As Cold Weather Creeps Up on Us, it's Important make Sure your Car is Ready
Okay, where do we start? The first thing to check is the anti-freeze. Most anti-freezes are an ethylene glycol based fluid that has a low freezing point when mixed with water and a high boiling point. For this reason it makes an excellent coolant for our vehicles. Most times it is a nice bright green color, but it can be either black or red. The red should not be confused with Dex-Cool anti-freeze used in General Motor's products. Dex-Cool is a special anti-freeze that GM uses and is rated to last 10 years or 100,000 miles before requiring a change. It is NOT compatible with other anti-freezes and should never be mixed with them.
Does it need to be changed? Well, if you didn't change it last winter, you need to change it this winter. Anti-freeze should be changed every two years or 30,000 miles whichever comes first. In addition to ethylene glycol, anti-freeze has other chemicals that lubricate the water pump and inhibits corrosion in the engine. These chemicals wear out and need to be replaced.
Next is the motor oil. Most manufacturers have a summer and winter grade oil recommendations. Check your vehicle owners' manual for the recommended winter grade oil and change the oil to that grade. It is important to follow the manufacturer's specifications, since using a motor oil that is too thick, or too high in viscosity, will delay the flow of oil into the engine upon start-up in extreme-cold conditions. This can result in increased engine wear and lower gas mileage, and even can prevent the engine from turning. Naturally, you should change the oil filter as well.
Now we need to look at the wipers and washers. If you have ever driven on a highway that has had a lot of salt and sand dumped on it you will know that a good set of wiper blades and a working windshield washer is essential. It takes about 10 seconds for the spray from the car in front of you to totally cover your windshield. Make sure your washers are in good working order and filled with washer solvent. Most washer solvents are good to about 10 below zero. For most parts of the country this is good enough. For those of us who live in the real cold, we need something that goes a little lower.
Have the battery (especially if you're within one year of your warranty) and charging system tested. A weak battery or alternator may get you by in the summer, but they will not handle cold weather when you need extra amps to start a cold engine. Clean the top of the battery with a solution of baking soda and water. Dirt and "blue snow" will slowly drain the battery and the colder it gets, the faster it will drain. When it is nice and clean, spray a nice coat of terminal protector or put a layer of white lithium grease on the terminals to keep them clean and air away from them.
Inspect all lights to assure they are functional; lack of light for illumination or visibility can be deadly. And don't forget the back up lights.
Chances are you haven't changed your wiper blades in a while. I have two sets of blades, one for summer and one for winter. The winter blades are covered with a rubber boot to keep ice, snow and water from freezing on the pivot points. This insures that the blade can flex and make good contact with the windshield to keep it clean. You can replace the rubber inserts in either set, so use the winter blades and put in a fresh set of refills for the winter.
Now for the engine itself. The lower the temperature, the harder it is for the fuel to ignite when starting. If you haven't had a tune-up in a while, now is the time to get one. With a fresh set of spark plugs and new distributor cap, rotor and ignition wires as needed, your chances of your car starting without flooding greatly improve. Look at the belts and hoses as well. Winter driving puts an extra-added strain on the engine. It's one thing to be stuck with a broken belt when it's sunny and 80 degrees out, but a different thing all together when it's -10 degrees and snowing.
Check the heater and engine thermostat and make sure they are up to specs. I put a hotter thermostat in my engine in the winter to make my heater more efficient. In the summer I go back to a colder thermostat for summer driving. This is especially needed in a diesel engine that does not put out as much heat as a gas engine. If you have a diesel engine, you may even need a radiator cover to restrict the airflow through the radiator. I'm sure you have seen them on trucks and school buses. They fit over the grill and have a zipper that allows you to control the airflow. I use a piece of cardboard in front of my radiator to get more heat out of my diesel.
If you have a diesel engine, a good option to consider is an electric engine heater. I have a block heater installed in my engine and it makes cold morning starting a sure thing. It keeps the engine warm and the oil from getting too thick. It also gives instant heat when you turn the heat on. There are ones that fit into the upper radiator hose and ones that replace the dipstick, but I have found the block heaters work so much better. It's not a bad idea to have one installed in your gas engine as well.
If you are going to be in extremely cold climate for a period of time, adding a de-icer to your fuel can keep moisture in the fuel system from freezing.
Have your exhaust system inspected to make sure there are no leaks and it is securely attached to the car. Every winter too many people die from carbon monoxide poisoning from leaky exhaust systems. And never, ever run your car in a closed garage to warm it up. This is a sure way to cause an extremely tragic accident. Carbon monoxide will seep into the house and cause loss of conscience and death.
Okay, so far, so good. There's one more thing we should look at the tires. Most tires sold today are "All-Season" radial tires. Now there's nothing really wrong with them, they are good tires. I have four of them on my car. But keep in mind that they are a compromise between winter and summer driving. I have two, real snow tires for my car and I put them on just before (most times) the first snow flies. Make sure the tread is good, it doesn't make sense to put worn out snow tires on your car. Another option is snow chains. I don't think too many people use these any more. They are hard to put on and they can tear up asphalt highways and streets. Some states have laws against the use of snow chains so check the local laws if you are considering them. The same goes for studded snow tires as well. Once your car is fitted with the proper tires, make sure that they are adequately inflated. Generally, a car's tires lose approximately one pound of pressure for every 10-degree decrease in temperature.
And while you're checking the tires, when was the last time you checked the spare? Make sure all the parts for your car jack are there and that it is in good, working condition. It might sound silly, but practice changing a tire using the equipment in your car. I'm glad I knew my jack was in good shape and I knew how to use it at 5:30 in the morning when I got a flat on I-90 and it was -43 and a wind chill of -70 outside.
Isn't that a clever way for me to get you into your trunk?
What should you have in your trunk in case of an emergency? If your car is rear wheel drive something heavy to improve traction. Most home centers sell 70 pounds bags of sand. These can serve two purposes, one, they add weight and improve traction and two, if you do get stuck, you can spread the sand out under you tires to get the traction you need to get unstuck. I would recommend keeping at least two of these bags in your trunk. Of course if your car is front wheel drive, the sand bags will prove just as useful, if not for traction, for helping get out of a snow bank.
A good set of jumper cables is a good thing to have. There is nothing like a cold morning to bring out the worst in a battery and a set of jumper cables will increase your chances of getting a jump-start if you need it. And you can be a Good Samaritan and give someone else a jump-start if they need it. Get a good set, 4 to 8 gauge. They cost a little more, but they are well worth it. Read and print out How To Jump Start A Car and keep it in your glove box just in case.
A shovel sure would come in handy if you should get stuck. A regular sized snow shovel would be the ideal choice, but in smaller cars you can get a smaller one or one that will fold up.
Some other handy things to have would be a three pack of flares, some gas line anti-freeze/drier, an insulated pair of work gloves, a flashlight with spare batteries, a couple of ice scrapers, sand, salt or kitty litter for traction, non-perishable food (trail mix, dried fruit...) and a couple of extra gallons of washer fluid.
Some other things to consider are a couple of heavy blankets and some of those hand warmers that hunters use. If the worst should happen and you get stuck with no hope of driving out and your car is dead, you can keep yourself warm until help arrives. If you get hopelessly stuck and your engine will still run, make sure the tail pipe is well clear and free of snow and ice. Stay in the car until help arrives. If you find yourself feeling drowsy, get out of the car and walk around. Open the windows on your vehicle to clear out the old air and let fresh air in. Never leave your heater in the recirculation position for more than 15 minutes at a time.
When you are all done with this, look your car over closely. If there are any paint chips cover them. Get a tube of touch-up paint and cover the bare metal spots. These spots will give road salt a good bite into your sheet metal. When you are done with the touch-up, give the vehicle a good wash and a coat of wax. Don't just run it through the car wash, get out the hose, bucket and soap. Then get a good quality wax and give you vehicle a good coat to protect the finish from salt and chemicals.
Winter is a tough time of the year on you and your car. And if you are like me and hate the cold, a car that has been properly winterized will keep you going and nice and warm.