Winter is the enemy of the car. Cold temperatures make it harder for an engine to work properly. Snow and ice limit traction. Potholes damage wheels and tires. Salt causes rust and gravel pits the paint. But there are things you can do to help your vehicle in this time of duress. Following are some easy steps to properly prepare your car for winter. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Consider using snow tires.
The condition of your car’s tires is critical during the winter. If the tires are worn or if they are high-performance tires, braking, acceleration and handling all suffer on slippery roads. Because of reduced vehicle capabilities, the likelihood of a crash increases. All-season tires will work to a certain point, but their effectiveness depends on their tread depth.
If you have the cash, consider buying a set of winter tires. For help deciding which to buy, check this winter tire buying guide. Winter tires are optimized for snow and ice. They aren’t magic — even with winter tires, your car will still perform worse on slick roads than dry ones. But winter tires provide more traction on slick surfaces than all-season tires.
Check your tire pressure.
Tire pressure is especially important during the winter, because traction is often at a minimum due to wet or snowy conditions. It’s critical to have properly inflated tires, which guarantees the best possible contact between the tire and the road. A properly inflated tire will also help protect against wheel damage that might occur as the vehicle drives over potholes. Read your owner’s manual to find the correct tire pressure.
In winter’s lower temperatures, the air pressure in a cold tire will drop. Since air is a gas, it contracts when it cools. Keep this in mind if you are checking tire pressure. Generally, for every 10 degrees Fahrenheit change in ambient temperature, your tire’s inflation pressure will change by about 1 psi (up with higher temperatures and down with lower temperatures).
If you have a four-wheel-drive system, make sure it is working properly.
A big selling point for SUVs is that many offer four-wheel drive, which improves traction in slippery conditions. But most people don’t use their 4WD systems during the summer. And while a 4WD system requires minimal maintenance, it’s still a good idea to check that it works properly before winter arrives.
Make sure the system engages and disengages smoothly, and that there are no strange noises emanating from the drivetrain when the system is in use. Check to make sure that the transmission and gear oil levels are correct.
If there are multiple drivers for your vehicle, make sure each of them knows how to operate the 4WD system. The owner’s manual will state at what speeds and in what environments the 4WD can be activated.
Check to see if your engine requires lower-viscosity oil in the winter.
This isn’t nearly as hard as it sounds. Viscosity simply refers to how thick or thin a fluid is. (Tar has a higher viscosity than orange juice, for example.) Engine oils are sold with different viscosity levels. When winter arrives, the outside temperature drops. The colder the oil is, the thicker it will be. A thicker oil doesn’t circulate as well in an engine during start-up as a thinner oil would. If the oil is too thick, the engine doesn’t get the proper lubrication.
To solve this wintertime problem, some engines require a change to a thinner oil. This may be more necessary on older vehicles, since many new cars already come with oil that’s thin enough to withstand the winter. Even when the thinner oil is cold, it is still not too thick for proper engine lubrication. Keep in mind that an oil can also be too thin.
It’s easy to determine what type of oil your car should have in winter. Simply read the owner’s manual. It will list the manufacturer’s oil recommendations for different climates. If a dealership or local garage performs the oil change, you can ask the manager what type and viscosity of oil he’ll put in your vehicle.
Inspect the belts and hoses.
Belts and hoses in modern cars lead long lives. But that doesn’t mean they don’t die. Cold temperatures can accelerate the demise of a belt or hose, so have them inspected before winter starts.
Inspect the wipers and wiper fluid.
Visibility is particularly key in winter, as it is often compromised by precipitation, salt build-up on the windshield and reduced daylight. The life expectancy of a wiper blade is one year. If your car’s blades are older, replace them. There are a number of aftermarket wiper blades that are made for winter use.
Also check and fill your wiper fluid reservoir. You might consider adding wiper fluid that has been mixed with a de-icer. A harsh winter storm is the worst possible time for untreated wiper fluid to create ice on your windows or for you to discover your blades aren’t performing properly.
Check the battery.
Batteries give little notice before they die, and they absolutely love to expire at the worst possible moment. Very cold temperatures can reduce a vehicle’s battery power by up to 50 percent. If your vehicle battery is older than three years, have it tested at a certified automotive repair facility. Also, make sure the posts and connections are free of corrosion. If the posts are corroded, you can clean them with baking soda, water and a small wire brush.
Check antifreeze mixture.
The ideal mixture of antifreeze (coolant) and water inside your vehicle’s radiator is 50:50. If the mixture deviates from this norm, then hot- and cold-weather performance can suffer.
If you were to put pure water in your vehicle’s radiator, it would freeze at 32 degrees F. But if you combine the water with an equal amount of antifreeze, the new mixture won’t freeze until -34 degrees F. Most antifreeze you’ll find in stores already comes pre-mixed, which makes this process much easier.
You can check the composition of a radiator’s mixture by using an antifreeze tester, which is available at auto parts stores and is inexpensive and easy to use. If the mixture is off, adjust it by adding more antifreeze.
Carry an emergency kit in your car.
A roadside kit doesn’t take up much space and can prove invaluable in an emergency. Many companies sell preassembled kits, but if you want to save a few bucks, you may already have the key items around the house. Things you might want to consider carrying include:
- A flashlight, flares and a first-aid kit.
- Jumper cables, a tool kit and tire chains.
- A blanket, warm clothes, hat and gloves.
- Paper towels.
- A bag of abrasive material, such as sand, salt or non-clumping kitty litter. Use this for added traction when a tire is stuck.
- A snow brush, ice scraper and snow shovel.
- Extra washer fluid.
- Extra food and water.
Check the heater and windshield defroster.
Winter will put your vehicle’s windshield defrosters to the test. It’s a good idea to check that they are in working order. While you’re at it, check the air-conditioner, too. An easy way to speed up the defrost process is to turn on the A/C. (You can leave the temperature dial on warm so you don’t have to suffer.) And now is also a good time to make sure your heating system works.