On a cold Monday morning after a snowstorm, you hop into your car and drive off to work. The engine's a bit sluggish today, but you shrug at the stop sign before moving on -- it usually is during the winter, but the old heap's never let you down, right? What could possibly go wrong?
Before you know it, you're sliding over an ice patch. You test the brakes, but this only makes it worse. Then -- slam! -- you hit a snow bank, covering your car with snow and creating your own makeshift igloo. You try to start the engine again after it stalled, but it looks like the battery is dead. After several minutes of trying to force the door open, a quick look in your backseat lets you know you're stuck in the worst way. No food, no gloves, no boots, no blankets.
Although the chances of this terrible chain of events ever happening are slim, many of the problems described above can give you a headache during the cold months if you don't properly winterize your car. Just as it's necessary for us to put on a coat, hat and gloves in cold weather, our cars need a similar kind of attention if they're going to function at their best potential.
In this article, we lay out the top 10 tips for getting your car through the winter and staying safe out there during tough road conditions. What should you keep in the car with you? What parts should I check before driving? How important is gas and oil during the winter? Is there anything I can do with the tires? For answers to all these questions and more, read the following pages.
Tip 10: Keep an Emergency Kit Inside Your Car
The simplest thing you can do to combat the cold weather is to keep a few essential supplies and tools with you as you drive. You'll obviously want a spare tire and the tools to change out a flat, but it's a good idea to keep some extra material in the trunk as well. Bottles of engine oil, washer fluid and coolant all come in handy, and we'll touch on those in greater detail later on. An ice scraper is a necessity, since you and your car won't be going anywhere with frozen snow blocking your view.
Flashlights and flares are helpful if you're stuck on the road late at night when visibility levels are low. Even if you're wearing a coat, an extra pair of gloves, boots or even a blanket can keep you warm and dry if your heating unit isn't working properly.
Tip 9: Make Sure Your 4-Wheel Drive Works
Unless you go off-roading all year long, chances are if you own an SUV you don't use your four-wheel drive (4WD) during the summer. That's why it's important to make sure everything is working correctly before the winter starts, even if 4WD doesn't take too much maintenance. A functioning system can improve tire traction on snow and ice, decreasing the possibility of getting stuck. 4WD varies depending on the vehicle, so check the owner's manual for the best environment in which to use it and how to engage the system.
Remember, having a 4WD system doesn't mean you can drive figure eights around icy parking lots or drive faster than you normally would in a regular car. 4WD can improve your SUV's traction on snow and ice from a stationary position, but it doesn't make your tires grip the pavement any better when you brake.
Tip 8: Check Your Car's Belts and Hoses
The belts and hoses under your car's hood are typically checked when the car is due for a tune-up (usually every 30,000 miles). Even if you're not getting a tune-up this winter, it doesn't hurt to have a mechanic take a look at how everything is holding up around your engine. Cold temperatures can weaken belts and hoses, and if something snaps or breaks while you're out on the road, a tow truck will be the only way to get moving again.
Tip 7: Replace Windshield Wipers and Wiper Fluid
Imagine driving down the road at night, and all of a sudden a storm of freezing rain passes over, beating your windshield with sheets of water. You click your wipers on so you can see better, but nothing works -- pieces of rubber flap uselessly against the glass, and the blades' scraping doesn't make the view outside any clearer.
Low visibility can make driving in cold weather extremely dangerous, so it's important to make sure the wiper blades are up to par. Your wiper blades are made out of rubber, and with time they'll crack, split and deteriorate. It's suggested that you replace your windshield wipers every six to 12 months. Keeping your wiper fluid filled up is also a plus, as fluid can assist in breaking up snow and ice on the windshield.
The countdown continues on the next page with more winterizing tips.
Tip 6: Check Your Defrosting and Heating Units
When our windshields fog up in the winter, it's because moisture from inside the car condenses on the glass and makes it very difficult to see. Water vapor coming in from an open window -- or even from your own breathing -- can fog up a window. Defrosters solve this problem by blowing warm, dry air over the glass. If you're sure your defroster unit is functioning properly but there's still a problem with too much fogging, have your car checked for air leaks around the doors and windows bringing in extra moisture.
It's also important to stay warm and comfortable while driving, since shivering makes it difficult to steer or pay attention to the road. If your heater isn't working, you may have a faulty heater coil. Although heater coils are expensive to replace, it will be worth it during cold winter mornings if you don't want to freeze behind the wheel.
Tip 5: Keep Your Fuel Tank Full
Do you ever let your gas tank run on fumes until the very last moment, only to fill it up with about $15 worth of gas? Although it's never a great idea to do this any time of the year because you run the risk of getting stranded, the damage you might inflict on your car with a near-empty tank during winter is much worse. Cold and constantly shifting temperatures can cause condensation to form on the walls of a gas tank in the red, and soon water will drip down and into the gas. It will eventually sink to the bottom, since water is heavier than gas, which is bad news -- if water finds its way into the fuel lines, it will freeze up, blocking any flow of gas to the engine and effectively halting your travel plans. Any repairs that have to be made can be costly, too, so despite high gas prices, keeping your tank full will help both your car and your wallet.
Tip 4: Put in the Right Amount of Antifreeze
Antifreeze protects your engine from both freezing in cold weather and heating up on hot days, and it also cuts back on corrosion. It's important to keep equal parts antifreeze and water in your radiator -- a 50:50 ratio is considered the norm and will keep fluids from freezing at temperatures as low as -34 degrees Fahrenheit. Fortunately, you won't have to stand over your engine with a measuring cup -- you can buy pre-mixed bottles of antifreeze and water at gas stations. If you don't pay attention to the amount of antifreeze, the coolant can freeze, and the engine will get extremely hot. Chances are you'll blow a gasket or two, and the cost of replacing them with labor can be expensive.
For the top three of the most important tips for winterizing your vehicle, read the next pages.
Tip 3: Check Your Oil and Oil Viscosity
Oil lubricates the metal surfaces of your engine and stops them from grinding together and causing a lot of damage. The viscosity -- or thickness -- of the oil greatly affects your engine's performance. If the oil is too thick, it will flow too slowly between parts and your engine will get too hot. In the winter time, cold temperatures cause oil to thicken, but you can overcome this problem by filling your engine with an oil of a lower viscosity. Your owner's manual should tell you the ideal type of oil you should use, and it also might specifically suggest a thinner oil type depending on the season. Remember, most technicians recommend that you change your oil every 3,000 miles or once every three months.
Tip 2: Check Your Battery
Car batteries last for about three to five years, so it's best to keep track of how old yours is. If it's time to get a new one, you can replace it in the fall when batteries typically go on sale. Winter months are tough on your engine and cause it to work harder, and this puts more pressure on the battery.
If your battery isn't that old, it's still good to take a look and make sure nothing's wrong. Check the battery cables and clamps for fraying or corrosion. If there's a white, powdery substance around the clamps, that's corrosion from battery acid -- you can clean it off easily with baking soda, water and a toothbrush. Your battery is also filled with fluid, so make sure it has enough inside. Most batteries have caps on top, and you can check the level by removing the caps. If it's low, fill the holes with distilled water, being careful not to fill past the bottom of the cap.
Tip 1: Check Your Tire Pressure and Consider Snow Tires
Wet or icy roads can cause dangerous accidents in the winter, so it's very important to make sure your tires are equipped to handle adverse weather conditions. If you choose to use regular tires on your car, check the air pressure on each tire. Deflated tires close up the tread and significantly decrease traction, increasing the likelihood of sliding on icy patches. Many gas stations have the tools available for you to check tire pressure, and it costs nothing or next to nothing to fill your tires with the right amount of air -- again, the owner's manual should list the suggested pounds per square inch. Here are some other tire tips and suggestions:
- Some people also keep salt in their cars -- if your car is stuck in snow or on ice, sprinkling salt in front of your tires can offer some more traction and get things moving.
- If you ever find yourself skidding on an icy road, don't put on the brakes, even if your instincts tell you to do so. Instead, take your foot off of the accelerator and guide your car to safety by turning the wheel in the opposite direction you're skidding.
- If you live in an area that gets hit particularly hard in the wintertime, purchasing snow or winter tires and replacing regular tires can be helpful, as they offer improved traction, braking and control.
For lots more information on cars, see the next page.
HowStuffWorks talks with some scientists to find out whether to drive around until you find a close parking spot or take the first thing you see.
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More Great Links
- MacDonald, Jay. "Prepping the car for adverse weather." CNNMoney.com. Dec. 13, 2006. http://www.bankrate.com/cnn/news/auto/20061213_winterizing_car_a1.asp
- "Auto maintenance: checking your battery." Auto Repair for Dummies. http://www.dummies.com/WileyCDA/DummiesArticle/Auto-Maintenance-Checking-Your-Car-Battery.id-427.html
- "How to winterize your car." DMV.org. http://www.dmv.org/how-to-guides/winterize-car.php