Maintaining A Car In Winter
As a native Floridian, who moved to the Denver area several years ago, driving in the winter was WAY out of my comfort zone for quite some time. In fact, if given the option I opted out of driving my car at all between November and April the first year I lived here.
Driving in snowy and icy conditions is intimidating, even for the weathered northern and snow state natives. Low to zero visibility, slick and icy roads that have less traction than a buttered bowling alley covered in banana peels, all while gambling one of your most expensive possessions?
“Yeah, count me out!” was my opinion during my first real experience with winter.
It goes without saying that refusing to drive an entire season is inconvenient. With time I had to learn ways to increase my comfortability while driving and figure out how to keep snow, ice, and salt from destroying my car.
I compiled a list of the best practices for maintaining your car in the winter for when you do need to venture out. Here is my crash course to keeping you and your car safe during winter!
Keeping Your Gas Tank Full
Making sure that your gas tank is always topped off is a good idea for a couple of reasons. The first is that fuel pumps can accumulate moisture which in turn will freeze. You can prevent this to some extent by keeping your fuel tank on “F” when possible.
Another really awesome reason to keep your gas tank full is the chance that you may get caught in a snowstorm and end up stuck somewhere in the freezing cold on the side of a road. People get stuck in their vehicles every winter sometimes for up to a couple days and having a gas tank that is over half full can save your life!
If you do decide to drive in the middle of bad weather, you want to be prepared to survive in your car for at least a day or two if necessary. Check out our section on preparing your car so you can potentially survive in it below.
Check And If Needed Fix Your Lights
So one of the larger issues outside of traction is limited visibility. Not only are the days (sunlight hours) shorter, there are also snowstorms that can limit visibility to a foot or two in front of you. While you should avoid driving in such conditions, having bright, working lights is super important for safe operation.
Hopefully, you already have safe headlights and tail lights in your vehicle, if you don’t you can replace them yourself or visit a certified automotive electrician. A lot of people who live in areas that have moderate and severe winter climates choose to replace their bulbs in October with brighter lights. This is a great option for a lot of individuals!
With regular tires, snow and ice can prevent contact with the vehicle’s contact patch, and just like that you’re no longer driving, but sliding. Having snow tires for your vehicle is an easy way to prevent catastrophe while driving on icy and snow-covered roads. More than that they are better for cold weather climates whether ice and snow are present or not.
So what are snow tires exactly? Snow tires, which are also known as winter tires, are those that are specially designed to drive on snow and ice. The tires have a wider and deeper tread than those of regular tires, which help you maintain traction.
Designed with a special type of rubber which offers better cold-weather traction, so whether it is snowing or not you can be sure that your vehicle is protected against frigid temperatures hardening rubber. A consumer reports study showed that snow tires outperformed regular all-season tires in stopping on ice by 34%. Vehicles tested with snow tires across all brands on average were able to stop six feet before the control vehicles which wore regular all-season tires.
Where can I buy snow tires? Anywhere tires are sold including online! Snow tires will run you between $100 and $150 per tire for those of you with passenger vehicles, but snow tires for SUVs and trucks can be between $220 and $400 per tire.
How many snow tires do I need? This is not one of those times where you can get away with non-matching tires. You need 4, one for each wheel of your car. You should not be driving with snow tires on the front or back wheels only. You want them to all be snow tires, otherwise, you may have varying traction levels.
When should I put my winter tires on? The best time to put on your winter tires is a few weeks before you’re forecast to have snow. This is the recommended time frame because it’s best to be proactive, but also because you want to get used to driving with them.
Is it okay to use snow tires year-round? No this is absolutely not a good idea. Snow tires are generally made of a softer rubber than regular tires. This allows them to maintain traction when temperatures drop (remember that cold hardens all materials). Snow tires are not meant to withstand the heat of a summer day and will become overly soft causing uneven wear and premature deterioration.
How long do snow tires last? An average user who’s tires are properly cared for and maintained will last between 3 and 4 winter seasons. Tire manufacturers will give an estimated usable life depending on mileage, driving conditions, and how you care for your tires.
Where should I store winter tires? Snow tires should be kept in a cool dry location. Most seasoned winter drivers will keep theirs in a basement. Other great options are to store them in a climate-controlled storage unit if you have access to one or even the shed in your backyard will work though it may get too hot depending on where you live. Steps for storing winter tires:
- Remove the tires from your vehicle
- Clean thoroughly and dry
- Place each tire in a plastic garbage bag
- Remove as much air from the bag as possible to reduce rubber oxidation
- Store upright in a cool, dry and dark location.
Check Your Tire Pressure Weekly
With every 10 degrees drop in temperatures, your tires will lose a pound of pressure. So what does that mean? As temperatures fall, your tire pressure will also decrease. This is because the cold compresses air preventing it from pushing your tires to their full round shape.
When you drive on under-inflated tires it does a couple of things, the first is that it prematurely wears down the tread on the rubber. The wear and tear also won’t be even if your tires don’t have enough air in them. Underinflated tires also give you less control over steering and braking. The National Highway Safety and Administration estimate that ⅓ of vehicles on the road are driving with at least one improperly inflated tire.
Improper tire pressure is a leading cause of tire issues including blowouts. This is dangerous for you, your passengers and anyone on the road with you.
Replace Windshield Wipers
Windshield wipers should be replaced every 6-18 months depending on your climate and how much use your car sees. If you live in an area that gets winter weather you’re going to want to replace your blades in both spring, as temperatures are warming, and in fall, before the cold weather shows up.
The difference between snow and liquid perspiration when it comes to your windshield wiper blades is significant. Your windshield wipers will take the brunt of the force cleaning your front window when driving through snowy conditions and you want them to be in peak condition when you really need them.
You should never use your windshield wipers to clean snow or ice that has accumulated on your vehicle overnight or over a few days. This is one of the easiest ways to prevent wear and tear on the rubber.
Instead, opt for a windshield scraper tool. These combo brush and scraper tools are ideal for removing ice from your windshield. They are also great for removing snow from the top of your car utilizing a retractable handle. Here are some awesome options.
Protect Your Windshield Wipers
So we’ve talked about replacing your wiper blades and not using them to clear off ice and frozen debris from your windshield. Something else that you can do to protect your wiper blades is to leave them up when you anticipate snow and at night. The rubber can become frozen to the window if not, which can be really difficult to remove on a frigid day without compromising the wiper blades.
Replace Your Oil And Oil Filter
Oil has a tendency to thicken as the temperature of it drops, especially if it’s integrity is not as great as it once was. When was the last time that you changed your car’s oil? If you answered anything longer than six months, plan on changing your oil before the frigid temperatures hit.
If you use conventional oil, consider switching to a synthetic blend for the winter months, especially one with an SAE rating of between 0W and 10W. Synthetic oil in this lubrication range will provide you with the best instance of engine turnover in low temps.
Make Sure Your Engine Coolant Is Good To Go
Engine coolant has an incredible job! It is the liquid that surges through your cooling unit in your engine and accepts heat transferred by scalding metal engine parts. Engine coolant contains a chemical called antifreeze which has some incredible properties. Antifreeze as the name suggests prevents your coolant from freezing, but what many people don’t know is that it also increases the boiling point of the engine coolant as well.
If your cooling system were to freeze it would likely break your engine. Without coolant flowing through the cooling system, the metal within your engine can warp as it withstands temperatures it is not meant to. Yes, even in the winter you need a functioning cooling system. Make sure to double check the levels in your car before freezing temperatures hit.
Some questions we frequently receive about engine coolant and antifreeze involve what type of water to mix with your coolant. There are two types of coolants, pre mixed and you mix. Pre mixed coolants are ready to be poured right into your coolant chamber whereas you mix will detail manufacturer instructions where you will mix the coolant with water as it is a concentrate. For the “you mix” types of engine coolant you will want to be sure to use DISTILLED WATER. If you want more information on this check out our article here https://www.google.com/amp/s/protectmycar.com/can-you-mix-tap-water-with-engine-coolant/amp
Test Your Car’s Battery
Batteries are notoriously difficult in cold weather. The battery is a crucial element of your car responsible for kick starting the electrical components during the starting process. With that being said you do not want to get stuck somewhere listening to your engine turn over but not ignite, especially when inclimate weather could be on the horizon.
If you are having battery issues in the summer heat, your battery is as good as dead in the winter. You can test your battery using a voltmeter, but for those of us who don’t have one of these lying around the garage your mechanic can easily do this for you. As a precaution, I take my car to the mechanic every fall to have the fluid levels, lights, tires, and battery all checked out before the temperatures.
You’ll also want to take the time to prevent your battery from one of its weaknesses, corrosion. While you are checking the battery levels you can perform this maintenance task (or have your mechanic do it for you). Your battery terminals are susceptible to rusting. If there isn’t already rust, disconnect your terminals and clean them thoroughly, then add a protective coating of petroleum jelly all around the surface of the terminals. The vaseline will prevent corrosion from taking place.
Check Your Windows For Cracks
Winter is chock full of melting and freezing perspiration. A unique property of water is that it expands when it freezes. This is why we only fill ice trays ¾ of the way full to leave room for that expansion. This is cool for science class, but what does it mean when it comes to your vehicle?
Well the freezing and cooling cycles that are unavoidable with winter months can do some serious damage to your vehicle, specifically your car’s glass features. Any crack, no matter how big or how small can hold water, and when that water freezes…. CRACK. Expect those micro cracks to get a whole heck of a lot bigger.
If a cracked windshield or window is something that you have been avoiding, be sure to get this issue fixed ASAP (driving with a cracked windshield can be really dangerous) but especially before those colder months roll in. If you cannot afford, or do not have the resources to replace the entire glass piece there are other things that you can do to seal the window from water seeping like sealing the crack.
Wash Your Car And Use A Wax Layer
One of the most damaging effects of winter on a car actually has nothing to do with the weather itself. Cities across the world use salt to melt the ice and snow that forms on their streets. By adding salt to snow it lowers the freezing point of the frozen water, making it easier for the water to melt and preventing it from refreezing into slippery ice.
This is excellent for the safety of snow removal from roads, but it can be very damaging for the vehicles who are parked on the side of the streets or who drive on the roads after this takes place. Salt is extremely corrosive especially when paired with water. The salt water will eat away at the undersides of vehicles until it is washed off. For this reason it is extremely important to use a high pressure car wash to remove this buildup and protect the undercarriage of your vehicle from rusting out.
How often should I wash my car in the winter?
A rusted undercarriage is bad news for a car owner. Not only will this eventually cause severe mechanical issues it also seriously devalues the vehicle. Prevent this from happening by washing your car in the winter every 7-10 days using a high pressure car wash.
Should I Wax My Vehicles In The Winter?
The other way to protect your vehicle from corrosion and other effects of salt and snow is to thoroughly wax the car before the first winter storm hits. You’ll want to start with a thorough wash being sure to remove any prior applications of wax so you have a nice clean surface to apply your fresh wax coating.
Then apply a thick premium wax product to your vehicle being sure to give extra love to the areas that take the brunt of the exposure to salt and snow. This will include the lower half of your car, truck or SUV. It can be challenging to apply wax in frigid temperatures, it is after all an oil solid and heat is helpful when trying to make wax products more malleable. If needed you can use a hair dryer to heat the metal parts of your vehicle before applying the wax.
Again, give special focus to the wheels, quarter panels and front grill. A few great wax products for protecting your car from salt and snow include:
Replace Fabric Mats With Rubber Ones
We’ve talked about the corrosive properties of salt and snow on the exterior of your vehicle but it can be just as bad on the inside. Walking to your car, your shoes will pick up that salt and snow and you end up tracking it into the car.
Once those substances hit your carpeting you can expect not only unsightly discoloration. That salt and water combination can soak through the fabric and begin to corrode the floor of your vehicle.
Your best bet is to replace the carpeting with rubber mats until the spring. In the case of vehicles where you cannot remove the carpeting you can treat the fabric with a water resistant conditioner though this can be a lot of work. The easiest solution is to remove whatever carpeting you can and put down a large rubber matt that fits in your vehicle’s driver and passenger floorboards.
You can also fully condition the interior of your car to make it essentially water proof. For those of you interested in accomplishing this, this is a great resource for you.
Everything That Your Emergency Survival Kit Should Contain
We all know that feeling of empathy when you see a car or truck broken down on the side of the road. Well, this could happen to you every time you get behind the wheel, and depending on road conditions, weather, where you live, and how many other people are stuck at the same time as you, you could be there a while!
Where these situations get dangerous is during inclimate weather, especially extreme cold spells. If you get caught out in a blizzard, it could be hours or even days before a tow truck or rescue vehicles can safely get to you. For this reason, it is best to be prepared for those nightmarish situations just in case you happen to find yourself living in it.
There are a few items that will make your survival (and comfortability) chances a whole lot higher. Even better, they won’t break the bank Here they are
Car Survival Kit Supplies
- Some form of bag that you can put survival items into should you need to abandon your vehicle
- Water (1 gallon per average amount of passengers)
- Non perishable food like energy bars or easy open canned goods
- Blanket (1 for each passenger)
- An extra change of winter worthy clothing (think thick socks, pants and jackets)
- First aid kit
- Hand Warmers
- Heavy duty trash bags (for emergency warmth)
- Medications you need
- Knife or multipurpose tool
- Phone charger
- Small shovel
- Lite tool kit
- Waterproof boots
- Emergency radio