Tom Upole, a master technician certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, runs a car service and repair center in northwest Maryland, where the average snowfall in any given year hovers around 111 inches. He sees the brutal impact of harsh winter weather on cars, from vehicles buried in snow drifts to salt-corroded paint jobs. Even if your car seems to be running just fine, Upole says winter weather has a knack for finding the weak spots on cars, like an old battery, worn wiper blades or tires losing their grip. Here, he offers the same experience and tips he shares with his own customers for maintaining and driving a car in winter.
Getting on the road
Do you really need to warm up your car first?
Once upon a time, warming up your car was necessary to get oil circulating in the engine—a critical reaction if you wanted the car to respond when you hit the gas. But today's fuel-injected engines reach full oil pressure within seconds of starting. You can turn the key and go without risking engine damage, and save a little gas by reducing your car's idle time.
However, when the temperature is below freezing, Upole tells his customers to let their cars warm up for 60 seconds. This precaution gives oil more time to circulate, which can minimize engine wear over the long haul, he says.
Stuck in snow? How to rock and roll out
If the wheels are buried, chances are the exhaust pipe is, too. Consider digging out the tailpipe before starting the engine, then dig one to two feet of space around the front, back and outer side of the tires. Sand or cat litter sprinkled around the wheels may also give the tires extra grip. Road salt will melt the snow, but doesn’t deliver traction, according to Upole.
Ready to roll? Start the car and drive forward and backward, rocking the wheels a few inches at a time. If your car has traction control (a little button on the dash or console), you may want to turn it off. Traction control limits wheel spin, which is fine on a slick road, but you need wheel spin to accelerate out of deep snow from a dead stop.
Wheels spinning on ice? Try this technique
If you're driving surface streets and stopped at a sign or red light, start by easing off of the brake slowly and letting the car roll into an intersection before easing onto the gas pedal. The extra seconds in slow motion can give you time to confirm that no cars are skidding into the intersection and can help keep your tires from slipping on an ice-slicked street.
You may also be able to minimize wheel slip by starting from second gear, instead of Drive on an automatic or first gear on a manual car. This technique limits the amount of power going to the wheels. Most automatic transmissions on newer cars have a snow mode that does this automatically. This setting locks out first and sometimes second gear until the car reaches a certain speed, typically 30 mph.
You probably don't know this about all-wheel and four-wheel drive in icy conditions
All-wheel and four-wheel drive give a vehicle more traction for accelerating on snowy or icy straightaways and hills, but these features may offer no benefits when you're not accelerating, like driving downhill or braking. Bottom line: Don't get overconfident because your car has all-wheel drive, says Upole.
Why winter conditions and cruise control don't mix
When driving long stretches on highways, cruise control can cause tires to spin faster and lose traction in winter weather conditions. Using your gas pedal on those drives may be helpful.
Getting your car ready for winter
The right way to clean a winter windshield
Straight water in your washer fluid reservoir can freeze and turn slushy in cold weather, which can damage windows and the washer system. Select a washer fluid with de-icer that stays liquid in the lowest average winter temperature in your area. You can also buy a concentrated washer fluid designed to mix with water, but these concentrates may not contain adequate de-icer/anti-freeze ingredients. Check the fine print on the label to make sure a concentrate is suitable for winter use.
Every month, inspect the wiper blades and replace them if they have ragged, cracked or rough edges, or a bent metal frame. When the wipers are turned on, they may need to be replaced if they leave water streaks, don't come into full contact with the windshield, or make a chattering sound.
How to defog frosty windows
Snowy, cold shoes and clothing add moisture to the air in your car, which can cause windows to fog if you hit the defrost button too soon. Turn on the heater to warm up your car interior first, before defrosting. If the problem persists, try an anti-fogging spray. This clear, wipe-on spray is designed to disperse moisture on interior glass to help prevent window fog.
Why you should test your battery before it gets cold
Ask your mechanic to test the strength of your car's battery every summer or fall. (A full-strength charge is 12.6 volts.) If the charge is weakened by age or everyday wear, your car may not start on the first cold morning. Low temperatures slow the chemical reactions that create a charge inside the battery, and a weak battery (below 12 volts) can start to freeze around 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
Yes, your car needs clean coolant in winter
An engine always needs coolant to prevent overheating, even on the coldest days. Coolant should be replaced every two to five years depending on the car (check your owner’s manual). Old coolant can lose its antifreezing properties and turn slushy in winter, which can prevent the coolant from circulating through the engine properly. Coolant that appears speckled or muddy may have accumulated bits of corroded metal, dirt or sludge from running through the cooling system for too long and needs to be flushed out and replaced.
Are your tires right for your region?
Most new cars leave the factory with all-season tires, which provide a balance of wet-weather traction, ride comfort and fuel efficiency. Upole recommends all-season tires in areas where the average individual snowfall is less than 6 inches.
Snow tires may be a better choice if snowstorms in your area regularly top 6 inches. The rubber compounds used in snow tires resist stiffening in extreme cold, which can reduce a tire's grip on the road. Snow tires also have deeper treads, which may help prevent snow from building up on the surface.
The rubber compounds used in summer performance tires provide maximum grip in warm weather, but can crack at temperatures below 40 degrees. Summer performance tires should be switched for winter tires and stored at room temperature in winter.
Doors freezing shut? Try this preventive maintenance
Rubber weather stripping around car doors can hold moisture and freeze when temperatures drop below freezing. Applying a silicone spray lubricant or white lithium grease to the weather stripping can help block moisture. Upole does not recommend using petroleum-based lubricants or gels, which can weaken the rubber.
Your car's best defense against salt damage
Snow and ice-melting road salt is a corrosive nightmare for your car's paint finish and metal parts. Your first line of defense is a good waxing, which can prevent salt from adhering to paint, and typically lasts three months. Wax when temperatures are in the 60 to 80-degree range—wax may be too hard to apply if temperatures are below 50 degrees.
Do-it-yourself paint sealants sold by automotive retailers last for up to a year and, in addition to waxing agents, contain synthetic polymers that could help protect against acid from salt, water stains and freezing temperatures.
Paint coatings offered by professional car detailers are made of clear ceramic. They're harder and thicker than sealants, and they're designed to last for the life of the car. The cost of having your car coated—or "wrapped"—starts at about $1,200.
Considering a remote car starter? Signals range from 500 feet to 2 miles. Select one with a longer range than the distance to your car from home or work to offset objects that can interfere with the signal, such as buildings and power lines.
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