Mechanical failure – an inconvenience anytime it occurs – can be deadly in the winter. Preventive maintenance is a must. Some of the following tips can be performed by any do-it-yourselfer; others require the skills of a professional auto technician.
- Oil – Change your oil and oil filter at the intervals recommended by your car’s manufacturer. Many newer vehicles have in-car oil life monitoring systems that alert the driver when an oil change is due. If you use your vehicle for frequent short trips, heavy hauling or trailer towing, more frequent oil changes will be called for.
- Engine Performance – Replace other filters (air, fuel, cabin PCV, etc.) as recommended – more frequently in dusty conditions. Get engine drivability problems (hard starts, rough idling, stalling, diminished power, etc.) corrected as soon as possible at a reputable repair shop. Cold weather makes existing problems worse. Replace dirty filters-air, fuel, etc.
- Cooling System – The most common cause of summer breakdowns is overheating. The cooling system should be flushed and refilled with factory approved coolant at the interval specified by the vehicle manufacturer (a 50/50 mix of coolant and water is usually recommended). The coolant level, condition, and antifreeze concentration should be checked at every oil change. Remember – never remove the radiator cap until the engine has cooled! Also, don’t forget to check the condition of accessory drive belts and coolant hoses/clamps – or have a professional do it.
- Windshield Wipers – A dirty windshield causes eye fatigue and can pose a safety hazard. Replace worn wiper blades and make sure you have plenty of windshield washer solvent on hand. Washer fluid formulated for winter use has special anti-freeze properties. If your climate is harsh, purchase beam-type or rubber-clad wiper blades that help prevent ice build-up. And, don’t forget to carry an ice-scraper and snow brush.
- Heater/Defroster – The heater and defroster must be in good working condition for passenger comfort and driver visibility. Newer models have a cabin air filter that should be checked and replaced as needed. Check your owner’s manual for the location and replacement interval.
- Battery – Batteries typically last three to five years, and winter time failures are common due to increase cold-starting electrical loads. The best way to identify a weak battery is with professional test equipment. Routine care can help make your battery last longer. Clean corrosion from posts and cable connections; wipe away dirt and oil deposits on the battery, and make sure all connections and hold down hardware are secure. If the battery caps are removable, check the fluid level monthly. Wear eye protection and rubber gloves when working with batteries, and avoid contact with corrosive deposits and battery acid.
- Lights – Inspect all lights and replace any burned out bulbs. Periodically clean dirt and insects from all lenses. To prevent scratching, never use a dry rag. Badly weathered plastic headlight lenses can be restored by professional services or using do-it-yourself kits available at auto parts stores.
- Exhaust System – Engine exhaust contains deadly carbon monoxide gas that should not be allowed to enter the passenger compartment. Have your vehicle’s exhaust system examined for leaks, and the trunk and floorboards inspected for small holes.
- Tires – Have your tires rotated every 5,000 to 7,500 miles. Check the tire pressure once a month when the tires are cold. Don’t forget to check your spare as well, and make sure the jack is in good condition. Examine tires for tread depth, uneven wear, and cupping; check the sidewalls for cuts and nicks. Uneven tread wear or a car that pulls to one side could indicate the need for a wheel alignment. Tires with minimal tread depth perform very poorly on snow and ice. If you live in a harsh winter environment consider a set of dedicated snow tires for maximum traction and safety.
- Carry emergency gear: gloves, boots, blankets, flares, a small shovel, sand or kitty litter, tire chains, and a flashlight. Put a few “high-energy” snacks in your glove box.
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