Updated: Jul 7
Winterizing your car can be as simple as changing your tires and wiper blades, but there are many other things you can do for your comfort and SAFETY.
Having good tires on your car all year round should be your goal, but during seasons with drastic inclement weather is the most important. You can choose between having a set of snow tires or just maintaining a good set of all-season tires.
Tires can be expensive, but is not paying the extra $30 a tire worth your safety and the safety of others on the road? If you think your local shop is just trying to take all of your money, do the research yourself. Being informed is the best way to save money. Most of the time half of us have our phone in our hands when we are bored. Make the most of that time and research, research, research. Customer reviews can be your best friend. Remember, 3-star reviews are usually the most honest ones.
Just picking the right tire is not the only thing you should worry about. Tire pressure is just as, if not more, important than what tread you have. It is not only possible to under-inflate your tires, but they can be over-inflated as well. A properly inflated tire makes the correct contact with the road surface for better traction. Temperature change is also a factor in tire pressure change. For a 10° drop in temperature your tires can lose 1 psi of air.
If your car is a 2008 or newer you have TPMS sensors in each tire. That stands for Tire Pressure Monitoring System. Do not rely on these sensors for your tire pressure readings. Occasionally check your pressure with the good old fashion pen style tire pressure gauge If you’re not sure what pressure they should be you can find the recommended tire pressure inside the driver’s side door, door-frame or in the owner’s manual.
Always inspect your tire tread for uneven wear, damage or cracking. Have your mechanic rotate your tires when you get your oil changed. This will extend the life of your tires by helping them wear evenly. If you have any questions about your tires condition just have your mechanic look at them for you.
4-Wheel Drive/All-Wheel Drive System
4WD and AWD vehicles require more maintenance then other cars. Have your mechanic inspect your differentials and transfer case for leaks and noises. Some car manufacturers require differential fluid to be changed as often as every 15,000 miles. I recommend no more than 40,000 miles.
Never use your 4WD on flat, dry roads. 4WD engages all four tires into movement and produces more torque. If this torque goes “unused” it can damage your differentials, transfer case and transmission. And unless you happen to have a couple of thousand dollars burning a hole in your pocket, think twice about using 4WD. You can always check your owner’s manual or Google for how and when to use 4WD.
Most AWD vehicles do the thinking for you, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be inspected. A good mechanic knows how to give your AWD system a good once over to make sure it will work when you need it too.
Battery and Alternator
A simple test of the battery and alternator can save you time and money. If your battery is more than 3 years old, have it tested. Imagine being stuck in a freezing parking lot with a battery that doesn’t have enough juice to start your car.
Most people think cold weather is to blame when the battery dies in winter, but warm temperatures do the most damage to batteries. High temperatures quicken corrosion of internal plates and vaporize the electrolyte faster. Your battery will then die on a cold day because the damage was done during the summer, but doesn’t show up until the battery is under a heavier load. A cold battery has reduced cranking power. Cold weather thickens your oil, making it harder for your engine to turn over. Modern electrical and fuel systems can mask a weak battery. Newer cars require fewer cranking amps to start. If you have a weak battery compromised by cold weather, it’s more likely to fail.
Your alternator could also be the cause of a dead battery. The alternator charges your battery by feeding it a regulated current. The alternator needs about 20 minutes of driving to fully recharge the battery, but on a cold day, it may need more time to compensate for the initial heavy energy draw. Your battery starts the car but your alternator keeps it going. Without an alternator, you won’t be getting very far. Have your mechanic check your drive belt too. They are prone to stretching, cracking and fraying. Having your charging system tested before cold weather settles in is your best defense against failure.
You should be changing your engine oil at frequent intervals. A good rule to live by is “3 Month, 3000 Miles”, but not all cars call for that short amount of time. Check your owner’s manual or with your mechanic if you’re not sure. Winter also affects your engine oil. Cold temperatures thicken your oil, in turn, it may not lubricate properly causing friction inside your engine. Friction puts stress on your engine resulting in long term damage. Engine oil not only breaks down over time, but also but it collects small fragments of metal as your engine internals wear. Changing your oil at regular intervals not only removes the abrasive metal fragments, it minimizes the friction that causes damage.
Some car manufacturers suggest switching to a less viscous oil or a “Winter Weight” oil in cold weather. This information can also be in your owner’s manual or just ask your mechanic.
With icy roads already against you, why wait for a brake failure. Most people don’t begin to
think about brakes until they start squealing or squeaking. They will still continue to drive until they start to pulsate or shake the whole car when stopping. It’s not until the horrible grinding starts that they decide to call their mechanic. DON’T DO THAT!!!! They most likely just went from a simple inexpensive fix with Brake Pads ($) to Pads and Rotors ($$) and finally onto Pads, Rotors and Calipers ($$$).
I have known people to ignore all these until they slam head long into the back of a State Police Cruiser on the highway (True Story) acquiring a large stack of medical bills, a nice big ticket for “Improperly Equipped or Unsafe Motor Vehicle” and no car.
If you are having your oil changed at regular intervals then you should be getting your tires rotated and while your tires are off, have your mechanic check your brakes.
Make sure your heat works. This may seem like a no-brainer to some, but when the temperature drops to 3° with a wind chill of -15°, I will have 10 voicemails waiting for me when I arrive at work, all wanting repairs the same day. If you are proactive in vehicle maintenance you can always enjoy a nice warm ride to work.
A simple test is to start your car and wait for it to reach its running temperature. Now just turn on the heat and switch it through all the functions to make sure they work and that the fan blows at all speed selections. If you have any concerns ask your mechanic to give your heat system a once over.
While we are on the subject of heat I’m going to throw your defroster into this category. Have your mechanic check your rear defroster and any other defrosting systems you have. Some newer cars have heated mirrors, headlights and side window defrost.
Heated seats can be another function that people don’t think about. If you have heated seats you should have those checked as well. I remember someone who owned a Volvo with heated seats. He had had them on for his entire 30-minute ride home from work. He got out of the car to grab his mail and when he turned around his driver seat had started to smoke. His heated seat had a damaged wire in the heating element. What started as a simple fix ended up costing him over a thousand dollars to repair and the car had a slight hint of burnt plastic for the rest of its life.
I hear a lot exhaust leaks every day. You may think a small exhaust leak isn’t an issue, but being proactive can save you money here as well. An exhaust leak can lead many issues. When you have an exhaust leak your engine has to work harder causing undue stress. A leak also leads to a loss in fuel efficiency. The noise of an exhaust leak can over power a smaller noise that can be a bigger, more expensive problem.
Most importantly an exhaust leak can allow deadly carbon monoxide gas to seep into the passenger compartment of your vehicle. Carbon Monoxide can build up in your system from exposure. Every time you drive your car you are exposing yourself to more and more carbon monoxide. Depending on the degree and length of exposure, carbon monoxide poisoning can cause permanent brain damage, damage to your heart, possibly leading to life-threatening cardiac complications and death.
Signs and symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning may include:
Nausea or vomiting
Shortness of breath
Loss of consciousness
Antifreeze and Cooling System
You should drain your cooling system and add new antifreeze every 40,000 miles or so, whether you live in New England or Southern California. You can find your vehicle’s recommended service interval in your owner’s manual. If you have too much water in your antifreeze when cold weather hits you could do a lot of damage to delicate engine components.
If you have your mechanic change your antifreeze, have them check your coolant hoses for cracks or other signs of wear. Have them check your radiator and overflow/reserve tank for leaks or wear. Any issues in your cooling system can cause stress on your engine again costing you more money in the long run.
A quick check of all lights on your car is free and easy. You should be able to replace most of your vehicle’s bulbs yourself. If not, your mechanic should be able to replace all of them pretty quick.
If you have one headlight bulb, or another paired bulb out, always replace both and keep the good one as an emergency spare. Having a non-functioning light makes you less visible to other drivers and can make a not at fault accident a little bit more complicated for you. I can replace every bulb (including the interior lights) for the cost of the non-compliance ticket issued by a police officer and the corresponding insurance rate hike.
Inspecting and replacing your windshield wipers is cheap and easy. Periodically clean them with a wet paper towel to remove windshield damaging dirt and dust. Most people don’t even think about their wiper blades until they are caught in a torrential downpour. Visibility is already compromised, why make it harder with bad wiper blades.
Visibility isn’t the only reason for new wiper blades. The damage an old worn-out pair of wiper blades do to your windshield can cost more then 20 sets of brand-new wiper blades.
NEVER USE YOUR WIPER BLADES TO REMOVE ICE FROM YOUR WINDSHIELD!!! If you don’t want to scrap your windshield, warm your car up and use your defroster. It’s better for your engine to warm it too.
Consider replacing your wiper blades every 6 months. Another thing you can do is use Rain-X to help with visibility and slow down the wear of the blades. Always keep a spare wiper blade in your car in case of an emergency.
Things you can do without your mechanic
Wash your car
Road salt damages your car’s paint and can cause the body panels, frame and mechanical components to rot. I have seen vehicle with rotted engine blocks from lack of care.
Never let your gas tank go below half. A fuller tank can prevent your gas lines from freezing and if by chance you get stuck somewhere you can leave your car running for heat until help arrives.
Keep this in your car
A lot of people have an “Emergency” kit in their car. Some of the preassembled ones you can buy aren’t too bad, but they have some gaps.
This is what I have in my kit:
1. Jumper Cables
3. First-aid Kit
4. A simple set of tools
5. Road flares
7. 1 qt on oil
8. Tire pressure gauge
9. Small fire extinguisher
10. Duct Tape
11. A gallon of premixed antifreeze
12. A gallon of washer fluid
13. Two Rain ponchos
14. Baby Wipes
15. A light blanket
16. A sweatshirt
18. Hat and gloves
19. Water and some granola bars
20. A book
I know this may seem excessive to some or you’re thinking that having AAA is all you need. I have AAA, but I have been stuck at 2 in the morning on the side of the road in January for 3 hours waiting for them to arrive. My blanket and book kept me warm and occupied. Winter is AAA’s busiest time. They will never be 5 minutes out. If you are short on trunk space, I recommend at minimum the top 8.
Remove ALL of the snow from your car
Yes-I mean all of it!! There are two reasons for this: It improves visibility and prevents chunks of it from falling off and hitting another car. If you cause damage to another car because you are too lazy to remove snow and ice, you have to pay for it. Now insurance companies may deny your claim because it could have been prevented.
Watch the weather. Always give yourself enough time for your car to warm up and get where you need to go. Make sure you slow down and give yourself enough time to react. Allow more stopping distance. Snow and ice make it more difficult to stop. Allow more space between your vehicle and the vehicle in front of you. 4-wheel drive or all-wheel drive may help get moving, but it doesn’t help you when you need to stop.
If the roads are just too dangerous, don't risk an accident!