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Cold Weather Car Maintenance Tips

By (view all posts by brwood)
at 10:58AM Tuesday November 16, 2010
under Shop Smarter

As we've all noticed in the last few weeks (even out here in L.A.), winter is coming. The days are getting shorter, coats and sweaters are coming out of the closets, the leaves are falling, and the Christmas lights are going up. Soon there will be real rain and snow falling--and getting to work will seem even more like work. 

So, here are a few tips to keep you rolling all winter long:
1. Headlights: Make sure your lights both work and are properly aimed. Also, in cars made after the mid-1980s make sure the lenses are clean, inside and out. You may have seen polishing kits recently for just such a purpose; they usually are a fancier version of the sort of thing you use to clean out baby bottles. If your lights look cloudy from the outside, it's a good idea to at least clean them with soap and water inside and out.

2. Tail Lights: You don't want to find out you have a tail light blown out when you are driving home from work and sudden find yourself in a downpour, or a fog bank. The person behind you who doesn't rear end you will be happy you did it too.

3. Battery: Did you read the blog about my car battery suddenly dying? Well, it could have been worse; it could have been raining. Have your mechanic give your battery a once over and test it for cold cranking amps and general health. They can often catch a battery going bad before it actually dies.




4. Wiper Blades: Just try buying wiper blades in L.A. on the day of the first big rain. You can't, everybody sells out. The sun bakes them and dries them out so the first time you turn them on in the fall in the best case they streak--and in the worst case they actually fall apart. If you do live somewhere prone to snow and ice, switch to winter blades, which work better in the cold and are designed to not freeze up as easily.

5. Antifreeze: In the summer, you can easily get away with mostly water in your cooling system. Water does a great job of cooling, but causes corrosion especially in aluminum and magnesium. Antifreeze does just what its name says, it inhibits freezing. It works best mixed 50/50 with water. Be careful, there are different colors with different formulations out there these days. The good news is Prestone, and others make a formula compatible with all of them.

If for some reason you have straight water in there (your car overheated and it was all you had or you have a leak and just have to keep adding it), have it drained and filled with the proper antifreeze.


6. Snow Tires: These days, especially with the popularity of 4wd SUVs, most people do without snow tires. But I remember a time back in Connecticut, after a sudden snow storm, I managed to have a car accident in my own driveway just trying to get to work--at 5 mph. Luckily the only damage was a black rubber stripe from the bumper on one car rubbing along the other for ten feet or so and it buffed right out. Even if you have 4-wheel drive it will only help you get going; you're going to have just as much trouble stopping and turning.

Car & Driver did a comparison of four tires and a dedicated snow, or winter, tire was able to stop from 30 mph in twenty feet less than an all-season tire. Is twenty feet worth the $500 or so to get four snow tires swapped on your car? Well, if that twenty feet is the difference between hitting the car in front of you or stopping, then yeah, you'd pay at least that in deductible to get the car fixed.  If you have room to store them, The Tire Rack will sell you a set of winter tires on dedicated wheels, so your nice 20" alloys won't get all messed up--and the wheels can be swapped out by anyone with a jack and a lug wrench in about an hour.

So, there you have it. If you live someplace really cold, or you drive a lot through rural areas, you might want to look into packing some blankets and survival rations in case you get stranded in the middle of nowhere in a sudden storm.