by Jim Kerr
Canada has been blessed with another of winter’s icy blasts. It may make us hardier individuals, but it does little to help our vehicles start and run. When the temperature drops to bone chilling levels, metal parts break like glass, rubber stiffens and cracks, and plastic may turn into expensive jig saw puzzles with even the smallest blow. Here are a few tips to get you going, and keep you going through the winter.
Get ready to start your vehicle before you shut it off! Adjust all the controls of the car to where you want them to be when you start it the next morning. Set your heater controls to full warm, airflow to defrost position and the radio to low or off. If a different driver will be operating the vehicle next, adjust the mirrors and seats to a position suitable for them. Operating frozen switches and control levers can cause them to break and replacing them isn’t cheap. If you must operate a control, move it slowly, or preferably wait until the interior has begun to warm up.
Another problem with driving in winter is getting the vehicle rolling. Frozen tires are like blocks of ice; they would rather slide than roll. Although radial tires are far superior to older belted tires, they still have flat spots frozen into them for the first kilometre or more. Make sure the tires are inflated to the maximum pressure listed on the vehicle owner’s manual, on a sticker in the glove box, or on the driver’s doorjamb. This will enable the tires to roll easier when cold and can help you get that car moving first thing in the morning.
Another trick to getting a vehicle moving is to move the vehicle back and forth a couple of metres when you park. This packs the snow in front of the tires and allows you to start moving much easier.
Stepping on the brake pedal is necessary to bring the vehicle to a safe stop, but when parking the vehicle, try to let the vehicle rock a little without stepping on the brake pedal. This lets the disc brake pads move away slightly from the brake rotors so there is less brake drag the next morning. Even a little brake drag can make a tire very difficult to start rolling at bone chilling temperatures.
Ice on the brakes will also stop a wheel from turning. Brakes generate a lot of heat when applied. If you drive through a snow bank and get snow on the brakes immediately before parking the vehicle, it may not move the next day. The wheel brake can freeze solid. Prevent this by letting the brakes cool (use them as little as necessary) before parking the vehicle, and again, rock the vehicle back and forth.
Many Canadian drivers who have survived at least one winter know about block heaters, but few have them checked properly. Most drivers look for a spark at the plug-in when connecting the cord, or listen for the hum of the block heater in the engine (the block heater is exactly like an electric kettle). A poor connection anywhere in the block heater cord may still let the block heater work but it will not produce all the heat it is designed to. The block heater should be checked for resistance or current flow with an ammeter to ensure it is working correctly. The most common trouble spots are at the plug on the car, and the electrical cord just behind the plug. The cord bends often at this spot and the wires may break inside. Feel the cord when it is plugged in. Any warm spots indicate a bad connection and should be repaired to ensure your vehicle will continue starting.
Using as short and heavy an extension cord as possible will also provide better block heater operation. Long extension cords have more internal resistance and use some of the power instead of delivering it to the car.
Finally, watch your oil light or gauge carefully when starting a vehicle in extreme cold. Even 5W-30 engine oil pours like molasses at -40 C and the oiling system inside your engine sometimes can’t regulate the pressure properly. The oil pressure can go high enough to blow out the seal on the oil filter and quickly leak the engine oil onto the ground. After the engine has operated for a couple minutes it will usually be safe, but in extreme cold I make a habit of glancing under the vehicle after starting it. If a puddle of oil appears I can turn off the engine before expensive to repair damage has occurred. Sometimes the light or gauge doesn’t tell you until it is too late!