What does a person from South Louisiana know about preparing a vehicle for cold weather? Life in a warm climate gives a unique perspective that may help those that face cold weather.
A lack of maintenance
South Louisiana has a generally warm climate with an average temperature around 69 degrees Fahrenheit. This hardly qualifies residents as experts on cold weather. An occasional surprise can drop temperatures into the teens and below zero has occurred. Because this happens infrequently, the trend is to be unprepared. When cold weather comes, seeing what might have been done is easy.
People that take good care of their vehicles year round see very few problems with the cold. Neglected vehicles are a different matter with cold quickly revealing the weak points. When the mercury occasionally starts to plunge, customers tow dozens of vehicles in with dead batteries, transmission failure and cooling system issues.
Why batteries die in the Winter
The cold has caused few of these issues rather the low temperature reveals them. For example, a battery is a chemical reaction. They design them to operate best at around 80 degrees Fahrenheit. In Summer, with an under hood temperature of 100 degrees or more, the chemicals may react at 120% efficiency or more. This wears the battery out, though it still produces adequate power, due to heat increasing the reaction.
When the temperature drops the chemical reaction greatly slows. A battery appearing to have 100% ability in the Summer, now drops to 50% or less in the Winter. This occurs while we need additional power to crank the cold engine. The result is a dead battery. The Summer heat killed it, but the Winter cold revealed the problem. Testing and replacing a marginal battery, before the cold hits, prevents this problem.
Automatic transmission woes
Temperature also affects automatic transmissions. Worn seals may still function when they are warm and pliable. Cold temperatures make rubber less flexible and fluid may bypass a seal, rather than applying the clutch. When this occurs, vehicles experience a delayed engagement. Delayed engagement means, we shift to drive or reverse and the vehicle does not move immediately.
Making the problem much worse, old automatic transmission fluid may become thicker than before. Engines idle faster when they are cold. The higher engine speed, combined with thick fluid and a partially restricted filter can destroy the transmission. The transmission fails in the cold, but the problems began much earlier.
New automatic transmission fluid has additives that help keep seals pliable. Replacing the transmission filter prevents restriction of fluid flow. Proper transmission maintenance, may have prevented the cold weather breakdown. Again, cold did not kill the transmission, lack of maintenance did and the low temperature revealed the problem.
Cooling system catastrophes
We normally think of the cooling system presenting problems in the hot weather. This often occurs, but corroded systems often spring leaks in cold weather. The water pump seal, struggling to hold depleted coolant in, may fail when temperature makes it less pliable. A thermostat, which sticks open in the Summer, may show no symptom until temperatures drop. With a stuck thermostat, the check engine light may come on and the vehicle heater may not blow warm.
Weak coolant can freeze and break engines and other components. This is unlikely to occur with coolant that we have not depleted. Regularly replacing engine coolant insures adequate freeze protection. Proper cooling system maintenance not only prevents freezing, but it also stops corrosion and overheating in the Summer.
Preparing for cold weather is mostly common sense. Just maintain the vehicle year round and the cold will present few challenges a car cannot meet. A good General Inspection in the Fall is a great way to prevent Winter problems.