Winterize Your Car
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Winterize Your Car

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It's that time of year... start thinking about all things winter, but one thing that a lot of us forget about, our car. Oh, I know we all go out and change our tires...but there is more to it than that, below are a few suggestions on how to make it through winter a little more safely.

Every year I look out of my window and see the snow piled up on the lawn. I see the icicles hanging down from the eaves and the wind blowing. I look at the thermometer hanging out there and it says it's 20 degrees below zero. As I sit and look at this winter wonderland I can't help but think.... should I check my car for winter today. Then I say to myself, "Nah, it's too cold out."

This year it's going to be different. It's +10 degrees out, the sun is shining and I'm going to winterize my car today. I know a lot of you live in climates where winter is not much different from summer. To you winterizing is not all that important. But here on the East Coast of Canada where the temperature can go down to -20C, -40C or even -50C (rare) degrees below zero with windchill factors, winterizing a car is an important consideration.



Okay, where do we start? The first thing to check is the anti-freeze. Most anti-freezes are an ethylene glycol based fluid that has a low freezing point when mixed with water and a high boiling point. For this reason it makes an excellent coolant for our vehicles. Does it need to be changed? Well, if you didn't change it last winter, you need to change it this winter. Anti-freeze should be changed every two years or 30,000 miles whichever comes first. In addition to ethylene glycol, anti-freeze has other chemicals that lubricate the water pump and inhibits corrosion in the engine. These chemicals wear out and need to be replaced.

Motor Oil

Next is the motor oil. Most manufacturers have a summer and winter grade oil recommendations. Check your vehicle owners' manual for the recommended winter grade oil and change the oil to that grade. Winter grade oil is a lighter weight to help make cold weather starts easier. Naturally, you need to change the oil filter as well and at some point through out the winter, depending on your amount of driving you will likely have to change your oil at least once as well.

Wipers & Washers

Now we need to look at the wipers and washers. If you have ever driven on a highway that has had a lot of salt and sand dumped on it you will know that a good set of wiper blades and a working windshield washer is essential. Do you need special snow windshield blades on your vehicle? These blades can function well under extreme cold and snowy conditions. Be sure your windshield wipers function properly and wipe cleanly. The winter blades are covered with a rubber boot to keep ice, snow and water from freezing on the pivot points. This insures that the blade can flex and make good contact with the windshield to keep it clean. It takes about 10 seconds for the spray from the car in front of you to totally cover your windshield. Make sure your washers are in good working order and filled with washer solvent. Most washer solvents are good to about 10 below zero. For most parts of the country this is good enough. For those of us who live in the real cold, we need something that goes a little lower.

The Battery

Have the battery and charging system tested. A weak battery or alternator may get you by in the summer, but they will not handle cold weather when you need extra amps to start a cold engine. Clean the top of the battery with a solution of baking soda and water. Dirt and "blue snow" will slowly drain the battery and the colder it gets, the faster it will drain. When it is nice and clean, spray a nice coat of terminal protector or put a layer of white lithium grease on the terminals to keep them clean and air away from them. If your battery is within one year of its warranty period have it tested before cold weather driving. Having clean and tight connections, no corrosion, and proper fluid levels are a necessity.


Now for the engine itself. The lower the temperature, the harder it is for the fuel to ignite when starting. If you haven't had a tune-up in a while, now is the time to get one. With a fresh set of spark plugs and new distributor cap, rotor and ignition wires as needed, your chances of your car starting without flooding greatly improve.


If you are going to be in extremely cold climate for a period of time, adding a de-icer to your fuel can keep moisture in the fuel system from freezing. Never let you vehicle sit overnight in winter with less than a quarter of a tank, your fuel could freeze and that would be asking for trouble.

Hoses & Belts

Look at the belts and hoses as well. Winter driving puts an extra-added strain on the engine. It's one thing to be stuck with a broken belt when it's sunny and 80 degrees out, but a different thing all together when it's -10 degrees and snowing. Old, damaged or loose rubber hoses and drive belts can cause your vehicle to be inoperable in severe weather conditions. Have a professional inspect them before the season begins.


Check the heater and engine thermostat and make sure they are up to specs. Some put a hotter thermostat in their engine in the winter to make their heater more efficient. In the summer they go back to a colder thermostat for summer driving. This is especially needed in a diesel engine that does not put out as much heat as a gas engine. If you have a diesel engine, you may even need a radiator cover to restrict the airflow through the radiator. I'm sure you have seen them on trucks and school buses. They fit over the grill and have a zipper that allows you to control the airflow. Some use a piece of cardboard in front of their radiator to get more heat out of their diesel. If you have a diesel engine, a good option to consider is an electric engine heater. I have a block heater installed in my engine and it makes cold morning starting a sure thing. It keeps the engine warm and the oil from getting too thick. It also gives instant heat when you turn the heat on. There are ones that fit into the upper radiator hose and ones that replace the dipstick, but I have found the block heaters work so much better. Also in relation to your heater, in most cases I would suggest not using the section of your heater that "re-circulates" the air that is in the interior. If you do this then all of the moisture that is brought into the car from melting snow and slush is circulated as well and ends up on the windows, thus causing condensation or freezing on the inside when the car is off overnight. Use the setting that takes fresh air in from the outside and uses the heat of the enginge to warm it.


Have your exhaust system inspected to make sure there are no leaks and it is securely attached to the car. Every winter too many people die from carbon monoxide poisoning from leaky exhaust systems. And never, ever run your car in a closed garage to warm it up. This is a sure way to cause an extremely tragic accident. Carbon monoxide could seep into the house and cause loss of conscienceness and death. Be careful of holes in the floorboards or trunk area that can also allow exhaust to be drawn into the vehicle.

The Tires

Okay, so far, so good. There's one more thing we should look at...the tires. Most tires sold today are "All-Season" radial tires. Now there's nothing really wrong with them, they are good tires. I have four of them on my car. But keep in mind that they are a compromise between winter and summer driving. Last year I rode all winter on 'three-season' tires and had to dish out $1200 in repairs to the car that I bumped into as I slid around a sharp corner...this year...I wil have four, real snow tires for my car and I will put them on just before (hopefully) the first snow flies. Make sure the tread is good, it doesn't make sense to put worn out snow tires on your car. Another option is snow chains. I don't think too many people use these any more. They are hard to put on and they can tear up asphalt highways and streets. Some cities have laws against the use of snow chains so check the local laws if you are considering them. The same goes for studded snow tires as well. There is nothing like a good set of snow tires...don't take the chance.
And while you're checking the tires, when was the last time you checked the spare? Make sure all the parts for your car jack are there and that it is in good, working condition. It might sound silly, but practice changing a tire using the equipment in your car. You'll glad you knew your jack was in good shape and you knew how to use it at 6:30 in the morning when you get a flat and its -30 and a wind chill of -50 outside

In The Trunk

What should you have in your trunk in case of an emergency? If your car is rear wheel drive something heavy to improve traction. Most home centers sell 70 pounds bags of sand. These can serve two purposes, one, they add weight and improve traction and two, if you do get stuck, you can spread the sand out under you tires to get the traction you need to get unstuck. I would recommend keeping at least one of these bags in your trunk. Of course if your car is front wheel drive, the sand bags will prove just as useful, if not for traction, for helping get out of a snow bank. A good set of jumper cables is a good thing to have. There is nothing like a cold morning to bring out the worst in a battery and a set of jumper cables will increase your chances of getting a jump-start if you need it. And you can be a Good Samaritan and give someone else a jump-start if they need it. Get a good set, 4 to 8 gauge. They cost a little more, but they are well worth it. A shovel sure would come in handy if you should get stuck. A regular sized snow shovel would be the ideal choice, but in smaller cars you can get a smaller one or one that will fold up.

Other Considerations

Some other handy things to have would be a three pack of flares, some gas line anti-freeze/drier, an insulated pair of work gloves, a flashlight with spare batteries and a couple of extra gallons of washer fluid. In some cases you can buy relatively inexpensive kits at places like Wal-Mart and Canadian Tire that could come in extremely handy in the event of a breakdown. Some other things to consider are a couple of heavy blankets and some of those hand warmers that hunters use.
Inspect all lights to assure they are functional; lack of light for illumination or visibility can be deadly.


When you are all done with this, look your car over closely. If there are any paint chips showing bare metal, you should cover them. Get a tube of touch-up paint and cover the bare metal spots. These spots will give road salt a good bite into your sheet metal. When you are done with the touch-up, give the vehicle a good wash.
Winter is a tough time of the year on you and your car. And if you are like me and hate the cold, a car that has been properly winterized will keep you going and nice and warm.

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