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Mr. Green Car: Winter driving–part one

December 29, 2010

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

It already seems like winter has been here for months, yet technically it has only been here a week. As I always do, I preach that one of the best things you can do for your vehicle is to wash it regularly in the winter. Although I preach this, I’ve yet to practice it this season, since it seems to snow every few days and temperatures have only peeped above freezing a couple of times. So, my vehicles, like yours, are bathed in salt.

Everything that is not fully protected by paint or undercoating is busily corroding. So when you get a chance, give your car a bath. Just like brushing your teeth—even if they are only going to get messed up again anyway, it is worth doing.

A sneaky place that vehicles like to corrode, and sometimes badly, is the front floorboards. Not only are they assaulted by the salty slush splashed up from below as you drive, but without proper floor mats, and even with them, the slop that melts off your winter boots as you drive soaks into the carpet, then down to the metal below. I’ve repaired several cars that had “Fred Flintstone” floorboards—that is, big holes.

The carpet absorbs this salty slop, and it does not evaporate well in the winter. It is also very hard to get out. Only a very powerful vacuum cleaner can get the moisture out—and that should be a “wet-vac.” So the best cure is a good defense. If you don’t already have one, go out and by a good set of solid rubber/plastic floor mats. They are less expensive than the style with carpet—and you don’t want the style with carpet. The carpets on floor mats hold sloppy gunk, too, and I’ve found they are all hard to clean properly, even in the summer. With the solid plastic kind, you can easily hose them off when you are washing the vehicle. Just be sure to buy the style with a lip that holds the wet stuff on the mat.

Be careful that the mat does not interfere with the gas pedal. Every floor mat I’ve ever seen will creep forward until it begins to interfere with the gas pedal or your right foot. It would be worth figuring out a way to restrain it from slipping forward as you get in and out. For all the problems manufacturers have had with this, I’ve not yet seen any sort of retainer system, despite it being something rather easy to accomplish mechanically. In absence of a retainer system, just keep an eye on the mat and pull it back at the first onset of interference. A stuck gas pedal is no fun. Been there. If the pedal does stick, if you have the time—yank the mat back into place—that’s usually the cure.

Do you have a proper window brush and scraper? Use one rather than running the engine excessively and waiting for the defroster to melt the snow and ice. Buy plenty of winter windshield washer fluid and use it liberally to keep your windshield clean from road slop. Some new cars have heated windshield washer tanks, or you can add an aftermarket tank warmer. May well be worth it. Some brands of washer fluid are designed for very low temperatures. Be careful not to squirt regular washer fluid onto a very cold windshield, or you’ll have a frozen mess for a while.

Winter wiper blades can help keep your windshield clear as well. It is often mistakenly assumed that they are for brushing off the snow. The reason winter wiper blades are covered is to keep snow and ice out of the little pressure arms—this allows the blade to properly conform to the windshield. It is not a good idea to use the wipers to move heavy snow—they are not designed for that kind of load. Brush the snow off first. Likewise, no wiper will scrape off ice. Get out the scraper. Using the wipers on ice will chip the edges of the wiper blades and lead to streaking. Also, if you have any reason to suspect the wipers will freeze to the windshield while parked, lift the wiper arms up until they are sticking straight up. Looks odd, but it works great. Scrape the ice off the blade rubber while you’re at it. Return the wiper arms to normal position before driving.

If you are mechanically inclined, wiper blade inserts are still available for less expense than replacing the whole assembly—which has become the default way of changing wiper blades these days. If you are not mechanically inclined, many auto parts stores will install new wiper blades for you for free—but don’t expect them to do the cheap blade insert replacement—that takes a bit more time.

In part two, I’ll talk about tires, wheels, batteries and more. Until then, I’ll be out there suffering through this winter with you, too. Drive gently, and we all will get where we’re going just fine, so we can all have a happy New Year.

From the Dec. 29-Jan. 4, 2011 issue

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