Winterize Your Car — Now
Don't let the frigid months get the best of you. Here are the five ways to prep your car for snow and ice.
Old Man Winter hates your car. He's out to freeze its battery solid. He's going to try to steal its traction with ice and snow. He'll dim its lights, streak its windshield and lure it toward a snow-filled ditch whenever possible. So be prepared: It's time to winterize.
If cold and snow come with your climate, investing a little time and money now pays big dividends down the road. Checking five key items on your car, truck or sport-utility vehicle will help make it a more reliable and safer travel partner from now until those first warm days of spring.
Check Your Car's Battery
There's no more depressing sound on a frigid morning than the "click, click, click" of a starter that's not getting enough juice to turn over your car's engine. As the temperature drops, a battery naturally loses power, which means that if your vehicle battery is marginal now, it might be dead when the thermometer dips close to zero. Steve Marsh, ASE master technician and owner of High Country Automotive Repair in Frisco, Colo., an award-winning shop in Rocky Mountain ski country, recommends a preseason stress test for any battery that's more than four years old.
"Ask the shop to give the battery a load test," Marsh says. "This simulates cranking the starter for 15 seconds and removes amps from the battery. If the battery drops below 9.5 volts it should be replaced, because under extreme conditions it may not be able to start the car."
Marsh adds that to get peak battery performance, now is a great time to make sure your battery terminals are clean and the cable connections are tight.
Change Your Tires
Tire performance is critical when traction is at a premium. For optimal winter grip, consider replacing all-season tires with a set of winter-rated tires. Identified by a mountain-peak-and-snowflake symbol on the sidewall, they have a tread pattern and compound designed to excel on ice and snow and to stay elastic in extremely cold temperatures. In severe cold the tread compound of all-season tires becomes hard and offers reduced traction — even on dry pavement.
"In areas with significant snowfall, all-season tires may give you adequate mobility, but they will not let you drive with confidence," says Kurt Berger, manager of consumer product engineering at tire manufacturer Bridgestone Americas. "While there are many variables to consider, in general, a winter tire will offer 30 percent more traction than an all-season tire, which enhances stopping, starting and handling dramatically."
Buying an extra set of winter tires — and you need four of them, not just two for the drive wheels — might seem extravagant, but Berger points out that you won't be wearing out your all-season tires if they are off the vehicle in the winter, and adds that winter tires are designed to last through three average winter driving seasons. Consider the cost of repairing damaged bodywork, your safety and the safety of other drivers around you, and winter tires start to look like a sound investment. But at the very least, make sure you're driving on all-season tires with decent tread depth, which can be measured at a tire shop.
During the transition from fall to winter, keep an eye on tire air pressure. As the weather cools, air pressure drops by 1 pound per square inch for every 10 degrees Fahrenheit, Berger says. You want to keep your tires filled up to specification per your owner's manual.
Replace Your Wipers
If you live in a cold northern climate, you might consider converting to winter wiper blades, which have a wiping-edge compound that stays flexible in the cold and a rubber boot that covers the steel frame so that accumulating snow and ice do not keep it from flexing and conforming to curved shape of the windshield. However, on some vehicles winter blades may occasionally lift away from the windshield at speed and in some wind conditions. But they never freeze up. This is an easy winter upgrade you can install yourself without tools. Always carry a jug of washer fluid in the car to top off an empty reservoir.