “They all do a great job maintaining a wide variety of equipment. They take a lot of pride in their work, and it shows.”

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