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Tackle These 9 Car-Care Essentials Before Winter

A twice-annual vehicle maintenance inspection can go a long way toward helping you avoid a breakdown and the costly repairs that can come with it. While spring car care will carry you through the summer, fall car care is your best bet if you want to keep your vehicle running through the winter.

The following fall car-care essentials should be undertaken before the first wintry blast of weather arrives.

1. Examine and test the battery. Cold weather often takes the rap for battery failure. But in truth, excessive heat is a battery’s biggest enemy, sapping water from inside the battery and damaging the terminals. Yes, battery failure often takes place during frigid temperatures, but the damage leading up to this breakdown may have taken place when the weather was warm.

Inspect your battery, ensuring that the connections are secure and all gunk has been removed. If the wires connecting to the battery posts are worn or frayed, replace them.

You can test a battery with a multimeter. A fully charged battery has a reading of 12.66v. Anything less than 12.45 means your battery should be recharged. Consider replacing any battery older than four years old before winter arrives.

2. Replace or replenish fluids. Change engine oil, and add brake and transmission fluid as needed. And don’t forget to top off your car’s power-steering fluid; if levels are low, you’ll hear a groaning sound when the car is turning, and it will be harder for you to maneuver the steering wheel.

Check coolant and antifreeze levels, and top off the windshield-washer fluid.

3. Inspect belts and hoses. The drive belt, also known as the serpentine belt, powers the air conditioner, power steering and alternator. In many vehicles, it also turns the water pump. Examine the belt for signs of wear, keeping an eye out for surface cracks or missing chunks of rubber.

Also, take a look at the hoses. These are tasked with moving antifreeze and coolant, and they play a crucial role in helping to prevent the engine from overheating. If you notice the hoses are bulging, breaking, cracking or separating, it’s a sign that something is amiss. Replace belts and hoses as needed.

4. Check the tires. Do you live in a snowy climate? If so, a set of four winter tires will provide the stability you need. Regardless of the tires you’ll use through the winter season, each tire should have sufficient tread and pressure. If your tires are properly maintained in this way, it will help you avoid a blowout, and it will also optimize your car’s handling and fuel economy.

Rotate your tires as needed, and perform a wheel alignment if you notice uneven wear. Don’t forget to check the spare.

5. Replace wiper blades. Wiper blades may last up to one year, and they should be replaced if they become frayed or cracked, or if the rubber splits from the blade. If your wipers aren’t working properly, you’ll have a hard time getting a clear view of the road in wet or snowy weather, and this could create safety problems.

If your blades don’t provide a streak-free driving experience, you’ll need to get new ones.

6. Examine the brake system. How is your brake system holding up? If you hear a high-pitched screeching sound when you hit the brakes, it’s a sign that this component may be in need of maintenance and repair. Are your brakes less responsive than they once were? This fading could be caused by a brake-fluid leak. If you notice a grinding sound when the brakes are used, it could mean that your pads have worn down completely.

Inspect the system for worn brakes pads, rotors and drums. Install new brake pads or shoes as needed. Replace or resurface brake rotors and drums, and bleed the brakes. Replace other components as needed, including hoses and brake lines.

7. Check the steering and suspension.  If your car is pulling to one side when you drive, or if it’s delivering unusually rough ride quality, steering or suspension problems could be the culprit.  Check components such as the shocks, struts, ball joints, bushings, CV joint boots and springs. Ensure the steering linkage supplies sufficient play. Look for leaks in power steering hoses and the steering gear.

8. Inspect the lights. In certain parts of the country, there is increased precipitation in the fall and winter months. This can compromise nighttime visibility, and you’ll need headlights that are in good working order to travel safely on the road.

Are all your car’s exterior lights in working order? Between headlamps, LED accent lights, fog lamps, turn signal lights, hazard flashing lights and tail lamps, a bulb may have burnt out. Just as lights help you see, they help other drivers see you.

9. Assemble or update your winter emergency kit. Every vehicle should include a basic emergency kit that includes jumper cables, duct tape and flares. For the winter, an ice scraper should be added. Sand or kitty litter should also be on hand, since these can provide traction for your vehicle if you get stuck in snow.

If you regularly travel long distances, expand your winter emergency kit to include a blanket or sleeping bag, a shovel, snack food, water, matches, candles, and a tow chain or rope. It’s also wise to include a first-aid kit. If you have to use items in this kit, make sure to replenish them. Also, periodically check to see that all expired items in your first-aid kit are replaced.

Fall Car Care Gets You Ready for Winter

Many of the tasks required to prepare your car for colder weather can be tackled yourself, but some may require the assistance of a professional mechanic. Free brake inspections are available through many service shops. As for winter tires, some retailers will both sell and store your off-season tires, and this may be an ideal option for people who are short on storage space.

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