The last thing any of us need is to have the car break down in harsh winter weather. Spending some time winterizing your car could help prevent a breakdown or accident and save on repair costs and gas in the bargain. Here are 12 quick and easy fall and winter maintenance tips. Some things you can do yourself, and others require a mechanic. All will save you money down the road:
Tune-up: If you’re due for a tune-up, do it now. Cold weather magnifies existing problems such as pings, hard starts, sluggish performance and rough idling. Check your owner’s manual for the tune-up schedule and follow it.
Change the fluids: Six different fluids should be changed – brake system fluid, coolant, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, washer fluid, and suspension differential fluid. You don’t have to know what they do – you just need to know that they require changing. Sediment and other impurities can find their way into brake fluid, so a routine change is a smart idea. Some manufacturers don’t suggest a transmission fluid change until the car has logged 100,000 miles. But ask your mechanic if a change might be a good idea considering the age and wear of your car. Use cold weather washer fluid in the winter, and keep the reservoir full. Keep a bottle in the trunk – it will come in handy when grimy snow or road salt smears your windshield. As a general rule of thumb, this should be done every two years, advises the nonprofit Car Care Council.
Oil Changes. Okay, it’s another fluid. But it deserves its own category. Regular oil changes prevent overheating and build up of grime. Dirty oil is tough on an engine. Changing the oil also helps with fuel efficiency and reduces the possibility of engine failure. And don’t think you can ignore oil changes if you only drive in town. Those starts and stops can be tougher on the engine than highway road trips. And oil gets thick and lazy in winter temperatures. Here is an electric blanket for your car’s oil system.
Filters: Be diligent about changing the oil filter at recommended intervals. Consider changing to “winter weight” oil if you live in a cold climate. Have your technician check the fuel, air and transmission filters at the same time.
Brakes: This is still your car’s most important safety system (after you, the driver). Along with your brake fluid, get your brakes checked. Replace brake pads if necessary, so they’ll be able to stop on that proverbial dime on slippery winter roads. Tell your mechanic to check the emergency brake as well – even if your brake pads are good, the cables or mechanical elements can seize or break, especially if they are unused.
Battery: Cold weather is hard on batteries. Have the battery and charging system checked for optimum performance, especially important now that so many computerized safety systems run off battery power. Jumping a car with a traditional set of jumper cables can cause problems with computerized systems, so avoid more trouble by checking the health of the battery. Check for residue on the battery posts and use a wire brush to remove it. Wipe down the battery case to get rid of grease and grime. Use a tester to determine if you have a weak battery. If you aren’t comfortable doing this, go to an auto retailer like AutoZone or O’Reilly Auto Parts. They will test your battery for free.
Heater and defroster: Check now, before you need them, that they are working properly. Ditto the heated seats, if you are lucky enough to have them. If you don’t check out this 12-volt travel throw that plugs into the cigarette lighter.
Wipers: As a general rule, wiper blades should be replaced every six months. If yours have been leaving patches on your windshield, replace them now before the cold weather stiffens the rubber even more. If you are in a climate where you use snow tires, consider using winter wiper blades. It’s a good idea, as well, to check the rubber seals around doors and windows. If necessary, use a silicone treatment specially made for vehicles to reinvigorate them.
Lights: Check that exterior and interior lights and headlights work and are properly aimed. If headlights seem to be less powerful than they used to be, clean them. Use only a special cleaner that won’t scratch the finish, such as the 3M Headlight Restoration Kit.
Tires: Fall is a good time to rotate tires, for more even wear and a more comfortable ride. Winter tires offer more traction and will kick snow away from the track. In winter, tire pressure should be checked weekly. Always check tire pressure in the driveway, since driving as little as a mile to the supermarket can affect the reading. And don’t forget to test the spare, too, especially if you’ve been lucky and haven’t needed it for a while.
Exhaust system: Check for carbon monoxide leaks, which can be especially dangerous during cold weather driving when windows are closed. A detector made for vehicles will alert you to problems.
Gas: Keep the gas tank at least half full at all times to reduce the chance of moisture forming in the gas lines and possibly freezing.
Two additional tips: Be sure your collision insurance is up-to-date, just in case. And, keep an emergency kit with an ice scraper and snow brush, jumper cables or a jump starter that works on a variety of devices. Many drivers have been stranded for a few hours in a vehicle that slid off the icy roads into a secluded area. Other items to carry are a flashlight, flares, blanket, extra clothes, candles/matches, bottled water, dry food snacks and medications. A friend of mine in Jackson Hole won’t even drive the few miles from home to the supermarket in winter without an emergency kit, gloves, hat, and a fully-charged cell phone.