Setting Up Pickups To Plow
Is your pickup ready for snow work? Some setup tips to help you push right through the winter
by G.R. Whale
Syracuse, New York, Quebec City in Canada, Flagstaff, Arizona and Erie, Pennsylvania all average eight to ten feet of snowfall a year and have metro-area populations exceeding 125,000 people. Other areas cover many more people in lots of snow.
If you run a paving, landscape, excavation or perhaps a seasonal agriculture, maintenance or building business, that precipitation is a potential revenue stream.
You may like waking up really early, working at night, and perhaps even have some experience snow plowing. So turning white into green isn’t that big of a work transition.
The big question is can your pickup(s) handle the rigors of plowing snow?
We talked with people familiar with professional plowing around the country to get their take on the best pickup setup.
Our experts include a few from the Rocky Mountains: Eric Curry, owner of RAI (Rock and Ice), Frank Ceferatti of Shuv-It, both in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where city center averages about 14 feet of snow.
We also chatted with Gordon Speck, the Track and Fleet Manager at Bridgestone’s Winter Driving School just outside of town who dealt with 500 inches of snowfall last winter.
These snow-plowing pros had a lot of great insights on what it takes to make a pickup last season after season pushing snow.
All agreed that a half-ton pickup, Jeep, or older Bronco/Blazer/Scout SUV is useful for driveways or small areas with limited maneuverability. But commercial plowing requires a 3/4- or 1-ton.
Although a one-ton’s dual-rear wheels (DRW) can carry more weight in salt hoppers and spreaders, the wider track necessitates a wider plow to avoid running in your own banks.
Duallys are also less maneuverable than single-rears of the same wheelbase, and a medium-duty truck’s 19.5-inch tires have fewer winter tire choices.
A cab-and-chassis with a staked flatbed or dump body will work and has no bed bodywork to get damaged by the snow and ice chunks trailing off the front.
In new full-size ½-ton pickups, only GM offers a snow-plow prep package. Toyota, Nissan and Ram do not recommend plowing with their respective Tundra, Titan and Ram 1500.
Ford dropped the snow-plow prep package from the 2011-and-newer F-150 because of electrical requirements associated with the electric-assist steering; many plows have peak draws near 250 amps and losing steering assist while plowing because of it could be problematic.
Some plow packages are merely a heavier-duty alternator and skid-plate upgrade. Others are more comprehensive and have included heavier front springs, fan clutch, accessory power supplies and wiring harnesses, and a larger grille or bumper opening.
These factory upgrades are well worth the nominal price (about $150-$400) and many who never plow anything order them; there are no real downsides. Some contractors simply won’t consider a truck without a plow-prep package, a not unreasonable philosophy given vehicle requirements, potential warranty issues and plow manufacturer requirements.
Whatever truck you choose don’t forget axle weight ratings: A sizable plow will add 1,000 pounds or more to front axle weight so a luxury long-cab diesel may not have the load capacity to handle the equipment.
The owner’s manual, usually available online, will identify any other limitations.
Likewise, pay close attention to gross vehicle (GVWR) and rear axle weight (RGAW) limitations. You’ll be adding ballast for the rear axle, and with some extra tools, parts, or fuel tank, a plow setup could push your pickup to be overweight.
Overweight leads to failed parts – and no warranty coverage.
SETUP TO PLOW
The first modification you’ll have to decide on is a plow. Our sources named the usual choices–the BOSS, Fisher, Meyer, Sno-Way, and Western—and unanimously thought a good parts supplier or dealer was just as important as brand, but plow operators are no less brand-loyal than the pickups they drive.
Many plow manufacturer web sites will match a plow to a truck, specify what factory options are required, and include a ballast calculator.
If your truck didn’t come with a plow package there are some things you can do to help it survive. (Note: The changes may void some warranty coverage on trucks still in the manufacturer’s warranty period.)
Every GM plower we spoke to using single-rear ¾ or 1-tons has upgraded the pitman arm and turned up the torsion bars to help level the front end.
Many operators add front air helper-springs like those from Firestone, or Timbren rubber springs, while some have installed front air shocks.
Air bags and rubber springs will help keep the truck level but do not increase GAWR or GVWR, so you can’t add them and then a larger plow.
Speck, who hates to see front tires buried in the fenders, uses a mild Energy Suspension leveling kit and bushings on his solid-axle F-250.
Ford and Ram solid axles may be easier to lift and align than IFS suspensions, but whatever truck you are setting up to plow with, the primary goal is having it level with the plow on and high enough that a lifted plow can clear sidewalks and curbs, both to avoid colliding with and ease back-dragging off of them.
Batteries tend to be cranky when the temperature plummets. So special attention needs to be paid to their condition prior to winter work. Check cells and clean terminals and connections.
A plow system can pull 250-amp loads, defrosters are going full tilt and there are lots of lights on, so dual batteries, even on gasoline trucks, are highly recommended.
A high-output alternator—from the factory, the aftermarket, or in addition to the standard unit—is a good idea, too; some newer diesels are available with dual alternators.
Most plows offer headlight systems for the factory pieces they cover, some better than others.
Ideally you’ll have wide-beam lights for large parking lots and more-focused driving lights if you do roadways or driveways longer than a couple hundred feet.
Most pros find high-grade amber lamps like those from Hella and PIAA generate considerably less glare off snow than white lights.
A good wide-beam flood on either side and the rear provides full-circle coverage, though your state’s lighting regulations should be consulted before on-road operation.
Warning lights come in a variety of sizes, styles and shapes. Strobes, such as Whelen’s new Vertex LEDs that have 180-degrees of visibility, are excellent attention-getting devices and work great mounted on the side corners of your pickup.
A roof-mounted LED setup like we have on Project Super Crew or a simple rotating beacon is easier for traffic to determine distance to and speed of your truck.
LED’s have very low current draw, are waterproof and vibration-proof. The snowy downside is they don’t generate heat like a halogen bulb and may be covered in snow quicker than would a conventional light.
Adequate cooling may not be top of mind while freezing your butt off. However, it does require attention.
Plowing is hard on automatic transmissions and torque converters. A transmission temperature gauge is a good addition to the dash if your pickup doesn’t have one from the factory. Trans cooler fins get plugged and temps will soar faster than drifts in a blizzard.
If your ATF temp consistently runs high an auxiliary cooler, and/or an added electric fan, would be a beneficial upgrade.
There are two camps in tires, one using all-terrains for year-round operation, the other in favor of dedicated winter tires (See our snow tire test, page 26.)
All of our experts run near or at sidewall max pressure so tires dig through rather than float over snow.
Winter tires have a tread designed primarily for snow and ice rather with rubber compounds specific for sub-freezing temperatures.
Studded tires are a plus if your routes get a lot of ice, and chains can be used though our guys use them only on the rear and in extreme cases. Speck, who runs Blizzak W965s and would even if it weren’t Bridgestone’s track, says, “If it’s that bad start with a tractor.”
Finally, since pickup control is essential to working safely in snow and ice, whatever tire you prefer, make sure they are replaced in full sets. Vehicle control in slippery conditions is all about balance and traction.
After dropping a plow on the front you have to equalize things at the other end for traction, vehicle dynamics and wear. Pickups always have a bigger, stronger rear axle than front, so you want that end pushing just as hard.
RAI’s Curry has 100-gallon fuel tanks (720 pounds plus the tank) in his extended-cab short beds and uses chains in back for heavy, wet snow.
Speck’s F-250 SuperCab long bed has a 700-pound tank and a 400-pound rear bumper that get the job done. But like hoppers that spread salt or sand, any medium that’s used up takes weight off the back.
Limit transit speed to 40-45 mph as truck and plow maker specify, and experiment with plow angles and heights to find the best position for truck cooling—on many you’ll hear the fan engage even if the gauge doesn’t move.
Curry from RAI finds the most common mistake is people pushing banks instead of plowing snow, while Speck observes people using too large a truck and being in too much hurry to shift between drive and reverse.
Minimize time in reverse to save wear and tear on the transmission, maintain cooling airflow, and because most trucks are far more efficient pushing snow.
Finally, follow the factory maintenance guidelines for severe-service duty cycles and the plow maker’s requirements.
Downtime doing regular maintenance and following service intervals might be inconvenient but will pay off in the long run by avoiding costly repairs. After all, the idea here is to have your pickup fit to plow.