Winter is one of those things that tends to sneak up on you, and before you know it, you’ve woken up with numerous inches of snow on the ground. Hopefully, if you’ve done this before, your car will already be prepared for the climatic assault, and you won’t have anything to worry about — save for maybe the plow hitting your mailbox for the fifth consecutive year.
But what is really required to make a car appropriately winter-ready? Snow tires, adequate wiper blades, and so on are the obvious essentials. However, there’s a lot more that one can do to ensure that a vehicle is thoroughly prepped for the onslaught. Luckily, the automotive community has folks like Tom and Ray, who are more commonly known by their radio personalities: Click and Clack, the Tappet brothers, the hosts of the ever-popular program Car Talk.
On its website, Car Talk lists out several steps that vehicle owners can take to ensure they don’t become stuck, stranded, or wrapped around a telephone pole in the wintery months. There were several, so we only chose a few steps to highlight here, but you can see the comprehensive list at the Car Talk website.
1. Get the regular service done now if the car needs it
During routine maintenance on a vehicle, a mechanic will check the hoses, belts, water pumps, and spark plug wires, each one of which — if it were to break — could leave you stranded out in an undesirable area. “It’s better than spending the same amount of money after you’ve been sitting in your stalled car for three hours waiting for AAA,” Car Talk says.
2. Make sure your battery and charging system are in good working condition
In addition to the parts mentioned above, the mechanic should also check the battery, charging system, and belts; Car Talk notes that an old, well-worn battery alone can stop working just for those reasons. However, it could also be due to the alternator and the system that charges the battery, as well. Batteries behave differently in the winter for a couple of reasons.
“Two things to remember about batteries;” Car Talk explains. “First, the battery that started your car easily in the summer may not have enough oomph to do it in winter. In winter, the engine is harder to start, because the oil isn’t as ‘fluid’ as it was last July. And secondly, batteries lose power as the temperature drops (you remember your high school chemistry, right?). So not only do you need MORE power to start the engine in winter, you also get LESS power from the same battery.”
3. Keep your gas tank near-full
This isn’t so much a mechanical problem as it is a survivor tactic. Were you to unfortunately find yourself stuck, “the engine will be your only source of heat,” Car Talk cautions. In areas where it may take some time for help to arrive, it’s especially crucial to maintain an adequate level of fuel. “You can run the engine indefinitely at idle to stay warm — or as long as you have gas. No harm will be done to the engine,” according to Car Talk.
4. Make sure your rear-window defroster works
In many states, this is actually a legal issue, Car Talk notes. “The law requires that ALL of your windows be clear before you hit the road. Now, you can always use your old Car Talk T-Shirt on the rear windows to wipe off the condensation — as long as you pull over and do it again every ten minutes. But a working rear defroster is a better solution.”
5. Clean off your car entirely
Aside from the obvious visual advantages that clearing the snow off your car would have, it’s also a safety precaution for other drivers. “Why? Because the rest of the snow will either A) slide off the roof and cover your windshield as you’re slowing down; or B) fly off onto someone else’s windshield and causing him or her to smash into you. That’s not enough of a reason? Fine. Here’s another: C) it’s the law in many states that your vehicle must be clear of snow and ice,” said Car Talk.
6. When driving in the snow, do everything slowly
This one should go without saying, but it’s always worth mentioning, nonetheless. In snow, everything takes longer — accelerating, slowing down, turning, etc. “Accelerate slowly and gently, turn slowly and gently, and brake slowly and gently. To do this, you have to anticipate turns and stops,” Car Talk cautions. “That means what? Going slowly and leaving and leaving plenty of distance between you and other cars. Rapid movements lead to skids and loss of control. Drive as if there were eggs on the bottoms of your feet — step on the gas and the brake pedals so gently that you don’t break the eggshell.”
7. Make sure your windshield washer reservoir is full
Windshield fluid tends to be used liberally during the snowy months — to the tune of around a half-gallon per day, Car Talk estimates. It’s therefore a good idea — and common sense, really — to keep some stored in the trunk, as well. “And make sure you get the good stuff — stay away from the already-half-frozen stuff outside your local gas station! Even though it may say ‘Good to Minus 30,’ some of these cheap fluids freeze around zero degrees!” the program says.
8. Check the cooling system
Finally, ensure that the coolant in your car is adequate for the conditions you’ll be driving in. “For most areas, you’ll need a 50-50 mix of coolant to water,” Car Talk says. “You may think, ‘I’ll be extra good to my car, and give it 100 percent coolant.’” While this may seem somewhat logical, it’s actually not healthy — the half-and-half blend has a lower freezing point, and further, 100 percent coolant is less able to transfer heat away from your engine, and it has been known to cause things such as melted spark plugs or engine failure under the wrong circumstances.