October 17, 2011
winterize-car

5 Steps to Prepare Your Vehicle for Winter

The days are getting shorter and cooler, geese are flying, and leaves are crunching underfoot. It’s my favorite time of the year. Fall is wonderful, but that means winter is just around the corner.

Now is the time to get your car ready for winter. Don’t panic, it’s not too hard. Cars today are wonderful machines that, if taken care of, will give years and hundreds of thousands of miles of trouble-free operation. Here are some things to take a look at before winter actually hits.

Check the maintenance schedule in the owner’s manual.

All vehicles require regular maintenance. Most vehicle fluids require replacement at intervals ranging from 3,000-5,000 miles for engine oil to 30,000-60,000 miles for other fluids such as automatic transmission fluid. Fluids in systems such as the brakes, power steering, and automatic transmission are often ignored and can lead to premature wear or system failure if they are ignored for too long.

  • A chart in the owner’s manual will tell you at what mileage the fluids need to be changed.
  • If you are approaching or have exceeded the mileage for a given fluid, get it serviced.

Inspect engine belts and hoses.

Failure of a belt or hose could leave you stranded and cause additional damage to the vehicle. Rubber belts and hoses deteriorate over time and will need periodic replacement.

  • Have a qualified person inspect belts and hoses for you if you don’t know how.

Have the cooling system inspected.

Really? But it’s winter. The cooling system also supplies heat to the interior of the car. Strangely enough, a cooling system that isn’t operating correctly can cause the engine to overheat in the winter and can affect the operation of you heater. Coolant hoses, radiators, and cooling fans need to be in good condition, and the system’s thermostat also needs to be working correctly.

  • The antifreeze/coolant mixture is very important. It should be 50:50. If the mixture isn’t correct, the solution could freeze in the engine, causing extensive damage.
  • Too much antifreeze and not enough water in the mixture can cause overheating because of a decrease in the solution’s ability to transfer heat out of the engine.

I’ve seen cars overheat in the winter because of an incorrect antifreeze mixture freezing in the bottom of the radiator as the car was being driven. In fact, I had a car in college that froze in the heater on a drive between Duluth and Minneapolis, Minn. It was so cold in the car that I was wrapped up in blankets, and the inside of my windshield was icing up. Rather unsafe, I realize, but we do stupid things when we’re young and immortal, which leads me to the next topic …

Check wipers.

We all tend to put off replacing windshield wiper blades; I’m guilty of this as well. Sometimes I think it’s harder to replace the wiper blades than it is to overhaul an engine. But seriously, being able to see out of your windshield is no joke. With all of the crud that gets thrown on to the windshield in the winter, a new set of wiper blades can make all the difference.

A windshield that is extremely pitted or chipped can make even new wiper blades ineffective. Consider having your windshield replaced. Many insurance companies offer free glass replacement as an addition to your policy for very little cost.

Check your windshield washer system and ensure that it is functioning correctly and that the nozzles are aimed so that the washer fluid actually hits the windshield instead of flying over the top of your car. If you have a wiper and washer system on the rear window, check them, too.

  • Use washer fluid in the washer system.
  • Never use water because it could freeze and cause damage.
  • Never use engine antifreeze as it will smear on the windshield and will damage paint.

Check the tires.

Tires are what connect you to the road. They need to have a good amount of tread and be properly inflated to be effective in snowy and icy conditions.

  • Technically, tires should be replaced when tread depth reaches 2/32 of an inch, but for winter driving, you will have more traction in snow and ice with more tread depth.
  • If your tires are approaching the 2/32 limit, consider having them replaced before it snows.

Proper tire inflation pressures can be found in the owner’s manual or on a sticker that is usually on the driver’s door or door jamb.

  • Never inflate tires to the pressure listed on the tire sidewall! This is a theoretical maximum pressure for the maximum load that the tire can carry. If you inflate your tires to this specification, they will be drastically overinflated, which can have a severe effect on vehicle handling and braking, especially in snowy or icy conditions. Some people think that running underinflated tires in snowy conditions will increase traction. With modern radial tires, this really isn’t the case, so just stick to the specifications for tire pressure and you will be fine.
  • If you are running tires that are a different size from what the car came with, the pressure information in the owner’s manual no longer applies. You will need to talk to an expert.

All season tires or snow tires?

Most tires today are “All Season,” which means they will make an effective winter tire. If your tire says “All Season” and/or “M+S” (mud and snow) on the sidewall, then you don’t need to change over to winter tires. Some high performance cars have summer-only tires that will need to be changed to winter or all-season tires.

There are some very effective winter tires that will provide better handling and braking in icy and snowy conditions if you want to go that route. Bridgestone’s Blizzak is a good example of a winter tire, but you will have to pay someone to swap the tires over for you or buy an extra set of wheels to have them mounted on to. Consult a tire expert for more information on specialty winter tires.

While we’re at it, stay away from studded snow tires. You get better results with the winter tires mentioned. Studded tires really don’t increase traction on snowy surfaces. They may help slightly with traction if you’re driving on a skating rink or other clean, pure ice surface, but how often do any of us do that?

Getting your car ready for winter is pretty easy and will ensure that you can get to where you want to go safely and comfortably on those cold and snowy winter days. Take care of your car now, while it’s still warm; you’ll be happy you did once the temperatures head toward zero.

What did I miss? What tips do you have for preparing your car for winter?

About the author:

Reno Toffoli teaches Automotive Technology & Service in the College Now: Career Options program at Front Range's Larimer Campus. Reno earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota before enrolling in and graduating from Front Range's Automotive Technology program.He's partial to classic British sports cars.