There’s more to winter than bigger heat bills. In the automotive world, frigid temps may lead to unique problems that don’t show up at other times of the year. Look through these five dangers that come from cold weather and make sure your car is ready to deal with the rest of the winter.
1. Dead battery: It might be an all-too-familiar winter scene: A driver puts the key in the ignition, turns it, and the engine cranks sluggishly or not at all. Maybe the headlights and dashboard lights are dim, too — it could be a dead battery. Confirm that the battery is the problem is by checking the voltage. You can use a voltmeter or a dedicated battery tester, but each requires a different set of steps for checking the battery. If you’re not calling a service for help, consult your owner’s manual and be sure you know how to jump start the car before you do it wrong. Stock your trunk with an emergency kit in case a dead car battery leaves you stranded in the cold: heavy coat, gloves, blanket, flashlight, snacks and water.
2. Cracked windshield wipers: After being frozen and unfrozen a few times in the winter, your car’s windshield wipers won’t perform as they once did. If you notice that they are skipping across the windshield or leaving streaks in your line of vision, check the wiper blades. If the rubber is warped or cracked, replace the blades. Also, make sure you have enough windshield washer fluid to last your journey. There’s not much more frustrating (not to mention dangerous, for you and other drivers) than running out of washer fluid on a slushy day in a high-traffic area.
3. Radiator problems: The radiator of a car keeps the engine at the proper temperature, whether it’s sweltering hot or bitterly cold outside. Antifreeze, or coolant, absorbs engine heat and dissipates it through the radiator. A half-and-half mixture of antifreeze and water is sufficient for your car to start and run in the cold. If the engine’s cooling system isn’t properly filled, or if the coolant is too diluted, your radiator could freeze, the car won’t start and you could end up with a cracked, leaking radiator. The next time you’re at the mechanic, they can check the level of your antifreeze and may recommend a flush of the system. Old antifreeze can be full of dirt and rust, which can lead to corrosion and leaks, and eventually overheating.
4. Salt-covered car body: While road salt keeps everyone safer in icy conditions, the resultant coating of salt is bad for the body of the car. The salt sits there for days or even weeks, and over the long run, that salt can cause rust. Wash your car when the temperature allows. The good news is that with improved corrosion-resistant coatings on newer cars, it will take salt a long time to eat its way to the metal — metal (not paint) rusts. If you go to a drive-through car wash, pick one that washes the undercarriage of the vehicle, where there are more hidden spots that can rust due to salt corrosion.
5. Tires deflating: Heat causes tire pressure to rise, and cold weather causes it to drop. Do not be surprised if your low-pressure indicator light turns on after a cold snap. If your car is older than model year 2008 and it doesn’t have a tire pressure monitoring system, check the pressure with a tire gauge before driving after the first cold day of the season. The proper PSI (pounds per square inch) for your tires will be on a sticker inside the driver-side door or in the owner’s manual. Do not go by the pressure listed on the tire itself — this is the maximum allowable pressure and is likely not the same as the manufacturer-recommended PSI. Optimum tire pressure allows your car to be fuel efficient, and, most importantly in the winter, to have the best traction and stopping time.
Cold Weather Care
Watch for signs of these potential dangers before you head out for a winter drive, especially before a longer journey. Just because winter is underway doesn’t mean it’s too late to check and address any of these hazards. What other winter car problems do you frequently run into?
See Also — 5 Tips for Driving at Night