Winter Driving Tips
Winter driving presents a number of challenges to both you and your car. Cold weather tests the limits of your car’s mechanical abilities. Treacherous driving conditions test your abilities as a driver.
The consequences can be very dire. You could end up sliding towards a guard rail wondering if your affairs are in order. It pays to be prepared.
Here are our tips to get ready for the snow and sleet-covered roads and dipstick-freezing temperatures.
We hope you find them useful.
If your car needs regular service, get it done now.
Nothing’s a big deal in the summer. You break down? So what? It’s a nice night out. Look at all those stars! But break down when it’s minus jaw-freezing outside, and that’s a different story. Since bad hoses, belts, water pumps and spark plug wires can leave you stranded in the winter, it’s better to bite the bullet and fix them. It’s better than spending the same amount of money after you’ve been sitting in your stalled car for three hours waiting for AAA. (Just kidding, Triple A! No one has ever had to wait three hours for one of your tow trucks, have they?)
Here’s one service item that’s often forgotten: tire pressure. Ask your mechanic to check it, or do it as soon as winter arrives. Why? Because tire pressure drops by about one pound per ten degrees of temperature. So, if it’s -10 now, and the last time you checked your tire pressure was back during that sweltering heat wave in July, your tires will be dangerously low and will jeopardize your car’s handling.
Many newer vehicles have tire pressure monitors, which alert you to dangerous changes in tire pressure. In fact, as of 2008, tire pressure monitors are required on all new vehicles. But older cars don’t have them and the pressure needs to be checked manually.
Make sure your battery and charging system are up to snuff.
Your mechanic should check the battery, charging system, and belts. Your battery can leave you stranded simply because it’s old and lousy. Or it could leave you stranded because your charging system isn’t working well, and the battery isn’t getting charged properly. So have your mechanic check the battery and charging system.
If you find that you need a new battery, get the biggest, meanest, ugliest battery that will fit in your car. Two things to remember about batteries: First, the battery that started your car easily in the summer may not have enough oomph to do it in winter. In winter, the engine is harder to start, because the oil isn’t as “fluid” as it was last July. And secondly, batteries lose power as the temperature drops (you remember your high school chemistry, right?). So not only do you need MORE power to start the engine in winter, you also get LESS power from the same battery.
Batteries are rated by a measure called “cold cranking amps” (CCA), the maximum number of amps that the battery can deliver at zero degrees (F) for 30 seconds. Good, powerful batteries are rated at or above 600 CCA. We’ve never really liked this CCA rating because some batteries rated at 600 CCA can just barely make the 30-second criterion, and some can pump it out much longer – clearly better batteries. Along came our pals at Consumer Reports. When they rate batteries, they do the CCA test and report how long the battery puts out the 600 amps. Great, says us. So take a look at their ratings for the lowdown.
Check the cooling system.
Make certain the antifreeze will protect your car at the winter temperatures you’ll experience in your area. For most areas, you’ll need a 50-50 mix of coolant to water. You may think, “I’ll be extra good to my car, and give it 100% coolant.” Guess what? You’re wrong. The 50-50 mix has a lower freezing point. Not only that, but 100% coolant is less able to transfer heat away from your engine, and has been known to cause such nasty things as melted spark plugs of engine failure under the wrong circumstances.So, mix it up!
|Protection||Freeze-up Protection||Boilover Protection||Corrosion Protection|
|Minimum 50% anti-freeze
|-34ºF||+265ºF||Exceeds all ASTM and SAE standards for corrosion protection|
|Maximum 70% anti-freeze
You can check the freeze rating of your car’s coolant yourself with a little device that you can buy in an auto part store for a couple of bucks. With it you suck up a little of the anti-freeze from the radiator – or the overflow container – and see how many of the little balls float. It’s cute. If this is beyond you, most real gas stations will do it for you in a couple of minutes. By the way, having good coolant in your engine is very important because if the coolant freezes, it expands, and it’s bye-bye engine block. And that means bye-bye to the 50-inch plasma TV you’ve been saving up for.
But that’s still only half the story. The other primary function of antifreeze is to keep your cooling system from rusting. The rust inhibitors in antifreeze break down over time and need to be renewed. So, at a minimum, change your engine’s coolant at the interval recommended by your manufacturer. Besides, draining out the coolant and refilling the system also removes dirt and rust particles that can clog up the cooling system and cause problems, regardless of the season.
There are two primary types of coolants available on the market today. The first is traditional, green-colored antifreeze, which can be used in any car. The second is a newer, long-life coolant, which comes in a variety of colors. It should only be used in recent-model cars because it may damage some of the engine gaskets in older cars. If you’re not sure whether your car uses the new or old-style antifreeze, check with your manufacturer.
In a pinch, the new and the old coolants can be mixed- but if you do that, you should drain the cooling system next time your car is in for service. The rust-inhibiting additives in the two coolants can actually counteract each other and, over a long period of time, allow the cooling system to rust. It takes a long time for this damage to occur, so you don’t have to rush home and drain the system. But do take care of it promptly, so you don’t forget and find yourself slapping your credit card down for an engine rebuild, a few years later.
Finally, if you’re driving a General Motors car that uses their Dexcool coolant, we’d suggest you pay extra attention to flushing your cooling system on a regular basis. Several years ago, early formulations of Dexcool would form sludge after mixing with air, clogging cast-iron cooling passages and generally wrecking havoc on engines. GM seems to have fixed the problem, but why take a chance? Keep an eye on it.
If you have leaks in the cooling system, take care of them now.
Make certain the antifreeze will protect your car at the winter temperatures you’ll experience in your area. For most areas, you’ll need a 50-50 mix of coolant to water. You may think, “I’ll be extra good to my car, and give it 100% coolant.” Guess what? You’re wrong. The 50-50 mix has a lower freezing point. Not only that, but 100% coolant is less able to transfer heat away from your engine, and has been known to cause such nasty things as melted spark plugs of engine failure under the wrong circumstances. So, mix it up!
Make sure your windshield wipers are in good shape.
Winter wipers – with the rubber coverings that keep ice from collecting on the blade – have become very popular. They’re great in the winter, but make sure you take them off in the spring. Winter wipers are heavy, and if you use them all summer, you’ll wear out the wiper motor prematurely.
And when using your wipers in the winter, remember to turn them off BEFORE shutting off the engine. Why? Water frequently freezes overnight during the winter. And if your blades freeze to the windshield, when you go to start your car, the wiper motor may burn out trying to get them back to the “rest position,” while you’re sitting there wondering, “What’s that burning smell?”