Get Ready, Winter Is Coming

Winter weather has the same effect on your car as it has on your body. It adds additional stress and strain, and that, in turn, means that small problems often become big ones before you know it. The key to avoiding mechanical woes that could leave you stranded in the freezing cold is preventive maintenance, and while most people like performing preventive maintenance about as much as they like flossing, which is to say not at all, it does have its rewards. Just picture yourself standing beside your stalled car as snowflakes blow past your unprotected head and you'll begin to grasp how valuable preventive maintenance can be.

Now, with that picture in your mind, making certain the following maintenance items get attended to won't be too onerous a task. The following are some pre-winter tips recommended by Jeff Ogden, president of AAA Minnesota/Iowa, and Judell Anderson, executive director of the Alliance of Automotive Service Professionals, two people who know their stuff:

Most pre-winter checks start with the battery. Make sure the terminals are tight and clean. If your lights seem dim or your vehicle starts are sluggish, have the electrical system, including the battery, checked by a technician, preferably an automotive technician.

While most people don't associate radiator boil-over with frigid winter temperatures, the fact is that winter puts extra stress on a vehicle's cooling system. Check the coolant strength with a hydrometer so you are certain to have enough anti-freeze protection to avoid an expensive repair, and remember the recommended protection level in the lower 48 (states) is -36 degrees. Wait for the car to cool off before you perform the radiator check, too.

Just like a radiator problem, worn belts and hoses can lead to a mid-winter problem that will get you all too well acquainted with the side of the road. Unless you're eager to start a new career gathering up discarded cans and bottles, check the belts for cracks or fraying and check the hoses for leaks, bulges, or cracks. While you're at it, make sure the clamps are secure and free of corrosion.

Like to see where you're going? If so, a check of the windshield washer/wipers is in order. Make sure the reservoir is filled with washer solvent, not plain water, and replace your wiper blades if needed.

Ah, those other fluids are important, too. So check oil, brake, transmission, and power steering fluid levels to make sure they're up to factory recommendations. It isn't a difficult process but if you're unsure, follow your owner's manual directions.

Just like a lack of fluids, a lowly air filter can really ruin your day if it's filthy dirty. One way to see if it needs to be replaced is by simply holding it up to a light. If you cannot see light through it, replace it. (If you see a small squirrel inside, you have another problem.)

In winter weather, with uncertain traction, your tires are more important than ever, so inspect the wear on your tires and check the pressure with a gauge when the tires are cold. Refer to your owner's manual for the recommended air pressure and tread depth specifications.

In the dark nights of winter your lights and signals help other drivers see you before it is too late, so activate them in the driveway while a friend, acquaintance (or even your spouse!) watch to ensure they all work.

While a mildly skilled do-it-yourselfer can perform all of these checks by herself or himself, if you feel you can't complete this list, then take a few minutes to have a trusted local service technician perform them for you. Remember that picture of the snow whipping past your face, and you'll immediately grasp why spending that short amount of time is a good idea.

Jack R. Nerad is Managing Editor of Driving Today. His automotive advice is heard weekly on his syndicated radio program "America on the Road."