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Fix-Its & Hacks: Winter Auto Care, From Tires to Wipers
BY Dick Snyder | November 9th, 2023
Winter comes on pretty quickly, and we all know what’s it’s like to be left out in the cold. There’s nothing more infuriating than — after marvelling at the beauty of that first big snowfall — you go out to the car the next morning … and where’s the ice scraper and brush? Oh, right. You hung it up on the garage wall on the first day of spring — at the cottage. This is where long sleeves and mittens come in handy. (You do remember where your mittens are, don’t you?)
We’ve collected a little expert and common-sense advice on preparing your vehicle — and yourself — for winter. It never hurts to have a friendly reminder, after all.
According to Mike Roth, owner of Starling Automotive in Toronto, “Regular maintenance all year round is the best way to ensure your vehicle is in top shape and able to handle everything winter throws at it.”
Here are a few areas at which to pay special attention as you get your car ready for winter.
When the rubber hits the road it’s really important that the rubber really does hit the road. Or at least takes a serious bite out of that snow and ice to ensure you have full control in any cold weather. Winter tires are still optional in many parts of the country — which is unfortunate, as they are proven to provide better grip and stopping power. So do yourself — and everyone else — a favour and get a set of winter tires that properly fit your car or truck.
“You should be putting on your winter tires last couple weeks of October,” says Roth. “Because it does snow in October. It might be warm and ice-free in the city, but if you drive up north you could end up in snowy conditions. Weather can change fast. And if you put them on early, you’ll avoid the rush.”
Some people think that putting winter tires on early means they will wear out faster. According to Roth, this is a myth. “You’ll also get more life out of your summer or all-season tires,” he says.
Snow Brush and/or Ice Scraper
You really do need both — if only so one person can brush the snow while the other scrapes the ice, and you can get on your way faster. If you’ve just bought a new SUV, you may find the brush from your little compact doesn’t quite do the trick. Get a brush that’s long enough to reach all the critical spots. Take the time to remove all the ice and snow from your windshield, windows, side mirrors and even the roof. It’s just good manners, as then snow won’t go flying onto another car while you’re accelerating on the highway. Make sure your lights are visible, along with the license plate and bumpers — it’s all about visibility and all-around safety.
Windshield Washer Fluid
Top up your windshield wiper fluid. And, top it up again. Today’s modern cars will conveniently chime and chirp at you when the fluid runs low, which is really annoying and distracting. So, keep fluid in the car at all times during the winter, and consider checking it weekly or more. Or just top it up. Make sure you put cold-rated fluid in before the weather turns frigid — something that is rated to -49 C is recommended.
It really is worth it to invest in winter blades that can withstand ice buildup, heavy snow, freezing rain and extreme temperatures. Winter blades are reinforced and tested for all the perils of winter and the heavy-duty use they will be exposed to. These blades are can perform at -40 C, maintaining your visibility at all times.
With the cold of winter — as well as dramatic variations in temperature as summer transitions to winter — your battery is subject to a lot of environmental abuse. This can destroy a vulnerable battery — and you can be pretty much guaranteed this will happen at the worst possible time, when the extra demands of starting your engine in cold weather can’t be met by the weak battery. If your battery is between three and five years old, says the Canadian Automobile Association, it might be subject to failure in winter. The CAA recommends you check for signs of corrosion, wetness, or bulges in the casing. A battery tester can help you determine your battery’s health by indicating if the there is damage to the internal cells resulting in diminished power.
“Batteries are something we test all year long, and it’s a good thing to pay extra attention in winter but also in the summer because severe heat or cold can affect the battery,” says Roth.
This is an area where it pays to change your oil often — as per your vehicle’s directions — and to use a top quality product. Most mechanics will recommend you change the oil before the cold weather hits — so do it when you get your winter tires installed. “Every car has its own specific oil that you should use all year long,” says Roth.
Even in winter, you need to ensure your coolant is full and in good shape. Not only does coolant keep your engine cool while operating, but it also keeps your engine from freezing. Your owner’s manual will have all the specs and details.
“Check all your fluids, especially the strength of your coolant to ensure it’s mixed properly,” says Roth. “If work has been done on the cooling system, sometimes the mixture can be compromised. If it’s weak, it can freeze.”
Winter Floor Mats
You wear winter boots, right? So, you need winter mats. These will protect the floor of your vehicle from ice, sand and salt. It’s a good idea to get the deep-tray version, as you’ll save your pant cuffs too.
In the winter, when your windows are generally closed and the heat is on, your cabin filter is getting a workout. Most cabin filters should be changed every 24,000 km, but check your owner’s manual to be sure. A clean filter reduces airborne dust, dirt and pollen — and keeps the air flowing, which is important when you need to heat a cold car or defrost the windows.
While this tip isn’t really about your car, it’s about keeping you safe. The B.C. RCMP recommend you pack an emergency kit for your vehicle. These are often available at department, hardware and automotive parts stores, as well as from the Canadian Automobile Association. The RCMP recommend the kit includes “non-perishable food, flashlight, flares, shovel and traction mat, sand, or kitty litter, jumper cables, and extra clothes or a blanket.”
Pack Some Road Salt
Roth has a little tip: Keep some road salt in a sealed plastic container. “Especially if you street park in the city, sometimes the sun and warm weather melt the snow and ice, and then everything freezes like a skating rink over night and you can’t get out. If you’re stuck, sprinkle some salt around the tires and wait a few minutes.”
Drive According to Conditions
According to the Canada Safety Council, the main cause of winter collisions is speed. So when it’s snowy, icy and cold out — and the road conditions are less than ideal — it’s time to slow down. And keep your lights on, so you can see and be seen.
While not exactly a tip for winter safety, rust proofing can extend the life and value of your vehicle. “Get into the habit of rust proofing your car,” says Roth. “It’s very important. You might spend a hundred something a year doing it, but down the road you’ll usually get that back if you sell or trade it in.” Any time is a good time to rust proof, says Roth, even if your car is several years old or you’ve bought a used vehicle. “It’ll pay for itself,” he says.
A version of this story was published on Nov. 23, 2021