What you need to know to take care of your car in the cold

  • Kyle Murphy, head mechanic at Grandt's Auto Repair and Shell Station in Arlington Heights, repairs a car that was leaking fuel after a seal contracted in the cold weather.

      Kyle Murphy, head mechanic at Grandt's Auto Repair and Shell Station in Arlington Heights, repairs a car that was leaking fuel after a seal contracted in the cold weather. photos by Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

  • Matt Nejdl balances a tire at Grandt's Auto Repair and Shell Station in Arlington Heights. Flat tires caused by the early January deep freeze kept mechanics busy.

      Matt Nejdl balances a tire at Grandt's Auto Repair and Shell Station in Arlington Heights. Flat tires caused by the early January deep freeze kept mechanics busy. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 1/15/2018 8:54 AM

These are the times that try drivers' souls, with cars malfunctioning in temperatures only a penguin could love and angst over the eternal conundrum: Should I warm up the engine or not?

Hang in there. We have answers to your winter-vs.-automobile questions, plus tips from experts who've handled a polar vortex or two.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

At Grandt's Auto Repair and Shell Station in Arlington Heights, cars were limping in with dead batteries and flat tires during the deep freeze in early January, owner Craig Grandt said, adding "it's been a little crazy here."

So, should you wrap your battery in earmuffs at night?

That's not necessary, explained Joe Sues, area manager for AAA Car Care Plus.

He advises drivers to "make sure you don't keep dome (or other) lights on overnight that can drain your battery. Get your battery tested regularly, and proper vehicle maintenance is important as well."

As to the perplexing issue of whether to let the engine warm up or sally forth when temperatures dip, Sues recommends: "If possible, run the engine and heater just long enough to remove the chill to conserve gasoline."

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"Since the early 1990s, cars have been equipped with electronic fuel injection and thus only need to warm up for a minute or so," he said. "Cars before 1990 should warm up for at least five minutes."

For years, we've been told to fill the tank when temperatures drop. Is that still true?

"You will want to keep a half gallon of fuel in the tank mainly so if you become stranded in the cold, you can keep the car running to provide warmth," Sues said. "Also, a full tank of gas adds more weight to the rear end of your car and will give you better traction in snow."

The engine may be fine, but what if you can't even get into the car because your locks are iced over? For starters, use the car wash judiciously, Grandt suggests. "The high pressure just blows water into locks."

To prevent frozen locks, spray WD-40 into keyholes, insert the key and "work it a bit," Grandt said.

Another tip is to wipe off moisture from the rubber seal on door frames with a dry rag. "A lot of the time, it's the door frame that freezes."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Regarding tires, as the average temperature drops, so will tire pressure -- typically by 1 PSI for every 10 degrees, Sues said. The pressure can change quickly, and underinflated tires are more vulnerable, Grandt warned. To find the right tire pressure for your vehicle, seek out the owner's manual or look on the sticker typically located on the driver's-side door jamb, Sues said.

He also suggests checking the pressure on your spare tire -- if you have one. Some new models come without spares, so it's smart to know the score with rentals and personal vehicles.

If you own an alternative vehicle, many electric plug-ins have a battery heater that kicks in in cold weather when vehicles are charging, said Wheaton's John Walton, chairman of Chicago Area Clean Cities, a green-car advocacy group.

For anyone worried about electric charging stations conking out, Walton explained the stations are built to work in subzero weather.

Here are a few more tips:

• If you have a car that gets little use, start it up every few days and let it run to recharge the battery, Sues recommends.

• Got fresh oil? Now is not the time to delay your oil change, Grandt said.

• If you or your teen drivers typically run out without proper winter gear, stow an emergency kit in your car with a warm coat, hat, gloves, sturdy boots and blanket just in case.

• If your car gets stuck in snow or ice, clear a path in front of the wheels for several feet, the AAA says. With the front wheels pointed straight to minimize rolling resistance, shift into drive and, with gentle pressure on the accelerator, try to ease out without spinning the wheels. If the wheels spin, you will only dig deeper into the snow. Keep mats, kitty litter or sand in the trunk to give wheels some traction.

Got a cold-weather driving tip, question or anecdote? Send an email to mpyke@dailyherald.com.

Vroom vroom

The 2018 Chicago Auto Show breezes into McCormick Place from Feb. 10 to 19. For more info, go to chicagoautoshow.com.

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