If you live in places like say, California, winter driving can be as easy as a Santa Monica breeze. For the rest of us, it pays to be prepared for roads covered in ice, snow, and sleet. So here's an easy winter car maintenance checklist to help protect your vehicle from the harsh weather ahead.
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1. Protect your exterior
Take the time now to scrub away last season's buildup from your vehicle's exterior. Then apply a quality car wax to protect against the impending barrage of snow and road salt. Need help getting started? Here's how to wash and wax like a pro and winterize your vehicle's exterior.
2. Change your oil
Some of us don’t think about oil when it comes to winter vehicle maintenance. But this can be a good time to switch from conventional to synthetic if you haven't already (and if it's appropriate for your car). Cold weather starts can be easier on your engine with a full-synthetic oil. Synthetic flows freer at low temperatures and doesn’t require any time to warm up, providing crucial and immediate protection to the engine’s moving parts. Not making the switch? Try a synthetic blend. Synthetic blends consist of synthetic oil coupled with naturally occurring conventional oil. Check with your vehicle manufacturer or trusted mechanic for specific recommendations on which oil is right for your vehicle. For more in-depth information on this topic, read up on the debate between synthetic and conventional oil.
3. Maintain your battery
Summer’s heat takes a toll on batteries. That weakness is bound to show up on the first really cold morning, when your car won’t start because of a dead battery. Really, it's why batteries tend to fail in winter. So test your battery and charging system, and replace the battery if it’s weak. A fresh battery is your best defense against cold weather, but it isn't a guarantee. If you live in an especially cold climate or use your vehicle infrequently, you may want to keep your battery attached to a maintainer or trickle charger. That's because your battery is working harder in cold weather and it will gradually lose power over time if it isn't in use. You can also disconnect the battery from the vehicle to prevent power draws.
4. Ensure your visibility
Being able to see where you’re going is always a top priority, but in winter it becomes especially important. Your first stop is to make sure all of your lights are working. If your headlights or tail lights are dim or yellow, replace the bulbs and clean your lenses. We also recommend that you replace windshield wipers with winter blades in climates where snow and ice can be expected, and fill the windshield washer tank with a deicing fluid. It'll help you out on those cold mornings.
5. Inspect your tires
Traction is key here. Take a look at your tires. If the treads don’t have sufficient depth, get a new set. You’ll need the best traction possible for dealing with treacherous roadway conditions. Depending on where you live, you may want to invest in snow tires. Not sure which tire type is best for you? Read about your tire options. Temperatures aren’t the only thing going down in winter. For every 10-degree drop in air pressure, it’s estimated that tire pressure decreases by one pound. Under inflated tires wear faster, hurt fuel economy, and can reduce handling and traction. So keep your tires at the correct inflation.
6. Check your antifreeze
The name says it all. Antifreeze is one of the most important winter chemicals, because the liquid in an engine’s cooling system is composed of equal parts water and antifreeze. Depending on the brand, either ethylene glycol or propylene glycol in the antifreeze prevents that water from freezing, expanding, and causing damage to the engine. Use an antifreeze tester or take the vehicle to your mechanic to measure the antifreeze’s strength. This test indicates the lowest ambient temperature to which the engine is protected from freezing. Also check the coolant reservoir level to make sure it’s filled to the proper level. Top off your antifreeze or flush the radiator if it's time to replace it.
7. Clean your fuel injector
Cold temps can cause performance issues related to a vehicle’s fuel system. Using a fuel injector cleaner prevents some problems from cropping up. Add it to the gas tank during a routine fill up, to clean the injectors, which can help restore lost power and eliminate rough idling and hard starts. Water that may be present in the fuel system can also become a problem in the winter when temperatures drop low enough for it to freeze. A good way to avoid fuel-line and system freeze up is by choosing a fuel-injector cleaner such as HEET. It's designed to be a fuel-system antifreeze and remove water from the fuel system.
8. Do your diesel diligence
If you have a diesel vehicle, remember that diesel fuel lines tend to “gel” up in the winter time. Use a product like Diesel 911 to avoid this common problem. Also keep an eye on your diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) levels. On many passenger and commercial diesel vehicles, a dedicated tank contains DEF which is automatically metered and sprayed into the emissions system. Many vehicles have built in warnings and alerts to prevent DEF levels from being exhausted. They'll also perform at significantly restricted levels, or not at all, if DEF runs out.
9. Grab your de-icing chemicals
This may be one of our favorite winter car maintenance tips, because it's inexpensive, requires zero mechanical experience, and prevents headaches. After all, you can’t drive your vehicle in the winter if you can’t unlock the doors or see out the window. That's why lock deicers and windshield deicing fluid are must-have winter chemicals. Lock de-icer thaws and lubricates door locks, as well as other types of locks, helping prevent damage. We've already discussed windshield de-icers above, which can be added to the windshield washer fluid tank. These products work together to prevent hassles and frozen fingers.
10. Inspect your radiator cap and thermostat
While it’s a simple and inexpensive part, the radiator cap plays a critically important role in your heating and cooling system. Your radiator cap keeps the antifreeze in your vehicle where it should be. A leaking radiator cap can cause the engine to overheat and allow antifreeze to leak, neither of which are good scenarios for winter-weather driving. Take a close look around the radiator cap for signs of leaking fluid. To be on the safe side, if the vehicle radiator cap is several years old, replace it with a new one. The five bucks you invest is well worth the peace of mind and performance you get in return.
Another inexpensive, yet critically important component of your vehicle heating and cooling system is the thermostat. If it’s not functioning properly, you might find yourself without heat. That’s because thermostats can fail, particularly if the coolant hasn’t been changed regularly and corrosion has appeared. Change the thermostat, and improve your odds of having a warm interior all winter long.
Do you have winter prep and maintenance tips you'd like to share? Leave a comment.