Cars, like people, don’t function as well in cold weather. Your car doesn’t like it anymore than you. Because most employers frown on hibernating, we’ve compiled a list of precautions to increase the odds of your car functioning in extreme or unseasonable cold.
If you don’t have time to visit the mechanic, there are some things you can do on your own to optimize your vehicle’s performance.
Change the battery. Mechanics recommend changing it every three years, though you could get away with five years, depending on how much you drive and how you drive. If you see a mechanic, have him or her check the battery and replace the spark plugs.
Make sure the cables are not loose. With the engine off, see if the cables can slip free from the nodes. Don’t yank, but be firm. Tightening the nut is easy to do and can save you from a mid-drive battery loss that requires you to get out of the car and take off your gloves.
Check for corrosion. If there is a white powder, not unlike the dead skin of dried winter hands, around the nodes or the clamps then that could be a sign of corrosion. If you can’t get a new battery, then at least clean the nodes and clamps with baking soda, water and a toothbrush. Loosen the cables, clean the nodes and clamps, then dry it and retighten.
Under the hood:
While you’re there, check the status of your S belt, or serpentine belt. It’s the big one that is immediately visible at the front of the engine. The visible, or back side, has grooves like a tire. If they’re cracked or worn, then it might be time to consider changing it so it doesn’t snap in cold cold cold weather.
Fill your fluids:
Spend a buck and get a “winter blend” type of windshield wiper fluid. Winter blends have a greater concentration of alcohol and less water, so less likely to freeze.
Fill your antifreeze. If it hasn’t been flushed in a few years, then it could use it. Green-colored antifreeze is the most common; whichever color you choose, don’t mix colors. Coolant and antifreeze are interchangeable terms. Coolant is typically sold premixed, that is it is half water, half antifreeze, as it needs to be. Antifreeze can be pure and needs to be mixed. Check the bottle; it’ll tell you.
Check your oil. If it’s due for a change, consider refilling it with a lower viscosity oil. On the bottle it lists two numbers, or grades, the first for low temperature viscosity, the second for high temperature. 10W-30 is a common designation. The higher the number, the more viscous, or thick it is, the less fluid it is especially in cold temps. So you might want to consider 5W-20 or-30. That ‘W’ stands for winter, according to Valvoline and other sources.
Visibility is key in all forms of driving, but winter conditions can limit visibility, and not just because of your faux-fur hood. If your blades have done just a mediocore job with the snow, it’s only going to get worse with the freeze. Winter wipers do a better job of swatting away moisture and can be had for under $20 for the pair.
Having the correct tire pressure is essential for proper handling. A temperature change of just 10 degrees can cause a 10 percent reduction, or constriction, of air in tires. So tire pressure can be affected from day to night temperature. Check the optimal tire pressure of your vehicle on the label inside the driver’s door frame or in the owner’s manual. DO NOT USE THE PSI on the TIRE! That’s max capacity for the tire, not for your car’s specific load.
Additional preventative measures:
Some mechanics recommend adding a can of Heet or other fuel-line antifreeze to the gas tank to eliminate water from the fuel lines. If your fuel lines are already frozen, this won’t help.
Buy an emergency kit with cables, first aid kit, flares, battery powered air compressor and other things that can prevent a minor inconvenience from becoming a major problem.
Check the clarity of all your lights. If your headlights are all fogged up, consider cleaning them with toothpaste. We haven’t tried this yet, but hear the results are magical.
Weather conditions are variable, and all cars handle them a bit differently, so as a car owner you have a responsibility to know your car. While this may not be legally advisable or practical in the current driving climate, consider finding a parking lot with no obstruction and practicing turns and braking in the conditions. Find out how the car reacts to your driving and adjust your driving accordingly. It shouldn’t be fun. Avoid doing cookies, but practice fishtailing to teach yourself how not to overcompensate by wrenching the wheel too far one way or the other. What level of acceleration might cause a spin out, how does the car turn in snow — all these things can be researched at minimal speeds.
Practice skids. If you’re in a skid, take it easy, don’t slam the brake; turn the wheel in the direction you want the vehicle to face, which you may have to do several times in a skid to straighten out. The most important thing is don’t freak out.
Battery care: The most common winter car malady is the battery not starting. How to prevent it if you’ve taken the preventative steps outlined above?
Before parking the car for the night, many people shut off the electrical accessories — the heat, radio, interior lights — any power source that could be a drain for the battery. Motormouth says killing the electrical loads is not necessary, as they are bypassed during starting. We still do it.
If you don’t have access to a garage, try parking with the hood as near a building as possible to be shielded from the wind. Also, buildings are warmer than out in the open, and you’ll be warmer too.
You could go crazy and detach the battery and bring it inside with you every night, like a cat or something, but that’s pretty inconvenient, especially since you’ll have to reattach it in the equally cold morning.
You could make a battery snuggie overnight and cover the battery in a blanket, or even the entire hood, or buy a protective plastic sheet or tarp from an auto parts store. Just make sure you remember to take it off in the morning. You want the car warm, not on fire.
If the car doesn’t start after 15-20 seconds of trying, let the car sit for 2 minutes before trying again.
If you need a jump, please be careful. Check your owner’s manual at the very least. Or YouTube. Our rule is dead to red, black to ground. Connect the red cable to the positive node on the live battery, and then connect it to the dead node; then connect the black or negative to the live node and ground it on a piece of metal on the hood frame of the dead car. Let it run for two minutes, then give the dead car a start. Let it run a bit. Then reverse the process for removing the cables. Just don’t let the clamps touch; the spark can be shocking.
Letting the car warm up is a comfort more for us than the car. Best practice is to start the car and then drive very simply until the oil gets heated. It’ll heat faster driving at slow speeds without sudden acceleration than just idling in your drive. In extreme cold, however, many professionals recommend idling for a minute or two. Idling for 10-15 minutes, as Midwesterners are prone to do, could dilute the oil with unburned fuel, resulting in increased engine wear. And it wastes gas.
Keep the front defroster cranked.
Clear all snow and ice from windshields and lights.
If wiper fluid isn’t squirting and the reservoir is full, then you might need to replace the check valve. It’s a valve in the washer line to keep fluid in the lines. If it’s broke, then the fluid goes back into the reservoir and it might suck in snow or ice thru the nozzle into the line.
Keeping the gas tank at half filled can help prevent a fuel line freeze; so can that fuel-line antifreeze mentioned earlier.
Shooting WD-40 into the locks can help prevent them from freezing overnight but it can also gum up the tumblers. Some people prefer graphite, which is a dry powder that will not gum up, but that’s way more messy work. Several readers recommend a product called Tri-Flow, though we’ve been fortunate enough not to test it. Also, keeping the door’s gaskets lubed with silicone can keep the door from freezing to the frame. Consider buying a deicer and keeping it handy.
Stay warm. Your car wants you to.