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Tips on Storing Your Car for the Winter

Updated on March 16, 2017

Cars Don't Like the Cold!

Sure, cold air is what every car enthusiast wants because it makes more power but getting it from winter weather isn't exactly the way to do that. Indeed, for those of us who live in temperate or even polar climate zones, we have to learn an entirely new set of skills for maintaining our vehicles. This is where the term "winter beater" came from. The idea that you could have 2 cars for 2 different climates meant that you could save your "nice" car from being destroyed while using another car better suited to the challenge... something big and ugly with a good heater, big battery and 4 wheel drive maybe.

However, even if you are lucky enough to have 2 cars, you still have to do something with your summer car right? You may think that because you have a garage you're home free. Just park it and forget about it until spring right? Wrong! Do that and you'll cost yourself more than you bargained for in repairs. Cars can't be left derelict for long periods of time. Like people they need exercise and if you can't do that, you need to at least prep the car for extended stasis by following a few good practices. So let's get started!

The Suspension

As you well know, the car's suspension is responsible for absorbing energy from the road so it's not transferred to the occupant and also to prevent excessive motion that might cause damage or wear to other components. It's a "dynamic" system, meaning that for every bump that compresses the springs and dampers there's always relief that follows. Therefore the components are cycled throughout a range of motion. In storage the suspension doesn't get exercised so you should put the car on jack stands to relieve that constant compression. This way the cumulative effects of time don't cause the suspension to sink and take a set under compression. Better to keep them relieved so they're nice and responsive when you drop the car the next year. If you don't have the means to life the car onto stands, you should plan to take it out once or twice a month so you can run it around the block over a few bumps to exercise the suspension. This is cheap insurance against having to deal with ceased or mushy struts.

The Tires

Following the same train of thought as in the case of suspension, the tires also should be exercised or otherwise "relieved" during storage. In case you haven't heard the term "rolling resistance" before, this concept is brought up a lot when talking about fuel economy. When a circular tire rolls over the ground, it actually has a flat contact patch because the rubber will deform a bit under load. When the car is moving, this flat patch moves around the circumference of the tire, which is what you want it to do. When in storage for several months however, this patch does not move and rubber, while springy, does have a limited memory and will take a set over time. You could end up with tires that have developed a flat spot where they were contacting the ground, the first time you try to move the car in the spring. This is bad and will ruin your tires, requiring you to buy new ones. If they were decent summer tires that you went to the track with, you'll fork over a lot for new ones so take care of the ones you have. Either lift the car onto jack stands or make sure to start the car up each week and move it forward or backward several inches so the contact patch moves to a different part of the tire. Again, this is a really quick fix for a very expensive problem.

Should be plenty obvious but the tires will also lose air as they sit so if you didn't jack the car up those flat spots will become even more pronounced if you don't keep the tires full as well. Just check them with a gauge at the same time you're doing everything else once a week and if they get more than a couple of pounds lower than nominal, pump some air into them. It's ok to over-inflate by a pound or 2 if you want to have to fill them less frequently. While you should check them weekly you shouldn't have to fill them weekly unless there's a leak. Normal leakage won't require you to do anything for a month or more if the car's not moving.

The Battery

Batteries discharge over time and even if they didn't, your car is always draining it a little, even if you think it's completely off. It's never COMPLETELY off and over several months the battery will discharge. Now lead-acid batteries don't like to be below their nominal voltage. It damages them. They like to be charged at all times. There are 2 ways you can guard against this tendency to discharge. You can disconnect the battery from the car altogether, in which case you may only need to top it off a few times over the winter, or you can hook up a "battery tender", which is nothing more than a simple charging unit plugged into the wall, so the car stays at 12V or more. Cold weather also severely affects battery efficiency and will make it hard or impossible to start the car on anything but a full charge. This will become important later on but for the take-away is that you should keep that battery topped off.

A word of caution: Some cars have factory or aftermarket security systems which will either activate or immobilize the car if the power is cut. If you remove your battery or let it go dead, it could trigger the alarm in some manner, locking you out or requiring you to enter some bizarre code using the radio. Every car is different so it pays to do a little homework to see what disconnecting the battery will do if you have a security system. This will also tell you whether or not you should disconnect the battery.

The Paint

If your car is outside, God help you. If it's inside it's still going to collect dust and humidity, go through various temperature shifts and possibly develop some superficial corrosion. Before you put your car to bed, you should give it a close inspection. Look for any paint defects and fill them in. Check for body rust and grind it away, fill it, paint it... do whatever you need to do to arrest it because it certainly won't get better while it's sitting in the cold dank garage by itself. If the paint is in good shape and you have time, give it a thorough wash and wax. The 3-step waxing process (clean, glaze, wax) is the best way to shield your paint job from contamination and moisture. Now the underbody won't benefit from this but some car washes have an anti-corrosion treatment that coats the underbody and if you undercoat every year, even better. Just make sure not to leave bird droppings or dirt sitting on your paint. They will etch the clear coat causing discoloration, pitting, peeling or any number of unsightly blemishes to your otherwise perfect car. Clean the car well before you put it away and it'll look great when you take it out.

The Engine

The engine is sealed pretty good but that doesn't make it immune to the elements. Depending on cam position, some cylinders may be open to the air and the oil will settle in the sump when it isn't being squirted around by a running engine so metal surfaces will be susceptible to moisture and corrosion. It's a very good idea to start the car regularly and run it up to operating temperature so that all the moving parts remain conditioned and lubricated. Now if you removed your battery you can't do this and some people are fine with leaving their engine all winter but I'm not one of them. I prefer to leave my battery in so I can start the car once each week. It solves all of the aforementioned problems too. People develop joint problems when they sit on their butts and do nothing. Cars are no different. Anything that can move, should move. In order to move, you need a charged battery. Running your engine will also run all belts, circulate (and mix) all fluids and wear away any corrosion that may have formed. A week's worth of atrophy is nothing and can easily be reset but the sum total of a winter's atrophy may not be. Therefore you should run your engine and move the car a little. It only makes sense.

The Gas

Believe it or not but gas can freeze, especially if there is very little of it in the tank. It's not a good idea to leave your tank empty. Aside from that, you can buy gas line anti-freeze really cheap at any dollar store. Throw some of that in your tank to prevent it from freezing. Some of these treatments will also prevent the accumulation of water in the fuel line, which is another potential issue with a stagnating tank. Also, and this isn't strictly a requirement or anything, you may not want to buy the same filthy crap gas you've been buying all year for your very last tank. Go to a top tier gas station and put some half decent gas in there so you don't clog up your filter and injectors with sediment and gum. Top tier gas has more detergents in it, which inhibits the sort of build-up I'm talking about.

The Parking Brake

Release it. Put chocks under the tires instead. A cable under tension will become loose and the brake shoes may get stuck. Either way, the brake won't work when you want it to if you leave it engaged all that time.

The Wiper Blades

Lift them if you are able to. If not, put a piece of paper or plastic under the blades to prevent rubber to glass contact. The blades can become adhered to the glass and may get damaged when you either pry them off or activate the wipers later.

The Oil

If you're oil was changed fairly recently and you're not putting the car away for years, just 1 season, you're fine. If the oil is old, change it before you store the car and then change it when you take it out. Oil should be changed after a certain amount of time whether you use it or not. After storing a car for the winter you should always change the oil. The only question is whether you want to change it before as well.

Even with the other fluids, you should check their integrity in the spring. This doesn't mean you have to change them all but you should at least check them.

Say Good Night :)

Your summer car will thank you if you follow these steps. You can take your winter beater to work and back in the snow and slush and salt while sleeping beauty waits for her chance tear up the streets once again. When you consider the target market of most high end cars, they really aren't meant to be abused by driving them in the winter. I mean ok, that's not technically true... they are validated by engineers to be just as durable as the beaters but you notice their degradation more because of how great they start out, so why hasten them towards mediocrity when you can get 15 years out of them like the people in California do, just by being a little disciplined?

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