How to Take Care of Your Car During the Winter
The last few weeks have been abnormal, to say the least, for Illinois climate-wise. While the southeast coast and northwest territories of the country have been ravaged in the debilitating after-effects of two category 4 hurricanes and a massive forest fire, the prairie state is just coming out of the sweltering grasp of a nine-day, 90-degree heat wave. Typically, September is around the time we start donning sweaters and gearing up for the winter, but let it never be said that the weather never has one last trick up its sleeve. Not only can torrential rain and snowfall wreck havoc on your morning commute, they can severely impact the condition of your vehicle if left unchecked. Now’s the time to prep your car before the full brunt of winter sets in, so here are some helpful reminders and tips for how to best protect your car during the winter.
The ‘What-Where-How’ of Preventative Winter Maintenance
There are a lot of elements of vehicle maintenance that we take for granted during the more temperate climates of summer and spring that become more essential to actively maintain during the late fall or winter season. Working from the outside in, here’s a checklist of areas you should address before winter sets in.
With the passage of fall and the end of daylight savings time (November 5th this year, by the way), the sun is setting earlier, which means decreased visibility during late afternoon and evening when you’re driving home from work. To compensate for this, you’ll want to double-check that your headlights are in excellent shape, providing the best illumination possible for when the snow and fog hits. Replace faulty bulbs and be sure to remove settled snow before and after you enter or exit your car. If the illumination given off by your headlights is foggy or yellowish, consider replacing them or purchasing a restoration kit.
Replacing your vehicle’s wiper blades is something most of us could stand to do more of, especially given the natural wear and tear that comes through their use during the fall and winter months. The consensus among automotive experts is that you should replace your wiper blades as often as every six months to avoid issues such as excessive squeakiness, chattering, smear residue and reduced visibility when deployed. Protecting your wiper blades even after they’ve been replaced is even more essential. If you park outside, leave the wipers in a raised position to avoid rain residue freezing them to the windshield. Also important: *never* use your wiper blades to remove sheet ice that manifests on your windshield, as wiper blades are not designed for this and will likely break in the attempt. Instead, opt for buying an ice scraper and using that instead. Before first snowfall, remember to fill your windshield washer reservoir with washer fluid, as plain water is not going to do the trick and likely will exacerbate the problem when it freezes. On top of that, fill up your windshield washer reservoir with windshield washer fluid. (Plain water won’t do the trick during this time of the year, as it'll freeze and likely crack the windshield from use).
Your battery is the essential component of your vehicle that’s hit the most when the cold sets in. Winter temperatures reduce cranking power, which is one of the reasons why ignition takes longer than in summer. If you already have a weak battery in the summer, it’s essential that you buy and replace your battery for the winter as soon as possible. To find out if you need to purchase a new one, have a volt test performed on your current battery before winter starts to make sure it's still in good working order. If it’s not, you can either buy a new battery separately and have a trusted mechanic install it for you or you can install yourself from the comfort of your own home.
Car Heater and Defroster
With winter approaching, it’s essential to get your heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems before the frost comes down. In the interest of being proactive, preventative maintenance, make sure to get all functions of your HVAC systems checked before the coldest day of the winter hits. While concerns about heating are probably paramount in your mind going into winter, it’s absolutely vital that you check on the condition of your vehicle’s antifreeze. Antifreeze, or as it's also known as ‘Coolant’, is essentially important in keeping your car’s engine from freezing in cold temperatures. Get your fluids checked and fill up on coolant before the full brunt of winter comes down. Either that or you can check and refill it yourself! Most mechanics recommend using a 50/50 mix of coolant and water in their radiators, resulting in a lower engine freezing point than using coolant exclusively.
Getting your oil change is a critical responsibility for any car owner, especially during the winter. Cold weather can take its toll on your oil and transmission fluids, thickening their viscosity and making it harder for you engine to turn over. Oil thickens as it becomes harder and, the thicker its density, the more difficult it becomes to properly circulate and lubricate your engine. Whether you take it into a mechanic or do it yourself, the importance of getting your oil changed regularly (not just during the winter) is paramount. Before you do so however, it’s vital that you know what type of oil your vehicle uses. The easiest way to learn this is to check your owner’s manual for the manufacturer’s recommendation for which oil to use in which climate and conditions. Generally, you should be using multi-viscosity oil that was a “W” in the viscosity index, indicated its designation for winter use.
Gasoline and Washer Fluid
Now at this point you’re probably wondering, “How exactly can I maintain the condition of my fuel during the winter?” The answer is, it has less to do with maintaining the fuel itself and more to do with making sure you have an ample store of it when times get lean. Gasoline and washer fluid are both essential items you need for maintaining your car in general, as we’ve said before regarding the maintenance of wiper blades. You should try to keep your tank full as often as possible for several winter specific reasons, the most important of which being that you don’t want to find yourself running out of fuel in the middle of a low visibility snow storm or other such event. A full tank would also prevent accumulated water from freezing inside your fuel pump, causing significant degradation to the interior of your fuel circulation. A full tank is also a benefit to drivers during adverse weather conditions because you’re able to run your car and, consequently, your car’s heating system for longer; allowing you to stay warm on the inside. Keeping spare canisters of fuel and windshield wiping solution in your trunk is a proactive boon for drivers who might be otherwise stranded in inopportune situations. The benefits of a backup canisters of window washing solution cannot be overstated, as accumulated road debris from snowstorms or leftover construction can necessitate constant cleaning which might otherwise exhaust the vehicle’s built-in capacity.
Tires and Tire Pressure
It is absolutely crucial to keep track of your tire pressure as temperature gets lower. Tire pressure has a tendency to drop alongside environmental air temperature, losing up to one pound per square inch with every 10-degree drop in air temperature. Driving around with low tire pressure could mean premature tire wear or potential tread separation, which in turn could lead to a major, if not fatal accident. Winter tires are a go-to solution for such situations, though unfortunately many states (including Illinois) barr the use of studded snow tires, as they are known to tear up asphalt and leave the roads in severe disrepair in the aftermath of snowfall.
This is a just a general tip towards not only proper winter car care, but your overall preparedness as car owner. While the idea of an automotive "survival kit" might sound ludicrous to an urban driver, motorists in rural or even suburban areas might find themselves stuck on a deserted back road amid heavy snowfall and scarce vehicles for miles. Even if you don't think there's a chance you'll ever end up in a situation akin to this, a survival kit is a proactive measure to mitigate any potential disaster. Find one that’s stocked with a good blanket, first-aid kit, a knife, a flashlight, jumper cables and a spare multi-use phone charger that’s compatible with your vehicle’s cigarette lighter. As we’ve mentioned before, keep a spare canister of gasoline and wiper solution in your back trunk, as well as a heavy duty shovel for low-traction situations. Also, and this is important: keep a spray bottle of de-icer solution in your car, preferably under your driver’s seat just in case your car trunk or engine hood is frosted over and you need easy access.