The National Weather Service is predicting arctic air through the Plains and into the Ohio/Tennessee Valleys towards the mid-Atlantic and Northeast this week, bringing temperatures near zero and wind chills in the -15F range. Here’s what’s going to go wrong in your car this week:
Your Battery Will Die
Batteries have a finite life span, and yours is typically going to reach the end of it when the temperature drops. Counterintuitively, according to the folks at Optima, it’s the hot weather that really does the damage: “Even though many folks believe cold weather hurts batteries, it really serves to bring out the damage done during hot summer months.” Heat kills batteries.
Here’s what you can do to avoid being stranded: Have your battery load-tested.
If you’re not going to buy your own load tester, your garage or your dealer can load-test your battery to find out whether it’s capable of turning your engine over when you need it to. If it isn’t, you’ll have to replace it with a new battery. The cost typically runs about $125 these days.
Your Fluids Will Thicken
Part of the reason a weak battery reveals itself in the winter is that the fluids inside the engine thicken and make the starter motor work harder to turn the engine. Motor oil that isn’t flowing properly can have a detrimental impact on your engine over time. It’s important to choose the proper engine oil for your car. Check your owner’s manual to determine the correct viscosity and type of engine oil.
In extreme cold weather — below zero — other fluids can cause issues. In cars that use hydraulic power steering systems, the fluid can thicken and make steering the car difficult. In those kinds of temperatures, it’s a good idea to let the engine run a bit before you head out down the road. You’ll pay for it in hydrocarbons and poor fuel mileage, but it’s a minimal cost to make sure everything’s working properly.
Your Hoses or Your Radiator Will Fail
The coolant running through your engine and its various rubber hoses is cycling at somewhere north of the boiling point. The system is under pressure, which allows the coolant to run at somewhere between 220 and 230 degrees. That coolant is looking for a place to escape, and the weakest points are either the rubber hoses, or any weak spot in the radiator’s plumbing.
If you do end up with a plume of steam pouring out from under the hood, follow these steps:
Shut the car off as soon as possible: Get safety to the side of the road as soon as you can when you see the temperature gauge run into the hot zone, or see a coolant temperature warning on the dash. Running the car any longer can result in a blown head gasket, which is going to cost infinitely more than the tow you’ll need to get the car to a garage.
Open the hood: Carefully open the hood. If steam is pouring out right where the hood safety latch is, don’t risk getting burned. Just pop the hood from the inside and let it sit cracked open. It will help to dissipate the steam and also indicate to passing drivers that you’re having issues.
Call for a tow: Chances are good that you’re not going to be executing a McGyver-like fix beside the road with an Ace bandage and a roll of duct tape. Your best bet is to call for a tow to the nearest dealer or service facility.
Your Wipers Will Disintegrate
There’s nothing like cold weather to find out exactly how awful your windshield wipers are. Rubber loses its flexibility in the cold, and if the wipers are worn out, they’re going to be as effective at clearing your windshield as a couple of branches.
The good news is that new wipers aren’t horribly expensive, even if you drive something like a BMW, for which you can only get replacements at the dealer. Most dealers can swap out wiper blades in a few seconds, and sometimes you won’t even have to get out of the car.
Your Tires Will Be Underinflated
For every 10-degree drop in temperature from about 50 degrees, you can count on losing a pound of air pressure out of your tires. That results in lousy gas mileage and in extreme cases of low pressure, unsafe driving.
On cars produced after 2007, you’ve got a Tire Pressure Monitoring System that lights an indicator on the dash. Better systems will tell you what the pressure is in each tire. Lesser systems will tell you only that you’re low in at least one tire.
Gas stations have air pumps less frequently and conveniently located than ever before. Your best bet is to stash a 12-volt air compressor in the trunk, but a dealer can always help out if you need them to.