How to protect your car this Winter

For most of us, winter is a fact of life. Whether you love it or hate it, winter is coming. And unless you're wealthy enough to have a second home somewhere sunny, you're going to have to deal with it.

But different areas of the country experience winter in different ways. In southern states, winter is short and relatively mild. Further north, it's a different picture, with long months of gloom and subzero temperatures, not to mention abundant snow and ice. Wherever you live, once the temperature drops and the days shorten, you need to think about your car.

Winter can be tough on cars. Low temperatures can cause certain components of your car to work less effectively. Transitioning from the cold to the heat of a running engine fatigues metal and can reduce its lifespan. Just as it can be harder for people to get out of bed when it's cold and dark outside, cars can have problems getting going on a winter morning too.

Also, you need to consider driving conditions. Winter brings darkness, rain, snow, sleet, and fog. Visibility is generally poorer than it is in the summer. And snow and ice can be a car's worst enemy. Slippery roads lead to more accidents. It's not easy being a car in the winter. But since you can't avoid it, the best thing you can do to help your vehicle survive is to be prepared.

Park Your Car In A Garage

There's no better way to protect your car from the ravages of winter than to park it in a garage. Surrounded by four walls and a roof, your vehicle will be completely protected from the elements. Even an unheated garage keeps snow and ice off your vehicle and can blunt the edge of the deep chill of winter by cutting out the wind. And if you have a heated garage, even better. You can maintain the temperature above what's going on outside and shelter your car from the worst effects of the cold months.

However, garages, especially heated ones, are expensive. If you don't have a garage and instead park in the driveway of your home, the next best thing is to install a portable garage. This temporary structure will keep the snow and rain off your vehicle and can help to prolong its lifespan by protecting it from frost. While it won't protect the car from colder temperatures, it will help to keep off the worst of the weather.

Of course, not everyone has the budget or space for a portable garage. If you have to park on the street, there isn't much you can do to protect your vehicle from the elements. Still, you're not entirely helpless. If possible, park your car facing east to prevent frost from forming on the windshield. You can also keep frost away by using a towel or piece of cardboard on the windshield. Use your windscreen wipers to keep it in place and leave it overnight. That way, frost will form on the cardboard and not on your windshield. You'll save yourself valuable minutes in the morning by not having to scrape your windshield. This will also help in the case of snowfall since you can simply tip the snow off your windshield when you remove the cardboard.

Check Your Battery

Car batteries rely on chemical reactions to provide the power needed to start the engine. Cold temperatures can hinder these chemical reactions. At temperatures around 32°F, a car battery can lose 35% of its power. If your battery wasn't operating at 100% in the first place, this could make the difference between your car starting or not on a cold morning.

Once temperatures begin to drop, get your battery checked by a mechanic. Many auto parts stores can perform the service for free. If your battery is running low on power, get it replaced. It’s a lot cheaper to put in a new battery that it is to end up getting your car towed.

Keep an Eye on Tires

As the only point of contact between your car and the road, tires are essential when it comes to safety. But tires wear out, and they need to be maintained no matter what time of year it is. Winter poses some special challenges for tires, however. For instance, air expands when it's hot and contracts when it's cold. This means your tire pressure will drop in winter. And the colder it gets, the lower it will drop. Keep an eye on your tire pressure and make sure that your tires stay properly inflated to maintain traction.

Depend on where you live, it may be necessary to consider getting special winter tires. Although they are often called snow tires, they are not quite the same thing. Proper winter tires are made from a particular type of rubber that can withstand lower temperatures. Think of what your freezer does to your food. Cold outdoor temperatures have a similar effect on the rubber of a regular tire, making it harder and less elastic. This reduces the tire's grip on the road. Specialized winter tires can resist this effect and stay malleable even when it's freezing outside. As a result, winter tires can improve your braking distance by up to 35% when compared with a regular tire. And on a wet or icy road, this can make all the difference to your safety.

Winter tires are expensive. But remember that it amounts to a second set of tires for your car. Since you only use each set of tires for approximately half the year, the tires will last twice as long. So although winter tires can be costly, it's definitely worth considering if you live in a cold northern climate.

Replace Your Windshield Wipers

Windshield wipers are important at any time of year, but they become especially crucial in the winter. The increased chance of rain and snow makes a good set of wipers vital to your safety. The winter is especially hard on windshield wipers. For that reason, it may be best to replace your wipers at the start of the season just to be sure you're doing all you can to preserve your visibility.

Windshield wipers don't need to be expensive, though you can splash out on some deluxe versions if you like. Most important is that they cover your entire windshield and can stand up to ice, which can often cause the rubber to lose its grip on the glass. It's possible to get specially designed windshield wipers that are made with a more robust frame, which is especially helpful if you live in an area prone to lots of snow and ice.

Don't forget about your washer fluid. Plenty of washer fluids claim to be suitable for all seasons, but if you live in a cold area, winter can prove too much for these products. It's better to use a specialized winter washer fluid that won't freeze inside the pipes no matter how cold it gets. There's nothing worse than trying to clear a buildup of snow and ice on your windshield only to find that nothing happens when you press the washer fluid button.

Inspect Your Headlights

Winter means shorter days and longer nights. In northern areas, the difference in daylight between summer and winter can be dramatic. Plus, even during the day, rain, snow, and fog can all reduce visibility. For this reason, headlights become particularly important during the winter.

Inspect all of your car's lights at the start of winter and make sure they're working correctly. If they don't come on or are too dim or yellow, consider getting them replaced. Although it can be expensive, it's a lot cheaper than getting into an accident because you couldn't see where you were going, or other cars couldn't see you.

One common issue with old cars is their headlights become foggy. A cheap way to fix this is by smearing toothpaste on your headlights casing at night when you park the car. Leave the toothpaste on overnight and then wash it off with warm water in the morning. This helps to clear the stains that build upon the plastic casing of the headlights over time. Remember that this is only a temporary fix. If your lights are old, you may be better off getting them replaced.

Keep Fuel Tank Full

A lot of people think that the gas in a car can't freeze. Those people have clearly never lived in cold climates. The gasoline in a car's fuel tank can, in fact, freeze at temperatures of -40°F or below.

However, the gas in your car doesn't need to freeze to cause problems. Even before that happens, condensation can form in your fuel lines. Since it's mainly water, the water will freeze long before the gas does. But a chunk of ice in the fuel line will stop gas from reaching your engine. In fact, because water expands when frozen, it can even rupture a fuel line and lead to costly repairs.

The best way to minimize this condensation is to keep your fuel tank full. Not only will this cause less water to evaporate, but in very cold climates, it also helps reduce the risk of the fuel itself freezing.

Switch to Winter-grade Oil

Cold temperatures cause liquids to become denser. This is as true for the oil in your car's engine as it is for water. The lubrication oil provides is essential to keep the moving parts of your car's engine moving, but in winter, regular oil can become too viscous and sluggish to do its job properly.

In cold weather, consider switching to thinner oil. The thickness or viscosity of engine oil is denoted by the first number in the oil category. The lower the number, the thinner the oil. For instance, 5W-30 oil is thinner than 10W-30. This makes it better to use during the winter.

Check your Engine Antifreeze (Coolant) Levels

Coolant is vital to the efficient running of your engine. In the summer, it helps your engine to shed heat so that it doesn't burn out. But in winter, the same substance can act as an antifreeze depending upon its components to keep your engine from freezing up. No matter how cold it gets outside, the coolant won't freeze, and it will help to protect your engine from the worst of the low temperatures.

Follow the instructions in your car's owner's manual to learn how to check coolant levels. If you're running a little low, it is usually very easy to top up your coolant and make sure your car keeps running even in the coldest temperatures.

Keep an Emergency Kit

No matter how well you try to prepare yourself and your car for winter, things can still go wrong. And when temperatures are freezing or below, a situation with your vehicle can quickly go from bad to worse. As well as looking after your car, you need to look after yourself. For that reason, it's a good idea to keep an emergency kit in your vehicle at all times.

A good emergency kit should contain a flashlight, blanket, a change of clothes, gloves, bottled water, a bag of sand or kitty litter for traction, an ice scraper, a portable snow shovel, and a first-aid kit. It's also a good idea to carry jumper cables in your car, especially in the winter. Not only can these help you to start your engine if your battery fails, but you can also assist anybody else that is stuck on the road.

While you're at it, make sure that your car's jack is where it should be and functioning correctly. Breakdowns tend to happen at the worst possible time, in darkness and bad weather conditions. You don't want to get caught out in winter weather only to find you don't have the means to change a tire yourself.

Wash Your Car Regularly

Snow and rain are common in the winter months, and so it can seem pointless to wash your car. Many people neglect this aspect of car care during the winter since precipitation is so frequent. But there's more to washing your car than just making sure it looks nice.

Often, road crews use salt to melt snow and ice on the roads. The salt, mixed with water, gets sprayed on the underside of your car as you drive. The salty water quickly leads to oxidation - in other words, rust. Rust on your car eats away at the metal and dramatically shortens the life of your vehicle.

Washing your car regularly in the winter will prevent this buildup of salt. Make sure that any washing you do targets the underside of the car to blast the salt off the suspension, frame, and other metal components. If possible, try to wash your car on a day when the outside temperature is above freezing so that the water won't turn to ice. If that's not possible, use a carwash that will also dry your car before the water can freeze.