Now is the time to start preparing your car for the upcoming winter driving season. Believe it or not, most of the problems we have with our cars in the winter are caused by the heat of the summer. Don’t wait until the weather turns bitterly cold to get your car ready.
Here are some basic but essential things to check to make sure your car is ready for whatever the elements throw at it:
TIRES Your tires are arguably the most important components of your car when it comes to winter driving. Tires in good condition will help you get going in the snow, but more importantly will help you stop when it is slippery, allowing you to avoid obstacles and maintain steering as much as possible. Tests have shown that on a wet driving surface, tires that are new will stop 20% shorter than tires that are half worn. This is an important consideration when deciding if your tires are safe going into the winter. Your tires should be checked for tread depth and pressure, and for any uneven wear. The general rule of thumb is that for safe winter driving you need to have 5/32” or more tread remaining. The tread should be worn evenly across the three tread grooves. The pressure should be at what the vehicle manufacturer recommends for the car, which is listed on a label either inside the driver door jamb or possibly in the glove compartment. The tire pressure “max” listed on the sidewall of the tire is what the maximum amount of air the tire can hold, but is not what is recommended for the proper and safe handling of your particular car. In cold weather, tires tend to lose air pressure more quickly than in warm weather so it is important to check the pressure and adjust more frequently. It is generally not enough to have them checked just when your car is being serviced. Check them at least once a month.
WIPERS Check the rubber part of your wiper blade for tears or nicks in the rubber and replace them if there are any. Make sure the wipers are making good contact with the glass and not leaving any streaks. Also check your washer fluid; keep the reservoir full of solvent that is good to at least 0 degrees. Test them to make sure they spray all over the windshield.
ENGINE COOLANT Your engine coolant should be clean and test to at least -30F. It should be changed at the interval the manufacturer recommends. Coolant may test ok as far as antifreeze strength but start breaking down and lose its rust inhibiting qualities so it is very important to change it when recommended. The radiator and hoses should be checked for leaks.
BATTERY The heat of summer is harder on a battery than the cold of winter, but it is when it is cold that a bad battery is likely to keep your car from starting. Check the battery terminal connections for tightness, and make sure there is no corrosion buildup on the terminals. Have the battery tested for load strength. Most batteries in cold climates are at their best for about 5 years. If you don’t drive your car frequently in the winter, or are storing it while you are away, consider adding a battery tender. This is a small charger that will charge your battery when it detects the charge is getting depleted. The battery should stay ready for you to start when you need it.
OTHER BASIC MAINTENANCE Make sure you are up-to-date with oil changes. Air filters for the engine and ventilation systems should be checked and replaced if needed. Spark plugs should be changed at the manufacturer recommended interval. Clean oil and good spark plugs will help the car start in the coldest weather. Make sure all of your headlights and tail lights are working because visibility tends to be worse in the winter.
EMERGENCY KIT Being prepared is the best way to stay safe when you are travelling in the winter. These items are important to have with you in case of an emergency:
- A fully charged cell phone
- Jumper cables
- A small shovel
- A blanket
- Cat litter for traction
- Large plastic trash bags (to kneel on in snow or as rain protection)
- Ice scraper/snow brush
- Flashlight with fresh batteries
- Extra hats and mittens for occupants
OTHER GADGETS Some people like to get into a warm car in the winter. Remote starters have become very popular so you can warm your car up before you get in. That also works in the summer for air conditioning. Also, for very cold areas where vehicles have to be parked outside, block heaters are available. Most are designed to keep the engine coolant warm so you get warm coolant circulating for your heater more quickly. Others will warm the engine oil up so it circulates more easily when it is cold.
OTHER WINTER DRIVING TIPS Let’s start with the obvious: If the weather is bad and you don’t need to go out, don’t! Check the weather services, and the DOT websites, for any road closings or travel advisories for the area you are travelling before you go. When it is below zero, it is good to let your car warm up, but don’t let it idle too long. Let it run long enough to clear the frost off the windows, and then start driving, slower speeds if possible, to get the fluids circulating. The heater will warm up faster this way. Wash the sand and salt off of your car when it is warm enough to do so. Typically if it over 20 degrees your locks won’t freeze if you wash the car. Make sure the underside gets flushed out, too, so the salt isn’t chewing on your chassis! Most cars now have anti-lock brakes and traction control/ stability control systems to help you maintain control on slippery surfaces. They tend to make a lot of noise, so don’t be surprised to hear a grinding noise from the wheels if you are braking or taking off on a slick surface. It is normal, keep your foot on the brake and let the system do its job. If these things are new to you, find a quiet parking lot to try them out and get used to them. Then you won’t be alarmed in a panic stop situation. Following these basic tips will help you weather the winter driving season more safely and with fewer trips to the shop. But like I said before: don’t wait for the cold weather to strike; get ready now!
A short video discussing all of the winterization techniques: