Car-care tips for when it gets really, really cold

Robert Duffer
Chicago Tribune
If your wiper blades are doing just a mediocre job with the snow, visibility is only going to get worse in a deep-freeze.

Cars, like people, don’t function as well in cold weather. Your car doesn’t like it anymore than you. Because most employers frown on hibernating, we’ve compiled a list of precautions to increase the odds of your car functioning in extreme cold.

Battery power: Mechanics recommend changing the battery every three years, though you could get away with five years, depending on how much you drive and how you drive. Have a mechanic check its condition.

Make sure the cables are not loose. With the engine off, see if the cables can slip free from the nodes. Don’t yank, but be firm. Tightening the nut is easy to do and can save you from a mid-drive battery loss.

Check for corrosion. A white powder, not unlike the dead skin of dried winter hands, around the nodes or the clamps could be a sign of corrosion. If you can’t get a new battery, loosen the cables, clean the nodes and clamps with baking soda, water and a toothbrush, then dry it and retighten.

If you need a jump, check your owner’s manual. Or YouTube. Our rule is dead to red, black to ground. Connect the red cable to the positive node on the live battery, and then connect it to the dead node; then connect the black or negative to the live node and ground it on a piece of metal on the hood frame of the dead car. Let it run for two minutes, then give the dead car a start. Let it run a bit, then reverse the process for removing the cables. Just don’t let the clamps touch..

Fill your fluids: Spend a buck and get a “winter blend” type of windshield wiper fluid. Winter blends have a greater concentration of alcohol and less water, so are less likely to freeze.

If your antifreeze hasn’t been flushed in a few years, then it could use it. Green-colored antifreeze is the most common; whichever color you choose, don’t mix them. Coolant and antifreeze are interchangeable terms. Coolant is typically sold premixed, so it is half water, half antifreeze, as it needs to be. Antifreeze can be pure and needs to be mixed. Check the bottle; it’ll tell you.

Check your oil: If it’s due for a change, consider refilling it with a lower viscosity oil. On the bottle it lists two numbers, or grades, the first for low temperature viscosity, the second for high temperature. 10W-30 is a common designation. The higher the number, the more viscous, or thick it is, the less fluid it is especially in cold temps. So you might want to consider 5W-20 or -30. That “W” stands for winter.

Wipers: Winter conditions can limit visibility. If your blades have done just a mediocre job with the snow, it’s only going to get worse with the freeze. Winter wipers do a better job of swatting away moisture and can be had for under $20 for the pair.

Tire pressure: Having the correct tire pressure is essential for proper handling. A temperature change of just 10 degrees can cause a 10 percent reduction, or constriction, of air in tires. Check the optimal tire pressure of your vehicle on the label inside the driver’s door frame or in the owner’s manual. Do not use the PSI on the tire! That’s max capacity for the tire, not for your car’s specific load.

Lock freeze: Shooting WD-40 into the locks can help prevent them from freezing overnight but it can also gum up the tumblers. Some people prefer graphite, a dry powder that will not gum up but is messy to work with. Tri-Flow spray lubricant works great. Also, keeping the door’s gaskets lubed with silicone can keep the door from freezing to the frame. Consider buying a deicer and keeping it handy.