Air Brake System - Cold Weather Operation Tips

As the cold weather approaches, operators and fleets alike begin to look to their vehicles with an eye toward “winterization”, and particularly what can be done to guard against air system freeze-up. Here are some basic “Tips” for operation in the cold weather.

Engine Idling

Avoid idling the engine for long periods of time! In addition to the fact that most engine manufacturers warn that long idle times are detrimental to engine life, winter idling is a big factor in compressor discharge line freeze-up. Discharge line freeze-ups account for a significant number of compressor failures each year. The discharge line recommendations under “Discharge Lines” are important for all vehicles but are especially so when some periods of extended engine idling can not be avoided.

Discharge Lines

The discharge line should slope downward form the compressor discharge port without forming water traps, kinks, or restrictions. Cross-overs from one side of the frame rail to the other, if required, should occur as close as possible to the compressor. Fitting extensions must be avoided. Recommended discharge line lengths and inside diameters are dependent on the vehicle application and are as follows.

Typical P&D, School Bus and Line Haul

The maximum discharge line length is 16 feet.

Length I.D. Min. Other Requirements
6.0-9.5 ft. ½ in None
9.5-12 ft. ½ in. Last 3 feet, including fitting at the end of the discharge line, must be insulated with ½ inch thick closed cell polyethylene pipe insulation.
12-16 ft. 5/8 in. Last 3 feet, including fitting at the end of the discharge line, must be insulated with ½ inch thick closed cell polyethylene pipe insulation.

High Duty Cycle Vehicles (City Transit Coaches, Refuse Haulers, Etc.)

The maximum discharge line length is 16 feet.

Length I.D. min. Other Requirements
10-16 ft. ½ in. None

If the discharge line length must be less than 10 feet or greater than 16 feet, contact your local Bendix representative.

System Leakage

Check the air brake system for excessive air leakage using the Bendix “Dual System Air Brake Test and Check List” (BW1279). Excessive system leakage causes the compressor to “pump” more air and also more moisture into the brake system.

Reservoir Draining (System Without Air Dryer)

Routine reservoir draining is the most basic step (although not completely effective) in reducing the possibility of freeze-up. All reservoirs in a brake system can accumulate water and other contamination and must be drained! The best practice is to drain all reservoirs daily. When draining reservoirs; turn the ENGINE OFF and drain ALL AIR from the reservoir, better still, open the drain cocks on all reservoirs and leave them open over night to assure all contamination is drained (reference Service Data Sheet SD-04-400 for Bendix Reservoirs). If automatic drain valves are installed, check their operation before the weather turns cold (reference Service Data Sheet SD-03-2501 for Bendix® DV-2™ Automatic Drain Valves). It should be noted that, while the need for daily reservoir draining is eliminated through the use of an automatic drain valve, periodic manual draining is still required.

Alcohol Evaporator or Injector Systems

Check for proper operation of these systems by monitoring alcohol consumption for a few days (Reference Service Data Sheet SD-08-2301 for the Bendix Alcohol Evaporator). Too little means the system is not receiving adequate protection and too much simply wastes alcohol. As a general guide, these systems should consume approximately 1 to 2 ounces of alcohol per hour of compressor loaded time (compressing air). City pick-up and delivery vehicles will operate with the compressors loaded (compressing air) more while compressors on highway vehicles will be loaded less. These figures are approximate and assume that air system leakage is within the limits of the Bendix “Dual System Air Brake Test and Check List” (BW1279). Last but not least, begin using alcohol several weeks prior to freezing weather to ensure that the system is completely protected. Use only methanol alcohol, such as Bendix “Air Guard”, in evaporators or injectors.

Air Dryers

Make certain air brake system leakage is within the limits stated in BW1279. Check the operation and function of the air dryer using the appropriate Service Data Sheet for the air dryer.

AD-9™ Air Dryer Service Data Sheet SD-08-2412
AD-4™ Air Dryer Service Data Sheet SD-08-2407
AD-2™ Air Dryer Service Data Sheet SD-08-2403
AD-IP™ Air Dryer Service Data Sheet SD-08-2414
AD-SP™ Air Dryer Service Data Sheet SD-08-2415

Additional Cold Weather Operation Tips for the Air Brake System

Last year we published Bulletin PRO-08-21 which provided some guidelines for “winterizing” a vehicle air brake system. Here are some additional suggestions for making cold weather vehicle operation just a little more bearable.

Thawing Frozen Air Lines

The old saying; “Prevention is the best medicine” truly applies here! Each year this activity accounts for an untold amount of unnecessary labor and component replacement. Here are some Do’s and Don’ts for prevention and thawing.


1. Do maintain freeze prevention devices to prevent road calls. Don’t let evaporators or injectors run out of methanol alcohol or protection will be degraded. Check the air dryer for proper operation and change the desiccant when needed.

2. Do thaw out frozen air lines and valves by placing the vehicle in a warmed building. This is the only method for thawing that will not cause damage to the air system or its components.

3. Do use dummy hose couplings on the tractor and trailer.

4. Do check for sections of air line that could form water traps. Look for “drooping” lines.


1. Do not apply an open flame to air lines and valves. Beyond causing damage to the internal nonmetallic parts of valves and melting or burning non-metallic air lines. WARNING: THIS PRACTICE IS UNSAFE AND CAN RESULT IN VEHICLE FIRE!

2. Do not introduce (pour) fluids into air brake lines or hose couplings (“glad hands”). Some fluids used can cause immediate and severe damage to rubber components. Even methanol alcohol, which is used in Alcohol Evaporators and Injectors, should not be poured into air lines. Fluids poured into the system wash lubricants out of valves, collect in brake chambers and valves and can cause malfunction. Loss of lubricant can affect valve operating characteristics, accelerate wear and cause premature replacement.

3. Do not park a vehicle outside after thawing its air system indoors. Condensation will form in the system and freeze again. Place the vehicle in operation when it is removed to the outdoors.

Supporting Air and Electrical Lines

Make certain tie wraps are replaced and support brackets are re-assembled if removed during routine maintenance. These items prevent the weight of ice and snow accumulations from breaking or disconnecting air lines and wires.

Automatic Drain Valves (System without Air Dryer)

As we stated last year, routine reservoir draining is the most basic step (although not completely effective) in reducing the possibility of freeze-up. While automatic drain valves relieve the operator of draining reservoirs on a daily basis, these valves MUST be routinely checked for proper operation. Don’t overlook them until they fail and a road call is required.

© Barry Brideau 2003-2014