Car maintenance 101: Keep your car ready for winter weather

We’ve all seen the signs and heard the radio ads: “Shift into winter!” “Get your car ready for winter!” But what does that really mean? How do you get a car ready for winter? It’s not as if you’re going to run out and buy your pride and joy a big, woolly blanket to keep it warm, or insulated boots to keep the rims toasty on long, cold nights.

So I ask again: how do you get a vehicle prepped for winter? My experience as a technician has shown me that there are four steps to keep your car winter-ready:

1. Change your engine oil. This may seem a tad basic, but it’s important for those cold-start mornings. In chilly weather, engine oil doesn’t flow as easily as it does in warmer months, it becomes more viscous. That’s doubly true if your oil is on the old side: as oil gets used, it gains more viscous qualities and gets saturated with contaminates.

This makes it vital to have your oil changed for the winter season. Modern engines demand more out of their oil with smaller passages, solenoids, and variable valve timing, making oil changes much more important. A great rule of thumb to follow is that if you run conventional oil, you should change it every season. If you prefer semi-synthetic, change it every four months. Full synthetic should be changed twice a year.

2. Keep your battery charged. Isn’t it the worst when you go out to the car first thing on a cold morning to the “wurr-wurr” sound of a weak battery? Don’t blame Jack Frost, though. The truth is that all those hot summer days have weakened your battery. Batteries are often rated in CCA, or Cold Cranking Amps, and as a battery gets weaker, its cold cranking abilities diminish as well. The only way to check the performance of your battery is to have it tested by a credible shop that has a certified tester. If your battery tests weak, it might be time for a service and recharge, or possibly a replacement.

3. Check your coolant level. Coolant doesn’t just keep the engine cool, it also regulates temperatures during the colder months. The fluid in your radiator works in tandem with other components to maintain your vehicle’s operating temperature. It’s at this temperature your engine will run the most efficient. The coolant also heats the cabin through the heater core, which is basically a mini-radiator designed to keep you toasty and warm.

Coolant can fail in many ways, however the most common ways that I have seen are acidity and strength. If you’re the DIY type, you can test your coolant’s strength at home with a hydrometer available at any parts store. A performance of -36C is the ideal mix; anything under -10 is due for a flush. Testing for acidity is a bit trickier and requires a calibrated multimeter. Any coolant that produces more than half a volt is also due for a flush.

4. Check your tires. Tires are big, round, and they can be ever so expensive. They’re also the most important part of your vehicle, since they’re the only thing touching the road. Choosing tires for winter weather really depends on your climate and local laws. The rule of thumb is that when the temperature drops below 7C, the rubber that makes up All Season tires doesn’t become pliable enough to grip securely on the cold pavement. Tires that are rated for winter are specifically designed to handle the colder weather and have tread engineered to grip on snow and ice. Want to know if your tires are winter rated? Check your sidewall for a three pointed mountain with a snow flake in the middle.

So there you have it. Getting your car ready for winter has nothing to do with big fuzzy blankets or mittens to cover your side-view mirrors. It’s as easy as having your oil changed, your coolant and battery checked, and ensuring your tires can handle the colder climate. Most dealerships and local shops provide winter maintenance service packages that cover these four key elements. Try to stay warm, drive safely, and enjoy the open road.

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