Car care tips for the perfect storm of winter and COVID-19

  • How can you avoid a dead battery or frozen fuel lines during a pandemic winter? Experts say drivers should keep their tanks two-thirds full and take their vehicles out for an occasional spin, even when working from home.

    How can you avoid a dead battery or frozen fuel lines during a pandemic winter? Experts say drivers should keep their tanks two-thirds full and take their vehicles out for an occasional spin, even when working from home. Daily Herald File Photo

Updated 11/30/2020 6:43 AM

Coping with COVID-19 is frazzling enough without experiencing that clicking sound the car makes on a frigid morning or the infuriating sputtering noise as you pump the gas pedal.

So here's a collection of our best winter -- and pandemic -- vehicle care tips, from warding off hibernating critters to the eternal question of how full should the gas tank be.


For starters (no pun intended), if you're working from home and avoiding unnecessary trips, don't let your car stagnate -- it could result in a dead battery or immovable parking brake, auto professionals advise.

Instead, take a drive every few days to refresh the battery. Simply turning the car on and letting it idle in the driveway will probably not be enough, former DuPage County Forest Preserve District fleet manager John Walton advised.

Another good idea is to check the tire pressure before venturing out in cold weather. Tires should be properly inflated to the amount given in the vehicle owner's manual or on the inside vehicle door -- not to the amount shown on the tire, AAA advises. As the average temperature drops, so will tire pressure -- typically by 1 PSI for every 10 degrees.

Also avoid using the parking brake when your car is on hiatus because it could freeze in place or cause the regular brake pads to rust.

"With an automatic transmission, simply place the vehicle in park. If the car has a manual transmission, put it in first or reverse gear and use wheel chocks to help hold the vehicle in place," AAA's Molly Hart said.

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One question, for those who remember parents warming up the car in the driveway, is whether to allow the engine to run or to sally forth on a freezing morning.

It comes down to how old your car is, car gurus explained. Vehicles manufactured since the early 1990s are equipped with electronic fuel injection and only need to warm up for a minute or so. Cars made before 1990 should run for at least five minutes.

Another conundrum is whether your gas tank must be brimming in cold weather. The Illinois Department of Transportation recommends keeping it two-thirds full to prevent gas lines from freezing.

Walton noted that gas freezes around minus-40 to minus-58 degrees. "What people think is gas freezing is usually water in the gas line that can freeze and block gas lines. Additives can be used, but I recommend only using additives that are recommended by the vehicle manufacturer," he said.


Then there's unexpected crises as when rodents wintered in Jeanette Greco's college son's car.

A family of squirrels "chewed many wires and we barely got it to our mechanic in time," Greco, of Hawthorn Woods, told us a few years back.

Solutions offered by readers include sticking moth balls or mouse traps under the hood.

Do hybrids need different treatment from regular cars in the extreme cold?

"Most hybrid gasoline/electric cars will operate with the engine and not just a battery in (very) cold weather; as the car warms up the engine may stop and start," said Walton, chairman of the nonprofit Chicago Area Clean Cities organization. But, he advised consulting the owner's manual for specific instructions.

Got a cold weather car care tip or question? Drop an email to

Gridlock alert

This may hurt a bit. IDOT crews will be resurfacing Meacham Road between Algonquin Road and Emerson Avenue in Schaumburg and Rolling Meadows starting today through summer 2021. Expect lane closures as workers resurface the pavement, build new shoulders and sidewalk ramps.

Pace closes indoor terminals

Pace has closed indoor spaces at Elgin, Plainfield and Harvey until further notice because of surging COVID-19 cases. The move coincides with tighter state restrictions that were recently announced. Buses will continue to pick up and deliver passengers but Ventra vending machines will not be available.

One more thing

The Chicago Department of Aviation is seeking vendors to provide rapid and molecular COVID-19 tests for employees and passengers at Midway and O'Hare international airports. Last week, the CDA opened up a drive-up testing site at Midway. The goal is to offer the services before the December holidays. O'Hare will offer a walk-up site before security check-in in the terminal core and a drive-up site in a remote parking lot, officials said. Midway will provide a walk-up site inside the terminal.

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