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Preparing for these cold weather woes can help prevent a lot of headaches

November 19th, 2015

No question, winter is hard – it’s hard on our bodies, our minds and pretty much anything exposed to the elements, including our vehicles. But just as the change in seasons is predictable, so are the top breakdown reasons for our cars. Prepping for them doesn’t have to cost a fortune, but it can save a wealth of trouble and inconvenience.

Dead battery: Nothing ruins a day, evening or planned holiday trip quicker than a dead battery. That ominous click-click-click sound when you turn on the ignition can raise ire and lower hopes, and it’s pretty much avoidable.

First, no matter how advanced, expensive or “hot” your ride is, it still has a lead acid battery under the hood, and in Canada its lifespan is between four and five years on average. If your vehicle’s battery has made it through three winters, getting it tested is a smart idea, and it’s cheap to do. Most shops will complete a load test on your battery at no extra charge (forgive the pun) when completing a seasonal service or oil change.

Nothing ruins a day, evening or planned holiday trip quicker than a dead battery. That ominous click-click-click sound you get when you turn the ignition can raise ire and lower hopes, and it’s pretty much avoidable.

It’s also easy to discharge a good battery in normal winter driving; if you’re stuck in slow traffic during a short run on a cold day, you can run a battery down with excessive use of electrical accessories combined with lower engine speeds. The battery’s charging system is the belt-driven alternator, and the lower the engine speed, the lower the alternator’s output will be. To avoid this, reduce the system’s electrical load by lowering the fan speed on the HVAC system and turn off glass grid defrosters as soon as their job is done. You can also select a lower transmission gear in slow traffic to boost the engine speed and the charging output. If your daily commute doesn’t see any highway speed, you can also give your battery a better fighting chance by turning off all accessories for the last few kilometers of your drive before parking for the day.

Flooded engine: While newer engines with independent ignition coils on each spark plug aren’t as prone to cold weather failures, there are still a lot of vehicles on the road that experience this problem every winter. When spark plugs are worn and their electrical supply cables become deteriorated, it’s easy to flood an injected engine on a cold start. You should have this system inspected every 50,000 km and maintained as required. Partially opening the engine throttle with a slight depression of the pedal while cranking the engine can ensure enough air gets in to offset the fuel spray from the injectors.

If you’ve turned an engine over with the starter for more than 30 seconds without getting it running (on a wet cold winter day) you may have flooded it. Pop the hood and check for a gasoline odor. Pull the engine oil dipstick and give its tip a whiff for the smell of gas. Gasoline can accumulate in the engine’s oil during a no-start flood event and it can dilute the oil to the point of risking engine damage. If the dipstick has a strong gas odor and the oil level is higher than normal, don’t attempt to run the engine until the oil has been replaced.

To assist with starting, you can often limp a worn set of spark plug cables/wires into action with a spray coating of silicone lubricating compound (sold in aerosol cans in all auto parts stores). A treatment of the plug wires (about the same amount you’d use to coat a frying pan with) can help keep moisture from interrupting the electrical supply. But you have to apply it before the wires get damp and on a warm but not hot engine (turned off).

Frozen doors/locks/windows: If you bought a can of silicone spray for your tired ignition system, don’t put away that miracle product just yet. This time of the year is a perfect opportunity to treat all the door weather-seals, windows and locks before they freeze you out.

This time of the year is a perfect opportunity to treat all the door weather-seals, windows, and locks before they freeze you out.

On a dry day, spray the weather-seals with silicone lube and, as most cans come with a directed-spray cap straw, use it to get to the interior of door lock cylinders and the felt-like channels that the door windows travel up and down in. If you think your remote entry power locks preclude the use of a key to get in, consider how that system doesn’t work when the car battery is dead. Don’t forget lift-gate or trunk lid seals, the hood and gas-cap door releases. Don’t try to substitute just any lubricating spray for these jobs. If there are any oil compounds in the spray they will deteriorate rubber weather-seals and certain plastics faster than you can say “Jack Frost.”

Flat tires: If your ride is older than five or six years of age, it can be riding on leaky wheel rims. Alloys and steel rims alike can develop slow leaks due to corrosion at the area where the tire’s rubber bead seals. Minor slow leaks in warmer weather can turn into much faster losses during cold weather. An easy way to test your wheels is to wipe a sudsy wet wash-mitt on the rim’s edge (where the rubber meets the metal) and look for bubbles caused by escaping air. Rectifying a corroded bead area of a rim isn’t a DIY job because the tire has to be deflated and broken away from the rim in order to sand down the corrosion; applying a good coating of bead-sealer keeps the leaks away.

No-wipe wipers: It’s amazing the number of drivers who think that those two black moving arms at the bottom of their windshields are snow plows. Mangled or loose wiper arms or broken wiper drive linkages can quickly sideline any winter travel plans.

Many wiper arms can become loose due to a protective design. The type that uses threaded nuts to hold the wiper arm to the pivot will see the nuts loosen off if someone turns on the wipers when they’re frozen to the glass. This prevents the motor from burning out or the linkages from snapping. If your ride has this type, try to sweep both wiper arms with the wipers turned off by grabbing the arm and trying to move it. If it moves with little effort, place it back in its “park” position and access the nut by prying off the cap at the end of the arm (opposite to the blade tip). Snug it up with a wrench and you’re good to go. If your vehicle is left outside and exposed to a good bout of freezing rain, make sure the wiper linkage hasn’t been encased in ice. A few liters of cool room-temp water poured through the wiper linkage grille at the bottom of the windshield can take care of this and ensures the drains that take rain water out of this area are clear. Also, during winter, make certain when you park your vehicle at night, you turn off the wipers before the ignition switch.

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