It’s an all-too-common scenario during the winter: You walk outside to leave for work on a cold morning and your car won’t start, or your door is frozen shut. When you finally do get it up and running, you hit a patch of invisible black ice and slide into a dangerous skid. These scenarios and plenty of others play out countless times every winter. The good news is, a few simple preventative steps can help ensure that your car will run smoothly in the cold, which will then help you keep your car costs down.
Last updated: Nov. 12, 2019
1. Check (and Charge or Replace if Necessary) Your Battery
Before winter arrives, have your electrical system tested and place a special focus on your battery. If you don’t want to visit a mechanic, use a voltmeter to make sure your battery reaches at least 12.4 volts. If it doesn’t, charge it. If it won’t hold a charge, it’s time to replace the battery.
Why? Batteries Work Harder in Winter
Winter is hard on batteries in two ways. First, it takes more power to start a car when temperatures drop. Second, cold weather degrades a battery’s performance. If your battery dies in warm weather, chances are good it will die in the winter, too.
2. Tighten Battery Connections
A strong, well-maintained battery is probably the most important key to good winter car care. When you’re done testing your battery, make sure that all the connecting cables, fasteners and posts are tight, with none left loose or dangling.
Why? Tight Connections Equal Strong Charges
If your connections are loose and sloppy, your battery won’t charge correctly or fully. This could lead to a poor voltmeter reading, which might compel you to buy a new battery when a simple tune-up and tightening likely would have solved the problem.
3. Clean Your Battery
You should also take a few minutes to clean any corrosion off your battery. A mechanic will do it for you for $20 or $30, but this is definitely a DIYable task. A few strokes with a stiff wire brush treated with a paste made from baking soda and water will leave your battery clean and corrosion-free.
Why? Dirty Batteries Are Unreliable
Batteries that are caked in corrosion and grime are weaker than clean batteries. The outcome of neglect is the same as the outcome of driving into winter with an old battery that doesn’t have enough juice — eventually, you’ll find yourself freezing cold in a car that won’t start.
4. Invest In an Engine Block Heater
There are several different types of engine block heaters and finding out which one is right for your vehicle will take a bit of research. No matter which kind you choose, however, it can be one of the best sub-$100 investments you can make if you live in a region with unforgiving winters.
Why? Block Heaters Are Lifesavers in Cold Climates
Although they’re rare and unnecessary in much of the U.S., engine block heaters are a must for drivers in cold climates. If your winters routinely bring freezing temperatures, an engine block heater can prevent your car from seizing in the coldest weather thanks to a device that warms the engine and its associated fluids.
5. Keep Your Gas Tank Full
On the coldest days and nights, it’s important that your gas tank doesn’t get too low. In fact, you should always keep it at least half full during the coldest spells. If you creep down toward half a tank when it’s especially cold, stop at a gas station and fill it up.
Why? Full Tanks Prevent Freezing
The main reason you want to keep your tank full is that gasoline has a much lower freezing temperature than water. Near-empty tanks can collect condensation, which can freeze inside the gas tank and fuel lines. Ice blocks the lines and prevents fuel from getting to the engine. This also prevents your car from starting, which is why it’s important to drive on a full tank during the coldest months.
6. Fill Up on Antifreeze
Before the big chill sets in, make sure to top off your antifreeze — but use a winter-specific formula. Antifreeze must be mixed with water, usually in an exact 50/50 ratio. Never use water alone except for immediate emergencies. In the winter, you might want to go with 60% antifreeze and 40% water. In the coldest regions of the country, you can even go up to 70/30. Consult your manual first.
Why? Antifreeze Serves 3 Critical Functions
Antifreeze mainly acts as a coolant, but it also prevents engine corrosion and keeps critical systems from freezing. That last part, of course, is especially important in the winter. It works by lowering the freezing temperature of the water inside your vehicle.
7. Don’t Leave Your Windshield Wipers Raised
There’s a common misconception that you should raise your windshield wipers during freezing weather or impending snowstorms. The idea is that if the wipers are touching the windshield, they can freeze to the glass, get buried in snow or otherwise become damaged.
Why? Raising Wipers Does More Harm Than Good
While a buildup of ice and snow on your wipers can degrade the blades and shorten your wipers’ lifespan, leaving them raised does more harm than good. Raising your blades can loosen the spring and cause wipers to “float” when you need them most. More importantly, strong wind can send the wipers snapping back hard enough to crack your windshield in the most extreme cases. Instead, consider placing plastic bags over your wipers and leaving them in the down position.
8. WD-40 Your Locks and Doorjambs
A staple of handyman toolkits for generations, WD-40 is a sprayable water-displacing oil that solves countless DIY problems. Among them is a fairly common wintertime automotive issue — locks and doors that are frozen shut — which can be solved with a few quick sprays to your doorjambs and locks. When you’re done spraying, be sure to wipe away any excess fluid to avoid damaging your car’s paint.
Why? Locks and Jambs Can Freeze in Winter
On the coldest days, you might find that just getting into your car to be a challenge. That’s because water can creep into the crevices and freeze both the locks and the jambs, where the car’s body connects to the door. WD-40’s water-displacing properties solve that problem.
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9. Invest In a Car Cover
If you don’t have a garage, consider springing for a car cover. You can score a number of highly rated, well-reviewed options for inside $25. In the wintertime, this can be a cheap but crucial piece of equipment that goes a long way toward extending your car’s life and value.
Why? It's A Simple Fix to the Unforgiving Elements
An enclosed garage is the safest place for your car in the winter because it protects against freezing rain, sleet, snow and cold, driving wind. All of these elements can damage your paint and put your car through a harmful pattern of thawing and freezing. Snow especially can weigh heavily on your roof. Even if you don’t have a garage, a good car cover offers protection from these problems as well as from UV rays, dust, pollen, bird droppings and everything else the outdoors throws at your car.
10. Wash Your Car More Frequently in the Winter
Washing a car might seem like a summer activity, but it’s actually most important in winter. Once the deep freeze sets in and the snow starts falling, wash your car as often as you can, ideally every other week. Use warm water and soap specifically designed for cars — not dish detergent, which can damage your paint.
Why? Winter Weather Is a Car Killer
Frequent winter washes are important because they maintain your car’s value and prolong its life. Road salt, sand and de-icing chemicals gnaw away at the protective coating that protects your paint, and rust can build up quickly on the vulnerable undercarriage.
11. Use a Winter Coating or Sealant
For extra protection, consider applying a coating or sealant to your car’s exterior. Coatings like the popular DIY ceramic kind can last two or three years and offer the best and longest-lasting protection, but they also require fairly significant prep work. If you’d rather not put in the time, you can opt for an easier-to-use paint sealant, which provides plenty of protection for up to roughly six months — enough to outlast even the harshest winters.
Why? Coatings and Sealants Give You a Break From Washing
The truth is, it can be difficult and impractical to wash your car as often as you’re supposed to in the winter. A good coating, or even a sealant, will buy you peace of mind even if you shirk your washing duties. Both can keep your paint protected from the elements as well as the unforgiving attacks of road salt and de-icing chemicals.
12. Keep Your Tires Properly Inflated
Low temperatures equal low tire pressure. That’s because cold weather makes air molecules contract. In fact, you lose between 1 and 2 pounds of pressure per square inch (PSI) with every 10-degree drop in temperature. A common 20-degree drop in temperature, therefore, could leave your tires short 4 pounds of pressure per square inch.
Why? Underinflated Tires Are Dangerous
It’s important to keep your tires inflated to manufacturer specifications not just in winter, but all year round. Underinflated tires reduce stopping time. A less immediate problem, but also preventable, is the fact that too little air pressure reduces fuel economy and the life of your tires.
13. Invest In Snow Tires
Cars come from the factory with all-weather tires, which can handle most conditions all year round in much of the country. In regions with the most severe winters, however, you’d be wise to invest in a set of winter or snow tires. Don’t drive on them all year, but have a tire shop swap them out at the beginning and end of the winter season.
Why? Winter Tires Were Built For The Cold
Snow and winter tires are made from a more malleable rubber that doesn’t harden when temperatures drop. They also have biting edges and thousands of tiny slits, called siping, to help tires gain traction on ice. And they’re engineered with special tread patterns and deeper tread depths for channeling and repelling snow and slush.
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About the Author
Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street’s investment community in New York City.