Breaking down is never any driver’s idea of fun, and winter weather raises the stakes. Dropping temperatures, early nightfall, and low visibility can make stopping on the side of the road especially dangerous during colder months. While nothing can replace safe driving habits and a well-stocked emergency kit, you can avoid some worst-case winter scenarios by following these easy car maintenance tips.
The Problem: Car Overheating
“Believe it or not, overheating is a concern, even in winter,” says Alex Leanse, of YourMechanic.com. Motor oil runs thicker in cold temperatures, making it harder for it to circulate and keep your car running smoothly—and prevent it from overheating.
Prevent It: A “multiviscosity” motor oil will be better at adapting to all weather conditions. Ask your mechanic or call your car manufacturer’s customer service line to find out if you should do a winter oil change. They may recommend switching to thinner oil that’s rated for colder temperatures.
The Problem: Dead Battery
It’s harder for car batteries to produce a charge in winter–meaning it might not be able to produce enough energy to start your car when you turn the key.
Prevent It: Check your battery’s voltage with a voltmeter or multimeter before it gets too cold. (Or ask your mechanic to take a look when you’re getting your car winterized.) Roughly 12.40–12.75 volts is enough to ensure reliable startups, according to Leanse. If you live in a really chilly place, consider investing in a battery rated for cold temperatures. Look for a high CCA (cold cranking amps) count—it’s a measure of how many amps the battery can generate in low temperatures.
The Problem: Squealing Noise When You Start The Car
You left your vehicle out overnight. Your engine won’t turn over, you hear loud squealing, warning lights come on or steam starts pouring from under the hood shortly after you turn it on. Any one of these things may mean that your radiator may have frozen and cracked, Leanse says, leading to some costly repairs.
Prevent It: Park indoors if you can. This will help prevent fluids in your engine from freezing and expanding. Also be sure to check your car’s coolant concentration before winter—it’s called antifreeze for a reason. Add it to your mechanic’s pre-winter checklist to make sure the proportions are correct and keep it from freezing. A 50/50 mix of antifreeze and water should be sufficient according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The Problem: Bald Or Under-Inflated Tires
“Your tires are your contact with the road,” Leanse says, “So it’s important to keep those maintained for driving in winter, especially when roads are slick and icy.” Treads help channel snow and water away from the contact patch to help your car grip the road, and proper tire pressure helps your vehicle dig into loose surfaces (like a snowy road). Without either, your car may have trouble staying on the road or coming to a stop when you hit the brakes.
Prevent It: Check your tires before winter weather hits, and continue doing so regularly after it gets cold. It’s important that they stay properly inflated, as the air pressure can drop 2 PSI for every 10 degrees the outdoor air temperatures decreases, according to Leanse. He suggests using a gas station air pump to check your tires at every other fill-up during the winter. (The recommended PSI is typically printed on a sticker on the inside of the driver’s-side door.) It’s also crucial to make sure the tread isn’t worn down. To do so, try this easy trick: Take a penny and stick it into the center of the tread with Lincoln’s head pointed in. If you can see his hair, the tread depth is too low and your tires need to be replaced. Spring for some dedicated winter tires if you live in a place with severe weather.
When it comes to winter driving, you can rest easy knowing that GEICO’s Emergency Roadside Service is always on call. And don’t forget: you could save $500 or more on car insurance with a free, fast auto insurance quote from GEICO.
By Nicole Price Fasig