As winter approaches, we know to keep the ice scraper handy and to check the antifreeze. But using the wrong techniques to prepare your vehicle for cold weather can damage your ride and cost you big bucks.

When it comes to winter, all drivers are not created equal, according to Boston master mechanic John Paul, AAA’s ” Car Doctor.”

“It has to do with where you grew up,” he says. “For people who deal with it all the time, winter is just like a sunny day, it’s something that just happens. But if you moved to New England from Florida, winter is a catastrophic event and people don’t know quite how to deal with it.

“In New England, we have wet, we have cold and our drivers aren’t always the best. Fortunately, we have really good hospitals.”

Automotive writer Paul Duchene says that as temperatures go down, the cost of repairs goes up.

“Anything that is going to be done to your car in the wintertime when everything is wet and cold is going to be that much nastier for the guys who are going to have to do it — and that much more expensive and inconvenient,” he says.

We asked our experts to shovel out the do’s from the don’ts when it comes to winterizing your ride. Where mistakes require service, we’ve based the repair estimates on parts for a 2004 Subaru Outback and shop labor at $85 per hour. Parts quotes are courtesy of AutoZone’s Alldata Web site.

Winterizing your car
Bankrate’s winter system check
Bankrate’s winter system check
  1. Battery
  2. Warm-up
  3. Antifreeze
  4. Oil
  5. Tires
  1. Gas tank
  2. Wipers
  3. Heater/defroster
  4. Winter kit

1. Battery

Paul says battery-related issues are AAA’s most common service calls. Winter causes sort of a chain reaction: It makes your engine oil thicker, which requires your starter to crank longer, which places additional demand on your battery. As a result, you lose about 30 percent of your battery’s capacity in cold weather. Batteries last, on average, three to five years. If yours is older, it will most likely die in winter.

Bad move: Going into winter with a 5-year-old battery.

Good move: Buying a new one on sale in the fall for under $50. And don’t forget to clean away the corrosion and tighten the cables against the cold.

2. Warm-up

The winter ritual of starting your car and letting it warm up forever is an unnecessary waste of fuel. The engine actually warms sufficiently — meaning oil moves to all the important engine parts — within the first minute. The real danger occurs if you get into your “warmed” car and immediately floor it before other moving parts, such as the transmission, have had their lubricating cuppa joe.

Bad move: Flooring it out of the driveway in extreme cold — you could break a gear. Cost for a new transmission: $5,500 + five hours labor = $5,925.

Good move: Warming the engine briefly (30 seconds to a minute), then driving slowly the first couple of miles to allow fluids to reach all moving parts.

3. Antifreeze

There’s a little confusion about antifreeze these days. Here’s the deal: Antifreeze mixed (50-50) with water is designed to protect your radiator and engine block to about minus 34 degrees Fahrenheit. An inexpensive gauge called a “hydrometer” can tell you if your antifreeze makes the grade. Where some drivers go sideways is, they put in straight antifreeze, figuring more is better. Actually, more isn’t better; in fact, it turns into something resembling lime Jell-O in winter, reducing its effectiveness. Antifreeze manufacturers have lately added to the confusion by selling premixed antifreeze. What a deal: 50-percent less for a dollar more!

Bad move: Ignoring your antifreeze. If you run your vehicle when the coolant is frozen and not circulating, the engine will get very hot, very fast and likely blow a gasket. Cost: $80 for two gaskets + eight hours labor = $760.

Good move: Checking your mix and replacing it if necessary. It’s a good idea to back-flush your radiator every few years as well to remove sediment buildup — but never do so on your driveway or other areas where pets might drink it, antifreeze is deadly to them.

4. Oil

When it comes to oil, it’s all about the viscosity. Generally, it’s best to follow the manufacturer’s recommended weight: 10-40, 10-30 and so forth. But, if you have an older car that burns oil and requires, say, 20-50 in summer, it’s a good idea to lighten up a bit in winter. “That 20-50 is going to be glue when the weather cools,” says Duchene. A good winter choice for oil-burners might be 15-40.

Bad move: Using heavy oil in winter — it takes more effort to start.

Good move: In addition to following manufacturer’s recommendations, considering a switch to synthetic oils which pump a little more quickly in colder temperatures.

5. Tires

So many winter myths exist regarding tires that it’s hard to know where to start. In Grandpa’s day, folks would deflate their tires in winter, the assumption being it put more surface rubber on the road for traction. Paul says just the opposite happens: It closes up the tread and decreases traction. Stick to the recommended psi, or pounds per square inch.

The studded tire controversy also rages on. Our experts say: Use them if black ice is prevalent in your area. Snow tires can actually create a very costly winter blunder. Listen carefully: If you have a front-wheel drive, four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive vehicle and you want to use snow tires, you need them on all four wheels. Front-wheel drive vehicles with snow tires on the front can easily spin upon braking when the front tires dig in better than the rear tires. On 4WD and AWD vehicles, you can even cause transmission damage if you run differently sized tires because the vehicle reads them as having different traction capacities and tries constantly to adjust.

Bad move: Buying mix-and-match tires on 4WD or AWD could cost you a transmission.

Good move: Running regular, snow or studded tires at the recommended pressures. As far as tread goes, a good rule of thumb is: Stick a nickel into the tread. If it doesn’t cover part of Jefferson’s head, start watching for tire sales.

6. Gas tank

In winter, keep your gas tank full. Why? As temperatures change during the day, condensation forms on the inside of the gas tank, drips into your gas, descends to the bottom and finds its way into your fuel line. Because the fuel line is exposed, if enough water accumulates there, it will freeze and you won’t be going anywhere soon. Yes, alcohol-based “dry gas” additives such as HEET will help, but don’t overuse them or you’ll adversely affect the typical 90-10 gas-to-ethanol ratio of your gas, which could be hard on your fuel line.

Bad move: Running on empty. A new fuel pump will cost you $330 + one hour labor = $415; a new fuel filter $40 + one hour labor = $125.

Good move: Running full and keeping the dry gas to a bottle or two per winter. If your car is going to sit out the winter, add a bottle of gas stabilizer (Sta-Bil is one brand) to keep the gas fresh.

7. Wipers

Winter brings out what Paul calls “the U-boat commanders,” who drive around peering through a periscope-sized clear spot on their windshields. As dangerous as it is to yourself and others to drive this way, it can also easily cost you a couple hundred bucks. How? If you don’t clear the ice and snow from your entire vehicle and you hit the brakes while commanding your U-boat, the snow that remains, especially on the tops of sport utility vehicles, will slide forward onto your windshield, where it will pin your wipers. Unless you shut them off quickly, you’ll fry your wiper motor, literally before you can see straight.

Bad move: Commanding a U-boat. A new wiper motor will cost $120 + one hour labor = $205.

Good move: Come on, captain, clearing the decks of ice and snow before shoving off.

8. Heater/defroster

If your U-boat vision is caused from the inside, it’s time to check your windows, doors and heater core for leaks. Damp carpet and upholstery mixed with your car’s heater system equals steam. If the culprit is your heater itself, you’re looking at a fairly costly job, since heater coils are often one of the most difficult systems to access in modern vehicles. Similarly, check your defroster. If it can’t generate sufficient heat to melt snow and freezing rain on the exterior of your windshield, it could spell disaster when the weather turns nasty.

Bad move: Cracking the windows and wiping the fog while you drive. Cost of a new heater core: $160 + four hours labor = $500.

Good move: Fixing the leaks, drying the carpets and checking your heater and defroster annually.

9. Winter kit

Perhaps the biggest mistake drivers make is to put off assembling a winter survival kit.

“The guys who die in the far north are usually the locals who basically just head down the road in T-shirts in 34-below for a six-pack and the car quits,” says Duchene. “They decide they’re going to walk a couple miles and they don’t make it.”

Don’t find yourself in the same predicament. We’ve assembled a minimal list of winter essentials that should be in your vehicle every time you drive.

Winter kit:
  • Cell phone.
  • Flashlight.
  • Foldable army snow shovel.
  • Jack and inflated spare tire.
  • Gloves.
  • Blanket.
  • Reusable heat packs.
  • Extra winter clothing (scarf, boots, sweater, etc.).
  • Snow brush/scraper.
  • Flares.
  • Reflective triangle.
  • Sand, cat box filler or salt for traction.
  • First aid kit.
  • Jumper cables.
  • Energy bars or granola.
  • Paper towels.
  • Tools.
  • Duct tape.

Bad move: Putting off assembling a winter kit until Mom’s birthday two months from now. “I remember the blizzard of ’78 and people sat in their cars for three days,” says Paul.

Good move: “It’s a lot better to plan for the worst than to not be ready for it,” he adds.

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