Winter car starting can be challenging on cold winter mornings. There are four reasons we believe why the cold weather makes it harder to start cars:
1. Batteries hate the cold
Cold weather and car batteries do not mix, making winter car starting more difficult. Chemical batteries produce less current when it is cold — sometimes a lot less. At DJ Foreign Auto Care, we recommend changing it every three years, though you could get away with five years, depending on how much you drive and how you drive.
Make sure the battery cables aren't disconnected. With your engine off, check if the cables can slip free from the nodes. Tightening the nut is an easy job and can save you from a mid-drive battery loss that would require you to get out of your car and take off your gloves.
Check for corrosion. If there is a white powder around the nodes and/or clamps, it could be a sign of corrosion. If you can't get a new battery, we recommend cleaning the nodes and clamps with baking soda, water, and a toothbrush. Loosen the cables, clean the nodes and clamps, then dry and retighten.
2. Check your fluids
In cold weather, engine oil thickens and doesn’t flow as well, so moving it through engine parts is harder. Thickened engine oil means your battery has to do more for winter car starting to be successful. If your car is due for an oil change, consider refilling it with a lower viscosity oil. Modern synthetic oils flow quite well in the cold, as long as you use the right one. On the bottle, it lists two numbers. The first for low-temperature viscosity, the second for high temperature. You might want to consider 5W-20 or-30. The ‘W’ stands for winter.
Flushing your antifreeze is recommended for better results with winter car starting, if it has not been flushed in a few years. Green-colored antifreeze is the most common; but whatever color you choose, don’t mix colors. Coolant and antifreeze are interchangeable terms. Coolant is typically sold premixed. Antifreeze is usually pure and needs to be combined with water. Check the bottle; it will tell you.
3. Cold weather can cause fuel problems
Any water in the fuel lines can block the flow of fuel in sub-zero temperatures. Freezing is most common in the fuel lines, which are thin and easily blocked by ice. A car with frozen fuel lines may turn over just fine, but it will not run on its own.
Diesel fuel can “gel” in cold weather, which affects the flow, making it slower because of the cold. It also makes it harder to deliver to the engine on start-up.
4. Older cars can have carburetor issues
Cars built before the mid-1980s usually used carburetors to mix small amounts of fuel with the air in the engine. Carburetors often don't work well in the cold, notably because tiny nozzles called jets get clogged with ice or because fuel did not evaporate well in them. Drivers of older or classic cars will need to be mindful that cold weather can cause carburetor issues.
Preventing cold-weather winter car starting problems
The best way to deal with freezing weather winter car starting problems is to avoid them from the beginning. Here are some ways you can prevent them:
Keep your car warm
Since batteries and engine oil do not like cold, keeping them warm is the most practical approach. Park in a garage. A heated garage is great, but an unheated garage will help your car stay warmer than if it were parked outside. If you do not have a garage, parking under or near something big can help. Park under a carport, tree, or next to a building.
Use a battery heater or engine block heater. In frigid climates it is common, and sometimes necessary, to keep a vehicle's engine block warm overnight. An engine block heater accomplishes just that. The heater plugs into an electrical outlet to maintain a warm temperature, helping the oil and other fluids flow more readily. If that choice is not available, you can try a plug-in electric heater for your battery.
Avoid fuel issues
Auto parts stores and gas stations sell dry gas for gasoline cars and fuel conditioner for diesel vehicles, each to help combat fuel-line freezing and, in the case of diesel cars, gelling. Consider using a bottle of dry gas now and then, or a conditioner with every tank of diesel. However, note that your fuel may come with such additives straight from the pump, so check with your gas station before putting anything else in your fuel tank.
How to start your car in cold weather
Turning the key, as usual, may do it, but in freezing weather, it is best to be a bit more careful.
Step 1: Turn off all electrical accessories. That means headlights, heater, defroster, and so on. Your battery needs to give everything it has to turn the engine over. Switching off all electrical accessories allows it to provide maximum amperage.
Step 2: Turn the key and let it crank for a moment. If the engine catches right away, perfect! If it doesn't, crank it a few more seconds, but then stop — starter motors can quickly overheat if they are run for more than around ten seconds.
Step 3: Wait a couple of minutes and try again. Don’t give up on the first try. However, your battery may need a few minutes before it can deliver its full power right away.
Step 4: If you have a carbureted car, you can try starter fluid. Starter fluid comes in an aerosol can that is sprayed into the air cleaner — we can show you how to use it. You shouldn't depend on starter fluid, but it can work in a pinch.
Allowing the car to warm up is more of a comfort to us than for modern cars with fuel injected engines. Our advice is to start the car, then drive very cautiously until the oil gets heated. It will heat faster driving at slow speeds without sudden acceleration than just idling in your driveway. In extreme cold, however, we recommend idling for a minute or two. Idling for 10-15 minutes, as Midwesterners are prone to do, could dilute the oil with unburnt fuel, resulting in increased engine wear. Moreover, it wastes gas.
Good luck out there — and stay warm! For all of your BMW, MINI, Mercedes, Jaguar, Land Rover and other European vehicle repair and maintenance needs, call today to get on the schedule: 612-567-5908. DJ Foreign Auto Care is located at: 2626 University Ave NE, Minneapolis, MN 55418.