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By Don Patten

Don Patten is a leading expert in automotive education. His text book Automotive Service Basics published by Prentice Hall is used in automotive instruction courses world wide.

When the seasons start to change and it is apparent that the weather will soon be colder, there are certain systems that should be checked so you will not be left with a no start, no heat, condition. Let's call this a cold weather or winter tune-up. I realize that many of these steps will be beyond the expertise of some owners. They still should be done and by using this list your mechanic can do any test beyond your ability. Do what you can and hire the rest.


Place a voltmeter at the battery terminals. It should read 12.6 volts. Start the engine. The voltage should increase to at least 13.5 volts and stop at 15.5 volts. Inspect the battery terminals and clean any that show signs of corrosion. If the battery can be serviced (caps can be removed), fill the battery up to the split rings using only distilled water. Check the battery hold-down strap and be sure it is tight. Look at the date stamp on the battery. Batteries that are over four years old and up are probably due for replacement. At the first sign of battery trouble, replace it.


Check for leaks, cracked hoses, and worn belts. Remove the radiator cap and inspect the color of the coolant and look for rust or corrosion inside the radiator. Check for coolant contamination such as engine oil, dirt, and transmission fluid. Do a hydrometer test to check the protection level. Add the correct amount of antifreeze to make a coolant in each case where the hydrometer test indicates a weak or low protection level. Check and replace any radiator and heater hoses if they show signs or cracking or ballooning. Start the engine and let it reach operating temperature. Check the heater and blower operation. Put the selector switch in the defrost position and see if the defroster ducts have a good flow of warm air into the windshield. If you have an electric defroster, check to see if the element heats. Change the windshield washer fluid to an antifreeze type and turn on the washer. Look at the washer pattern to see if there are any clogged nozzles. Check and replace any worn wiper blades. Ice and snow will be especially hard on an old blade.


Change the engine oil using a winter viscosity if you will be operating in extremely low temperatures. This is the time to replace the spark plugs if those in engine have been driven for over fifty thousand miles or the engine skips. Replace the air filter and gasoline filter if they have high mileage. If it is time (high mileage) to replace the timing belt, have this done as cold weather starts are hard on belts of this type. Replace the water pump belts if they show signs of cracking and wear. Be sure there are not any manifold or exhaust system leaks that would allow carbon monoxide into the passenger compartment. Check for fuel leaks and examine the exhaust smoke. Blue, black or white mean the engine is burning oil, too much fuel, or coolant. Inspect and test for damaged engine motor mounts. Rocking the vehicle in ice and snow is very hard on motor mounts. Check the fluid level in the transmission. Consider a viscosity change in standard transmissions if you will be in extremely cold weather conditions. Adjust standard transmission clutches as you may be in snow and need maximum power. Be sure the automatic transmission is full of fluid and it is not contaminated. If the drive shaft has lubrication fittings, be sure to lubricate them. Check the shaft for looseness and binding. Replace universal joints if they show wear.

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Check the air pressure in each tire including the spare even if it is a space saver. Uneven tire pressure can cause the car to brake unevenly on ice and snow. Pay attention to uneven braking. Brake shoes and pads could need replacement. Be sure that there is not condensation and moisture buildup in the brake fluid. Contaminated brake fluid should be changed. Look at tire tread and replace tires that are badly worn or down to the tread bar. If you will encounter snow, consider changing to snow tires. Check the tire alignment as certain alignment angles effect steering.


Be sure you have a flashlight. Check the vehicle jack and be sure it works properly. Get some flares or reflective cones in case you get stuck and have to warn others. Purchase an ice scraper or chemical deicer. If you will be in areas of heavy ice and snow, carry some sand and a shovel. In some areas, snow chains are needed. Battery jumper cables are always a good item to have as winter weather is hard on the battery. If there is a possibility you may be stalled in remote areas, pack a blanket, water, and food. To be disabled in a snow storm is a life and death situation. It is always better to be well prepared than loose toes and fingers to frostbite. Today with the new electronics, most people can dial 911 if they remember to bring the cell phone with them.

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