Some winter this is turning out to be.
With the economic devastation wrought by COVID-19, more than 40% of car, truck, minivan and SUV owners have delayed or skipped vehicle maintenance since March. But it’s important to ensure that your vehicle can perform safely and efficiently, especially given the extra demands that frigid winter weather extracts.
So whether you live in the Snow Belt or Sun Belt, now is the time to make sure it’s up to snuff, and it doesn’t always require a trip to have the car serviced.
But before you decide what to do, here’s a simple question: when was the last time you drove your vehicle? Ideally, you should drive it every two-to-three weeks for at least 15 minutes or so. Give the engine and tires a chance to warm up. Be sure to vary the types of roads, including some highway driving. This should ensure that everything is running correctly and provide evidence if it isn’t.
But even so, there are checks you can make on your own.
TIRES: How important are tires? Think of it this way: they’re the only thing that connects your car to the road. And odds are, unless you check your car’s tire pressure regularly, they need air. You can find the proper pressure for your tires posted on the driver’s side front door jamb on most newer cars and trucks, not on the tire.
While you’re at it, check the tread. Take a penny and place it upside down into several places across the tire. If the top of Abe Lincoln’s head is showing, it’s time to replace the tire. Also, check the state of the tread itself. If a tire is worn on both edges, it is under-inflated. If it’s worn in the center of the tread, it’s overinflated. If you spot cups or dips in the tread, it is usually a sign of worn parts. Have the suspension or steering systems checked.
BATTERY: Replacing your battery ahead of time not only allows you to buy a new one on sale, but it also means you won’t be left stranded with a dead battery. Deciding when to replace it is simple. For example, if you have a 36-month battery, you can expect three years of trouble-free charging. As you’re approaching the 36-month mark, replace the battery a bit shy of that; do not wait until it fails. If you’re taking your vehicle into a shop to have the battery replaced rather than doing it yourself, have the technician check your vehicle’s alternator, voltage regulator, belts and connecting cables as well.
WINDSHIELD WIPERS, WASHER FLUID: Replace windshield wipers that streak, as they impair your vision during nasty weather. Also, use up windshield washer fluid that’s been diluted with water. Replace it with pure washer fluid that won’t freeze below 32 degrees.
COOLING SYSTEM: If you can’t remember the last time your vehicle’s cooling system was flushed, check your records and owner’s manual. Flushing the system removes sediment and rust particles that can clog. Follow the procedure listed in the owner’s manual and use a 50/50 mix of antifreeze to water. Also, be sure to add the proper antifreeze. Newer vehicles specify a longer-life engine coolant, not the traditional green type. Finally, replace any dried-out, cracked hoses.
FUEL: If you’re not driving much, or not at all, your fuel can degrade, turning gummy and – in extreme cases – emitting a varnish-like odor. This impedes performance. To prevent this, try to use up the fuel in your tank before filling up again. When you do, add a bottle of fuel stabilizer before fueling. Brands like Sta-Bil are commonly available and prevent fuel degradation. Also, be sure to keep your tank as full as possible, as it helps prevent air from degrading fuel and condensation building in the tank.
OIL: Check your oil, being sure to follow the instructions in your owner’s manual. Be sure to do it while parked on level ground and when the engine is cold. If the oil is low, you can easily top it off, being careful not overfill it. Changing the oil is easy if you know how. If not attempt to try it without guidance. Instead, take it to your preferred service center.
LIGHTS: Have someone stand outside the car to make sure the headlights, fog lamps, tail lamps and turn signals are functioning. Seeing, and being seen by others in blinding winter storms, is crucial to your safety.
BRAKES: If the brakes squeal when coming to a stop, get them checked and/or replaced.
DEFROSTER: Do your defrosters work? This might seem insignificant — until you need it.
CLEAN YOUR CAR: Cleaning your car removes the accumulated grime of summer and fall. Follow it up with polish, and finish with a great wax job to seal the paint and preserve the finish. Inside, be sure that all surfaces are wiped down. For leather, use a leather cleaner and moisturizer to prevent cracking. Do not use bleach or ammonia, as this can lead to discoloration. Clear out the glovebox, center console and rear cargo area. Vacuum the seats, carpet and headliner. Finish by cleaning the windows. You’ll have the peace of mind that food remnants and mildew aren’t causing odors to build inside your car.
BE PREPARED: A breakdown, flat tire or other problem crops up when you least expect it. But having the proper tools on hand can get you back on the road quickly. While pre-assembled emergency and first aid kits are available at auto parts stores, you might want to build your own with items you already have around the house.
Be sure to include screwdrivers — Phillips and flat-head, pliers, socket wrenches, duct tape, electrical wire tape, electrical wire spray, WD-40, flashlight with extra batteries, coolant hose repair kit, a small fire extinguisher, tire gauge, road flares, spare fuses, foam tire sealant or a portable air compressor, jumper cables, rain gear, and work gloves. Also, consider adding kitty litter for added traction under a slipping tire, a flashlight, a small shovel, a windshield scraper, a first aid kit, cloth or paper towels, drinking water, nonperishable snacks and a blanket, in case you get stranded.
ONE LAST THOUGHT: Taking the time now to ensure your car is trouble-free is better than spending time stranded at the side of the road waiting for roadside assistance.