Regular, routine car maintenance - especially as the weather gets colder - is the best way to improve your fuel economy, improve car performance, reduce pollution, and catch minor problems before they become major catastrophes.
Cold weather only makes existing problems worse. These 10 winter car care tips will come in handy as the temperatures start to drop.
1. Keep the car battery in good shape
The car battery provides the jolt of electricity needed to power all of the electrical components in your vehicle. On average, a car battery might last three to five years - but driving habits and other factors (such as exposure to extreme elements) can shorten battery life.
Signs that your car’s battery might need replacing include a slow cranking engine, a check engine light, or a rotten egg smell around the battery. However, because most cars are dependent on steady current flow, any flashing light on your dashboard (from ABS to airbag sensor warnings) might signify a faulty battery.
Batteries over three years old should be tested annually - especially if you live in an area that experiences cold winters. Most batteries are designed to handle the cold, but have optimal functionality between 30° and 90° F.
2. Check the oil, antifreeze, and transmission fluid
Cold weather will cause your vehicle’s fluids - oil, antifreeze, transmission fluid, etc. - to become more viscous (to thicken) and to move more slowly.
If you live in a region characterized by particularly cold and biting winter temperatures make sure your antifreeze will do the job. Keeping your coolant mixture in a 50/50 ratio of antifreeze and water will keep your coolant from freezing unless temperatures drop well below zero. Extreme cold weather conditions may necessitate a 60/40 or 70/30 ratio of antifreeze to water. Be sure to check the mixture ratios printed on the product packaging.
If your car has forced induction with air-to-water intercoolers, make sure to fill the intercooler system with the same mix of antifreeze and water to prevent a cracked intercooler and a flooded engine.
Also, make sure that you’re using an oil formulated for winter use: 5W-20, 5W-30, and 10W-30 all provide good oil flow at low temperatures. Refer to your owner’s manual for the manufacturer’s recommendations.
3. Check the tire pressure
Tire pressure drops by about 1 pound per 10° of temperature. Make sure all the drivers in your house know to check the guidelines in the vehicle owner’s manual or tire sticker attached to the inside of their vehicle’s door to determine the correct tire and air pressure for their vehicles.
Cars manufactured after September 1, 2007 are, by law, equipped with a Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS). The TPMS should alert the driver when one or more of the vehicle’s tires is significantly under-inflated.
4. Check the spark plugs
Check your car’s spark plugs. The spark plugs provide the continuous ignition that keeps your car moving.
Signs that the spark plugs might need cleaning or replacing include a rough idle, trouble starting the car, high fuel consumption, engine surging, engine misfiring, and lack of acceleration.
What may start out as “just a rough idle” can quickly become an engine not starting at all.
5. Replace windshield wiper blades & keep the windshield washer fluid full
Check your windshield wiper blades before the weather takes a turn for the worse. Cold temperatures can make wiper blades brittle, leading to cracking of blades. And the buildup of ice, snow, residue, and frozen wiper fluid on the windshield can lead to bent blades and, worse, nicked windshield glass. Replace blades that are bent, nicked, or torn.
On that note, also check to make sure your windshield wiper fluid reservoir is full and keep extra windshield washer solvent in your vehicle. No one wants to run out of washer fluid in the middle of a snowstorm.
6. Maintain your car’s heating and cooling system
As the temperatures begin to drop, having an operational heating system in your vehicle seems like common sense. But your vehicle also needs a functioning A/C system in order to properly pull the moisture from the air and defrost and defog your windshields. To help prevent discovering problems after the weather gets cold, test your car’s heating and cooling systems now.
Periodically flush and refill your vehicle’s coolant. However, if nothing else, at least check the quality, and level, of antifreeze in your vehicle. As stated above, a mixture of a 50/50 ratio of antifreeze and water will keep coolant from freezing unless temperatures drop well below zero. Colder conditions may necessitate a 60/40 or 70/30 ratio of antifreeze to water.
7. Inspect all lights and bulbs
Darkness and poor visibility are not a motorist’s friends. Regularly inspecting the bulbs and lenses in your car’s or truck’s headlights and tail lamps is important for the safety of yourself, the passengers in your vehicle, those in vehicles around you, and pedestrians.
- Walk around the vehicle while someone works the switches.
- Wipe all lenses with a clean cloth.
- Check lenses for damage.
- Replace damaged lenses as soon as possible for safety and to prevent moisture from entering the lamp fixture.
8. Have your brakes checked
Did you know that the stopping distance required on ice at 0°F is twice the amount required at 32°F?
Brakes should be inspected on a regular basis by a trusted repair facility that can measure pad and shoe thickness, check for even wear of the pads and shoes, check rotors for run out and hot spots, and check hardware to make sure that it’s working properly and is properly adjusted. They’ll also make sure that the wheel cylinders, brake lines, and brake master cylinder aren’t leaking, inspect calipers for wear, and check the level and condition of the brake fluid.
Knowing how to use your brakes in inclement weather conditions is also important, especially if you need to slow down quickly or if you’re skidding.
9. Make sure your car has an emergency kit
Always carry an emergency kit in your vehicle. In addition to emergency items that should always be in your vehicle, cold weather and winter supplies should include:
- Extra gloves, boots, and blankets
- A small shovel
- Sand or kitty litter
- Tire chains
- Extra batteries
10. Wash your vehicle throughout the winter
Salt might help preserve food, but it certainly does NOT help preserve your car.
If you live in a region prone to snow and ice, you’re going to want to watch out for the effects of road salt on your vehicle. Brine solutions of magnesium chloride, calcium chloride, potassium acetate, calcium magnesium acetate, or sodium chloride (salt) designed to melt ice off roadways, are equally corrosive to your vehicle.
Washing the outside of your car is the most obvious way to prevent corrosion. But make sure that you also flush out your vehicle’s undercarriage. Road salt and other chemicals tend to entrench themselves in your shock absorbers, door panels, wheel wells, and other crevices below your vehicle.
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