Cold Weather Can How Several Vital Vehicle Components Work
When temperatures drop sharply, your car will likely not operate the same as it does in warmer weather. That’s largely due to physics and the facts that:
- Fluids and gas contract in the cold.
- Freezing weather can shrink rubber seals and affect electrical connections.
- Cold temperatures can make plastics, rubber, metals, and other materials far more brittle and vulnerable to damage.
Those changes can end up wreaking havoc on many systems and parts that are essential for safe driving — especially if vehicles are not properly maintained or winterized before temperatures drop.
6 Ways Cold Weather Impacts Cars
Here are some of the main ways that colder temperatures tend to alter vehicle systems and components, along with how to address or prevent each issue.
1. Tires Harden & Tire Pressure Drops
A 10° degree drop in temperature will typically cause tire pressure to drop by about 1 pound per square inch (PSI). That can result in dramatic declines in tire pressure when temperatures nosedive. And those losses can be compounded by natural tire pressure losses, which are, on average, about 1 PSI per month.
In colder weather, deflated tires can cause all sorts of risks, including (but not limited to):
- Increased stopping distances
- More wear and tear on the tires
- Greater chances of tire blowouts
What to Do: Keep a close eye on tire pressure, checking it at least once or twice a month. Add air to your tires, when needed, to maintain the ideal tire pressure. Also, keep a close eye on tire tread, rotating your tires or replacing them ASAP when the tread wears down. You may even want to swap out your tires before temperatures drop and mount winter tires on your vehicle.
2. Fuel Lines Freeze
Fuel generally freezes at very low temperatures, like below -40°. Well before it gets that cold, however, fuel lines can start to freeze. That’s because free-falling temperatures can cause condensation to accumulate and freeze in your vehicle’s fuel lines.
With icy fuel lines, the engine may not turn over, and fuel intake can be impeded, causing sputtering or stalls. If a car is in transit when frozen fuel lines cause engine problems, there can be a far greater risk of a crash.
What to Do: If the fuel lines have already frozen, attempt to thaw them out by parking your car in a warm, well-ventilated location and letting it run for a while. You can try to use heat lamps or blankets to help thaw the lines. If the lines have not totally frozen already, you could also use fuel additives to reduce the risk of this issue.
3. Fluids Thicken
Several fluids are vital to running vehicles, and all of these will get thicker — or more viscous — in cold weather. That includes fluids like (but not necessarily limited to):
- Fuel and oil
- Transmission fluid
- Brake fluid
- Wiper fluid
As these fluids get more viscous, they can make several vehicle systems sluggish, possibly impairing those components’ responsiveness and/or efficacy. That can be disastrous on the roads when the systems affected end up being the brakes or transmission, for example.
What to Do: Replenish and/or replace your vehicle’s fluids before winter temperatures set in. If possible, switch to low viscosity oil to protect your engine.
4. Lost Battery Voltage & Battery Damage
Battery voltage can drop by up to 60% when temperatures reach freezing levels. In other words, winter weather can impact a battery’s ability to retain a charge and:
- You may need twice as much current to start engines in cold temperatures.
- If your battery is at least 2.5 to 3 years old, it can experience even more voltage loss in cold weather.
- Routinely charging mobile devices in your car can intensify battery problems in cold weather.
What to Do: Let your vehicle run idly and warm up for at least a few minutes when you’re starting it in the wintertime. Replace batteries that are at least 3 years old before winter, if possible. If your battery is less than 3 years old, check the battery connections before winter and tighten them as needed.
5. Belts & Hoses Crack
Colder weather can weaken the rubber belts and hoses in your car, causing them to become:
- Less pliable and far more rigid
- More fragile and susceptible to cracking, holes, and other damage
Generally, the older belts and hoses are, the more vulnerable they will usually be to cold-related damage. In the worst cases, damaged belts and hoses can result in dangerous leaks, the loss of power to essential vehicle systems, and/or engines overheating.
What to Do: Inspect the belts and hoses before winter and replace any that are cracked or clearly damaged. Also, if you start hearing loud noises from under the hood of your car or if you see your car’s check engine come on, don’t ignore it. Take your car in for immediate inspection.
6. Salt Corrodes
If temperatures drop low enough for ice and snow to build up on the roads, it’s common for transportation safety officials to salt the roads to add traction. While salt may improve the ability to drive in icy conditions, it can also cause corrosion and rust to develop within the vehicle’s undercarriage. That could end up impacting anything from the brake lines to the vehicle’s frame, causing substantial damage.
What to Do: Regularly wash your vehicle during the winter. You may even want to have the undercarriage treated with oil as a way to prevent corrosion and rust.
Cars in the Cold: The Bottom Line
When it comes to colder temperatures and their impacts on vehicles, the bottom line is that it’s best to:
- Expect your vehicle to handle differently in the winter.
- Get a pre-winter inspection and maintenance to prepare your vehicle for colder temperatures.
- Understand exactly how winter can impact your car, so you know the signs of potential problems — and so you’re ready to take action to mitigate those issues when needed.