The good news is avoiding winter car damage is an obtainable goal. We can take steps to not only protect our automobile, but perform ongoing maintenance during the harsh winter months to reduce long-term damage to our automobiles. Despite the optimism of a mild and dry winter, many major metropolitan areas have experienced exactly the opposite.
In fact, many parts of the country have endured subzero weather for extended periods of time. This provides a unique set of challenges for your automobile. In addition, to temperature challenges local municipalities now spread chemicals on the roadways before and after snowstorms to help keep the roads clear.
Automotive designers and engineers prepared the front suspension and the undercarriage to withstand harsh elements. However, withstanding long-term exposure to harsh chemicals, meant to melt snow and ice might damage important components. Here we’ll talk about avoiding winter car damage and the steps to take during the beginning, middle and end of the winter driving season.
Engine Damage from Extreme Cold
You might think that avoiding winter car damage just means moving to the southern parts of the country. Unfortunately, even Florida has recently experienced temperatures well below the freezing mark. They even had snow flurries in Tallahassee.
Floridians lulled into a false sense of security may ignore their anti-freeze protection level thinking they’ll never see temperatures below freezing. Other drivers across the United States might think their antifreeze protection is up to the challenge.
However, with static temperatures near zero many of these car owners remain God smacked about what can happen if there engine coolant freezes. In this section we’ll discuss engine damage from extremely cold temperatures. In the next section will talk about defending against the situation.
Your Engine Still has Freeze Plugs
The problem with water freezing becomes the expansion as it hardens into ice. Coolant inside of the engine can freeze and crack the engine block. For the last hundred years automotive designers included a protection mechanism to avoid this catastrophic event. During the manufacturing process engine builders press freeze plugs into key locations of the cylinder block.
In a situation where the antifreeze is below ideal protection levels, it can start to freeze and expand. When this happens the freeze plugs become dislodged from the cylinder block before any internal damage occurs. The good news becomes this often saves the engine from total destruction.
The bad news is we now have an extreme coolant leak. When things thaw out and drivers attempt to operate the vehicle they notice a large puddle of coolant under the automobile. This means it’s time to tow the vehicle to an auto repair shop and find out which freeze plugs are leaking. This can be a big job. The manufacturer installs some freeze plugs in areas where you can get at them with little effort.
Nevertheless, they install several freeze plugs behind the bell housing of the transmission. Some vehicles supply and inspection cover that allows the technician to look for coolant leaks in there without removing the transmission. However, if they observe any wetness this means complete removal of the transmission to replace those hidden freeze plugs. Although a complete freeze plug replacement remains cheaper than replacing an engine, the repair can run over $1000 on some years, make and models.
Testing Antifreeze Protection Levels
Ideally testing antifreeze protection levels should occur before temperatures dip below the freezing mark. With that said, retesting it a couple of times throughout the winter season remains a good idea. Antifreeze installed from the factory achieves a protection level of between -30 and -40 degrees Fahrenheit. We want to maintain this level of protection throughout the years we operate the automobile regardless of geographical location.
We test the level of protection using an old-fashioned hydrometer. On a cold engine you suck out some of the antifreeze and see how many balls float in the turkey baster style hydrometer. A result of four or five balls floating achieves the goal of -32 to -40 degrees Fahrenheit. The question becomes what to do when your results fall below this point. The answer is to perform a drain and fill of the radiator.
Keep in mind that you want to purchase the correct antifreeze for your automobile as these types vary per manufacturer. You can always find exactly what kind and how much you’ll need in the owner’s manual or vehicle specific auto repair manual. However, there’s another variable that we need to consider. They sell some antifreeze premixed and some as a concentrate. Look carefully at the container for instructions on how to achieve the maximum freeze protection before refilling the radiator.
Avoiding Winter Car Damage of the Undercarriage
Liquid sodium chloride remains the chemical of choice as an application prior to a major snowstorm. This chemical bonds to the road and dries. Therefore, it really doesn’t pose any threat to the undercarriage until the snow falls. When the frozen precipitation hits the chemical, it melts and forms a salty brine. This is when it poses the biggest problem to the underside of the automobile.
As the car slogs through this briny mixture the undercarriage becomes completely coated with this corrosive material. The good news is that short-term exposure poses little harm to the automobile. In fact, a few days after the storm when the roadways dry out, the dry form of the liquid sodium chloride remains less corrosive than the liquid form. However, long-term exposure becomes another story.
When exposed to wet roads in the weeks and months after the snowstorm the sodium chloride activates and begins to work on electrical connectors and metal surfaces. Therefore, avoiding winter car damage of the undercarriage means a trip through a modern car wash with an undercarriage washing system. During this service they direct high-pressure water from the ground up. This pattern does an excellent job of removing the sodium chloride applied by the road crews. During your next oil change or preventive maintenance service have your technician verify the undercarriage is free from damage and road salt residue.