Weatherproof your wallet: Winterizing your car

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Weatherproof your wallet: Winterizing your car
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As wintertime makes its grand entrance and temperatures drop across much of the nation, staying warm is increasingly becoming top of mind for many people.  But good vehicle maintenance in colder weather doesn’t have to automatically translate into spending a ton of money.

There are a ton of things that vehicle owners can do themselves to keep their hard-earned money into their pockets this winter. Some simple yet thorough preventative measures can go a long way – for your vehicle and your wallet.

Here is your winterization checklist to help your vehicle:

Make sure your windshield blades & wiper fluid are in good shape

Make sure your windshield washer reservoir is adequately filled. Those tanks become increasingly important during winter storms, when the solvent’s antifreeze agent keeps the liquid from thickening in the cold. If you live in an area that gets heavy snowfall, don’t use your windshield wipers on ice-encased glass – that’s a quick way to destroy your wiper blades. It’s always good to keep an ice scraper (or something similar) to clear that brittle layer of snow and ice off the windshield first, especially if a mix of salt has found its way there.

How to gauge whether your battery is fully charged

Cold weather can be Kryptonite for car batteries. A big freeze can make it harder for your car to crank up as its energy is diminished the lower the temperature falls. But as a vehicle owner, there’s a simple thing you can do to make sure your battery is operating at top level. To check the battery’s fluid, take off the plastic caps on the battery to see where the fluid level is. If it’s low, you can replenish it by adding distilled water. If you’re not comfortable doing that, take it to an auto parts store that checks batteries for free.

Use your heater properly by putting it on this setting

You’d be surprised how many motorists don’t have their heater set to the proper mode during winter. If you’re using your defroster, you should point your car’s heater toward the windshield to boost the warm air so that it works quicker. The faster you can defrost your windows, the quicker you can redirect the heat back toward you.

Another cool tip? Turn on your AC when defrosting — it works as a dehumidifier. In some newer models, the AC will turn on automatically in defrost mode. See more on this in this Car Talk forum.

Ensure your coolant is at the correct level

Another easy thing you can do yourself without spending any money is to check the coolant in your radiator. If your system hasn’t been flushed in at least two years, try to have a professional mechanic take a look at it before winter hits in earnest (they are better qualified to spot leaks and related problems).

Without opening the cap, you can check the coolant level by locating the “Full” line on the reservoir.  If your system needs coolant, add a mixture of antifreeze and water (this can be bought pre-mixed or concentrated, so be sure to check the label before buying). While it will generally be a 50/50 mix, colder weather may call for a 60/40 ratio. Check your owner’s manual for exact specs.

The DMV.org website says, “It is especially important to have the correct antifreeze/water mixture to prevent fluid from freezing in your radiator. Pick up a tester at an auto parts store and make sure the fluid is filled to the maximum line.”

Do you really need ‘winter’ tires?

Snow tires have come a long way over the last 20 or so years: They used to work exclusively in heavy snowfall and would perform terribly in dry conditions — if not break up on the road. Nowadays, the quality is better, but they still have a shorter tread life than the all-season tires that come with your car.

So, should you buy winter tires? If you live in the South or most of the far West, you will get by just fine without spending any money on this, as the temperatures generally stay above 30 degrees year-round, aside from a few brief cold snaps. In some of the extreme winter climes we see in the northern United States, it may make sense to spend a little extra for winter tires, which will give you extra traction on snow and set roads. In mountainous areas, it may even make sense to invest in tire chains, which are mandated in some states but outlawed in others.

Experts say that winter tires are also better equipped to handle in different types of weather, which makes them a good buy if necessary.

“Years ago,” Woody Rogers, a Tire Rack product information specialist told Edmunds, “the wet stopping test with snow tires was sometimes like, ‘Whoa, are we gonna stop before the guardrail?’ Today, if you buy top-quality winter tires you sacrifice very little as compared to an original-equipment all-season tire when the temperature drops below 40 degrees.”

RELATED: We’ve compiled an exhaustive checklist that has everything you need to stay safe and road-ready

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