Open Road

Maintaining your car's heating and cooling system for winter

Despite the unseasonably warm weather, there's no denying it: Winter is coming. As temperatures drop and road conditions become more treacherous, it is especially important to perform preventative maintenance checks now so you aren't left out in the cold. One of the most crucial maintenance checks to focus on is your heating and cooling system.

While this might seem like an obvious preventative step, many drivers will focus on their heating system and fail to realize that the health of your air conditioning system matters even when the temperatures are below zero. In the colder months your AC is hard at work behind the scenes to help defrost and defog the windshield by pulling humidity from the air. Be sure to test your defogger to ensure everything is operating as it should, and if you notice defogging issues it might be time to recharge your system or check for a leak in the hose, lines or other components of the AC system.

In terms of your heating system, be prudent about doing a performance check of all functions before the coldest day of the year rolls around. For the sake of your car's health and the health of your wallet, drivers should routinely perform basic servicing such as periodic radiator coolant flushes and refills. At the very least, drivers should be proactive in checking the quality of the antifreeze in their vehicle. For example, if you live in the Northeast, you want the freeze-protection number to be at least -20 degrees Fahrenheit.

To check that everything is operating smoothly in your vehicle, turn your heating system to the highest heat setting, set the fan speed to high and cycle through all air flow controls (floor, dash, windshield, etc.). If you discover during this process that your car produces some heat, but not enough to keep you comfortable in the coming months, a simple cause could be low coolant levels.

Topping off the coolant is quick and easy, but the more troubling issue is why the level was low in the first place - your car shouldn't be losing its antifreeze. There are several possible reasons behind an antifreeze leak, ranging from a leak in the radiator cap, an internal leak in the system, hose cracks, or a damaged water pipe. If you can't seem to figure out the cause of your problem, seek the advice of an experienced professional who can diagnosis the exact cause and assess the severity of the issue.

If you're running a standard performance check and notice that your car is heating up well but the interior blow motor is unusually noisy, do not dismiss this issue. The most likely cause of the problem is outside debris such as leaves and twigs from the fall months that have worked their way into the heater box. Be sure to remove your access panel to clean out any unwanted debris, and if you keep your car outside be sure to check no animals are building a home in there for the winter (seriously!).

For the average driver, these preventative steps and check-ups should be more than enough to ensure a healthy heating and cooling system as winter approaches. However, if you live in an area where temperatures regularly stay below freezing for a long period of time, it may be smart to invest in an engine heater, also referred to as a block heater.

The basic purpose of an engine heater is to keep the oil temperature up so it doesn't gel and when the engine starts cause damage because it cannot lubricate properly. Traditional models replace one engine freeze plug with a heating element, and there are also versions which install in line with a radiator hose, oil pan heating pads, and battery heating pads.

With winter comes the busy holiday travel season, so it is especially important to test your heating and cooling system now to guarantee a merry, and warm, driving experience.

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