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How Severe Cold Affects Your Car (And What to Do about It)

In much of the eastern and midwestern United States, it’s that time of year when it is so bitterly freezing that even a 30-degree day can feel like a balmy respite. Temperatures plummet into the single digits, wind chills are painful and dangerous, and talk of polar vortexes and bomb cyclones fills the media. It’s cold outside.

Few places in the U.S. know cold better than Alaska, and James Grant, who owns Right Choice Automotive Repair in Fairbanks, has seen a bit of what frigid temperatures can do to vehicles. We talked with Grant as well as the Car Care Council to find out how the cold can affect cars and trucks and hear about any possible solutions.

Problem: Deflated tires

As the air in your tires gets colder, it contracts and has less pressure. Tires correspondingly become underinflated.

Solution: Check your tire pressure more often than you normally would. The Car Care Council recommends doing so once a week. You might think a little deflation provides better traction, but tire experts caution against running tires below manufacturers’ recommended pressure, as that can cause uneven or unsafe tread wear. Getting winter tires is always a good idea in states with inclement weather.

Problem: Dead battery

Winter is especially hard on batteries. If your car won’t start in the extreme cold, one of the most likely problems is that the battery is dead.

Solution: The good news is that it can be an easy fix: jumper cables are not hard to use. But to avoid a dead battery altogether, the Car Care Council suggests keeping its connections clean, tight, and free of corrosion. It also recommends replacing batteries that are more than three years old. Those in the coldest climates may want to purchase a battery warmer, available at most auto parts stores or online. The warmers typically cost between $30 and $70.

Problem: Thick oil

As it gets colder, oil gets thicker. At about 20 degrees below zero, by Grant’s estimate, oil gets so thick that the engine’s oil pump struggles even to pick it up and circulate it. “The viscosity just goes way up, and it’s like trying to pour molasses,” he said.

Solution: The Car Care Council recommends switching to low-viscosity oil in the winter. Drivers in subzero climates should go from 10W-30 to 5W-30. “Synthetic oils will help out a great deal,” Grant noted. Don’t forget to read your owner’s manual, as the manufacturer may specify an oil weight for cold-weather operation.

Problem: Ice in the fuel line

Unless you live somewhere where the temperature gets down to 100 degrees below zero, the gasoline in your car will not freeze. However, water moisture in the gas lines can become icy. “In regard to fuel, one of the things we do see, if there’s any water content inside the fuel tank, that water can freeze and clog fuel pickup,” Grant said.

Solution: Keep the tank at least half full, the Car Care Council says.

Problem: Lethargic screens

If your car has liquid crystal display (LCD) screens, such as for infotainment, you may notice that they become a bit sluggish when the car has been sitting in extreme cold. That’s because, just like the engine’s oil and the battery’s electrolyte, molecules in liquid crystals slow down when the temperatures drop.

Solution: In vehicles where this is an issue, there is not much you can do beyond waiting for the car to warm up. Installing an engine-block heater will help speed things along.

Problem: Windshield wiping woes

Sub-freezing temperatures can cause the rubber on windshield wiper blades to become brittle, which means it could tear or crack. Also, some washer fluid may not work as well in colder months.

Solution: The Car Care Council said you could consider buying winter wiper blades made for harsher climates, but you could also just make sure the ones you have are not too old and worn. The council recommends replacing them every six months, but surely few people are that zealous with their windshield wiper blades.

Problem: The windshield is frozen on the inside

If your car’s defrost function isn’t working properly, that can be a serious safety issue. “Your breath can condense and freeze on the inside of the windshield as you drive without a defrost function,” Grant said.

Solution: Make sure all defrosting and general heating functions in your vehicle are in working order.

Problem: Antifreeze not living up to its name

Engine coolant, a.k.a. antifreeze, will not be as effective at protecting your engine against the elements if it’s old or has an improper ratio of coolant to water.

Solution: The Car Care Council warns not to add 100 percent antifreeze because it actually has a higher freeze point when not mixed with water. It’s a good idea to have engine coolant that is made for colder climates. If you really want to avoid a trip to the mechanic, Grant noted that you can check your coolant’s freeze point with a tool called a refractometer. “Most late model vehicles come equipped with extended-life coolant that will withstand the cold, but it should be checked,” he said. Your car’s coolant should be flushed and refilled at least every two years, according to the Car Care Council.

Problem: “Snow snakes”

Grant said the term refers to older serpentine belts that get so cold that they either break because they’re worn and the cold has done them in, or the belts are so frigid that they don’t bend. The problem pertains especially to older belts that are more brittle.

Solution: “Just make sure your belts are in good shape,” Grant said.

It may be a bit late to hand out this advice this year, but for future reference, the Car Care Council recommends taking your car or truck in for an inspection before winter hits so you can stave off the above problems ahead of time. “Vehicles need extra attention when temperatures drop below zero,” executive director Rich White points out. “Whether consumers perform an inspection and required maintenance themselves or go to a repair shop, it’s a small yet important investment to avoid the aggravation and unexpected and potentially dangerous cost of a breakdown in freezing weather.”

Muller, D. (2019). How Severe Cold Affects Your Car (And What to Do about It). Retrieved from https://www.caranddriver.com/news/a14762411/how-severe-cold-affects-your-car-and-what-to-do-about-it/


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