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Winter car maintenance

Keeping your car serviced is essential at any time of the year, as our blog on top car maintenance tips proves. But in the winter it’s especially important that you keep on top of things if you want to avoid a breakdown or even a crash. Fail to maintain your car properly and once the temperatures plummet you could easily be involved in an accident – and that’s when things can get really stressful.
There are lots of checks you do to ensure your car doesn’t let you down when the going gets tough. None are time-consuming or difficult and much of the following is good advice all year round. But now the sub-zero temperatures have hit with a vengeance, make sure you find the time this weekend to give your car the once over.
This is the most common reason for winter breakdowns for two key reasons. Firstly, a battery doesn’t hold its charge as readily in cold weather and secondly, turning over the engine demands more of the battery because the oil is thicker. So the temperature dropping by just a few degrees can make all the difference between the engine spinning over and firing, and there just being a click when you turn the key, because it’s all too much.

Testing your battery isn’t really a DIY proposition because you need a special piece of kit, but any fast-fit centre should be able to help. If your car’s battery is getting on but you’re told it’s still in rude health it could be worth carrying a set of jump leads just in case. However, a modern car’s complex electronics can be damaged if these are used incorrectly, so don’t be in too much of a hurry to jump start your car.
Also, if your car has a manual gearbox don’t be tempted to bump start it. By doing this you’ll probably kill the catalytic converter by poisoning it with unburned fuel.
The coolant in your car’s engine prevents it from overheating. But because the coolant is largely water, it freezes when the ambient temperature drops to zero. This in turn will wreck your engine because the water expands when it turns to ice, which is why it’s crucial that your engine’s coolant contains a decent proportion of anti-freeze.
You can buy an anti-freeze tester for around a fiver and it’s incredibly easy to use. An alternative is to ensure that if you ever have to top up your coolant you do so with anti-freeze rather than water, to stop it getting ever more dilute. However, a car’s cooling system is sealed and shouldn’t need to be topped up, so if the level keeps dropping you need to get things investigated.
The only thing that keeps your car in contact with the road is its tyres, so failing to check their condition could lead to serious repercussions. If the police catch you driving on faulty tyres you can be fined £2,500 and get three points on your licence – for each faulty tyre.
So every couple of weeks or so make sure your tyres are wearing evenly, that they’re at the correct pressure and also that there aren’t any screws or nails stuck in them. You also need to have at least 1.6mm of tread across three-quarters of the width and all the way round. But that’s the legal minimum; in challenging conditions it’s worth having more tread than this to stop you sliding into the scenery.
It’s also worth considering fitting winter tyres to your car; we recently brought you a complete guide to winter tyres.
Washers and wipers
All the salt and spray on the roads mean your washers and wipers have to work overtime to keep your windscreen clear. The chances are that your washer reservoir will be emptied quickly so check it daily if necessary. Don’t just use water though as it’ll freeze overnight; add some screen wash concentrate and be generous with it, to stop the washer fluid from turning to ice when things get really cold.
Also make sure your wiper blades aren’t on their last legs. They have a rubber tip and if this perishes you could end up with a badly scratched windscreen – and wipers that don’t do their job. It’s worth replacing your wiper blades every couple of years as a matter of course – and don’t forget the rear wiper if your car has one.
Your car’s lights aren’t just there for you to see – they’re also fitted for you to be seen. A few minutes spent checking them every few days could make the difference between an event-free journey and a collision because someone didn’t see you.
Not only do your lights get grubby really quickly thanks to all the salt and spray, but bulbs are also more likely to fail because they’re being used much more than usual. So check all of them – indicators, brake lights, headlamps, tail lamps and sidelights to make sure none of the bulbs have failed.
Once a bulb does fail you might not be able to replace it easily yourself. Modern cars aren’t always the easiest to maintain so you might have to book into your local dealer for some help – and they might not have a slot immediately.
Peace of mind
If you’re not confident inspecting your own car, many dealers and fast-fit centres offer winter checks for free or at low prices. But whether or not you do the work yourself or get it done by professionals, make sure you carry these essentials when you travel:

  • Mobile phone and charger
  • Warning triangle
  • Hi-vis vest
  • Warm clothes
  • Food and drink
  • De-icer and scraper
  • Torch
  • Shovel
  • Tow rope

For ultimate peace of mind also ensure your breakdown cover is up to date. You’ve got to break down only once and suddenly the membership will be worth every penny.