by Jim Kerr
The warm fall days have made procrastinators out of the best of us, but the nights are getting longer and winter is starting to rear its head. When snow and cold weather hit, even the smallest vehicle problems seem much worse. Repair shops are booked for days in advance, tow trucks are busy, and it seems to take longer to go anywhere. Now is the time to get your vehicle ready before the really cold weather arrives. Many of the checks can be made at home or done at low cost by most repair shops. Here are a few items that should be checked every year.
The engine coolant, a mixture of water and antifreeze, should be tested and recycled if necessary. New vehicles usually have coolant mixed for -36 C. While coolant that tests to this level will not freeze, it may still need to be changed. Coolant also protects the cooling system from corrosion and provides lubricant for the water pump.
Auto manufacturers and antifreeze producers recommend coolant changes by time interval. Glycol-based antifreeze has a life span of two to three years. After that time, the corrosion protecting chemicals and water pump lubricants are used up. Glycol-based coolant is usually green or blue in colour. If the vehicle’s coolant is orange in colour, it is most likely organic-based coolant.
Organic-based coolants typically have a lifespan of five years. If glycol antifreeze has been added to organic-based coolant, then the lifespan decreases to that of the glycol antifreeze – two to three years. Most repair shops now use antifreeze recycling machines. These machines flush the cooling system, clean out old coolant, and fill the vehicle with rejuvenated coolant and a anti- corrosion and lubrication additive package. Recycling protects the environment and the cost of disposal no longer has to be passed on to the customer.
Coolant strength can be checked with a low cost tester, but be sure to rinse it with clean water afterward to keep it working accurately. Most systems can be tested in the overflow tank but if the coolant is weak, be sure the radiator is also up to strength. Be careful when removing any radiator cap. Releasing the pressure on a hot engine could allow the coolant to boil and badly burn anyone nearby.
Block heaters and battery blankets are not used in warmer parts of the country, but if you need to leave your vehicle parked in cold temperatures, they will help starting. Block heaters also reduce internal engine wear during cold starts. Block heater cords take a beating in the course of a year. Often they flop around in the wind below the front bumper or get bumped against parking curbs. The outer insulation may appear fine, but the wires inside might break. If the cord seems very flexible right next to the plug, a common place for the cord to break, or you notice a hot spot on the cord when plugged in, then you need a new cord. Sometimes the cord can be shortened slightly and just a new plug will repair the problem. Listen for a slight hissing sound when the block heater is plugged in. The heater works the same as an electric kettle and sounds similar. If you cannot hear anything, the block heater should be tested with a meter.
Batteries usually have a maximum life of 6 to 7 years. As they age, the cranking capacity decreases. A battery that works fine in summer can have difficulty cranking the engine in winter because cold temperatures decrease the rate of chemical action in the cells. Battery capacity can be tested in a couple minutes with a special capacity or load tester. Any repair shop will have one. Clean cable connections are also important when starting an engine. A couple minutes cleaning the connections can save the cost of a boost or a tow.
Wiper blades: summer sun and ozone harden the rubber blades. They may look fine but can’t clean winter ice and snow properly. New blades only cost a few dollars and can be changed in a couple minutes. You will not believe the difference in wet weather visibility they make!
There are many other checks to be made. Tires, lights, brakes, exhaust system, heater operation, oil levels, and engine tune checks should all be part of regular winter preparations. Newer vehicles require less maintenance but still will require some of these. Waiting till the snow hits the ground can mean long waits for service at repair shops and tire dealers. It is still not too late to beat the rush.