Normally, I would be talking about the aspects of vehicle purchase in this space, but this month, I wanted to talk about preparing and protecting your vehicle for the cold winter months to come. Obviously, depending on where you live, winter can run to both extremes – but this information will be good to consider and, if appropriate, to act on.
Vehicles built in the last ten years have gotten better and better in overall quality – as evidenced in longer and longer service intervals for a number of (what used to be) recurring regular maintenance items. However, there are still things that you should do in order to make sure your vehicle is performing at its best when the weather is not.
I have grouped the maintenance items below by major system for convenience.
Electrical System – The obvious item here is the battery. Generally, the battery is good for a period of 3 to 5 years. Since these units today are sealed, there is no internal maintenance to do. Over a period of time, dry battery acid (called electrolyte) can build up around the positive terminal of the battery. This can sometimes result in blocking the electrical current from the battery to the starter. Cleaning the battery terminals is easy and cheap. (There is an inexpensive tool for that!) You can also have your battery checked out for free at your local automotive parts store. They can measure the output and the ability to hold a charge. Expect to pay between $130 to $175 for a replacement.
Not so obvious: If your vehicle is over seven years old, have a qualified technician check your electrical wires and connections for wear. The years of cycling hot and cold along with the vibrations of vehicle operation can cause connectors to get brittle and fail and wires to wear to the point of shorting out against the car body. Older cars used vacuum pressure created from the engine via plenty of rubber tubing that got brittle and allowed air in over time. If your car is older than 10-12 years, you may still have some of this tubing. Get this checked out as well.
Cooling System – Today’s vehicles are filled at the factory with coolant designed to last up to five years and/or 150,000 miles. While this is quite an improvement, vehicles are also being kept longer and driven farther. If your vehicle is over five years old, it’s time to flush the radiator and replace the coolant. It is the coolant that removes heat from the engine and also keeps you warm in the passenger compartment during the cold months. The reason that you want the radiator flushed out as opposed to just replacing the coolant is that over time, dirt and other contaminants gather in the radiator. This sediment will result in a reduction of the radiator’s ability to dissipate the engine’s heat, resulting in overheating. Today’s engines are made of aluminum as opposed to iron and steel in times past. Good news is that the aluminum engines warm up to operating temperature quickly. The bad news is that they are easily damaged when overheated. Expect to pay about $100 for the radiator flush and fill.
Not so obvious: Replace the thermostat when you do the radiator flush and fill. Why? The themostat controls the flow of radiator fluid based on its temperature. Fresh fluid with a worn thermostat will be of little use if the themostat is stuck open or closed. Have the technician also examine the radiator hoses at this time too (there are two – one at the top and bottom). These get “mushy” over time and can fail – draining the radiator of fluid and perhaps even causing the engine to overheat. Finally, have the technician do a pressure check of the system for any other leaks and to see if the radiator cap is still holding pressure. (The cap may need replacement too).
Tires and Brakes – Checking your tires these days means much more than simply making sure you have enough tread. The evolving role of tires in today’s vehicles means that they are much more of an integral part of the handling and suspension system than in times past. As a result, they are much more precise – even by season. To put it bluntly – if you live in a northern clime, chances are that the standard “all-season tire” isn’t going to cut it. Winter radial tires do an amazing job of handling and control during the winter months – but due to the make up of the tire, it’s not generally good in a year round application. Another news flash – if you own a performance car – the standard tires are considered “summer tires” and not appropriate for winter driving.
More bad news – good replacement tires are expensive. With the larger sizes (18, 19 and even 20-inches), the prices have climbed too. Again, if you own an older vehicle and want to mitigate that expense, there are options to consider. One, most tire places sell USED tires – often they can get you through a season in a pinch – often for at half or more off of the cost of a new set. Two, believe it or not, your local automotive salvage yard may also have used tires for sale – cheap!
As far as brakes – most vehicles today employ disc brakes at all four corners. Less expensive vehicles may still have drum brakes at the rear. Usually brakes are designed to make a screeching or grinding noise as they reach the safety threshold. You DON’T want your brakes to be questionable during inclement weather. Again, an inspection, usually at a tire store, repair shop or local dealer will cost nothing and give you an idea of how much wear you may or may not have left. It is better to get the brake service done BEFORE the brakes are worn out – as they start to cause expensive damage to the drums and rotors if ignored.