Winterizing your vehicle is probably on your to-do list leading into the cold months. If you have ever taken your car to a mechanic for a simple seasonal checkup, you probably got a bit a sticker shock with your estimate. What you thought were simple fluid checks turned into a long list of optional and necessary repairs with a heart-stopping price tag.
You can perform many of the routine seasonal vehicle maintenance tasks in your driveway, even if you have zero mechanical experience. Not only will this save you lots of money, but it will also help you understand a little about how your vehicle works.
If you have done some of these tasks before, please bear with us. Our instructions may seem overly simplified and geared toward the complete novice.
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What Does “Winterizing Your Vehicle” Mean?
Winterizing your vehicle means preparing it for winter driving. Winterizing involves a series of maintenance items that ensure your safety when the snow flies. While it may seem unimportant, giving your vehicle a good checkup may keep you from a snowy night on the side of the road.
Depending on your vehicle and where you live, the necessary checks may differ slightly. We are targeting moderate snowfall climates with temperatures ranging on an average scale for most Midwest states.
If you live in the Southern states, you should still winterize your vehicle as a part of your routine maintenance. Just like changing the batteries in your smoke detectors when Daylight Savings Times happens, forming a routine for vehicle maintenance is good.
Several items should be on the list of things to check when winterizing your vehicle:
- Check the battery for charge and correct electrolyte levels
- Change wiper blades
- Refill wiper fluid
- Check tire pressure
- (If installed) Check 4-wheel drive
- Run the heater and blower
- Check the anti-freeze and change if needed
- Change the oil and opt for a thinner viscosity
- Check all the belts and hoses and change as needed
Changing to a thinner viscosity of oil for colder months will help your vehicle run better. Oil thickens when cold and doesn’t lubricate your engine as well. Thick, clumpy oil can cause extra wear and tear, decreasing the service life of your engine. Consult your owner’s manual for oil viscosity for changing temperatures.
Don’t forget non-mechanical winterization needs
Make an emergency kit for your trunk. This kit should include roadside distress standards such as flares, cones, or warning triangles. You are also going to want a good flashlight or signal light with fresh batteries. Other items to include are:
- Jumper cables
- Shelf-stable snacks such as granola bars or protein bars
- Water purification tablets (bottled water can freeze)
- Extra gloves and warm socks
- Small plastic or canvas tarp
Hot Hands and similar products can be a lifesaver against frostbite if you need to hike two miles in your Italian loafers. Stock your emergency box with items that you will need if you are on the side of the road during a winter storm.
Too much is never too much, and filling a small box with supplies can ease your mind about winter driving. Items such as cat litter can be helpful to gain traction on icy roads. Think about what can help you and toss it in.
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Standard Checks to Get a Good Start
Although you should check all fluids in your vehicle once a month, we all know that rarely happens. Gas and go is the routine for most people. Cars are more reliable now and less maintenance-friendly for the backyard mechanic. Therefore, people forgot about a lot of older practices.
Today is a good day to begin new habits, though. If you haven’t read through the owner’s manual for your car, pull it out of the glovebox and do that now. You will find a wealth of information, including the location and intervals for all fluid checks. This handy little digest also tells you where the fusebox is. Some even contain general schematics for your stereo, heating, and lights.
If you purchased your vehicle used and don’t have the owner’s manual, don’t despair. You can find them available online for most makes and models. The most important part of this manual is the types of recommended fluids and capacity. Some vehicles use 4 quarts of oil, while others may need 5, 6, and even 10.
Look up the recommended procedures for checking your fluids:
- Transmission/differential fluid
- Brake fluid
- Windshield wiper fluid
- Check and fill all grease fittings
Once you have finished all the fluid checks, there are still a few other things to check.
Wiper Blade Replacement
Wiper blades are usually the last thing anyone thinks to check until they begin to shred. Think of them like your smoke detectors and change them about every six months. Spring before the rainy season and fall before the snow flies are good points.
Wiper blades are rubber or silicone material. Although they generally last a long while, they are subject to sun and UV ray damage. The sun can break down the base materials and weaken them over time.
Changing blades is a free service offered at many local auto parts stores if you purchase the blades from them. It takes seconds but can be the difference between seeing that deer and hitting that deer during heavy snow.
If you want to change your blades, the procedure is relatively straight-forward:
While not all mounts are the same, they are all similar. Your owner’s manual will have instructions. You can also search for a video for your make and model on YouTube.
Snow Tires or All-Season Radials?
Tires are always crucial for snow driving. Aside from checking the tire pressure, there are a few things you can do to help your tires last. If you can see metal bands on your tires’ outer edge, you should be replacing them immediately.
To check tire wear, use a tread depth tool or a penny. You can use the space between the edge of the penny and President Lincoln’s head as a quick and easy tread-depth measure. The procedure is simple. Turn the penny so that Mr. Lincoln is upside down. Place the edge of the penny in the recessed part of the tread. Move across the width to the tire, checking each track. If the tread covers any part of Lincoln’s head, your tires are good for now.
Another thing to check on your tires is uneven wear, especially on the front. Irregular wear patterns can point to several other potential problems with bearings, alignment, shocks, and steering parts. Your tires should be wearing evenly across the surface that contacts the road. Take a quick look at the sidewalls for bulges, scrapes, or other potential problems.
If you determine that you need new tires, you can choose either snow tires for the coming winter or all-season radials. Snow tires will need replacing again in the spring, but you can store them during summer.
While both have advantages and disadvantages, the climate where you live will be the most considerable influence on your decision. Most Midwest regions are okay with adequate all-season radials. The farther north you go, the more snow, therefore the need for special snow tires. Talk with a tire specialist if you are unsure.
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Flush Your Radiator for Better Heating
The radiator in your vehicle is responsible for maintaining the engine temperature. In the summer months, it works to cool the engine. It helps your engine reach optimum temperature quickly during the winter, without harming the metal engine components. Most cooling systems contain a mix of 50 percent antifreeze and 50 percent water, but please check your owner’s manual for your make and model.
To check your fluid level, locate the overflow reservoir in your engine compartment. It is clearly labeled minimum and maximum. Ensure the fluid falls between the markings and all is good. If your fluid is brownish or discolored (it should be pink or green depending on the type of anti-freeze used), you should flush your cooling system.
Although you can purchase flush and fill kits, you don’t need them. You will need a drain pan, antifreeze, distilled water, and the tool to release the drain plug on your radiator. You can loosen the drain plug with a screwdriver, pliers, socket wrench, or sometimes just your fingers.
A cleaning solution is recommended for this process to flush out debris and contaminants. We found a video that explains the entire process better than we can.
Your owner’s manual contains the size of your cooling system and lists how much coolant is required. Typical cooling systems use two gallons of a 50/50 mix, but larger engines may use more. Some makes and models have more specific requirements, such as a particular antifreeze type.
Winterizing Your Brakes
The braking system isn’t a necessary part of winterizing your vehicle because brakes are not affected by the cold. The importance of brakes is overall safety, so we include this check to keep you and your passengers safer on winter roads. You should get into the habit of checking your brakes at least every six months. Combining this check with your wiper blade replacement is a good practice.
There are several methods to check brake pad wear on disc brakes. Disc brakes use pairs of metallic or ceramic pads and a caliper to create friction on the rotor to stop your vehicle. The pads wear out over time and need replacement once they reach two millimeters in thickness or less. If your pads are close to that 2mm thickness, you should change them earlier rather than later.
There are outside and inside pads. You can check the outside pad on most vehicles without removing the wheel. To check the inside pad, you have to remove the wheel and the caliper to access the pad. It is essential to check both pads. Uneven wear can advise you of more severe problems, such as a non-functioning caliper.
Diagnosing brake problems is preferable to waiting for a system failure. We found a great video that shows the basic procedure to check your brake pads for wear. Your vehicle may be slightly different, so refer to your specific make and model’s correct maintenance instructions.
This simple brake pad check will take approximately 10 minutes per wheel. Remember, if your pads are below 2mm in thickness, it is best to change them. It would be best to replace brake pads in sets (front and rear) rather than individually. Most pad sets are sold as a set of four or eight pads.
Winterizing Your Vehicle Safely
Driving on snow is tricky. Remember that having a four-wheel-drive only works when you have traction. Wheels will slide the same way on the ice, even with a four-wheel drive. Winterizing your vehicle also means winterizing your driving habits.
It is a good idea to practice at the beginning of each snow season. That will refamiliarize you with how your vehicle handles in slippery conditions. Doing proper maintenance will give you peace of mind and hopefully keep your car from experiencing breakdowns.
While doing your maintenance will save a lot of money over having these tasks performed by a mechanic, it also means you should practice “shop safety” too. Dispose of used antifreeze and oil according to your local ordinances. Auto parts retailers often have used hazardous material drop programs, so ask about them when purchasing your supplies.
When working under your vehicle, always use wheel blocks, hydraulic jacks, and vehicle stands rated for your car’s weight. Jacking points are diagrammed in your owner’s manual. They differ for each vehicle. Improper jack and vehicle stand placement can cause damage to the underside of your car.
This last video includes a series of checks to offer a visual reference for you. The video covers all the items we covered above.
We hope that you learned a tip or two that will help you with winterizing your vehicle. Let us know in the comments if you have suggestions to share.
Last update on 2021-05-07 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API