Ski season is in high gear. From the slopes at Lake Tahoe to the resorts of Colorado and New Hampshire, it looks to be a record-breaking season. However, that means more resort-bound travelers could be breaking down on the way to their favorite resort.
The most common reasons cars get stuck in cold weather? Most have to do with routine car care issues that are easily prepared for before leaving home. Some you know, such as topping off your fluids. There are others you may think you know, like ensuring your tires and battery are prepared. Additionally, there are a few that you may not think to check, such as your visibility and timing belt.
So after updating your winter coat, checking your ski-boot straps, and waxing your skis or snowboard, run your eyes over this list of car check-ups.
What You Probably Know
Antifreeze is a key part of your engine’s cooling system. Make sure it’s filled to the proper level, and not leaking, before you head out. You can ensure that you have no leaks by parking your car and placing a piece of cardboard underneath. If you do have leaks, they’ll show here.
You should also make a visual inspection of your belts and hoses for wear and cracks, and prepare a safety kit to keep in your car for trips in cold weather.
CARFAX’s “Winterizing Your Car” post covers these ideas and a few more. It’s a good check-list as you begin to prepare your car.
What You Think You Know
What about the tires and battery?
These, according to Robert Sinclair, Jr., manager of media relations for AAA New York, are the two leading issues about which they receive calls for help. So if everyone knows the importance of maintaining their tires and batteries, why are there so many issues?
Let’s start with tires. We all know that tires should be inflated to the manufacturer’s specifications for pounds per square inch. “But,” says Sinclair, “we forget that deflation is a real problem. For every 10 degrees the temperature drops, you can lose 1 to 2 psi.”
And rapid temperature fluctuations are common when driving through the mountains. So a 20 degree drop in temperature can yield a decrease of 4 psi. If your tires are inflated on the lower end of specifications, you can find yourself running on underinflated tires.
“As the tire loses pressure,” Sinclair adds, “it can become overheated where the tire meets the rim and fail catastrophically. Heat is the real problem.”
Joseph Henmueller, president of the Automotive Maintenance and Protection Association, also tells people to be sure that the correct tires are on their car. “Many cars … are delivered from the dealership with summer tires,” he says, and “these do not perform well in temperatures below 40 degrees.”
And if you are driving a hybrid, Henmueller says these are loaded with “a set of tires designed to provide maximum mileage. If you are going to drive under winter conditions, you need a different type of tire.”
Batteries are another item we frequently don’t check close enough. Sinclair says that “a battery can lose as much as 30 percent of its cranking power as it gets near freezing. At 0 degrees, it can lose 60 percent of its power.”
The average battery life is three to five years. As noted, cold can sap starting power, but heat might be the bigger enemy. If you live in a warm-weather climate that same battery may last only a year or two.
It’s important, say Henmueller and Sinclair, to have the battery tested. Henmueller says that new battery testers “are fantastic, extremely accurate.” Once a tester says you need to replace soon, for example, you only have about 300 starts left.
Also, Sinclair says to watch for the build-up of battery acid on your cables. These can sap starting power and leave you stuck. Use a wire brush to clean them thoroughly.
What You May Not Think To Check
Visibility is a major issue for people driving through areas where snow is likely.
“Vision sounds easy,” Henmueller says, “but most folks don’t pay attention to things like windshields.” These collect grime as you drive—a film of dirt, grease, and other particles that can deteriorate your wiper blades.
“If you install new wiper blades,” says Henmueller, “and they squeak, it’s because of the grime.”
You should scrub the windshield with a mild abrasive that can be found in any auto parts store. Afterwards, apply Rain-X or a similar product to protect the glass.
While you’re at it, if your headlight lenses are made of plastic, these need to be polished, too.
And there are wiper blades to consider. You may need new ones, but also check to see if your blades go all the way to the edge of the windshield. If not, fast-falling snow can build up and immobilize them. Henmueller says that most wipers can be adjusted so that they go to the edge of the windshield, thereby keeping snow from building up. Check with your local automotive technician.
Timing belts are another potential problem people often overlook. Sinclair says that 40 percent of the time AAA responds to a call about a broken timing belt, they are unable to get the car back on the road due to the damage it causes. “If you have an interference engine and the belt goes, the valves will crash into the pistons, and then you need a whole lot of work,” Sinclair adds.
Timing belts have a life span of 60,000 to 70,000 miles, and need to be changed accordingly. If you use your car to commute and put lots of miles on it, “you might want to attend to this before you get to 60,000 or 70,000 miles,” says Sinclair.
Finally, would you believe that lock-outs are quickly rising up the ranks of calls that AAA receives? According to Sinclair, “lock-outs used to account for about 1 percent of road service calls; now they’re 15-20 percent.”
Because today’s keys contain a computer chip for added security, it’s no longer a matter of simply cutting a new one if you leave your keys in the car or lose your key. Replacing one of these keys can cost you between $200 and $400.
So, Sinclair recommends keeping a spare with you, apart from the car. “It may sound silly,” he says, “but you can place it around your neck for safe-keeping.”
When driving to the mountains, whether for skiing or another winter activity, your car requires extra attention. Especially if you live in a warm-weather region. So stay on top of your regularly scheduled maintenance, and pay attention to some items that can make the difference between a memorable vacation, and a vacation you would rather forget.