14 Tips that Prepare You (& Your Car) for Winter Travel

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wintry road in the middle of snow stormWe live in Wisconsin. Our state does not shut down for snow—or any crazy winter weather, for that matter! That’s why we all should take a few minutes to prepare our car for the treacherous winter roads that are part of winter driving.

Fluids

  1. Schedule all oil changes well in advance so you’re ready for your holiday travel.
  2. Have your oil replaced with a lighter weight for the winter.
  3. Check and fill your antifreeze fluid.

Visibility

  1. Keep your washer fluid reservoir filled so you have clear visibility during winter storms.
  2. Replace your windshield wipers.

Preparedness Tips

  1. Stock up your winter emergency kit (here’s what to pack in your car before the snow hits).
  2. Keep a pair of boots in your car in case you go off the road.
  3. Put road flares in your car so other motorists can see you if you need to pull over.

Traction

  1. Check your tire tread to ensure your tires have traction when you need it.
  2. Put new snow tires on so you can make it through the snow. (Find out the difference between all-season and snow tires.)

Preventative Tips

  1. If your dashboard lights are on, get your car in to your mechanic to diagnose and repair any problems.
  2. Have your battery checked and replaced, if needed (watch for these signs that it’s time for a new battery).
  3. Schedule an appointment to get your car a general check-up (hoses, belts, suspension, etc.).
  4. Don’t wait to get your brakes replaced when they wear down (look for these signs of worn brakes).

6 Ways to Prepare Your Car for Winter Driving

truck driving on winter road with snow tiresWhen the weather feels like a roller coaster, it can be easy to get caught off guard. One minute, you’re enjoying pleasant fall weather then…BOOM! you’re driving in a snow storm. Here’s how to stay ahead of the snow forecast (at least in regards to your car!) so you and your car are ready for the first Wisconsin snowfall—and for all the slippery, wet winter driving.

Get your fluids checked

Low vehicle fluids can spell disaster when you need them the most this winter. Check your antifreeze level in your reservoir to ensure that your car doesn’t overheat at a vital time (like in the middle of a snowstorm). Make sure your oil level is between the two lines on your dipstick (find directions for checking your oil here) so your engine doesn’t leave you stranded.

For optimal visibility, check your windshield washer so you can clean your windshield during a heavy snowfall. As long as you’re at it, inspect windshield wipers for wear and tear. If they are in bad shape, purchase a new set to get you through winter—you don’t want to go through a bad winter storm without a properly functioning windshield wiper.

Make sure your battery starts

Winter temperatures can turn your vehicle fluids to the consistency of molasses, meaning you need a strong battery to turn your engine over. If your battery is old, or weakening, it may not have the power to start up your car and leave you stranded with a dead battery. So you don’t get stuck out in the cold, ask your mechanic to check your battery and make sure it’ll make it through another winter.

Check your brakes

Prompt braking is an important part of winter driving. As you drive, pay close attention for signs your brakes need replacing or have your mechanic check your brakes so you can easily stop when needed (like during a heavy snow fall). Make sure you have adequate brake pads to ensure that you can avoid accidents when the roads are wet.

Put on snow tires

If you have to venture out in the worst winter weather, consider purchasing a set of snow tires for your vehicle. Snow tires are specifically designed for traction and handling through all the snow that comes with winter driving. Constructed with a softer compound and tread pattern designed specifically for getting through snow and ice, snow tires can find traction on even the roughest roads.

Remember as you shop for tires that traction control, common on many vehicles, is not a replacement for snow tires; traction control adjusts the speed of your tires to conditions, but does not give your vehicle more traction while driving.

Stock up

Winter road emergencies are, unfortunately, a part of winter driving. Assemble a winter driving kit before the weather turns bad. Store your supplies, like a flashlight, jumper cables, boots, shovel, gloves, and other necessities (a full list of winter emergency kit supplies are here) in a waterproof container that can withstand the winter weather.

Check your four wheel drive

If you have a vehicle with four wheel drive, make sure it’s ready to function when needed. Test your four wheel drive, and have your mechanic repair any issues so you can head out on the road when our winter roads turn slippery and wintry.

Does my car need new spark plugs?

car engineThe good news: you don’t need to know what a spark plug does in your vehicle to know when you need new spark plugs. What you should know is that ignoring this car maintenance task can negatively impact the performance and fuel mileage of your car. Here’s how to know when you need new spark plugs so you can prevent that from happening:

Poor fuel mileage. Because spark plugs are responsible for the spark that ignites the fuel-air mixture in your engine, spark plugs can cause your fuel mileage to drop. Determine if your fuel mileage is decreasing by tracking your fuel purchases and mileage between each fill up. If your fuel mileage does decrease, let your mechanic know so they can diagnose the problem and lower your rising gas bill.

Slow starts. Spark plugs provide the spark that starts your engine. When that spark is not as strong, your engine may turn over slower than usual. Over time, the gap at the top of the spark plug widens, impacting the spark and causing a slow start. Schedule an appointment to replace your spark plugs.

Engine surges and misfires. A lone misfire or surge is not a sign that your spark plugs need to be replaced, but consistent engine surges and misfires can be caused by old spark plugs.

Sluggish acceleration. If your spark plugs haven’t been replaced and your car is slow to accelerate, it could be a sign that it’s time to contact your mechanic. Depending on the kind of spark plugs you choose, plan on replacing your spark plugs every 30-100,000 miles.

Spark plugs are the spark that ignites the fuel-air mixture in your cylinder, creating the combustion that starts and keeps your car engine in motion. If you wait too long to replace your old spark plugs, you can damage other parts of your car.

When should I put on my snow tires?

truck driving on winter road with snow tiresIt may be a little early to talk snow, but it’s never too early to start thinking about readying your car for winter. Snow tires are one of the most obvious ways to do so; that’s why it’s an ideal time to research your snow tire options before the first snow storm hits and you need snow tires.

When should I put on snow tires?

Snow tires should not be mounted too soon before the first snow fall; snow tires are made of a soft rubber compound that can wear off on warm pavement. Contact your local tire store about putting on snow tires when the temperature routinely hits 40 degrees (or near freezing) or there is news of upcoming snow.

Why snow tires?

Snow tires have a unique tread that is designed and manufactured for optimal handling on wet and slippery roads. With a softer compound, snow tires can handle better than all-season tires since they are constructed specifically for winter roads and conditions. Snow tires are not a replacement for the traction control found on many vehicles (or visa versa); instead snow tires are another way to assist drivers who routinely venture out on wintery roads.

If you don’t want to deal with mounting and dismounting your tires every season, look into purchasing a second set of rims specifically for your snow tires. With a second set of rims, you don’t have to go through the hassle of being without a vehicle while your mechanic remounts tires.

What should I look for in a set of snow tires?

Purchasing snow tires is similar to buying a set of all-season tires. There are three primary factors to use when buying snow tires: 1) tire size 2) your expectations for your next set of tires and 3) driving style.

Once you’ve determined the size you need, do your research (or trust someone who knows your vehicle and can recommend tires) when buying snow tires, and be honest with yourself about your driving style. If you have to venture out in the worst winter conditions, select a set of tires with a proven record on winter roads. Choose a set of snow tires with improved handling and traction; again the exact set is going to depend on your driving style (don’t be afraid to ask your mechanic or local tire store for recommendations).

When should I take off snow tires?

Wait until the threat of snow has passed. When the temperatures start hitting the upper 40’s or low 50’s on a regular basis, it’s time to take those snow tires off—but try not to make the switch too soon. You don’t want to get stuck in a spring snow storm on all-season tires when you bought a set of snow tires for safety and increased traction.

How do I know when my shocks are shot?

closeup car showing shocksForget those Hollywood scenes with cars bouncing up and down wildly from broken shocks. A car with broken shocks won’t rock wildly like you see in the movies, though more bouncing than usual is a signal of failing shocks. It makes sense; cars and trucks have shocks to create a smoother ride and minimize any bumps from an uneven road. Here are other ways to tell if your shocks need to be replaced.

Tire wear

Tire wear, by itself, is not a sign that you need to replace shocks. However, tires with cupped wear are a sign that it’s time to make an appointment to get your shocks replaced.

Slow steering response

A car or truck slow to respond when driving, or with stiff steering, can be a sign of a worn shock. Your car may also make a sound when steering; your mechanic can diagnose the issue at your next oil change appointment.

Leaning during turns

If you feel your car lean during turns or when changing lanes, the culprit could be your shocks. Take your car to the mechanic to check your shots and look for other obvious signs that your shocks need to be replaced, such as a fluid leak.

“Nose diving”

Another red flag that your car’s shocks need to be replaced is the classic “nose dive.” A “nose dive” is the sensation felt when the brakes are applied, caused by the nose of the car lurching forward.

Excessive bouncing

Since the main function of a shock is to minimize bouncing when driving, it’s no surprise that one of the most obvious sign is excessive bouncing when driving. To make sure your shocks are the cause, test the shocks in your driveway. When the car is stopped, push down on a corner of the car and see if it bounces when you release the pressure.

Mileage

If you don’t want to wait and watch for signs of failing shocks, use 50,000 miles—the average benchmark of worn shocks—as a benchmark. Talk to your mechanic and schedule a regular replacement of your shocks every 50,000 miles.

Step by step: How to buy the right set of tires

tire that needs to be inspected for small holeBuying tires may not be the most glamorous job, but it’s important for your safety and your pocketbook. After all, tires are your first line of defense between you and the road—and a way to save money because they last a long time and you don’t get in an accident. Use these steps to find the right set of tires for you and your car, and move on to more fun activities (like a road trip!).

Look at your current tires.

One of the simplest ways to narrow your options for your new tires is to think about the current set of tires on your vehicle. Do you like how they ride? Are you satisfied with how long they lasted? Do you think they were very loud when you were driving? Did the tire tread wear evenly and slowly? If you were satisfied in every way with your current tires, then don’t hesitate to buy the same tires for your next set.

If you weren’t happy with your current tires, make a list of what you didn’t like about your current set of tires. Take that list to your tire shop so they can narrow your options or ask your mechanic for recommendations for tires they’ve seen other car owners like.

Note the size of the tire.

You won’t get very far in tire shopping without knowing the size of tires you need. You can find the size of the tire on your current set, in the owner’s manual, or on the inside of the driver’s side door. Make sure you get all the size letters and numbers, usually in a series similar to 235/65R16. There might also be letters, such as P or LT.

What do the letters and numbers on the tire mean? The letter “P” means that the tire is intended for passenger cars. The letters LT is for a light truck. The first numbers (255) are the width, in millimeters, between the two sidewalls. The second number (55) is the aspect ratio.  The number is a percentage, and the higher the percentage, the larger the sidewall of the tire. The last number (17) is the diameter of wheel that the tire fits on. There are a few other letters, but those are not as common.

Decide whether you want to purchase one or two sets of tires.

Before you head out for a set of tires, evaluate how well your current set of tires did in the snow. This is Wisconsin, and the roads can get slippery from winter storms and sleet. If you need to head out regularly into nasty snowy weather, consider buying snow tires for winter and another set for when the weather gets nice. Snow tires are constructed with a softer compound and tread pattern designed specifically for getting through winter precipitation; because of this, snow tires can find traction on even the worst winter roads.

If you prefer to buy one set of tires, look for a set of all-season tires that have a proven record in the snow and sun. Tires are the epitome of give and take. All-season tires, the most common type of tires, are designed for rain, heat, cold and snow. These tires are a good all-around tire for those conditions, but the “take” is that they are not specially equipped for winter.

Shop for new tires.

Once you’ve compiled your list of must and must haves, it’s time to go tire shopping. Use your list of “must haves” and your mechanic’s (or preferred tire shop’s) expertise to buy the best set of tires that fit with your list and your budget. For the latter factor, make sure you factor in the cost of mounting and balancing the tires—but don’t just trust any mechanic. Make an appointment with a local shop you trust to mount and balance your tires.

Drive.

Enjoy your new tires!

How to Keep Your Old Car Running Well

cars on highway headed out for ThanksgivingYou want your car to hit 300,000+ miles? It can happen (we’ve seen it), but not without a bit of effort (maintenance!). Here’s how to help your car become a high-mileage beauty—and keep it running well.

Don’t miss an oil change

No matter how busy life gets, don’t forget to get regular oil changes that keep your engine running well. Oil breaks down over time, and dirty oil can have dirt and contaminants in them. Regular oil changes ensure you have clean oil that properly lubricates your engine and keeps it running smoothly. Make sure you schedule your oil change (you can even do it online!) and don’t miss the appointment.

Don’t wait to replace spark plugs and battery

A car’s spark plugs should be replaced every 30,000-100,000 miles, depending on the kind of spark plugs in your car. Talk to your mechanic about when your spark plugs should be replaced, and stick to a stringent schedule. Worn spark plugs can lessen the life of other parts of the engine or damage other parts of your car, such as the catalytic converter. Look for signs that your spark plugs need to be changed, such as slow starting, less acceleration when you hit the gas, or an occasional engine surge or misfire.

Your car battery is also an integral part of your car; make sure you get a new battery when the battery is 3-5 years old, if your battery is dead often, or if your car is slow starting. Schedule an appointment so you can get your high-mileage beauty started and on the road.

Keep up on tire tread and air pressure checks

It’s normal to want to jump in your car and go, but a quick tire check can be important both for your ride and the wear on your car. Improperly balanced or low tires can wear parts of your car unevenly, causing premature replacement. Check your tire tread on a regular basis; note if the tread is worn low or if the wear is uneven. Use a tire pressure gauge to make sure your tires are inflated to the proper air pressure, which you can find on the decal on your door. As an added bonus, a quick tire check can also give you optimal gas mileage as you put more miles on your car.

Replace brakes

Brakes are an important safety part of every vehicle, and therefore an essential part of a well-running car. Brakes typically need to be replaced every 25-70,000 miles. Make sure you watch for signs your brakes need to be replaced: a vibrating brake pedal, squealing when you brake, or when the car pulls to the left or right. Make an appointment when you notice any of these signs, or ask your mechanic to check your brakes at your next oil change.

Change the air filter

A clogged air filter can compromise the performance of your high-mileage beauty, so make sure you ask your mechanic to inspect your air filter annually. Air filters should be replaced when the air filter is dirty—so you and your car can stay on the road for a long time.

Back-to-School Car Checklist that Gets You to School

happy collage school girl student portrait in classrom with well-maintained carStudents, you can’t live in denial any more: summer school practices are starting and back-to-school is right around the corner. Time to get ready with all the normal back-to-school activities: buy school supplies, make sure your closet is stocked, get your car ready for the commute.

The last item on the list may not be on your short list of getting ready for school, but it should be; you don’t want to be stranded trying to get back and forth to class or all the extra curricular activities that come with school.

Interior & Exterior

___ Clean out the inside of your car.

___ Vacuum the interior.

___ Add organizers for books and snacks.

___ Wipe down the dash.

___ Wash the exterior.

Car Maintenance

___ Check the battery.

___ Replace the air filter.

___ Schedule an oil change (or check your oil if you had one done recently).

___Check the tire tread and pressure (instructions here).

___ Replace tires (if needed).

___ Have your brakes checked.

___ Pack an emergency car kit (use this emergency car kit list).

If you have a check engine light on, you should also get that resolved before it causes further problems. Check with your mechanic to find out if your spark plugs need to be replaced to prevent engine misfires and that your suspension is ready for the commute to school.

How long do brakes last? When do my spark plugs need to be replaced? (And other key car part replacement questions!)

car getting oil change in need of part replacementPart replacement is a normal part of car ownership; after all the only way to avoid car repairs and maintenance is to park your car (which defeats the purpose of owning a car!). To help you decide when is the right time to replace important car and truck parts like brakes, spark plugs, and battery, we’ve put together this guide to help you take care of your car well.

Brakes

When to replace: Anywhere from 25-70,000 miles. The exact mileage depends on the type of brakes, driving style, type of vehicle, and amount of braking.

Signs your brakes need to be replaced:

Spark plugs

When to replace: Approximately 30,000-100,000 miles depending on the kind of spark plugs you choose. After your mechanic replaces your spark plugs the first time, stick to a strict schedule of spark plug replacement. Waiting too long to replace spark plugs can damage other parts of your vehicle. If you don’t know when it’s time to replace spark plugs, ask your mechanic to check your spark plugs at your next appointment.

Signs your spark plugs need to be replaced:

Battery

When to replace: An estimated 3-5 years. Batteries can give out at different ages, however, so it pays to be vigilant for signs of battery replacement. If your battery starts giving you warning signs within the warranty period, contact the store you purchased it from immediately.

Signs your battery needs to be replaced:

 Air filter

When to replace: About every 15-30,000 miles depending on driving conditions. If you drive through dusty areas, your air filter is going to need to be replaced every 15,000 miles.

Signs your air filter needs to be replaced:

How can I make my brakes last longer?

worn brake pades & rotorsWe all try to get more for our money. We clip coupons. We watch sales ads. We try to get more food at the grocery store. More, more, more. So why wouldn’t we want more mileage out of our brake pad and rotors?

Ease up on the “lead foot.”

Driving fast is not hard on your brakes, but stopping hard is. Fact is, if you’re going fast on the road, you’re going to need to hit your brakes hard to stop. Slow down, especially when you know you’re going to need to stop frequently.

Keep your car in good repair.

When certain components of your brakes get stuck or lock up, brakes can wear unevenly or heavily, sending you to the shop for premature replacement. Ask your mechanic to check your brakes every time you have your tires rotated or routine maintenance done to your car.

Don’t overuse them.

Every time you hit the brakes, you wear off a bit of material on your brakes. Only brake when you need to, and avoid mindless braking when you hit the brakes just because the car ahead of you braked.

Allow for more distance between you and the car ahead of you.

Leave drafting to the professional race car drivers. When in traffic, don’t drive too close to the car ahead of you so you don’t have to suddenly stop. You’ll get in less accidents and get more mileage out of your brakes.

Minimize your heavy loads.

Overloaded cars and towing vehicles wear down brakes, simply because you need to use more brakes to stop. If getting more mileage from your brakes is your goal, don’t overload your car and clean out heavy items when you don’t need to carry them.

Flush your brake fluids.

Proper lubrication is the key to long brake life. Make an appointment to have your brake fluids flushed so your brakes stay lubricated, you stay safe, and you get more miles out of your brakes.