Get your car ready for winter
By Eric Peters
for immediate release

You may be ready for fall and winter -- but how about your car? There are several things you can do right now -- while it's still nice and warm -- that'll keep you from having to deal with car trouble when it isn't.

Here's the checklist:

* Battery: Without it, you're stuck -- even if there isn't a single flake on the ground. Battery problems can sneak up on you. An older, getting weaker battery might seem to be just fine now, while the outside temps are still in the 50s and 60s. But once the temperature drops into the 30s and below, a marginal battery may have difficulty doing its job -- and could leave you stranded. A battery can last five years or more -- but they can begin to weaken after as little as three years --especially if subjected to hard use. So the "three year rule" is a good rule to follow when it comes to batteries -- i.e., have a shop check the battery's condition at three years and every year thereafter until its time to buy a new one. And pay attention to obvious signs of declining battery prowess -- such as slowed cranking when you try to start the car. The jump-start you save could be your own.

* AC system: If it's getting colder, why worry about the air conditioner? Because the AC system is part of the defroster circuit -- and if it's not working properly, your defroster may not, either. Specifically, excess moisture and in-cabin humidity can quickly fog up the windshield -- sometimes, coating all the interior glass -- leaving you to fumble through traffic like Mr. Magoo. If the AC's not blowing cold, have it looked at now. Don't wait until spring. In addition to being able to see where you're going, you may also avoid expensive AC system repair costs down the road by fixing a small problem (such as a minor leak/low refrigerant charge) now, before it develops into a major one -- like a burned up/frozen compressor.

* Heater/cooling system: As annoying as an overheated car can be in July, it doesn't compare to the misery of a leaking heater core in the middle of winter -- puddling your floorboards and soaking your carpets with oozy, slimy green Prestone. Even a minor problem such as a sticking thermostat is zero fun when it's zero degrees outside. If your vehicle is more than three years old -- or it's been three years since the cooling system was last checked over -- it's a good idea to have everything -- belts, hoses, thermostat, etc. -- checked for signs of wear and serviced as necessary. Even "long life" coolant eventually breaks down -- and if you let it go, a gunked-up radiator (and possibly a blown head gasket/warped cylinder head caused by overheating) could be your reward.

Windshield wiper blades: These are made of rubber and lose their "edge" (and thus their ability to keep your windshield clear) fairly rapidly --often in as little as six months of use. Once they do, instead of clearing your windshield, they'll just smear it for you -- not the hot ticket at 60 mph. Wiper blades should be checked (and usually, replaced) at least once a year -- sooner, if you notice they're not doing a good job of clearing the windshield. It's a good idea to be preemptive about it and swap in fresh blades in Fall and then again in Spring. And you might consider buying special "winter" blades designed to cope with harsh conditions -- and road salt -- more effectively than standard blades. These are a smart investment -- and much cheaper than rear-ending a car you couldn't see because of a smudged-up, streaked windshield. Also check -- and top off -- the fluid jar under the hood. During the winter months, you may need to do that as often as once every other week to avoid running dry. Keep a spare refill jug in the trunk for "just in case."

Door/trunk locks: Some vehicles (older ones, especially) have trouble with frozen locks as a result of moisture seeping into the mechanism, then freezing stuck when the temperature falls below zero. It's easy to keep that from happening by buying a $2 can of WD-40 (the "WD" is for "Water Displacement") at your local auto parts store -- and spraying a little into the lock mechanism. The can comes with a small straw that makes this very easy to do. Repeat the "treatment" after running the vehicle through automated, high-pressure car washes. These are great for keeping your car clean -- but also good at forcing water into places it shouldn't be, such as door and trunk locks.

* Tires: All four should be in good condition, with plenty of tread left, no signs of cracking or damage -- and inflated to the correct PSI. Replace any marginal tire -- and be sure to check air pressure when the tires are cold. Re-check at least once a month; tires can develop slow leaks that are not obvious to the eye -- but which may dangerously impair handling/braking performance, especially in a panic stop/emergency maneuver situation. You'll also save gas -- as much as 3-5 mpg -- by maintaining proper inflation pressures. If you own a rear drive vehicle -- in particular, a sporty rear-drive sedan or coupe -- give thought to buying a set of winter tires. Many late model sporty vehicles come from the factory equipped with high-performance "summer" tires that are not well-suited to winter driving; rear-drive models equipped with these tires can be very dangerous on snow and ice -- with very little grip and a tendency to slide out of control with little or no warning. Switching to a set of winter tires can make a big difference in such a car's ability to safely cope with winter weather -- and a set of tires is a whole lot cheaper than totaled car.

A good cleaning. If you take the time to give your vehicle a thorough cleaning now -- followed-up with a nice coat of protective wax -- you'll achieve two things. First, your car will be easier to clean when it's colder; dirt and so on doesn't adhere as well to a freshly waxed vehicle -- and you'll have cleaned out those nooks and crannies that might otherwise get quickly packed with grime and dirt that even a high-pressure car wash may not be able to dislodge. Second, you'll have protected the finish of your vehicle -- so it'll still be looking great next spring. Modern clearcoat finishes lose their shine if the translucent clear topcoat -- which is very thin -- gets damaged. Wax can help ward off the harmful effects of road salt -- highly corrosive stuff that's great for clearing the road, but not so great for paint.