Experts advise drivers prepare vehicles for winter months

MIMI MYLIN/Sun-Gazette Correspondent Shown above is a collection of items that drivers should keep in their vehicles in case they need something in a pinch.

Early winter is one of the best times to give automobiles a good health checkup to be sure they will run reliably and safely over the next several months. Preventative maintenance helps drivers avoid breaking down when the weather is at its most severe and minimizes the likelihood of an accident.

“Although some people may not winterize their car because of they’re thinking of the extra costs of the holiday season, a nickel in prevention will save a dollar later in repairs,” said Ben Confer, store manager at TriGar Tire and Auto, 1950 E. Third St. “The cost of snow tires and other simple maintenance does not outweigh the cost of your family’s safety during winter.”

According to Confer, about 20 percent of his customers bring their cars in for a pre-winter check. Many of these customers have had their cars for years and “want to be sure everything is up to snuff before going into the winter,” he said.

“Even if you spend $200 at the beginning of the winter, that’s a lot better than having to pick up a monthly $400 car payment if something happens to your car,” he said.

Preventive maintenance is particularly important to people living in rural areas where cars are a necessity for getting to work, shopping centers and doctors’ offices.

Basic maintenance

According to Confer, the two most important items to check are tire condition and antifreeze levels.

“If the antifreeze is not right, it can crack the radiator or damage the water pump,” he said.

Salt and other anti-skid material dispersed onto roads during periods of snow will increase the use of washer fluid throughout the winter, so be sure to top it off. Also, spray some fluid onto the windshield to be sure tubes are not clogged.

Ice and snow on windshields put more stress on wiper blades, making them more likely to become dull or break. Exchange regular blades for those with a protective cover over the arm. Store the used summer blades in the trunk so they are available as a spare.

Weak or unreliable blower motors, needed to push warm air into the car and defrost windshields, should be replaced. As the longer nights roll in, it’s a good time to replace dimming headlights.

Also be sure to check that the battery is holding an adequate charge, especially if it is older than three years. Cold weather slows the chemical reactions in batteries making them more prone to failure during the winter.

If your car sits outside for any length of time, remove fallen leaves and other debris from vents along the windshield. Vacuuming works well and may even prompt reluctant car cleaners to vacuum the inside of the car while they’re at it.

Owners of older cars should consider having their heater core flushed, especially if the air flow does not seem as warm as it should be. Even if the car is heating well, considering having the core flushed at about 100,000 miles or according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.

Evaluate tires

“Tires should have good contact with the road so they don’t slide out of control when trying to stop,” Confer said. Tires with worn treads should be replaced.

About 10 percent of TriGar’s customers switch to snow tires.

“Probably the expense and hassle of having a second set of tires keeps people from switching to snow tires — you need to have them switched out twice a year and you have to have a place to store four tires. However, the hassle is absolutely worth the improved safety,” Confer said.

Although all-weather tires are good, Tim Reidy, manager at Kost Tires, 1304 Washington Blvd., recommends a dedicated winter tire for the best traction.

“The grooves on snow tires act like little squeegees to push wet sludge away from the car to reach the surface of the road. Also, true winter tires will stay soft even at freezing temperatures, unlike all-weather tires, which will stiffen up even at 45 degrees,” Reidy said.

Reidy recommends having all four tires, especially if they have grooves that are 4/32nds deep or less. (state minimum is 2/32nds), replaced with winter-rated tires. If only two are affordable, it is best to put them on the rear, even on front wheel drive cars, to prevent an oversteer condition.

All tires will slip on ice, so purchasing a set of studded tires is a wise investment in safety. Although the cost of an extra set of tires may seem prohibitive, it is not much compared to the cost of repairing a damaged car, health care bills and missed work should an accident occur.

To maintain good fuel efficiency and durability, check the tire pressure. Drivers can usually find the recommended pressure on a sticker placed on the inside of the driver side door frame. Those numbers are based on a cool tire, typically measured in the morning before driving on them.

Pressure drops with the temperature, so it can change significantly over the course of the winter. The pressure in larger tires, which have more air, will drop more than smaller tires. Adjust the pressure periodically throughout the winter.

Check emergency kits

As snow and ice are more likely to create hazardous conditions, the fall is a good time to check your emergency kit. If you don’t already have one, you can buy or assemble one on your own.

Absolute must-haves include: jumper cables at least 10 feet long, syphon, two flares (four is better), basic first aid kit, a thermal blanket and a small container that can hold water. Also make sure you have a flashlight with good batteries. Keep the batteries separate from each other and the flashlight to prevent corrosion.

Consider also including these items: rain poncho, electrical tape, various sizes of fuses and hose clamps and tire puncture sealer. A 10-foot length of strong chain in case your car needs pulling or towing, a 5-yard length of rope and a collapsible shovel are also good to have on hand. A small bag of sand or kitty litter can provide traction to slipping tires as can a small piece of carpet. Keeping a piece of carpet in your trunk has the added benefit of protecting the manufacturer’s carpet.

Pack an extra set of warm gloves, hand warmers, socks, and a small regular blanket. Including a ready-to-eat meal, available in camping sections of stores, is also a good idea. If you have one from last year, replace it with a new one.

Keep lock deicer handy at home and at work (not in the car where it would be inaccessible if the lock is frozen).

“Giving a vehicle a good once-over helps prevent the unexpected from happening and provides peace of mind,” Confer said. “If you’re in doubt about your tires or other component, don’t hesitate to ask your mechanic to give it a quick check for a second opinion — most mechanics will do that as a courtesy.”

Winterization services at most garages will cost about $30 for a basic check and about $150 for a full service check, flushing and replacement of needed fluids.