How to winterize your vehicle

When Dan Brochu (Automotive Services Technician ’81) was growing up, his dad made a point of teaching him and his siblings how to drive in the winter. “One of the first things he used to do is take us out and put the car into a spin and show us how to get out of it,” he says.

While the Automotive Services Technician instructor believes all Albertans might benefit from a similar trial by ice, Brochu’s willing to settle instead for sharing tips on how to ensure your vehicle carries you safely through the season. Some of them might even keep you out of that spin in the first place.

Best rubber for the road

We’ve covered winter tires before but Brochu reemphasizes that, below about -7 C, “all-season tires aren’t sufficient.” Also, he cautions against equating power with traction in snowy conditions. “If you drive a four-by-four you can accelerate like crazy but it’s your ability to stop that is the issue.”

If you change your own tires, Brochu offers two pieces of advice. One: rotate front and back (on the same side) each season to ensure even wear. Two: use a torque wrench to measure the foot-pounds you’re applying. Over-tightening a lug nut can cause damage; under-tightening can cause, well, let’s not even think about that. Find the right torque specification online or ask your dealership or mechanic.

Stop and think about brakes

With your wheels off, check your brake pads. The brake caliper is like a hand curled around the rotor, or the metal disk behind the wheel. The brake pads sit between the two, inside the caliper, and are made of a metallic fibre. If they’re not at least 3 millimetres (1/16 inch) thick, replace them.

Take plenty of (the right) fluids

Unless your maintenance schedule says so, or you use petroleum-based oil in warmer months, don’t change your oil. Brochu uses synthetic year-round because it’s free of paraffins, or wax that gums up when cold. “As soon as you start the engine, the synthetic will flow easier and you’ll get lubrication really fast,” he says. This reduces wear.

“That could very well cost you an engine.”

If your antifreeze is not strong enough, however, “that could very well cost you an engine.” Frozen coolant can crack an engine block, so check yours using a tester from the hardware store. (Never open a radiator cap when the engine is warm – contents under pressure!) If your antifreeze isn’t rated to about -45 C, drain a litre or two and top up with the good stuff.

Annoying if not dangerous is frozen windshield washer. “The summer stuff will freeze at as low as zero [C],” says Brochu. If it goes solid in your tank, you’ll need to defrost in a warm place. Applying a heat gun might melt liquid and container alike.

Winter driving tips

Back off – put distance between you and the driver ahead. If you’re driving 60 kilometres per hour, for example, allow four to five car lengths, says Brochu.

Be patient – “If you have to get somewhere at a certain time, leave earlier.”

Get help – consider an AMA membership. Brochu has one.

Stay put – if you end up in the ditch, stay in your car. “Don’t stand on the highway and jump up and down. You’re liable to get hit.”

Odourless and tasteless, “carbon monoxide is a deadly killer,” says Brochu. The stop-and-go of winter rush hours allows exhaust to accumulate beneath a vehicle. Make sure rust hasn’t created entry points into your vehicle. Problem spots include the wheel wells and trunk.

Rust never sleeps

Salt improves road conditions but it does little for the condition of your car. Brochu advises washing your vehicle frequently in winter, paying close attention to hidden places on the underside where rust works away at the metal. Be sure to wipe dry all weather-stripping to keep doors from freezing shut.

Light up your life

With limited daylight you’ll often be driving in the dark, so check your head- and taillights. Consider investing in high-quality, long-lasting bulbs, says Brochu. “I always buy the premium. If you compromise quality you can’t expect to get the same life out of it.”

Things we cannot control

If Brochu has hit the ditch – and he has, twice – we all might at some point. This is why he packs a safety kit, including a blanket and candle for warmth, non-perishable food and a flashlight with beacon that can be seen from the road. If your vehicle is still drivable, a sturdy shovel might get you out and running again.

“You have to prepare yourself as much as preparing your vehicle,” says Brochu.

Subscribe to receive more great stories every month

Find out more news about NAIT, stories about our alumni and their impact on their communities, and useful how-to content featuring our experts.

Sign up today »