How to prepare your car for winter

Whether there will be a balmy El Nino effect or some menacing vortex or other, two things remain relatively certain: The temperature will drop and your vehicle will be affected.

There are several items to check to prepare your car for winter and minimize the risk of roadside problems or early morning inconveniences. The following preventative items can be done by any car owner with limited tools and limited know-how.

Tires

When temperatures drop, so does tire pressure. Make sure they are filled to the proper pounds per square inch listed on the sticker inside the driver’s door sill or in the owner’s manual. DO NOT go off the pressure listed on the tire wall.

“One particular tire could end up on multiple vehicles, so you always want to go by the manufacturer because it maximizes how the engineers designed this particular car,” said Jeff Hermsen, store manager of Just Tires in Deerfield.

On most vehicles, winter tires make a bigger difference on grip and traction than do all-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive systems. But since most of us don’t want the inconvenience of swapping out summer tires for winter tires, check the treads on those all-season radials.

One simple test to determine tread depth is Abe Lincoln’s head: turn the front wheel to one side and stick a penny upside down in the inner and outer tread; if you can see Abe’s head, the treads are too low.

Never change just one tire; change the pair on the axle or all four to maintain alignment and prevent uneven wear.

Battery

First, give the cables a tug to make sure they’re securely fastened. Then check for corrosion, which will look like a white or pale chalky powder on or near the terminals.

“Just because they’re corroded doesn’t mean you need a new battery,” Hermsen said.

Cleaning the terminals with a toothbrush and baking soda works wonders. Tighten clamps if necessary.

To test the health of your battery and alternator, apply a voltmeter or multimeter to the terminals. Most cars will be between 12 and 13 volts before turning the car on; then it should go up to about 14 volts. Try turning on the headlights to see if there’s a dip in engine power or the headlights flicker; same with the heater. If the voltmeter dips below 12, there is most likely a problem with the alternator.

If you don’t have a voltmeter and turning on the lights and heater appears to strain the engine, however briefly, there may be a problem with the battery or the alternator. For more on why your car might not start, visit “9 reasons why your car won’t start,” by Bob “Motormouth” Weber, an ASE-certified master mechanic.

Fluids

Check the manual, check the oil. Make sure the car is on an even surface. Some automakers recommend checking the oil after the engine is warm; if they don’t, default to checking while cold to avoid getting burned. It provides a more accurate reading to prevent overfilling.

Pull out the dipstick, clean it, put it back in, and check both the level and the color. It should be thin black, maybe brownish. If it’s milky, there’s a problem. Adding a quart is easy, just make sure you check the oil cap cover or manual for the right SAE rating.

Fill the windshield wiper fluid. There are available de-icer additives for extra peace of mind.

Fill coolant with a premix or a concentrate of 50 percent concentrated antifreeze and 50 percent distilled water. “If your cooling system has been neglected, you may want to flush before installing fresh antifreeze,” Motormouth advises.

Check the brake and power steering fluid while you’re under the hood. Might as well check the filth level on the engine air filter. There is a separate cabin air filter accessible near the glove box or the cowl — check the manual — that filters the air you’ll be breathing with the heat on.

Exterior

The outside of the car might be the furthest thing from your mind on cold mornings, but washing and waxing the car now, as well as prepping the windshield, can make rain, snow and ice slide off the roof and windshield.

Windshield: When cleaning the car, Motormouth suggests applying a water repellent (RainX has one for under $10) to improve visibility. The reduced friction on the windshield also extends the life of the wiper blades. Clean the inside of the windshield as well.

Wipers: If the wipers are streaking, skipping or fraying, it is most likely time to change them. RainX recommends changing them every year, but that’s their business. Check the manual on the right size, or enter make, model and year on auto parts’ sites to determine the right fit.

You know that old trick of pulling the blades away while the car is parked in winter weather such as snow or sleet? It helps prolong blade life and prevents the blade from sticking to the windshield.

Bulb check: “Turn the lights on and walk around the vehicle to check for burned-out bulbs,” Motormouth advises. “Have a friend sit inside and operate the brakes, turn signals and flashers. Do not forget the high beams.” Replacement bulbs and how to change them can be found in the owner’s manual.

Cloudy headlights: Foggy or yellow headlights limit road visibility and also make the vehicle more difficult to see for oncoming drivers. Motormouth recommends waxing the lenses, and we’ve also heard toothpaste can do the trick.

Locks and hinges: Use graphite lubricant on door and trunk locks to keep them from freezing in the cold. A silicone lubricant (WD-40 has a special can) should be used on door hinges and the hood latch.

Helpful tools

Keeping a roadside assistance kit in the trunk is a great assurance against the woes of winter. While we’ve recommended AAA’s emergency road assistance kit in the past, there are many brands offering many items to fit a range of budgets and needs. Look for kits that include a warning triangle, first aid kit, eight-gauge jumper cables, flashlight, utility tool, tire pressure gauge and electrical tape. Such a kit could be made from existing supplies at home too.

A small shovel and spare sand/kitty litter or carpet remnant can help dislodge a car stuck in snow and spinning its wheels.

For extra assurance, some kits have a seat-belt cutter and window breaker ($6 or so) and for even extra assurance, we recommended in our 2017 gift guide (www.chicagotribune.com/giftguide) a portable battery jumper and air compressor in one unit. Charge it at home, then keep it in your vehicle for up to a month to not only jump the car or fill the tires, but also charge devices through USB ports and 12V outlets. DeWalt and Jump-N-Carry are two that we have our eyes on.

This checklist takes no more than 30 minutes, excluding going to the store. Consider how much time it will save down winter’s long cold road.

rduffer@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @DufferRobert

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