Polar Vortex Incoming! Here’s How to Protect Your Car
Extreme cold weather solutions to keep you on the moveby Jonathan Lopez, on
Brace yourselves - Polar Vortex 2019 is just over the horizon, and it’s poised to break temperature records across the U.S. with extreme cold weather conditions. And when I say extreme, I’m talking about dangerously low temperatures, with some parts of the Midwest dipping down into the negative 50s or even negative 60s with the added wind chill factor. Temperatures like this can have a huge effect on cars, so we put together a few tips to help you protect your ride and keep it moving.
Check Your Car Battery
Winter weather can cause all sorts of issues, but one of the biggest is decreased battery performance, with overall electrical efficiency taking a big hit as the thermometer drops.
In fact, a battery can lose upwards of 60 percent of its cranking power at 0 degrees F, according to the AAA Automotive Research Center.
To make matters worse, the cold weather also makes engine oil thicker, and thus the engine is even more resistant to cranking over. Suffice to say, at 40 below, it takes a lot of juice to start the engine, warm the glow plugs, and light up the internal combustion process.
A few warning signs that your battery is failing include an odd clicking sound when turning the ignition, or dim headlights while idling and brighter headlights when revving the engine.
To help make sure your battery can provide the juice needed in this bitter cold, get it inspected and make sure it’s putting out the necessary CCA (Cold Cranking Amps).
You might wanna look into getting a trickle charger too as it can help keep the battery at a full charge during the periods of truly bitter cold.
Also, disconnect your smartphone and any other device that’s drawing power from the battery, as every electron counts in really cold weather. Make sure these are unplugged as often as possible, especially when the engine isn’t running.
Finally, if your car is all-electric, expect a serious decrease in overall range per charge. Of course, the large battery packs in an EV will hold power better than the measly battery under the hood of an internal combustion engine, but still, with cold weather and the heater blasting in the cabin, expect far fewer miles than in ideal weather conditions.
Keep Your Locks Unfrozen
Another common issue in cold weather are frozen door locks, but there are several little hacks to get around it.
For example, try to prevent the lock from freezing in the first place by placing a magnet, some tape, or some other kind of cover over the lock, thus preventing moisture from reaching it.
There’s also special de-icer fluid you can buy to help it thaw. Alternatively, try heating up the key using a lighter or some matches, but make sure you have a pair of oven mitts on so you don’t burn yourself, and make sure you only heat the metal sections of the key, not the plastic bits.
Check Your Engine Coolant
While coolant keeps your engine from overheating in the summer months, its the antifreeze part of the mix that keeps your engine from harm in the winter months.
A 50:50 blend of ethylene glycol-based coolant/antifreeze can prevent freezing as low as -64 degrees Fahrenheit.
To make sure your car’s coolant system is prepared for the bitter cold, head over to an auto parts store and pick up a hydrometer, which you can use to take a small sample of the fluid and see just where you car’s coolant stacks up in terms of freeze protection.
Check Your Tires
Cold weather also effects your vehicle’s tire pressure, as the denser air decreases the overall air volume inside the tire. This means your tires may be under-inflated, so make sure to keep an eye on it with a decent tire pressure gauge.
If you notice your tires are under the recommended psi spec, head over to a gas station and pump them up.
Also, make sure you have the right tire compound to tackle the slick road conditions. Half-bald all-season rubber isn’t gonna cut it when there’s ice and snow on the roadways - ideally, you’re gonna want a dedicated winter tire that’s specifically made for cold conditions and frozen roads. Studded tires are even better. And, you need them on all four corners.
Make Sure You Can See
When snow starts to fall, the roads can turn into a thick mix of slush, grit, and mud. All that nastiness can quickly find its way onto your windshield, and traveling down a treacherous, slippery highway is the last place you want to find out your wiper blades aren’t up to the task. If there’s any doubt, replace the wipers as soon as possible.
Also make sure your windshield wiper fluid is at the right spec and offers a freezing point in line with the forecast.
What’s more, it can get pretty dark during a winter storm, so make sure your headlights are in good working order, especially as the extra moisture can short out poorly sealed electronics. In extreme cold, you’ll find that your car’s heater system needs to run on defrost at all times and, even then, the windshield may still freeze over at speed. So, be sure that your defrost function actually works or you might find out that you’re getting nowhere fast in the middle of mother nature’s temper tantrum.
Keep Your Engine Oil Fresh
Like I said in the first section above, cold engine oil is thicker and more difficult to churn than warm engine oil, and this is especially true if you’re overdue for an oil change. Old used engine oil can be quite viscous, and that can be a pretty big deal in cold weather.
If your car can support 0W- weighted oil, that's the ideal oil for the kind of extreme cold we're experiencing.
The ususal 5W- weight oil will be okay, but the thinner the oil is at extreme cold, the better lubrication your engine will have at cold start.
Consider Grabbing A Bottle Of Gas Line Antifreeze
Occasionally, water can get into a vehicle’s fuel system, either from the holding tanks at a gas station, or just through general air humidity. In really cold weather, this can result in frozen fuel lines and damage, not to mention a lot of headache. Luckily, prevention is easy - just grab a bottle of gas antifreeze (Heet is one popular brand) and pour it into the gas tank.
The liquid will then absorb any errant water from the fuel and prevent it from mucking up your engine, as well as help to prevent corrosion.
It can also put an end to difficult cold-weather starts if moisture is an inherant issue. Another way to help prevent moisture is to make sure that your fuel cap is sealed. Most modern cars trigger a check engine light if it isn’t, but older cars won’t.
Special Consideration For Diesel Engines
While we’re on the subject of fuel, we might as well talk about diesel engines, which require some special consideration in the winter months. Unlike gasoline, diesel fuel contains parraffin wax that can “gel” in really cold weather, crystallize, and plug up the fuel filter and the lines, which makes the engine run rough, and eventually, not run at all. To help prevent this, grab a bottle of anti-gel fuel additive and pour it into the tank.
Those of you running a diesel should also consider an engine block heater, assuming your vehicle doesn’t already have a built-in system for just that purpose.
Since diesel fuel requires a very high temperature to properly ignite inside the engine, a block heater helps to get the engine started on those frigid mornings.
And, a special note on batteries here - it’s even more imparative that your battery be in the best condition possible in extreme winter weather. During cold starts, the battery is tasked with igniting the glow plugs that heat the engine’s combustion chambers — this is what that "wait to start" light is all about. In the period of time you have to wait to start the engine, the battery is already sending juice to those glow plugs. In extreme weather, it will take longer to warm the combustion chambers and a battery in poor health might not have the juice to properly run the glowplugs and crank over the engine.
A Few Essentials To Keep In Your Car
First off, it has to be said that if the weather is looking bad, simply not driving is the best option. However, if you absolutely must drive, there are a few essential items to keep with you at all times.
The basics include:
- Jumper cables
- A tool kit
- Snow chains or cables (if they are legal in your state)
- Small shovel
- An ice scraper
- Extra warm clothes (including hats, boots, and gloves)
- non-perishable food
- Extra water
- Portable phone chargers
- Chemical warming pads
All of the items listed above can help you should the unfortunate circumstance of breaking down or getting stuck in a remote area falls upon you.
You might also want to carry a bag of cat litter or a stack of roof shingles as it can help your tires grip if you get stuck in deeper snow.
Finally, make sure your fuel tank is as full as possible. Not only does this help prevent the intrusion of water into the fuel system, but if you get stuck, an idling engine will help keep you warm while you wait for help.