One of the joys of living in Nebraska is that weather is so unpredictable. I mean 72 and sunny every day in San Diego has to just be boring. Where’s the excitement? Where’s the risk? But winter is on its way and that means it’s time to prepare your vehicle.
Winter driving presents a number of challenges to you and your car. Cold weather can be hard on your car and winter weather can test your abilities as a driver.
It pays to be prepared. Here are our tips to get ready for snow and sleet-covered roads, and freezing temperatures. We hope you find them useful.
- If your car needs regular service, get it done now.
Breaking down is never convenient, but it’s worse in the winter than any other time of year. Since bad hoses, belts, water pumps and spark plug wires can leave you stranded, it’s better to take care of them before cold weather really hits. It’s a far better option than spending the same amount of money after you’ve been sitting in your car waiting for roadside assistance.
Here’s one service item that’s often forgotten: tire pressure. Ask your mechanic to check it, or do it as soon as winter arrives. Why? Because tire pressure drops by about one pound for every 10 degrees the temperature drops. So, when it’s 20 degrees and the last time you checked your tire pressure was back during that heat wave in July, your tires will be dangerously low and will jeopardize your car’s handling.
Many newer vehicles have tire pressure monitors, which alert you to dangerous changes in tire pressure. As of 2008, tire pressure monitors are required on all new vehicles. But older cars don’t have them, and the pressure needs to be checked manually.
- Make sure your battery and charging system are up to snuff.
Your mechanic should check the battery, charging system, and belts. Your battery can leave you stranded simply because it’s old and lousy. Or it could leave you stranded because your charging system isn’t working well, and the battery isn’t getting charged properly. It’s a good idea to have a trusted technician test the battery and charging system.
If you find that you need a new battery, get the biggest, meanest, ugliest battery that will fit in your car. Two things to remember about batteries: 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.
If you’re in need of a new battery, check out Consumer Reports. When they rate batteries, they test above and beyond industry standards, so take a look at their ratings.
- Check the cooling system.
Make certain the antifreeze will protect your car at the winter temperatures we experience in Nebraska. Around here that means a 50-50 mix of coolant to water, which is good to -34 degrees. If you’re taking a winter trip someplace insanely cold like Northern Minnesota, you can up the ratio to 70 percent coolant and 30 percent water, but by no means use more than 70 percent anti-freeze.
But that’s still only half the story. The other primary function of antifreeze is to keep your cooling system from rusting. The rust inhibitors in antifreeze break down over time and need to be renewed. So, at a minimum, change your engine’s coolant at the interval recommended by your manufacturer. Besides, draining out the coolant and refilling the system also removes dirt and rust particles that can clog up the cooling system and cause problems, regardless of the season.
- Make sure your windshield wipers are in good shape.
You should replace your windshield wipers at minimum once a year. At inMOTION we recommend changing them every 6 months. It’s a simple and inexpensive way to ensure that you have good visibility year-round.
When using your wipers in the winter, remember to turn them off BEFORE shutting off the engine. Why? If your blades freeze to the windshield, when you go to start your car, the wiper motor may burn out trying to get them back to the “rest” position.
- Keep your gas tank close to full.
If you do get stuck or stranded in the winter, you’ll want to be able to keep the heater running. 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.
If you have an older vehicle, we suggest you crack open the window a bit if you are going to be idling the engine. Older cars are more likely to suffer from exhaust leaks and rust holes. If you’re sitting for a long time while carbon monoxide is slowly leaking into the passenger compartment and if you are pulled over and stopped in the midst of a humungous snowstorm, be sure to get out periodically and remove snow from behind the tailpipe to keep it unobstructed.
- Make sure your windshield washer reservoir is full.
On a snowy or messy day, you can easily go through half a gallon or more of windshield washer fluid trying to keep your windshield clear. For that reason, it’s also a good idea to keep some extra fluid in the trunk in case you run out.
- Know your car.
Every car has different handling characteristics. You should know what both you and your vehicle are capable of in the snow. (Hint: It can’t do any of the things it was doing on the TV commercial that made you buy it.) It’s not a bad idea to do a little driving in an empty parking lot on a snowy day, just so you know what to expect from your car when you drive on snowy roads.
- The single biggest safety feature you can buy for the winter.
Nothing will make a bigger difference to your ability to drive safely in the winter than good winter tires, not AWD, not a giant 4×4. AWD with all season tires will not be as effective as 2WD with winter tires when bad weather hits. Even if you have AWD, winter tires not only help get you started, they also increase your traction when you’re braking and turning. By the way, lots of tire shops will offer to store your regular tires over the winter and then store your winter tires in the summer.
- Make sure you have some basic supplies in your car in case you do get stuck.
Invest in a substantial snowbrush and an ice scraper. It’s good to have a shovel and a bag of sand to help with traction, and the aforementioned extra windshield washer fluid. A blanket is a good idea—just in case. If you have any winter clothes you don’t wear anymore, especially an old pair of boots, throw them in the trunk, too.
- Clean off your car—entirely!
Once snow or ice does arrive, take some extra time to make sure your car is clean and your visibility is good.
Clear off the entire car, not just a little peephole in the windshield. You need just as much, if not more, visibility in poor conditions because you have to keep your eyes peeled for pedestrians, and every other knucklehead on the road. Make sure every glass surface is clear and transparent by using a snowbrush and/or ice scraper. Your side-view mirrors, and all lights should be brushed and cleared as well.
Now, if you haven’t been smart enough to do so already, clean the snow off the rest of the car. 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 causing him or her to smash into you.
- Clean your headlights. Even if you think they don’t need it.
If your headlights are covered with snow and ice, your visibility will be greatly reduced and other drivers are going to have a hard time seeing you. Salt, sand and other wintry crud can dramatically impair the effectiveness of your car’s headlights, even long after the last snowstorm. Whether you’re planning on driving at night or not, take a moment before every winter trip to clean off your headlights.
- When driving in the snow, go slow.
Even with good coolant, snow tires, stability control, all-wheel drive, and the bag of Doritos in the trunk, keep in mind that driving in snow, sleet, and ice is very treacherous. And even if you maintain control of your car, not everyone else will. So don’t ever get lulled into a false sense of security. Do everything slowly and gently. Remember, in the snow, the tires are always just barely grabbing the road. Accelerate slowly and gently, turn slowly and gently, and brake slowly and gently. To do this, you have to anticipate turns and stops. Go slowly and leave plenty of distance between yourself and other vehicles. Rapid movements lead to skids and loss of control.