Winter is coming – is your car ready? If you’re like most people, chances are that you’ve left some or even all of your winter preventative maintenance for the last minute. You may not even realize that there is anything specific you need to do in order to get your car ready for cold weather driving. There are quite a few things that should be done before the mercury drops, or you could find yourself stranded on the roadside, shivering while waiting for a tow truck. Let’s run through some of the most important winter prep steps to take.
Battery and Charging System Test
Cold weather kills more automotive batteries than warm weather. Whether your car’s battery is brand new, or you’re still using the one that came from the manufacturer, have it tested. Your battery test should also include a test of the alternator and your starter. Most automotive shops can do this for you, and will not charge for the service. It can also be done in conjunction with other services we discuss below. It provides you with peace of mind from knowing that your battery and charging system are up to snuff. If anything tests bad or even marginal, now’s the time to replace it.
Check, Flush and Fill Coolant
Your car’s coolant offers vital protection against heat, but it also keeps the block from freezing during cold weather. However, if your antifreeze isn’t strong enough, you’ll face some serious issues. Checking your coolant is something that you can do on your own, or you can ask your mechanic to do it for you. With the engine cool, remove the radiator cap (or the reservoir cap). Use a ball tester to siphon a small amount of coolant out and see the level of protection offered. Check the level of coolant while you’re at it and top off if necessary. Note that if your antifreeze protection isn’t strong enough, or it has been five years since your last service, have your radiator flushed and filled with fresh coolant.
While we usually think of gasoline as being purely a petroleum product, water can make its way into the mix. It might be from condensation in the storage tank at the filling station you last stopped at, or it could be from condensation inside your fuel tank if you don’t keep the level high enough. The problem here is that moisture can freeze inside your fuel lines, preventing fuel from reaching your engine. You can avoid that fate by adding a bottle of fuel de-icer to the tank once per month during the winter.
Change Your Oil
If you’re not particular about when you change your oil, now is an important time to get ahead of this basic maintenance item. As the temperature plummets, oil thickens and moves more slowly. If your oil is old and has lost most of its viscosity, it will not protect well during colder temperatures, and it will lead to premature engine wear. You might also consider going with a full synthetic oil, as synthetic formulations actually flow a bit better during cold weather than conventional oil weights do.
Test Your Heater and Defrost System
Don’t wait for freezing temperatures to find out if your car’s heater works. Test it now, before winter fully arrives. Also make sure that your defrost works, as fogged windows are very common in wintertime and they can be a serious safety hazard as that moisture blocks your view. If your heater doesn’t work, or doesn’t seem to be warming as much as it used to, head to your mechanic to have it serviced. It could be something as simple as low coolant, or it could be something a bit direr, such as a failing heater core.
Check Your Lights
Wintertime is synonymous with less daylight – it’s a darker, drearier time of year all around. That might be great for evenings around the fireplace with a cup of hot chocolate, but it’s bad news for being on the road, as low-light conditions make it much more difficult to see. Make sure that all of your lights are in working condition and replace any blown bulbs. It’s worth it to replace them in pairs, as well. For instance, if a headlight fails, replace both bulbs, not just the one that blew. Have someone help you check your rear lights – taillights, turn signals and brake lights – as well.
Check (or Change) Your Tires
Wintertime is definitely not the time of year you want to worry about a lack of tread on your tires. If your tires have seen better days, consider replacing them. If the tread is in good shape, make sure you keep an eye on the wear, and that you have a pressure gauge handy to check the air pressure. As temperatures drop, air density does, too. This leads to many people experiencing TPMS warning lights indicating that their tire needs air. A pressure gauge will definitely help here. Finally, if you live in an area where snow and ice are very common, consider investing in a set of studded snow tires, or at least a set of tire chains.
Replace Wiper Blades
Make sure that you can see clearly at all times by replacing your car’s windshield wipers. These should actually be replaced every six months or so, and chances are good that you’re due already.
Check Your Emergency Kit
As a final note that has nothing to do with automotive maintenance, make sure that you have a wintertime emergency kit packed in the trunk. It should include blankets, food, water, road flares, spare batteries, a flashlight, a hand-crank radio, a spare cellphone charger and charger bank, as well as other necessities to keep you safe should you find yourself stranded.
With the tips we’ve discussed above, you should be able to thoroughly winter-proof your vehicle to prevent wear and tear, and to keep you safe on the road.