Winterizing your Car
Regardless of whether you own a high-end luxury car or an old clunker, the more effort you put into car maintenance, the better the car will perform. At no time is that truer than in the period leading up to winter. Leaving your car exposed to the elements – freezing temperatures, road-salt residue and icy roads — can cause problems that will affect the car’s performance.
Taking proper care of your car isn’t a progressive jackpot gamble. Before winter sets in, complete some checks and maintenance to ensure that your car will perform in top condition.
The last thing that you want when you’re out on a cold, snowy night is for your battery to fail. Batteries fail more often in cold weather because the cold reduces the battery’s cranking power. At zero degrees Fahrenheit (32 Celsius) your battery is at half the cranking power that it has at 70 degrees. The engine, for its part, is dealing with oil that thickens in the cold. Combined with the reduced battery cranking power, it’s harder to get the engine to turn over in cold weather.
Your job is to make sure that the battery and the engine are in as good a shape as possible to avoid problems. To keep your battery in top shape, make sure that the battery’s fluid level is full. You can add distilled water if the fluid is low. On a maintenance-free battery the window at the top of the battery should show whether it’s fully charged. If it isn’t, take it to a service station to charge it.
As mentioned, when engine oil gets cold, it thickens. That makes it harder for the engine to turn over. Multi-weight oil is used in most modern cars and that’s suitable for different temperatures. Some models and makes suggest that, at different temperatures, you get specific grades of oil. Your owner’s manual should provide you with needed information about how to plan out your changes to ensure that your car’s grade of oil is correct for the different times of the year.
An engine block heater may be a good solution for extremely low temperatures. The block heater is installed in the engine and then plugged into a household electrical outlet (so you need an extension cord). In extreme conditions it will prevent the engine oil from becoming too thick.
An added tip: let the engine warm up before you set off in the winter. Idling the engine gives the oil some time to heat up so it will thin out and flow more smoothly. You can save wear and tear on your automatic transmission by waiting until the idle speed drops before you put the car in gear.
Switching your tires every fall and spring may seem like a pain in the neck but it’s a good idea. Winter tires have rubber compounds and tread patterns that are specifically designed to ensure that the car has optimum traction on snowy, slippery roads. You don’t want to keep the winter tires on in the other seasons because they generate more road noise and have a shorter tread life than all-season tires. But for winter driving, they provide extra safety that makes the cost and inconvenience worthwhile.
In some regions, it’s smart to investigate the advisability of using tire chains or studded snow tires.
During the winter, visibility is often compromised by snow and ice. If your windshield wipers aren’t working properly you may find yourself driving in dangerous conditions with the added problem of reduced visibility. Check your windshield wipers and replace them if the wiper-blade rubber shows any signs of stiffness or cracking.
Don’t use your windshield wipers to scape ice or snow off your windshield (unless it’s just a light dusting of show). Use a scraper for anything that takes effort. Don’t put water in your washer reservoir – keep it filled with a solution that contains an anti-freeze agent.
When the car is in the defrost mode, help it out by keeping your car heater running and make sure that warm air is directed at the windshield. While you’re defrosting, turn on your A/C button (set to “hot”) – as it dehumidifies the air, it will speed up the process of defogging (many cars automatically turn on the defroster with the A/C). The recirculate mode is not necessary.
Each time that you prepare to get into the car, walk around the front and the back to make sure that your lights are working properly. Check that they are clear of ice and snow. Your safety may depend on other motorists being able to see you at night or in a snow/ice storm.
Rubber becomes brittle in extreme cold and a cracked radiator or heater hoses can leak or become contaminated from grease or oil. Check the hoses and squeeze them to make sure that they are firm yet pliable. If they seem too soft or brittle, replace them.
In general, a cooling system should be flushed at least once every two years to keep corrosion from building up. If you are due to flush your cooling system, do so before winter sets in. In temperate winter climates, a coolant with a 50/50 antifreeze/water ratio is fine but if you live in an area that experiences extreme cold, consider a ratio of 60/40 or 70/30. Check the back of the antifreeze container or the owner’s manual to determine the right ratio for your car and climate.
Put a fresh coat of wax on your car before winter sets in to protect it from dirt and salt. To prevent build-up of road salt it’s advisable to wash the underbody and wheel wells regularly. Floor mats in the car will help protect the floorboards from the moisture and salt that’s tracked in from the outside.
Keep door locks lubricated with a door-lock lubricant or silicone spray to prevent locks from freezing. Don’t forget your trunk lock. If a lock freezes, an antifreeze product can thaw it out.