Winter Car Checklist
While extra care needs to be taken on wintry roads, when driving, Rob Marshall recommends that a winter check, performed regularly on your car, will also pay dividends.
While cold and damp conditions put your car under extra stress, several straightforward winter checks, most of which can be performed on a domestic driveway, will not only enhance safety but also enhance security against a break-down.
Most break-downs are caused by electrical system glitches. Although there are DIY checks you can perform to your battery, a garage can test not only the battery but also interrogate the charging system in more depth. To ensure any electrical energy used is replenished, check the condition of the alternator belt, by twisting it slightly – if you see any cracks on the surface, replace it. Similarly, should you hear any high-pitched squealing on start-up, suspect that the belt is either worn or loose. When on the road, switch off any electrical accessories as soon as they are not longer needed, to ensure that as much electricity as possible can be diverted to the battery.
The alternator belt can be checked for cracks and the cables for security with the engine switched off
If the starter motor is either sluggish, or fails to engage first time, get it repaired or replaced before the colder weather arrives. If the engine runs unevenly or, in the case of a petrol engine, its ignition system has not been serviced (including spark plug and lead replacement), plan to get the work done, in case the ailing parts let you down. Loose, corroded or damp earth points can also wreak havoc with the whole electrical system and you should check any wires that are bolted directly to the bodywork, particularly within the engine compartment.
A good connection at earth points is vital for the health of a car’s electrical system
LIGHTS – ESSENTIAL WINTER CAR CARE
Do not become one of the 35% of motorists who do not check their lights; they are an essential part of a winter checklist. Walk around the car and ensure that they all operate, including the headlamps, indicators, fog, rear number plate and brake lamps. If your car is fitted with headlights that illuminate automatically, make sure that the function works as intended. Ensure that any lamp lenses are not cracked and that your number plates are not obscured. Check that your side mirrors work and adjust normally and, if the glass becomes either fogged or frozen, switch on your heated rear window, to verify that the heated mirrors work correctly (if fitted).
Ensure that all external lamps, including rear number-plate lights and fog lamps, operate and replace any failed bulbs
Use a good-quality screenwash that prevents the windscreen wash fluid from freezing. Never top-up the washer bottle with engine anti-freeze. Driving a car with a screenwash bottle, the contents of which are either empty or frozen, is an offence. Ensure that the screenwash jets are unblocked and are adjusted correctly, including any jets fitted to the rear window.
Use a concentrated screenwash that will provide adequate anti-freezing protection, noting that some types offer very little protection in winter. You also get better value for money, by buying concentrated rather than pre-diluted types
Similarly, check that the windscreen wiper blades are neither perished nor cracked. If the blades leave a smeary film across the screen, try wiping them with a clean, damp cloth. Worn rubber blades can not only cause poor visibility but they can also damage the glass.
Ensure that the air conditioning works; using it regularly in the winter will not only prolong the system’s life but its ability to remove moisture from the cabin is invaluable during damp winter months.
Apart from maintaining all fluid levels within the engine compartment, make sure that the coolant contains a sufficient anti-freeze concentration. DIY tools can be bought cheaply to check the level of protection and garages can carry out this service very cheaply. Note that engine coolant should be changed regularly, see this article on cooling systems for more information.
ARE WINTER CAR TYRES ANY GOOD?
Winter tyres have hit the headlines in recent years but many people imagine that they are suitable for extreme conditions only. A more accurate description would be ‘low temperature tyres’, which provide superior grip levels in temperatures below seven degrees Celsius. Although many organisations, including GEM Motoring Assist, recommend them, a lot of motorists are dissuaded by the extra cost and the inconvenience of having to store their existing tyres. Yet, the extra safety benefits that winter tyres bring cannot be ignored.
Yet, do not imagine that vehicle technology, such as anti-lock brakes and traction control can compensate for poor tyre grip. They cannot overcome the Laws of Physics! Although the legal tread depth for any tyre is 1.6mm, a sub 2.0mm tread depth means a vastly-reduced level of grip in anything but dry conditions. If your tyres are approaching 2.0mm, it is prudent to fit replacement covers before the inclement weather arrives.
When inspecting your tyres, look for any cracks or splits in the sidewalls, both sides. Such damage cannot be repaired. As the outside temperature drops, the pressure in your tyres may do the same; check they are inflated to the recommended pressures. Never believe that under-inflating a tyre will provide superior grip. It will not.
WINTER CAR BODYWORK PROTECTION
Bodywork maintenance is often omitted in many winter checklists. Prior to the winter season, wash the bodywork and, once dried, protect the paint with a good quality wax. Although cars in regular use will become dirty quickly, the wax will afford some protection against fading and scratching. Try to wash your car, before it becomes very dirty but avoid using household detergents, such as dishwashing liquid, which contains salt and will harm car paintwork. People brushing past it, for example, will cause the dirt to score the finish. Note that even the best waxes offer protection for a maximum of three months only.
Remove any leaves from any vents at the front of the car, as well as any bonnet or boot apertures. Check that any drain holes, such as those for the sunroof or doors, are unblocked, or else moisture could enter the car. Lubricate the locks and latches with a light oil or grease, as recommended in your handbook.
Try to reduce the chance of rusting beneath the car, hose-out the underside regularly, which will remove any corrosive road salt. If you have a relatively new car, bear in mind that maintaining its corrosion guarantee depends on regular inspections, which can be overlooked, even by a main dealership, therefore it is advisable to check that the work has been done and the service book is stamped accordingly.
Inside, vacuum the carpets and seats regularly, so that any grit cannot damage the fabric, or hide. Although fitting aftermarket mats is advisable, lift them occasionally to confirm that they are not holding moisture within the carpet, an especial problem if those mats are made of rubber.
Exterior door seals can stick in freezing weather but a light application of talcum powder will prevent this. Similarly, if your car has a retractable aerial, a light film of petroleum jelly will prevent seizure.
Winter motoring can be both hazardous and necessary but, by following these simple points, we hope they will help you to maximise safety and minimise the chance of either an accident or a break-down. They will certainly help to prolong the life of your car.