Prepping Your Car for Winter – The Bare Essentials

Prepping your car for winter.

My daughter Jenn has been hounding me (again) to tell her how to prepare her car for the upcoming winter driving season.  And she wants this on CarAndRider.com so her friends can view my advice.  Of course, she wants me to refrain from lecturing her despite she’s been a car owner for more than ten years.

Winter is the harshest environment to operate a vehicle.  Temperatures in Western Canada can easily drop to -32 C.  At that temperature, engine oil is thick (making it harder for the engine to ‘crank’), rubber and vinyl (think of fan belts, hoses for engine coolant and brakes, and tires) can become brittle.  And once the car is started, many of those pieces are required to flex, some at high speed, without cracking or breaking.  Eventually, everything warms up, and then the car is shut down to get cold again.  The car’s components go through severe heating and cooling cycles.  That’s extremely hard on your car, so you need to prepare for winter by giving the car every advantage possible to start and operate under very harsh conditions.

Timing – Ideally, you should be doing this in the Fall before the snow flies.  October (Canadian Thanksgiving) is a good time to do this.  But it’s never too late.

The Bare Essentials – Preparing Your Car for Winter

  1. Oil Change.  Switch to ‘Winter’ oil.  That means changing to a full synthetic oil.  It’s more expensive than conventional oil, but it’s ‘slipperier’, allowing your engine to crank (turn over) faster when it’s brutally cold.  At -32 C, your car needs every advantage it can get, and the faster the engine cranks, the more likely it will start.  Check your owner’s manual for the engine oil viscosity (oil ‘weight’) recommended for very cold temperatures.
  2. Battery load test.  Have your service garage perform a ‘load test’ on your battery.  This requires specialized equipment.  The commercial load tester places a ‘load’ on the battery over a period of time to determine the battery’s strength and endurance.  If your car is more than five or six years old, it is likely time to buy a new battery, even if it starts easily in warm weather.
  3. Coolant test.  Have your car’s coolant (also called radiator fluid or antifreeze) tested.  This is one of the most neglected systems in cars.  It should test for -40 C +/-.  You do not want the engine coolant to freeze, ever.  If it does, it could crack your engine block, ruining the engine.  Have the coolant flushed and replaced if it hasn’t been done in the last three years.  If your car is more than ten years old, replace the thermostat at the same time.  Thermostats are inexpensive, and it’s cheap insurance.
  4. Block heater.  Ask the garage to test the block heater to make sure it’s working correctly.  You can do it yourself.  (With a cold engine, plug in the block heater and listen for ‘clicking’ sounds.  As the block heater warms up, metal in the engine expands, making the clicking sounds. If you don’t hear anything after a couple of minutes, your block heater probably isn’t working.  Get if fixed.
  5. Wiper blades.  Check your windshield wiper blades for tears or fraying.  If they’re more than a couple years old, replace them; they are about to fail.  If you’ve got an SUV, hatchback or wagon, check the rear one too.
  6. Winter windshield washer fluid.  Fill your windshield washer reservoir with winter rated fluid.  I like Rain-X De-icer because it will clear a thin sheet of ice from the windshield.  Not all winter rated washer fluids do that.
  7. Winter tires.  Install your winter tires (mounted on another set of wheels, usually inexpensive steel ones.)  Check the tire pressures (and your spare at the same time.)  Want a top-rated winter tire?  The Michelin X-ice Xi3 was one of the best performing winter tires, according to well-respected U.S.-based tire retailer Tire Rack.

Winter tires are the single biggest contributor to safe motoring in the winter.  If you think a set of four winter tires (the recommended way to go) is too expensive, know that you’re extending the life of your summer tires by not using them in winter.  Better steering, better stopping, and better acceleration – in short, traction, is what you get with winter tires.  You’d never recommend living in our climate without a winter coat.  Winter tires are ESSENTIAL for safe driving in our climate, and they provide peace of mind.  How much is less stress worth to you?  We have enough stress in our lives, don’t we?  Why add to it?

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