Mr. Green Car: Winter car care

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

I try not to recycle old Mr. Green Car columns. If you’d like to read some of the stories I’ve written in the past, you can go to and click on the Fast Lane tab. Somewhere in the past, you’ll find a column similar to this one — for it is a topic worth repeating this time of year. It’s about saving your vehicle from costly winter damage.

Here in northern Illinois, each time we get a bit of snow, our roads are salted as soon as it is warm enough for the salt to be effective. The highly-corrosive mixture of salt and water will then get into every nook and cranny on our cars that it can. If you don’t remove this corrosive mixture promptly, rust and corrosion begin in places that are not well protected. By well protected, I mean painted areas that have no scratches, pitting or previous rust.

Any time there is an accumulation of salt — whether wet or dry — it needs to be removed. Always pay for an underwash, or if you are using a hose yourself, be sure to spray underneath everywhere, on the wheels and in the wheel wells. Despite cleaning with TLC, most of the people I do see washing their cars in the winter rarely do all they need to do to stop their vehicles from rusting.

My primary weapon against rust is to go to the coin-operated wash, which is usually $2 for 4 minutes of spraying time. After I pull into the bay, I open the hood and prop it up. I start the sprayer and leave it on high-pressure rinse. I wash the inside of the hood, then spray down the engine compartment, with particular interest in the radiator.

Radiators are bare aluminum and are very susceptible to corrosion. I may or may not take the time to close the hood, depending on the vehicle, as the outside can be rinsed with it up.

A note here … most modern vehicles have quite well-sealed electronics and electrical connectors under the hood. It is even OK to spray under the hood of the new Volt with its 360-volt battery pack — just don’t get the hose nozzle right up close. All you are doing is trying to flush off the salt.

After 21 years of doing this to our Honda Civic, it has never failed to start, and the engine compartment is always nice and clean when any work needs to be done — I show it off as a point of pride to those whom it might impress.

Same for the rest of the vehicle. Hose it down with fresh water from top to bottom to rinse off the salt. You are not going to get it “clean” with this technique, but it will look a lot better. I find that even with temperatures in the upper 20s, you can do all this before things freeze up in less than 4 minutes. If you think it may take longer, have a few quarters set near the coin slot ready to put in and extend your time a bit to get done.

Now, you’ll need to wipe things down with dry towels. Warmed-up windows will freeze last if it’s below freezing, so you can save those for later if you like, but I usually start there, as getting the windows clean is important to me. Next, you’ll need to open each door and hatch one at a time — then take a dry towel and clean all around every edge and seal. This is actually more important than getting the sides clean. Wipe down the sills and frames, include any struts that hold open hatches in the wipe-down. This is where I see failure to wash a vehicle right even at automated car washes. They give a wipe-down to the nooks and crannies on the outside, but rarely do they get around the edges of doors. If you go to an automated wash, take the time to use your towels to get around the doors before you leave. This is where our vehicles start to rust.

I guarantee if you keep these hidden spots clean, your car will look like new for a very long time and be worth more when the time to sell or trade comes. If you don’t want to do this yourself — tip the attendant nicely and request it be done.

I would not pay for the extra-fancy washes with wax and all that. I don’t think machines get the vehicle clean enough before applying the coatings, and besides that, the coating ends up on the windshield and windows, places where it really does not belong. Get your vehicle waxed before winter for season-long protection.

Any time you’ve been driving snowy conditions, your wipers are probably covered with ice. When done for the day, whack them against the windshield to remove the ice, and if things are still wet, you can leave the wiper arms sticking up so they don’t freeze to the windshield. Try not to use the windshield wipers when there is hard ice on it — this puts nicks in the wiper blades and will make them streak. Wipe the blade rubber with a paper towel until clean … they will leave black marks on your good towels. Clean blades clear the wet better. Often, you can defer replacement by cleaning the blades properly.

You’ll find that as you wipe the rest of the vehicle down, your towels get quite dirty. I use terry cloth hand towels. Some absorb better than others, so don’t stock up until you know how they perform. I find the cheap ones do a good job — often those that I’ve bought through rummage sales or at thrift stores. Cutting up old bath towels works, too. Hand towels are more maneuverable, easier to clean and dry. Just toss them in the washing machine when your supply runs out. Lined rubber gloves help during winter car drying. No reason to suffer. Repeat above as necessary, all season long, and enjoy a well-maintained vehicle for years to come.

From the Dec. 11-17, 2013, issue

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