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Winter Auto Maintenance Checklist

Even better than winter driving tips

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Winter is upon us, and winter driving comes with it. While safety is an important consideration all year long, there are certainly some auto maintenance jobs and safety checks that are specific to chilled air and winter driving that are a good idea to check into before we're knee deep in the season. To be sure you don't end up a road popsicle, or even worse end up with your holiday budget on ice thanks to unexpected repairs, have a look under the hood to be sure things are ship shape. As with any change of season, you should go to your regular maintenance log to make sure you are up to date on the maintenance items that should be taken care of throughout the year. The change of seasons is a great time to go through some once-a-year or twice-a-year auto maintenance tasks.

Winter Specific Maintenance
In addition to the added perils of winter driving, the change in weather can bring peril to your car's systems. Freezing temps, salted roads and wintery precipitation can gang up on your car if you don't give it a baseball-bat sized maintenance session. These winter maintenance jobs will keep you out of trouble:

  • Check your antifreeze
    Your antifreeze (the juice that goes in your radiator) is an essential part of your car's winter protection. Your car contains a 50/50 mix of water and antifreeze. Make sure the level is full and the mixture is close to 50/50. Many auto service stations and repair centers will check this mixture free, or you can buy a tester for around $5. You did remember to perform a radiator flush last spring, didn't you?

  • Inspect your tires
    The last line of defense between you and an oak tree are your tires. Winter is not the time to get cheap about your tires, so take the time to check the tread depth. The National Highway Transportation Safety Board says you need at least 2/32" of depth to be safe. It's been my experience, especially in winter weather, that anything less than 4/32" (1/8") be replaced soon. The old penny test is as reliable as anything to find out whether your treads are ready for winter action. Also, be sure to check your tire pressure. Believe it or not, they lose a little pressure when it gets cold, so pump 'em up.
    Do you need snow tires?

  • Replace your wipers
    Wipers? What do your windshield wipers have to do with winter weather? Two things. First, anything falling from the sky is going to end up on your windshield, and unless you have a team of beavers riding on the hood of your car the task of clearing it falls on your wipers. Second, in areas that see snowfall in the winter, you're also driving through that soupy muck that's left on the road once the highway department does their thing. This muck includes a lot of sand and salt, both of which end up on your windshield. It takes wipers that are in top shape to keep your windshield clean and safe.

  • Check your windshield washer fluid
    You'll be using lots of washer fluid as you try to keep your windshield sparkly. A mile stuck behind an 18-wheeler will have your windshield looking like a Desert Humvee if you're low on washer fluid. *Tip: Don't fill your washer fluid reservoir with anything except washer fluid, it won't freeze!

Annual Maintenance Procedures
On top of the checks you need to perform to ensure safe winter driving, now's a good time to do some annual maintenance. These aren't necessarily specific to winter driving, but it's a good point on the calendar to get around to doing this stuff.

  • Clean your battery posts
    Starting problems are a bummer any time of year. Regularly treating your battery to a cleaning can keep electrical gremlins at bay.

  • Inspect your spark plug wires
    Cracked up plug wires affect performance, gas mileage and general reliability. Be sure yours are in top shape.

  • Inspect your brakes
    Brakes are not a good area to cut corners. Be sure your brakes have enough meat left to get you through the season.

  • Check Your Engine Oil
    This should go without saying and should be done at least monthly. But in case you're an amnesiac ... you should also do an oil change!

Cold weather safety should be a concern for anybody living in a cold climate. These tips will give you the upper hand when Old Man Winter tries to put a chill on your winter travels. If you're extra curious about staying generally safe in winter weather, the National Weather Service has an excellent Winter Safety & Awareness guide that covers everything from how storms brew to a list of history's billion dollar winter wonders.
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