7 Ways Winter Weather Can Damage Your Car

Stephen Fogel
December 6, 2018

Winter weather can be very unkind to cars, trucks and SUVs. Sub-freezing temperatures hamper just about every part and system in your vehicle, and can damage many of them. 

But you can’t exactly stop driving all winter. So let’s take a look at seven ways the cold can hurt your car, and offer some tips on how to minimize the danger.

1. Slowing your battery

Cold weather is a battery killer. Low winter temperatures greatly slow down the speed of the reactions that occur inside the car battery, making it harder to start your engine. This is why a battery that’s a few years old may do its job just fine during the other three seasons, but can fail to work when the mercury drops. 

RepairPal tip: When you reach your destination and park your car, get in the habit of shutting off all of the power accessories that were on. This includes the climate control, audio system, lights and heated seats. This will prevent any unnecessary battery drain the next time you start your vehicle. 

2. Hurting your cooling system

We’re not talking about the air conditioner — the cooling system circulates coolant through the engine to keep it from overheating. The heat absorbed by that coolant is used when you turn on the heater. 

Coolant is actually a mixture of antifreeze and water, and a 50-50 mix should protect your vehicle down to 35 degrees below zero. But if you put too much water in the system during the summer, the ratio could be off, putting the coolant at greater risk of freezing. If that happens, it will expand inside your cooling system and engine block, causing lots of expensive damage. 

RepairPal tip: Have your mechanic check your coolant to be sure that it’s ready for winter weather. If it looks dark and murky, this may also be a good time to flush the system and replace the old stuff with fresh coolant. 

» LEARN MORE: Find a repair shop in your area

3. Thickening your car’s fluids

At low temperatures, engine oil, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, brake fluid and washer fluid will get thicker. This makes it harder for them to flow and do their jobs.

If your oil gets too thick from the cold, it can cause internal friction and hurt your engine. Drivers who live in places where the weather drops below zero should make sure the type of oil they’re using is suitable for freezing temperatures. You may want to have your oil changed to be safe.

Windshield washer fluid can freeze, if you don’t use the right kind. Look for the type rated for winter. It has a higher alcohol concentration, preventing it from freezing when it gets really chilly. This can also help melt the ice on your windshield in the morning.

Transmission, power steering and brake fluid don’t require changing out for cold temperatures, but they do need time to warm up when it’s cold. Drive gently when you first start your car, giving them time to flow more easily.

RepairPal tip: Make sure all fluids are at their proper levels and check them regularly for the best possible cold weather operation.

4. Damaging the body of your car

Your car’s exterior has no choice but to deal with the elements, leaving exposed to several types of damage.

Lots of cities and states use salt and sand to keep roads from freezing and to provide traction. But salt can get lodged in your body panels and wheels, causing rust and corrosion. And sand or gravel can get kicked up while you drive, chipping your paint or windshield. Be sure to wash your car regularly during the winter in order to fight rust.

Your windshield is also in danger any time you have to clear ice off it. Make sure to use the right methods and tools — no, don’t dump hot water on it — in order to de-ice it without causing cracks or chips.

Wiper blades, as well as the rest of the wiper system, are also easy to damage. If the blades are frozen in place, turning on the system can burn out the wiper motor, bend the wiper mechanism and tear the rubber off the wiper arms. Instead, start the car, turn the defroster on full, and wait until the ice on the windshield starts to soften. 

RepairPal tip: If you know that a storm is coming soon, flip up your wipers so that they stand clear of the windshield when you park. This way, you can clear the windshield more easily, without the wipers in the way.

5. Underinflating your tires

Cold weather causes means that air compresses, so tires that were properly inflated in warmer weather will be underinflated when it’s freezing. For every temperature drop of 10 degrees Fahrenheit, your tire pressure drops by one pound. Add in the normal loss of air over time, and your tires could easily be way too low for safe winter driving.  What’s more, the rubber used in all-season tires starts to lose its flexibility at around 45º F, providing less grip when you need it the most.

Watch your tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS). If one or more tires are low, a TPMS dashboard warning light will come on. If you don’t have a TPMS, check your tires with a tire gauge, and inflate them to the manufacturer’s recommended pressures. Also check that your tires have adequate tread depth to dig into and grip snowy roads. 

RepairPal tip: A set of winter tires is a good idea if you deal with several months of snow, ice and cold.

6. Cutting off the fuel to your engine

In addition to thicker oil, there are other problems that can hurt your car’s engine. Condensation forms in your fuel tank on a year-round basis, but it can cause serious problems when the temperature drops below freezing. 

This water drips down the tank’s walls and combines with the fuel that is already in the tank. The lower your fuel level is, the more condensation can build up. Water is heavier than gasoline, so it falls to the bottom of the tank, where the fuel lines going to the engine are attached. 

When the weather gets below freezing, the water in the fuel lines can freeze, blocking the fuel trying to get from the tank to the engine, keeping you from starting the car. 

RepairPal tip: Be sure to keep your fuel level at a half-tank or higher. This will reduce the amount of condensation, and the possibility of a fuel line freeze.  

» LEARN MORE: Get an estimate for your car repair

7. Danger from road hazards 

When the roads you travel on get a coating of ice, snow or freezing rain, it can be very difficult to keep control of your car. If you’re not careful, you can slide or skid, and hit curbs, trees, fences or other cars.

Winter tires are designed to aggressively grip the snowy and icy surfaces you will encounter, and are made of rubber that stays soft at below-freezing temperatures. They can keep you out of much of the trouble that bad winter roads can dish out.

But other hazards remain. Potholes can hide under the snow and frost, and icicles or tree branches can snap off, damaging your parked car. 

RepairPal tip: It’s hard to avoid what you can’t see, but try slowing down on unfamiliar roads, and watch the cars ahead of you to see if any of them hit a pothole. And when you park, try to avoid doing so under a tree or close to the roof or overhang of a building. 

Stephen Fogel

About the Author

Stephen has been an automotive enthusiast since childhood, owning some of his vehicles for as long as 40 years, and has raced open-wheel formula cars. He follows and writes about the global automotive industry, with an eye on the latest vehicle technologies.

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