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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Preparing Your Vehicle For Winter Weather

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The cool, crisp, colorful days of autumn will soon give way to the bitter cold, dark days of winter and that means it is time to prepare your car for winter weather. With the exception of Hawaii, no matter where you live in the nation, you can be subjected to freezing weather (Miami has seen snow flurries). Those who live where snow and ice are common know to prepare but those who live in the Sunbelt should take time to prepare too. Here are some tips for getting your car ready to face the cold weather ahead.

Under the hood

It is probably best to have a trusted mechanic change your oil and winterize your engine but, if you are handy with tools, you can do these checks yourself. Make sure you check the owner's manual for the recommended fluids and parts.

Checking the engine

  • Belts - Check the belts for wear and flexibility. In extreme cold your belts can become brittle and break so now is the best time to change out those old worn belts.
  • Wiring – Check and replace any wires that may be worn or show exposed wires.
  • Plugs – If it has been a while, you should replace the spark plugs.
  • Coolant – Have your mechanic check the radiator for the proper mix of water and coolant. If you are doing the checks yourself, you can purchase a low cost coolant tester at an auto parts store. If the fluid needs to be replaced, make sure you use the proper type of fluid for your engine. Coolants are manufactured with corrosion inhibitors made specifically for the engine's materials (aluminum, steel, etc.).
  • Oil – Have your oil changed. Your vehicle manufacturer may recommend a different engine oil weight for cold weather conditions.
  • Washer fluid – Fill your washer fluid reservoir with anti-freeze washer fluid. Keep extra fluid on hand because you will need it often as dirty slush, cinders, and salt are sprayed over your windshield when following other vehicles.
  • Battery – Clean the battery and wire terminals. Ensure your battery electrolyte is topped off with distilled water. If you are doing the work yourself, make sure you wear gloves and take great care when dealing with caustic battery acids.


  • Snow Tires – Snow tires are specifically made for driving in snow. The rubber is softer to be less brittle and the tread is designed for a better grip in snow and ice. If you live in the northern part of the nation where snow and ice are a constant, you should swap out your normal tires with snow tires.
  • All Weather Tires - If you live in the Sunbelt or the lower half of the nation, you can probably get by with all weather tires but remember that all weather means hot roads or rain, not snow. The rubber is harder and will be more brittle in freezing conditions and they aren’t as effective at gripping the surface in snow or ice.
  • Chains – If you live in that portion of the nation that only gets one or two snow falls a year, you will probably want to consider purchasing a set of tire chains and keep them available in the trunk. Practice installing them before the weather turns bad.


  • Defroster – Check your defroster now before it is too late. If it doesn’t work, get it repaired. Defrosters are an important tool in the winter.
  • Wiper blades – Swap out your blades with heavier snow blades.
  • Ice scraper – Keep a good, strong, ice scraper handy. Credit cards aren’t very effective on icy windows.
  • Snow brush – A combination snow brush/ice scraper is a better tool to keep where snow is common.

Block heaters – If you live in the frozen north, you may want to consider getting an electric engine block heater to keep your engine warm through the night.

Emergency kits

  • Lock defroster – Lock deicing fluid can be purchased in cans small enough to keep in your coat pocket. Remember to keep it in your coat pocket or in the house, not in the car.
  • Sand/kitty litter – Keep a bag of sand or kitty litter in the trunk. You can use it to help your tires grip if you are stuck in ice or snow. It also provides a little extra weight in the rear of the car to help give you traction.
  • Belts – Keep a replacement fan belt in your trunk just in case.
  • Blankets – If you live where it snows often and deep, you could find yourself stuck on the road. Keep some blankets handy just in case.
  • Food – Keep some energy bars, in case you get stuck in the snow. You will need calories to help you keep warm.
  • Snow shovel – If there is room in your trunk, keep a small snow shovel to dig out of snow covered parking lots.

If you are stuck in the snow

If the roads close due to blizzard conditions, you may find yourself stuck on the highway. When traveling in the winter, you should always try to keep the gas tank full just in case. Always let someone know where you are going, your route, and when you plan to arrive.

If you are on a heavily traveled highway, the authorities will probably already be working to open the road or, if they can't, to evacuate motorists. If you are in the country and find yourself stuck and alone, call 911 for help.

While waiting, don't keep the engine running; you could quickly run out of gas. Break out your emergency blankets and only run the engine long enough to heat the car. When running the engine, beware of carbon monoxide poisoning. Make sure the exhaust pipe is clear and crack a window on the downwind side to prevent carbon monoxide from accumulating in the passenger compartment. Eat your energy bars to provide warming calories.

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