Winter is coming, and while you may not need to break out the snow chains, even a mild drop in temperature can cause trouble for your car. As the temperature drops, engine components need to work harder, and this additional stress can cause old or worn components to fail. Most problems can be avoided by proper preventative maintenance, so to keep you moving this winter, here are our top car care tips.
1. Check Your Lights
Ensuring you have good visibility and are visible to other drivers is the simplest way to stay safe on the roads over winter. With daylight hours diminishing over the colder months, your reliance on your car’s lighting increases, and the need to make sure all your lights work is essential.
Firstly, you’ll want to check all the lights (don’t forget about your interior lights as well) to confirm everything works as it should. Secondly, inspect your headlight lenses for any cracks, yellowing, or signs of wear. You should also ascertain that your headlights are set at the same level and not uneven. Seals around the light should be inspected to eliminate the risk of water getting into the light and short-circuiting your electrical system.
2. Prepare A Winter Emergency Kit
The only thing worse than breaking down is breaking down on a quiet road in freezing temperatures. For the unprepared, a simple breakdown can quickly turn into a survival situation. When this occurs a car doubles as shelter, and having a well-stocked emergency kit could even save a life.
You can purchase a pre-made winter emergency kit, but you probably have most of these items around the house already. All you need to do is gather them up and store them in your car in case of a roadside emergency.
What to include in your winter emergency kit:
- Flashlight or lantern
- A warm hat
- Small shovel
- Ice scraper
- Non-perishable snacks suck as energy bars
- Bottled water
- First aid kit
- Matches or cigarette lighter
- Jumper cables
- Reflective warning triangle
- Toilet paper
- Multi-tool like a Leatherman or Swiss Army Knife
3. Check Your Oil
Oil is one of the most important fluids in a vehicle. Engine oil is measured according to how thick or thin it is (by its rate of flow). It’s important to choose an oil that is appropriate for the climate you are operating your vehicle in. Oil that is too thin will not provide the protection your engine needs. Oil that is too thick may start to congeal and prevent the engine from starting.
A synthetic multi-grade oil is recommended as synthetic oils are wax-free and demonstrate better cold-flow properties. Your engine is most susceptible to wear during a cold start. This is made worse if the engine oil is too thick to begin flowing right away. Most motorists will switch to a lighter viscosity oil before winter, but your mechanic will be able to advise you if this is necessary based on where you live and the type of vehicle you drive.
4. Check Your Battery
Temperature has a significant influence on your car battery’s performance and lifespan. As the temperature drops, the battery’s internal electrochemical reaction that generates an electrical charge slows, and the battery’s performance is diminished. This is exacerbated by the need to power additional car accessories such as lights, heaters, and windshield wipers.
While a new car battery will still provide adequate current in weather up to -58 degrees Fahrenheit, any battery with a diminished state of charge is at risk of freezing at -1 degree Fahrenheit. Once the water in a battery freezes and expands, it can cause irreparable damage to the cells.
Unless you’re living in a very hot climate, batteries generally start to show signs of wear at around the three-year mark. Warning signs include the car sounding sluggish when starting, or the lights dimming when attempting to start your vehicle.
The easiest way to ensure your battery is winter-ready is to ask your mechanic to perform a health-check. They will measure the voltage and check over the charging system to ensure your battery is up to the task.
5. Check Your Tires
If you live in an area with moderate winters, you likely won’t need to go all out on snow tires, but it remains a fact that some tires perform better in winter than others. The common thought amongst tire manufacturers is that when temperatures dip below 45F, it’s time to swap summer tires for tires that offer more traction in slippery conditions. Regardless of whether your vehicle has summer or winter tires, they should be checked regularly to eliminate the risk of a blowout or worse.
Car tires should:
- Show signs of even wear across the entire tire
- Be free of cuts, punctures, bulges, and scratches
- Have tread that is not worn down to their wear indicators (more than 2/32”)
- Be inflated to the correct tire pressure
To check the tire pressure, you’ll need access to a tire gauge, as well as knowledge of the correct pressure to inflate your tires to, in pounds per square inch (PSI). This can be found in your owner’s manual or on a sticker inside your driver’s side door jamb. There is no one-pressure-fits-all as tire pressure will vary between different vehicle makes, models, and brands. Winter tires are even inflated to a different pressure than summer tires to help with stability and grip. As the temperature drops, you may find your tire pressure has changed as well – a temperature drop of 10 degrees Fahrenheit is enough to change tire pressure by 1 PSI.
6. Check Your Windshield Wipers
There is no faster way to have a car accident than by limiting your ability to see. With winter comes an increased chance of rain and snow, so one of the best ways to keep yourself safe is to perform a quick visual inspection to ensure your windshield wipers aren’t worn.
In addition to the rubber edge of the blade wearing with use, over time, it will start to deteriorate and may also show signs of cracking or splitting. These are all signs that the wiper blade needs to be replaced. Other signs that wiper blades are past their use-by date include blades that leave streaks across the windshield or ones that make a squeaking or chattering noise when in use.
While you’re checking over your wipers, it’s the ideal time to also give your windshield washers a once over. Test them to make sure the jets aren’t blocked and both washers are aiming where you want them. Don’t forget to refill your windshield washer fluid as well!
7. Check Your Heater and Defroster
We rely on our heater and defroster to keep us warm and our windshields clear of ice and fog. The key to keeping an HVAC system working is regular maintenance. There are several reasons why a vehicle’s HVAC system may stop working, some of which will affect your engine’s performance as well.
These are some of the reasons your heater and defroster may not be working as well as they should:
- Contaminated or old coolant that needs to be flushed
- A stuck thermostat
- Blocked heater core
- Cooling system leak
- Faulty heater fan
- Blown fuses
These are all problems that require very different repairs, so if your car heater or front or rear windshield defroster isn’t working as well as it should, your mechanic will be able to pinpoint the problem and recommend the best course of action.
8. Prepare Snow Chains
There are many different snow chains and tire chains on the market. Ideally, you want a set of chains that are lightweight and easy to install. How long it takes to install a set of snow chains depends on how they have been stored, so before winter hits, take the time to inspect your snow chains and ensure they are stored properly to make them as easy as possible to put on.
Be sure you have all the equipment you need to install snow chains such as cold weather gloves and a bright jacket or warning triangle to make yourself visible to other motorists. Snow chains should be installed before reaching poor driving conditions to make the installation process easiest and reduce your risk while on the road.
What To Do In Case Of A Breakdown
Having a plan of what to do in the event of a breakdown can take the stress out of the situation and allow you to think clearly. Cold winter temperatures and dark lighting conditions can make a winter breakdown particularly hazardous, but the risk can be mitigated with some preparation.
Before you head out you should have the phone number of an emergency roadside service stored in your phone. If you’re traveling a long distance or along isolated roads, always let somebody know where you’re going and check in with them once you have arrived.
In the event of a breakdown, make sure your car is off the road as much as possible, and activate your hazard lights if needed. Call for help as soon as possible and break out your emergency kit for additional warmth, food, or water as needed. While waiting for help to arrive your priority is ensuring your car is visible to other motorists.