As the leaves drop, days get shorter, the air crisper, and change happens fast. One day, you’re in shorts and a T-shirt enjoying the last throes of a warm autumn. The next, it’s 35 degrees and you’re scraping snow off the windshield. Don’t be caught off guard. Fall can be a beautiful time of year, but it’s also a perfect opportunity to get your car ready to handle the cold and changing seasons.
Whether you live in a warmer climate with rain on the horizon or the frozen tundra of the Midwest, check out these 4 car maintenance tips to get your car ready for winter.
1. Prepare your coolant for the cold
Engine coolant does more than just protect your car from overheating. It also helps prevent corrosion in the engine. Top off your coolant levels with a coolant that has ethylene glycol for better winter protection. It’s may also be a good idea to add more coolant to the water so it’s a 60/40 ratio, rather than the straight 50/50 combination that’s usually recommended for summer.
Another great DIY car hack for the fall: check your radiator for leaks. Place a piece of cardboard underneath the radiator while the car’s parked and look for stains the next day. If you see anything, you probably have a leak.
2. Check tires for traction and pressure
We often forget about our tires during the summer when weather isn’t much of an issue. But even if you live in a warmer climate, wintry rain can seriously affect your traction. For rainy conditions, make sure your tires are replaced when they get down to at least 4/32″ (3mm) since tires need enough room for rain to flow through the grooves so you don’t hydroplane. For colder conditions, you’ll want to replace them when they get down to 5/32″ of tread since they’ll need more room for packed-on snow. If your roads see a lot of snow and ice, consider winter tires before the first snowfall.
And remember to keep them filled properly. Even a 10 degree change in temperature can cause your tires to gain or lose 1 pound per square inch (PSI). Maintaining the correct tire pressure is a simple hack that improves handling. Tired of waiting in line to use the air pump at the gas station? Check out a portable compressor that can plug into your vehicle’s electrical jack.
3. Check brakes and brake fluid
Whether you’re driving in snowstorms or winter monsoons, good brakes can literally save your life. Make a habit of scheduling a brake and car inspection with a certified technician every fall, before winter weather kicks in. Badly worn brakes, or brakes low on hydraulic fluid, can seriously hamper your control of the car. If a brake pedal requires more pressure to stop, or you hear squeaking, scraping, or squealing when you brake, new brake pads are overdue.
You should also have your braking fluid inspected by a pro. Brake fluid operates in an enclosed system, so in theory it should work well for hundreds of thousands of miles. But water from leaks or improper sealants can contaminate it, causing corrosion and poor brake performance. If brake fluid is dark in color, the brakes will likely need to be flushed and the fluid replaced.
4. Stock your car
Getting ready for the cold, or heavy winter rains, means being prepared. Make sure your car has everything you need to handle an emergency. Keep a few extra blankets in the trunk in case you’re stranded in a snow storm. Have a flashlight handy. Stock the trunk with jumper cables in case the cold wears out your battery. Make sure you have an extra phone charger that plugs into your vehicle’s electrical outlet. If you live in a cold climate, keep an ice-scraper on hand (ideally one with a brush for easy snow removal). And for rainy climates, stash an umbrella within easy reach of the driver’s seat.
Remember to stock your jacket pockets or purse too. And, of course, hand warmers are always helpful on a cold morning.
Once your car is prepped for the winter, make sure your driving skills are too. Check out our greatest winter driving tips (before you need them).