by Jim Kerr

Your vehicle takes a severe beating when driven in cold weather. Parts that would normally last for years under warmer conditions wear out much faster or fail completely when subjected to the extreme -30 and -40 degree temperatures found in some parts of the country. Even at temperatures near the freezing mark, wear is greatly accelerated. Preparing your vehicle for winter will help it withstand this beating and could save you the cost and inconvenience of a breakdown later.

Most winter breakdowns involve vehicles that won’t start. Dirty battery cables or poor connections at the starter circuit are common causes of not starting. When the temperature plummets, your battery has only a small percentage of the normal capacity it has during warm weather.

Dirty battery cables reduce this cranking capacity even further. Cleaning and tightening the battery’s power and ground connections will help ensure your battery can supply all the power it has available to start your engine.

Installing a battery blanket around your vehicle’s battery also helps starting in cold weather. A battery blanket is the automotive version of a heating pad. When the battery blanket is plugged into household power, the battery temperature is raised so the battery can deliver 100 percent of it’s power. Now the starter cranks the engine faster, the ignition system has a better spark, and the computer systems operate. Most computer systems on vehicles don’t operate below 9 volts, so if your starter is using all the power from your battery, then the computer may not be able to start the fuel injection.

Installing a battery blanket is an easy task, although sometimes factory heat shields may have to be temporarily removed during the installation. Once the battery is accessible, wrap the battery blanket around the battery, tie it in place with the supplied strap and route the power cord out to the front of the vehicle. Make sure the cord is tied away from any belts or other moving parts and the job is done.

Batteries often become drained in cold weather because of short trip driving. Starting the engine, operating the lights, heater, rear window defogger, and other electrical accessories use a lot of battery power. Normally the car’s alternator would keep the battery charged, but a cold battery may need to be charged for several minutes (up to 30 minutes at -40) just to heat the battery before it will accept a charge. A warm battery will accept a charge right away, so using that battery blanket helps. Avoid short trips in cold weather to help keep the battery charged, and have the charging system checked to identify problems before they occur.

You have probably spotted rusty mufflers and tailpipes on the side of the road. Winter driving is hard on exhaust systems. Rough or rutted roads, frozen suspension systems and lumps of ice and snow on the road all attempt to separate the exhaust system from your car. Only those in good condition survive.

If part of the exhaust system falls off, it could do serious damage to other parts of your vehicle. Many repair shops have “inspection specials” where they check the vehicle’s exhaust system for poor hangers and rusted pipes and mufflers for very little cost. This inspection could even save a life, because exhaust leaks could allow poisonous carbon monoxide gas to enter your vehicle. Don’t take any chances with exhaust leaks. Have them repaired before they cause problems.

Cracked front axle boots on front wheel drive and all-wheel drive cars and trucks is another common winter problem. The materials used to make these boots have improved considerably, but they live in a very harsh environment under the vehicle. Boots in poor condition begin to crack between the folds and can split open. Then the grease for the axle joint leaks out and dirt and water get in. A dirty axle joint can be damaged in a few hours of driving and replacing them is expensive. Outer axle boots crack more often because they also flex when the steering wheel is turned, but all four boots should be checked. Replacing axle boots at the first sign of cracking will save you the cost of replacing axle joints too.

Engines that are started at temperatures below freezing can benefit by using a block heater. Warming the engine makes it easier to crank over and start, but it also reduces engine wear. Oil inside the engine flows better on the warm parts so the engine receives better lubrication during the critical warm up time. Less fuel is also injected to keep the engine running during start up, so cylinder lubrication is not washed away. Only about four hours maximum is required for a block heater to warm a cold engine on the coldest days; less in warmer winter periods, so buy a timing device to turn on the block heater only when required and you will save money.

Finally, check all fluid levels and the strength of the engine coolant. A problem that would be only a small inconvenience in the summer could be disastrous if it left you stranded on a lonely winter road, so avoid winter problems by having your vehicle checked out before problems arise.

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