Winterizing Your Car - What You Need to Know

A little over a generation ago, winterizing our cars in the northern U.S. was necessary in order to keep them running reliably during cold weather months. Today’s cars, for the most part, don’t need the same seasonal routines. But there are still a few necessary things we should all do before the snows start flying to ensure we have vehicles that will run well throughout the winter. Many of the tasks on our list are the “do it yourself” type, but a few might be best left for your trusted mechanic.

  • Check your battery. Cold weather is tough on batteries, especially those three years old or older. The chemical reactions which “fire” your battery to start on cold mornings dilute. At 5 degrees F, a fully charged lead-acid battery has 50 percent of its “cold cranking amp” (starting) capacity. And in cold weather, our engines need more current from the battery to start. So with less power output and more needed amperage, if the battery is older, the more we find they need a jump – or worse. So now’s the time to visit your mechanic and have a battery load test performed to see if it needs replacing. Even if it doesn’t, it’s quite likely your connections can use a cleaning to get rid of normal summer corrosion, which can also make your car hard to start on winter mornings. He’ll also fill your battery with distilled water if it needs it.
  • Change your wiper blades and refill your wiper fluid. You know that the build-up of winter precip and salt on your windshield greatly reduces visibility. Working windshield wipers and a topped-off wiper fluid container with a lower freezing temperature will take care of that. Most wiper blades are good for only one year up here. If they look frayed or worn, it’s time to replace them with blades designed for extreme winter weather.
  • Check your tire pressure. If you don’t replace your regular tires with snow tires, you need to keep them properly inflated during the winter. Cold weather lowers tire air pressure. Generally, for every 10-degree drop in temperature, your tire’s air pressure drops about 1-per-square-inch (psi). Properly inflated tires ensure the best possible traction in New York’s wintry conditions.
  • Consider getting snow tires. Many of us swap our regular all-season tires for snow tires in winter. If you do a lot of driving, especially in upstate rural areas, you might consider getting them. Snow tires are made of a softer rubber than all-season tires, so they retain greater flexibility when temperatures get down to zero. Their tread patterns are specifically designed to grip snowy, icy conditions. But don’t think your snow tires will automatically make you a better winter driver, even though traction generally improves on icy and snowy roads for those who drive safely to begin with.
  • Check your four-wheel drive. It generally offers better traction in snow and ice IF working properly. Have your 4WD checked by a mechanic now to ensure the system engages smoothly and that the transmission and gear fluids are at proper levels. Also, if you haven’t used your vehicle’s 4WD in a while, it’s a good time to review how to operate it.
  • Check your anti-freeze mixture. In northern states, the optimum mixture of anti-freeze and water in your radiator should be about 50/50 to prevent the mix in your radiator and overflow container from freezing. To check your radiator’s fluid composition, pick up an inexpensive anti-freeze tester at your local auto parts store.
  • Stock your car with emergency winter supplies. You never know when you’ll get stranded on the side of a country road or highway for an extended period of time. So pack your car with emergency supplies, which include:
  1. Fully charged cell phone and portable charger
  2. Jumper cables
  3. Flashlight (with replacement batteries)
  4. Roadside flares/reflective triangle
  5. MREs – and/or granola/power bars, packaged dried fruit, etc
  6. Warm blankets
  7. Candles, a disposable lighter, and an empty tin can to warm cold hands inside a freezing car
  8. Ice scraper
  9. First aid kit
  10. Tow strap or chain
  11. Folding shovel.
  • Change the oil and adjust the viscosity. Cold weather reduces motor oil’s effectiveness. The colder the outdoor temperature, the thicker your oil becomes, and the more difficult it circulates through your engine than a thinner oil. So, your engine doesn’t get the lubrication it needs during start-up (or if it does, those critical early seconds can damage your engine).

To prevent this cold weather headache, change your oil to one that is thinner to begin with. Check the owner’s manual for your car to find out its recommended winter oil “weight.” Or when you take your car in for that battery check, ask your mechanic to change your oil with the proper “winter viscosity” (10W/40, or 50, or higher – depending on your engine and the age of your vehicle).

  • Check belts and hoses. Cold temps can further weaken belts and hoses that are already stretched a bit from hot summer driving. Ask your mechanic to check for signs of wear and tear and have them replaced if needed. If a belt snaps while you’re driving, you’re stuck until a tow truck comes. And if it’s during a blizzard when tow trucks are busy, it could be a long, cold wait until one shows up. Good thing you stocked up with winter supplies, eh?