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Troubleshooting Article Archive:  November 2004      
Ice in Hydraulics -- Never a Good Thing
Water in the hydraulic oil is never, in the words of Martha Stewart, a good thing.  During those sudden cold snaps which accompany winter weather, water in the hydraulics can turn into ice.  Ice inside the hydraulic system causes acute, dramatic failures which can take you by surprise when you go out to do the first tow of the day on a cold winter morning.

Water often enters the hydraulic system gradually over time in the form of rainwater through the filler neck.  When the hydraulic filler cap is missing or has been replaced with rags stuffed in the hole or no longer screws into the neck properly, it doesn't always keep rainwater out.  Since oil floats on top of water, the water settles into the lowest point in the hydraulic system.  On many tow trucks, the lowest point is the large-diameter rubber suction hose that supplies hydraulic oil to the hydraulic pump.  

Then, the temperature drops from above freezing to the single digits and stays there throughout the night.  By morning, the water in the suction hose has turned into a solid plug of ice.  The tow truck operator engages the PTO for the first tow of the morning, and the hydraulic pump burns out from total oil starvation.

Keep ice and water out of the hydraulic system by using a filler cap that stays on.  If you suspect water in the hydraulic system, you can sometimes drain it out by undoing the lowest point in the system and watching what comes out.  Milky-looking hydraulic oil usually means water's been in the system and has been churned around with the oil.