Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

How to make sure your vehicle starts in winter

NAIT auto expert offers tips to keep your vehicle running this winter

It’s a lesson winter tries to teach us every year and one many of us keep flunking. Extreme cold isn’t only hard on fingers and toes, it’s murder on your car.

The evidence is borne out by Canadian Automobile Association wait times for assistance that soar whenever frigid weather strikes. During severe cold snaps, when Edmonton temperatures have reportedly aligned with those on the surface of Mars, motorists have waited well over half a day for help in getting moving.

We asked Russell Belik, NAIT’s Automotive Service Technician chair (and a graduate of the program, class of ’92), about preventative measures we can take to avoid being among the stranded.

Check your battery

Check your car battery

Ensuring your battery and charging system are in good shape improves your car’s chances of starting in the cold.

“Chemical activity inside the battery slows down when it’s cold outside, so it’s not able to deliver the same amount of energy it could [to start your vehicle] when the temperature’s above zero,” Belik explains.

Make sure all battery cable connections are tight, clean and free of corrosion. After a few years even a good battery can lose capacity. Have it tested as part of regular winter inspection.

Use the right oil

Check engine oil

Cold weather causes engine oil to thicken. “So you’ve got two factors working against you,” says Belik. “You’ve got higher resistance inside the engine and reduced energy available from the battery.”

Many vehicle owner’s manuals identify two engine oil options, including lighter, low-viscosity oils that flow easier in cold temperatures, reduce engine wear and boost fuel economy.

Belik is a big fan of zero-weight oil for winter driving, no matter the added cost. “In this type of environment it will really pay for itself.”

You still need antifreeze

car antifreeze

Belik acknowledges it may seem strange to worry about engine coolant in the dead of winter. But an internal combustion engine needs cooling no matter the temperature outside.

Antifreeze lowers the freezing point of water to keep it moving through an engine. A 50:50 ratio is the norm; look for pre-mixed solutions.

Use your block heater

Car plugged into block heaterBlock heaters are sometimes the forgotten soldier in a vehicle’s battle against winter. Surprisingly, many aren’t used. Belik says he’s seen people spend 30 minutes trying to find their block heater electrical cords, often in bone-chilling conditions.

Once the temperature dips past -20 C, plugging in should be a habit, says Belik. The block heater makes the engine easier to start and reduces warm-up time, which also reduces emissions and fuel consumption.

Most vehicles sold in Alberta have a block heater pre-installed, says Belik. Even in the case of import vehicles that lack them, most have designs that can accommodate an engine heater. Any auto repair shop can install one, usually for around $250.

Even if you've had your vehicle plugged in, warm it up for three to five minutes to avoid grinding gears and causing undue stress to your engine, Belik says – just enough to ensure your windows don’t frost up while you’re driving.

What to do if your car won't start

Car buried in snow

First, assess your battery.

If there’s still some juice – the dome light comes on, maybe the engine cranks a bit – go ahead and follow proper boosting procedures.

But if the vehicle has been sitting in the deep cold for a lengthy period, and none of the lights work, the battery may have frozen.

A frozen battery will often display a telltale bulging in its outer case. It should not be boosted because it might explode. Frozen batteries have to be thawed, usually for about 12 hours, and then recharged. In most instances, they need to be replaced.


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