With the southern hemisphere now plunged into winter, it’s time to take a cool look at some winter driving (and parking) tips and techniques that will help you weather the winter months in a warm car rather than walking to a roadside breakdown phone.
A lot really depends on where you live, the local climate in your area and how harsh the winter is. If you’re living close to the equator, then your winter is much like your summer, but with less rain. In that case, sit in your deck chair by the pool with a Pina colada instead of reading this article. The further from the equator you live and the higher the altitude of your place of dwelling, the greater your winter preparedness required. So here are a few tips to consider, starting with some preparation at home.
While heat is the biggest enemy of batteries, ironically they are more likely to fall off their perch in the extreme cold. Check your battery condition, fluid levels (unless you have the maintenance free type) and terminals. Loose fittings or corrosion around the terminals will reduce the current available for starting and prevent proper charging. A baking soda and water solution is great for getting rid of terminal corrosion, as is black tea, no sugar. Far better than drinking it. Rinse with fresh water when you’ve finished. If your battery is more than 4 years old, it is a good idea to have it checked and if necessary, replaced. With all the electrickery in vehicles these days, jump starting off another vehicle can be risky business.
Make sure you have the correct coolant (not just water) in your radiator – but make sure you check it while the engine is cold. If you’ve been topping it up with just water over the summer, you will have altered the concentration and may not have sufficient antifreeze protection. While you are at it, check the level and state of all your vital fluids; oil, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, wine cellar, etc. Make sure your radiator and heater hoses are all in good order, free from splits, discolouration or bulging.
You may not be thinking too much about using A/C in winter, but it provides de-humidified air which is great for de-fogging windows. You can mix it with heat so you don’t feel like you’re driving an icebox. It is a good idea to give the A/C a run for a few minutes at least once a fortnight anyway, in order to keep the seals moist and supple and the system serviceable. Check that your heater and fan works.
With less hours of daylight and more fog or snow, you’ll likely be using your car's headlights more over the winter. So it is a good idea to do a quick check and ensure all your lights are working properly.
Wipers may also get a good workout, so it is a good idea to check their operation and top up the washer fluid. Make sure the wiper blades are even, supple and undamaged; replace if necessary. Some people suggest adding methylated spirits to the washer fluid to prevent it from freezing, but with the speed at which metho evaporates, this effect would be gone faster than you could say “Australia has a new Prime Minister”.
Where the temperature is dropping below 0°C, ensure you park your car under cover where possible as it will prevent the frost from forming and save you the trouble of de-icing your car windows.
If you can’t park under cover, you can cover your windows and mirrors with a blanket or towel. If all else fails and you come to a car covered in frost, you will need to de-ice it and clear your windows and mirrors prior to driving. Driving off with fogged or iced up windows, or peering through a cleared ‘porthole’ can lead to disastrous consequences. Your wipers will not clear ice from the windscreen. While it is not a bad idea to warm the car up a little before moving off, warming up the car sufficient to melt all the ice takes considerable time and will cost you in fuel if you do it every day – besides, repeatedly idling for long periods is not good for the environment or the engine.
De-icing can be done with a plastic scraper (or even your licence or credit card if you need to) or just slightly warm water. Hot water will potentially crack the glass, cold water is spectacularly ineffective as it will likely freeze as quickly as you can apply it.
In such conditions, be wary of ice on the road, particularly in places where the road remains in shade much of the day, bridges, elevated sections of roadway or where water flows under the road. Ice is near frictionless, so once you’re on ice, Sir Isaac Newton is piloting your car.
If you’re in an area where it snows, then carry snow chains and a shovel (and skis!). Make sure your chains are the right size and fit your tyres. It is a good idea to practice fitting them before you leave home. Fit them to the driving wheels only, or the front wheels of 4WDs. Also carry a ground sheet, gloves and warm clothes for fitting them and don’t drive at more than 40km/h with chains fitted.
When parking in snow affected areas, lift the wipers to prevent them freezing to the glass. Leave your vehicle in gear or Park and leave the park brake off to prevent the cables or linings freezing on. Turn your wheels into the bank if possible. As an added precaution, you can also use a wheel chock, but be sure to remove the chock afterwards as it will damage snow clearing equipment. If snow or blizzard conditions are expected, it is a good idea to also cover your grill or radiator. Even antifreeze has limits.
So, unless you’re still sitting by the pool with a Pina colada in hand, you’re all briefed up for winter now. With these few helpful tips up your sleeve, motoring the winter months can actually be quite enjoyable…well, ok, maybe that Pina colada by the pool is not looking so bad after all.