By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Winter weather will be here soon. Is your car ready?
If the ones on the car right now are more than about six months old, you probably need a new set — or are close to needing them.
Replace with at least factory-equivalent blades (this is not the time to economize) and consider upgrading to “winter” blades, which are more effective at keeping your windshield clear of slushy snow, ice and road salt. Top off your windshield wiper reservoir with “winter mix” fluid; it is formulated to be more effective than standard washer fluid at clearing away the road salt-laden winter mush that constantly splashes onto your windshield.
Replacing windshield blades is generally a very easy, Do-it-Yourself job; however, many auto parts stores that sell blades will also install them for you free of charge if you buy the blades from them.
If the battery in your car is more than four years old, you should have it tested by your mechanic to find out whether its ability to hold a charge — and start your car — is fading. Odds are good that it probably is. In very hot climates such as the desert Southwest — and in areas subject to long and brutal winters — battery shelf-life can be even less.
Sometimes, a new battery is needed as frequently as every three years or less.
Since you’re stuck when your battery dies — and being stuck in cold weather can be dangerous as well as inconvenient — it’s good policy to at least have the battery checked out (any properly equipped shop can do this) and preemptively replaced before it actually fails if testing reveals its storage/cranking capacity are fading.
People often associate hot weather with cooling system problems but winter weather also increases the potential for problems if, for example, rubber hoses are already old and brittle (they may burst under the additional pressure of going from extremely cold to very hot, repeatedly), drive belts are fraying (they’re more likely to fail) or a thermostat is starting to stick (the car may take much longer to warm up fully, or it could even overheat).
A full check out to be done at least every three years or so.
Also: While many automakers advertise “lifetime” coolant, replacing it more often (every four years or so) could save you expensive problems down the road. Reason? The coolant itself may be designed to last a very long time, but contaminants that get into the system can still gunk up the radiator, cooling passages in the engine and so on. More frequent replacement of the coolant will remove these contaminants and promote long life not just for the engine but also expensive components such as radiators and water pumps and heater cores.
In most parts of the country, switching over to snow tires isn’t necessary. But having good tread on all four tires absolutely is. The Penny Test is a simple way to determine whether the tread on the tires is worn to the point that you should be shopping for new ones. Take an ordinary penny and place it in all (not just one) of the grooves with Abe Lincoln’s head facing down. If part of Abe’s head is always covered by tread, your tires are still ok.
Be sure to check every groove in order to determine that the tire tread is still adequate across the entire tire. Tires will often wear more on one side or the other (or in the center) if they are over or under-inflated, or if the car’s the suspension geometry is off. A tire that has excessive wear on any part of it is as in need of being retired as a tire that is evenly worn.
Also visually check each tire for cracks or bulges in the sidewall. If you find them, replace that tire as soon as possible; it is probably structurally unsound and should not be driven on.
Buy a can of emergency tire inflator such as Fix-a-Flat. This product lets you quickly refill (and temporarily seal) a tire puncture without having to change the tire by the side of the road — and in the cold. Be sure to drive to a tire shop as soon as possible to get the damaged tire fixed properly — and tell them you used the tire inflator. Tires that have been sealed/inflated with these products require special handling when dismounting.
Keeping a few items in the trunk of your car can come in very handy should you get stuck in snow or suffer a breakdown:
A pair of warm gloves (not mittens, which limit your dexterity) and a heavy sweatshirt and wool hat can be a godsend if you find yourself stuck in a snowbank and having to either try to dig the car out or abandon it and walk to a gas station, etc.
An ice scraper is essential; a small shovel (compact/collapsible models especially) is handy. Ditto a set of jumper cables. Maybe not for you, but nice to have when the opportunity comes to help someone else.
Finally, when you’re driving in wintertime, try to keep your gas tank at least half-full (this way you won;t have to worry about running out of fuel — and heat — if you get stuck in traffic due to an accident or just bad weather), have at least $20 in cash on you (not everyplace accepts credit cards) and maybe toss some candy bars/snacks in the glovebox or trunk.
It’s not that you’re facing starvation. It’s just that you might find yourself blocked into a traffic quagmire with no hope of escape for a long time — in which case having something to eat — even if it’s just a Snickers bar — will make the wait a lot more pleasant!