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How to Care for Your Car in Cold Weather

By Dr. Fran Lockwood

The leaves are falling, the air is crisp, and pretty soon old man winter will set up shop for his favorite time of year. As you stock up on firewood, tack on the storm doors, and tune up the piano for family holiday gatherings, don't forget to take similar steps to prep your car for the busy and blustery months ahead.

While this may include stocking the family car with holiday CDs, I'm actually referring to your winter car care routine. When temperatures plunge, and snowy, wet conditions rule the road, every part of your car has to work harder to perform at its best. Before Jack Frost's first nip at your nose, here's a quick "to do" list to help your car weather the winter weather.

Tire Tips
Family responsibilities and holiday preparations can keep you in perpetual motion this time of year. Whether it's trips to the airport or shopping excursions to find that perfect gift, a good set of tires is essential to safe winter driving. Make sure your tires are properly rotated and aligned, and also check tire tread - tires should not be worn down to less than 2/32 of an inch for normal tires and 5/32 of an inch for snow tires.

An easy way to check is to take a Lincoln-head penny and insert it head first into the most worn part of your tire tread. If you can see Abe's head, he may be telling you to get a new set of tires. If so, consider buying a set of all-season tires with a traction rating of A (the highest rating) versus B or C, to better grip the road in snowy conditions.

Cooling System Checklist
When the white stuff hits, make sure you have plenty of the green stuff — antifreeze. Antifreeze can be one of the trickiest parts of your winterizing routine because, even though it has a strong green color, the additives could be worn out. This can cause the inside of your radiator to rust and if you are the type who "just adds water" when the level is down, your antifreeze mixture may have lost its ability to withstand freezing temperatures. You may have worthless green gunk under the hood!

A good rule of thumb is to replace your antifreeze every two years. If you're not sure when your antifreeze was last changed, you can easily check its endurance and freeze point with an antifreeze tester (they cost less than five dollars at any auto parts store). But if you're not a do-it-yourselfer, have it checked at a quick oil change or other service provider. They have more accurate and reliable testers.

When it is time to replace your antifreeze, look for a product that prevents cold weather freeze-ups at temperatures well below -30 degrees Fahrenheit, like Zerex® 5/100 Antifreeze Coolant, or, if you're currently using an orange coolant (recommended for most newer model GM vehicles) use Zerex* Extreme TM Life 5/150 Antifreeze Coolant. Remember that antifreeze needs to be diluted with water in a 50-50 mixture, or you could opt for a pre-mixed solution, like Zerex® Ready to Use Antifreeze Coolant.

To round out your cooling system checklist, make sure that water
pumps and thermostats work, check radiators and hoses for cracks and leaks, replace the radiator cap, and test heaters and defrosters for proper operation.

Oil To-Dos
Another way to help your car endure three months of cold starts in sub-zero temperatures is to change your oil grade. Check your owner's manual and use the lowest recommended grade for the best all-weather protection, fuel efficiency, and energy conservation. For most passenger cars the proper grade is 5W-30 and for the newest model Ford vehicles, 5W-20.

You also might want to consider adding a synthetic blend motor oil to your vehicle this winter. Synthetic oils make starting a cold engine easy. They resist build up of cold temperature sludge, helping your engine run better and longer, even in the most arctic-like weather.

Battery Basics
No one wants to cap a weekend spent skiing on the slopes by waiting for a tow in two feet of snow. You can help prevent unwelcome disasters by making sure your battery is up for the cold weather challenge. Make sure terminals are clean and tightened — you may even want to clean around terminals with an old toothbrush and a homemade mixture of baking soda and water.

Keep in mind that you should replace your battery every three to four years, but if you suspect your battery won't survive the season, have a trained technician check it out. If it is time to shop for a replacement battery, look for a model that offers more starting power, higher cold cranking amps, and reserve capacity to provide electrical energy when the engine isn't running.

Seasonal breakdowns and costly repairs can really put a damper on "the season of good cheer," so take time now to ensure your vehicle is in top condition, and be prepared for emergency situations. Before you go dashing through the snow, stock your trunk with, jumper cables, rock salt (to melt ice), an ice scraper, a can of tire inflator and a blanket. Keep your mobile phone charged and at hand. This way, at least your car won't be the source of any holiday headaches.

-- Dr. Fran Lockwood is the Vice President of Technology and Product Development for The Valvoline Company.