How to Get Your Car Ready for Winter Driving

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — December is a great time of year to dream of a white Christmas, but odds are you'll end up walking in a winter wonderland if you haven't prepped your car for the cold weather and the vehicle breaks down.

"It's much more pleasant to check out your car when it's inside your garage than when you're stuck on the roadside in a blizzard," AAA auto-repair expert Mike Calkins says.

Fortunately, readying your car for the winter doesn't involve much time or money these days, Calkins says.

Whereas drivers once had to outfit cars with special antifreeze and winter-weight oil, Calkins says today's vehicles need little cold-weather preparation.

"One of the big changes that's occurred with vehicles in the last few years is that if you're doing the recommended maintenance, there's really not a whole lot you need to do to prepare for winter," he says. "You're mostly just doing visual inspections."

Below are some things Calkins recommends all car owners who live in cold climates do now to prepare their vehicles for the coming bad weather:

Inspect the car battery
Dead batteries represent the No. 1 cause of AAA roadside calls during the winter, so Calkins recommends cold-weather drivers check any car batteries that are three years old or more.

Make sure the battery's wiring is on tight, and remove any crusty corrosion that's built up over the device's terminals.

Even better, spring for a mechanic to clean and test the battery professionally (estimated cost: $25 to $50, although some garages and auto-parts stores will do this for free).

Calkins says professionals not only have special equipment to gauge battery strength, but will also hook your car to a temporary power source before disconnecting the battery for cleaning. That eliminates the risk of the vehicle's onboard computers dying (and requiring costly reprogramming) due to a temporary power loss.

Check tire pressure
Getting into a skid is one of winter's biggest driving hazards, so Calkins advises making sure your car's tires have enough air pressure to handle slippery conditions.

You can check your car's tire pressure yourself using a variety of inexpensive gauges available at auto-parts stores.

Just remember to always test "cold" tire pressure — how much air the tires contain before you've started driving for the day.

Also consult your owner's manual or a placard you'll typically find inside the driver's door frame to determine your car's correct tire pressure. Don't use the number written on the tire's sidewall, as that refers to the maximum safe pressure.

Calculate tire age and wear
In addition to correct tire pressure, your car needs good tire tread to avoid winter skids. So AAA recommends checking tread levels with the so-called "quarter test" this time of year.

Grasp a U.S. 25-cent piece between your thumb and index finger, turn it so the top of George Washington's head faces away from your palm and stick the coin into the groove between two of your tire's treadwalls.

If you can still see the top of Washington's head over the treadwalls, the tire has less than 1/8th of an inch of tread remaining and needs replacement. (Some experts recommend testing tires with a penny, but you can see the top of Abraham Lincoln's head with just 1/16th-inch of tread remaining — which AAA considers inadequate.)

You'll also want to replace any tire that's more than 10 years old, as rubber degrades over time.

To check a tire's age, look for a four-digit number on the sidewall that refers to the tire's manufacturing date. For example, a tire marked "2709" rolled off of the assembly line during 2009's 27th week.

Test all exterior lights
You need good lighting this time of year to see the road and make sure others can see your car as well.

Calkins recommends taking a few minutes to turn on your vehicle's headlights, taillights, running lights, turn signals, hazard lights and brake lights to verify that they all work.

Check windshield wipers and washer fluid
Cold-weather driving requires good windshield wipers and plenty of washer fluid.

Calkins generally recommends replacing wiper blades every six to 12 months. To check if your current blades are good, spray some washer fluid on the windshield and see if the wipers clear it in one pass. If they don't, it's replacement time.

To check your car's washer-fluid supply, pop the hood once a month and look at how much liquid remains in the washer-fluid reservoir. Your owner's manual should show you where this reservoir is, but most vehicles have them on the left side of the engine compartment (often topped with a yellow cap).

— By Jerry Kronenberg

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