Taking care of your car is important all year long, but there are certain auto maintenance checks specific to falling temperatures and winter driving. No time is convenient for your car to break down, but that's especially true in a blizzard and freezing cold temperatures.
Here are a few tips to keep your car running efficiently through the winter:
First a word of caution on fluids - particularly for import cars. Car manufacturer's are required to specify in their owner's manuals all the fluids to be used in your car and the manufacturer's OE specifications for each. Make sure to check here first - BEFORE adding any fluids to your car.
Check your antifreeze (radiator fluid). This should be checked periodically throughout the year but is especially critical to protecting your car in winter. Your car should be a 50/50 mix of water and antifreeze. Make sure the level is full and the mixture is 50/50. Remember never to remove the radiator cap until the engine has thoroughly cooled. Flushing the system prior to refilling is also recommended about every 24 months.
For more information on antifreeze, visit Cooling System Repairs: It's Easy to Prevent Breakdowns BEFORE They Happen .
Check and maintain the engine oil level as well, making sure to use the proper viscosity oil for the winter temperatures in your area. Many newer models use synthetic or synthetic blend oils year round but older models can benefit from using a lower viscosity winter oil such as 0W30 or 5W30. The lower viscosity will allow the engine to turn over and start a bit easier and will protect the cold engine better at startup.
You may want to read Engine Knock? Low Oil Pressure? Engine How To Diagnose Needed Repairs for further information on this topic.
Check the automatic transmission fluid level to prevent transmission slippage. This is important year round but more noticeable in the winter because the fluid viscosity increases due to the cold.
For more specific information on checking your car's fluids, see Perform Monthly Car Maintenance & Keep Auto Repair Costs Way Down.
Inspect your wiper blades. Are they dried out and cracked or falling apart? Wiper blades should be checked periodically and replaced every 6 months. Remember that just because you're not using them all the time doesn't mean they're going to work when you need them. Wiper blades wear out from exposure to the elements. Winter, with its snow, ice and salt, is very harsh on your wiper blades. Consider keeping an extra set of wiper blades in your car just in case. Wiper blades are a big part of keeping your windshield clean and helping you to see the road better and drive safer.
Make sure to also stock up on windshield washer solvent - you'll be surprised at how much you use. Most quality washer solvents will contain some alcohol to prevent them from freezing in the winter and leaving you without a way to clean your windshield.
For more information on wiper blades, visit Replacing Wiper Blades Regularly Saves Lives & Windshields.
Check the air pressure in your tires on a regular basis, at least once a month since that's all it takes for the air pressure to change within the tire, especially in winter. Cold weather deflates tires because cold air is denser and it exerts less pressure against the tire. Always check your tires cold before driving as that's the most accurate reading and the one recommended by the manufacturer. And, make sure you know the proper air pressure for your tires - check your owner's manual or the sticker on the driver's door post.
It's never a good idea to drive on under-inflated or over-inflated tires. Under-inflated tires cause the tread to wear on the outside edges of your tires, increase heat to the tire and cause an increase in the resistance of the tire's movement; whereas, over-inflated tires increase tread wear on the center of your tires and are less safe because this reduces the size of the contact patch with the road. Uneven tread wear will also reduce the life of your tires and require replacement earlier than normal.
Most importantly, check the depth of your tire's tread. Worn out tread or bald tires cause safety issues since traction is reduced, decreasing your ability to control and stop your car. It's recommended that the tread depth of your tires be at least 2/32", but most experts recommend having no less than 4/32" and even at this depth, you should consider replacing your tires. An easy way to test your tire's tread depth is by simply using a penny inserted in the tread Lincoln's head side down, if you can see the top of his head then your tread depth is below the 2/32" minimum. You should also have your tires inspected and rotated every 6,000 miles or twice a year.
Finally, make sure that you check your spare tire and you have all the tools needed to change a tire and they're in working order. Also, check your brakes. For more information on brakes, check out Brake Repairs Needed? Don't Take Chances with Your Brakes - Repair Them Now.
Check your headlights, brake lights and turn signals to make sure they're working properly. Having your lights in working order helps you see the road better and helps other drivers see you. Make sure to keep the lenses clean. Snow, ice, salt and sand can build up quickly, causing you to lose visibility and other drivers to lose the ability to see you. Increased braking distance in the snow and ice means you want to be sure other drivers can see you as early as possible.
Does your car not want to start in the morning? Check your battery. Cold weather will reduce a battery's amperage capacity. Conduct a thorough inspection of your battery, cables, terminals and fluid to make sure your battery is ready for winter.
Check your battery cables for cracks and breaks and check that your terminals fit snugly with no loose connections. The battery's fluid can be checked by uncovering the refill hole(s), if so equipped. If the level is below the bottom of the cap, refill with distilled water.
Also, check for any corrosion (buildup formed by acid condensation). You should be able to see your battery clearly; if not, your battery needs to be cleaned. An inexpensive battery cleaner is baking soda and water - the baking soda neutralizes the acid which corrodes the metal terminals and cable connectors. Rinse very thoroughly with water and reapply baking soda mixture until no further bubbling occurs.
Checking the charge level of your battery is also an important preventive maintenance step. To read the level of charge, you'll need to turn the engine off. Some batteries have a built-in hydrometer eye that tells you the amount of voltage remaining in the battery. If you prefer, a handheld battery hydrometer can be used to collect the same information (if you have a battery with inspection/refill holes) or you can use a digital DC voltmeter. If you have any doubts about the condition of the battery, it should be professionally tested along with the charging system. Many auto part chain stores offer this as a free service.
Once you know the level of energy your battery has, compare its voltage with these figures:
12.6V to 12.8V: full charge
12.2V to 12.4V: half charge
11.8V to 12.0V: discharged
If you're shopping for a new battery, never buy one with a six-month or older manufacture date. In the United States, the manufacturing date is printed on a sticker. The date can be written in plain text or using an alphanumerical code. The first character is a letter that specifies the month (A for January, B for February and so on). The letter "I" is skipped due to its potential to be mistaken for the number 1. The second character is a single digit that indicates the year of manufacturing (for example, 8 for 2008).
Cold weather can cause your belts to slip, causing a squealing noise when you start the engine. As they warm up from friction, the squealing noise will normally go away but if it lasts more than a few seconds. you may need to adjust or replace your belts. Most newer cars use serpentine belts that are tensioned automatically but older V-belt engines do require occasional checking and adjusting.
Also, the additional road grime caused by winter driving can build up on the belts causing them to slip and squeal, so cleaning the engine once or twice during the winter is a good idea.
The last thing you may want to do when it's getting cold outside is to wax the car. A good quality wax or polish can protect the finish from winter road grime. Be sure to use one suitable for your vehicle - in particular, there are specific waxes made for later models with base/clear coat paint systems.
The best way to prepare for winter is to expect the worst before it happens. Assemble a good trunk emergency kit ahead of time and you'll be prepared for anything. In addition to the items you'd normally have handy (jumper cables, tool kit, road flares, cell phone and charger, etc.), a winter kit should also include a small shovel, a good heavy blanket, extra coat and hat, gloves and possibly even a bag of sand or rock salt. These extra winter supplies will either help you get out if you're stuck or keep you warm while you wait for help.
Repair articles are added regularly. Come back often to check for new maintenance topics.
These repair tips are designed only as a starting point. Please seek the assistance of a professional mechanic for all repair problems beyond your capabilities.