The winter of 2011-12 has been mild, at least in most of the U.S. Because of the mild weather many of us have put off winterizing our car. Old Man Winter, however, can appear very soon. You should take a few minutes to winterize your car so you don't end up stranded with a hefty tow and repair bill.
There are a few inexpensive things you can do to help ensure your car is ready, just in case winter does decide to make an appearance. You don't need to be a mechanic and most of these require no money and only a few minutes of your time to check out your car's systems. If any items do need to be replaced, most can be done inexpensively by you. If you need a mechanic to make repairs, this will give you the opportunity to shop around for the best deals instead of having to pay immediately and probably a premium price, to get back on the road.
As long as they appear to be inflated, most drivers don't give them a second thought. If you have a flat tire when it's freezing, you'll regret not checking them. Inspect the tires visually and note any cracking, nicks or bulges in the sidewalls, or apparent nails that might be stuck in the treads. Tire treads that are less than 3/32-inches need to be replaced. You can consider an all-season tire, or if you live in an area of heavy snowfall, snow tires might be a better option.
Check the tire pressure. A tire pressure gauge can be purchased at any auto parts store and at most retailers such as Walmart, Meijers' and even some grocery stores. A simple pencil gauge retails for around $9 while a digital gauge will set you back $13. A tire inflater is inexpensive insurance to keep in your trunk and retails for $20 or less.
Tire pressure can affect your car's gas mileage and tire wear. Having the correct inflation will help you gain better traction in the snow. Remember, cold weather can cause a decrease in tire pressure. Check the air in your spare. This is often overlooked until you need that spare and find that it is flat. Also, check the spare tire hold-downs. If you've owned the vehicle for several years and have never had the spare tire out it might be rusty and difficult to remove. Better to find this out in your garage or driveway than alongside the interstate. (For more money saving tips, check out 6 Apps That Can Save You Money On Your Car.)
Four-wheel drives generally aren't used until snow falls. Before you find it necessary to use your four-wheel drive, check to ensure it engages and disengages easily prior to use. If you have multiple drivers, give each one a quick lesson on how and when to use the four-wheel drive system.
Before checking the battery, consider your safety. It is recommended that a face shield and gloves be used whenever you are performing maintenance on a vehicle battery. If your battery is over three years old, you might want to consider replacing it. Cold weather will significantly drop the amp-hour capacity of any battery. Older batteries are particularly affected.
Perform a visual inspection of the battery cables, the hold down box and the battery posts. You or your mechanic should clean any corrosion, and fill with distilled water. Several auto retailers will do a battery inspection for free.
Check your wiper blades frequently. Using them to remove snow, ice and sludge can wear them out quickly. The new Uniblades or Beam blades are a bit more expensive than traditional wiper blades ($25 and up), but they are an excellent choice if you live in an area where ice is a winter constant. They also last up to 25% longer than traditional blades.
Check your wiper fluid levels. Purchase a winter concentrate rated -20 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent the fluid from freezing in the plastic tank and prevent ice from forming on your windshield. At most retail outlets this is less than $3 a gallon and a clean windshield can literally save your life. If you have a rear wiper, don't overlook that blade. Some cars have a separate reservoir tank for fluid for the rear window.
Hoses and Belts
Inspecting the hoses and belts can save you a great deal of money. In most cars today, a belt breaking means that car won't run, period. Take a few minutes to inspect all of your belts and hoses. If you see a worn spot, fraying, shining or bulging, or the hoses feel brittle or too spongy, have it replaced immediately. Use a flashlight to check all surfaces of your hoses and belts, not just the top. There isn't much worse than seeing steam oozing from under your hood caused by a busted radiator hose. (For some related readings, see 5 Car Repairs You Should Do Yourself.)
Not only should you change your oil, but make sure that oil is the right viscosity or weight. During cold weather, oil gets thicker and your car requires a thinner weight oil. This thinner oil will allow a cold engine to get lubrication faster and possibly avoid damage to the engine. Your owner's manual should have oil viscosity guidelines in it. Oil changes are usually under $35.
Purchase an inexpensive tester to check your antifreeze. Testers can be used in both cool and hot coolant. Do not remove the radiator cap on a hot engine. Inserting the small tester tube into the coolant via the radiator cap and filling the tester with coolant, the gauge will tell what temperature your engine is protected to. Use this measurement to adjust your coolant.
Most antifreeze solutions purchased at retail stores already come as a 50/50 mixture. Meaning they are approximately 50% water and 50% coolant for optimum protection against freezing. Coolant is less than $20 a gallon. You want to make sure your radiator is full and that your overflow tank is up to its full mark as well.
Lights and Fluids
Walk around your vehicle with the lights turned on. Ensure all your lights are working, including turn signals and emergency flashers. Check all the fluid levels under your hood - power steering fluid, brake fluid, transmission fluid, wiper fluid, battery fluid levels and oil. Instructions on how to properly check these levels can be found in your owner's manual and online at most vehicle manufacturer's websites.
The Bottom Line
No time of year is a good time to be stranded by a disabled car. Taking a few minutes to check fluids and tires, and do minimum maintenance can save you hundreds of dollars in tow bills, auto repair bills and lost wages, and could even help prevent an accident.
You don't have to be a mechanic to do these simple basic steps. Most of these tips require a minimal amount of time, no mechanical expertise and very little money. As Ben Franklin would say, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Or, checking those tires now is better than being stranded and having to pay top dollar to get it fixed. (To learn more about cars, check out The True Cost Of Owning A Car.)