On Sunday, November 3rd, the clocks get set back, marking the end of daylight saving time. That means hoodies and hot cocoa—along with pumpkin everything—are just around the corner. And it also means you should prepare your car for a stretch of long nights and cold weather.
Standard time, also known as winter time, begins when daylight saving time ends. When the change hits, you probably go through a checklist to ensure your home is ready for the cold weather. Among other things, you switch off the irrigation system, tune-up the furnace, and clean the gutters.
Your car needs the same TLC before heading into the dark, chilly months. Thankfully, we’ve put together a list of tips you can use to ensure your vehicle is up to par.
1. Check the Interior and Exterior Lights
Since it’s getting dark earlier, you’ll want to make sure your car’s exterior lights are working properly. Interior lights are also important—you never know when you’ll have to hunt for a cell phone or wallet in the dark.
You can easily check your lights with the help of an assistant. Start by testing the interior lights. Do they work? Good. Then you can move on to the exterior lights.
The easiest way is using the “buddy system” to check your:
- Headlights (low beam / high beam)
- Brake lights
- Fog lights
- Signal lights
- And all other exterior lights
If you don’t have a buddy to help out, don’t worry. You can do these few simple steps on your own:
- Pull up in front of a building with large windows to see your vehicle’s reflection. (Please ensure you are not trespassing on private property.)
- Check all front-facing lights for proper aim and ensure all bulbs are in good working condition.
- Back up vehicle in front of the building to see the reflection of your rear lights in the large windows.
- Check all rear lights for proper aim and ensure all bulbs are in good working condition.
Warning: Turn your car on but keep your engine off and parking brake set while performing these tests. Also, when checking the reverse lights, make sure the vehicle is on flat ground and your foot is firmly on the brake.
2. Inspect the Fluids
Fluid properties change with the seasons. Oil gets thicker when it’s cold, and coolant (also known as anti-freeze) can freeze if it’s diluted.
That’s why it’s super important to check your car’s fluids as the days get colder. If you decide to inspect the fluids yourself, follow the instructions listed in the owner’s manual. You can also have a mechanic do the job if you’re uncertain. Underhood fluids to check include:
- Engine oil
- Coolant (Warning: Never check your coolant when the radiator cap is warm or hot to the touch. Severe injury may result.)
- Power steering fluid (if your vehicle is so equipped)
- Brake fluid
- Washer fluid
- Transmission fluid (if there’s a dipstick—many modern vehicles don’t have one)
Some vehicles also have a separate differential(s) that needs to be checked, as well as a transfer case. But these fluids are checked from underneath, which means the vehicle must be safely raised and supported beforehand. It’s often best to let a professional check undercar fluids.
3. Check the Tires
Although tires are critical year-round, they’re especially important in cold and icy weather. So, let’s have a look at your car’s rubber, shall we?
- Check the condition of the sidewalls. Look for defects, such as cracks, cuts, and bulges that indicate the tire is due for immediate replacement.
- Inspect the tread with a tread-depth gauge – a reading of 2/32” or less indicates the tire is unsafe and must be replaced. Typically, replacement is recommended starting at 4/32”.
- Inspect the tread for cracks, uneven wear, cupping, and other defects.
- Check tire pressure by using a quality tire pressure gauge. Pencil-style gauges are cheap, but they’re also inaccurate. A good digital, dial, or bayonet-style tool is highly recommended. On modern cars, you can find the inflation information listed on the tire placard inside the driver’s side door jamb. Your owner’s manual may also list the specifications.
Tip: Do not fill air in your tire according to the max pressure on the tire sidewall. Instead, follow inflation recommendations on the vehicle placard.
4. Test the Battery
An abrupt change in the weather can push a marginal battery over the edge. That’s why it’s a good idea to get your battery tested before the cold strikes.
Unless you’re handy – and have the right tools – battery testing is something you should leave to a professional. Most auto parts stores will test your battery for free using a fancy (i.e. expensive) hand-held tester. They can check your starting and charging systems with the tool as well.
5. Check the Underhood Rubber Parts
Underhood rubber components last a lot longer than they used to. But we would be remiss if we didn’t remind you to take a peek at your belts and hoses. Check your drive belt(s) for cracks, fraying, and other flaws. As for the hoses, you’ll want to look for defects such as leaks, cracks, and bulges. Get any issues fixed right away.
6. Examine the Wiper Blades
We’ve all been there: you hit the wipers and water streaks across the windshield, making it impossible to see. That, my friend, is a sign of worn-out wiper blades—a problem that’s both inconvenient and dangerous.
Check your wiper blades before the next storm hits. Start by activating the windshield washer. Do the blades do a good job of clearing the washer fluid from the glass? Then they’re working as they should.
But if you haven’t replaced your blades in who-knows-how-long, you should still swap them out as a preventative measure. Most experts recommend replacement every six months to a year.
Tip: If you live somewhere that deals with a lot of snow, consider replacing your blades with winter wiper blades.
7. Make Sure Scheduled Service is Up-to-Date
Remember that thing called an owner’s manual? It’s buried in your glove box beneath a mound of napkins and fast food wrappers. Dust it off, turn to the section that outlines scheduled maintenance, and make sure your car is up-to-date. You’ll want to address any overdue service before it gets dark and cold outside.
8. Repair Any Known Problems
If, say, your check engine light is ablaze, or you hear weird noises from your car’s undercarriage, now’s the time to get the problem fixed. Winter is right around the corner and you don’t want to break down when it’s freezing outside.
9. Make Sure the Heater is Working
You want to make sure your heater is working before Old Man Winter arrives in all his glory (or infamy, depending on how you look at it). If you have electrical heaters, such as seat heaters and steering wheel heaters, make sure they’re working as well. That way, you’ll be covered when the temperature starts to drop.
10. Inspect the Brakes
When daylight saving time ends, you’ll be driving more at night. The darkness reduces visibility, leaving you with less time to brake during a panic stop. That’s why it’s more important than ever to have your brakes working right to minimize stopping distance. Have a professional check your car to make sure everything is in working order.
11. Pack the Right Gear
Sometimes the frost and snow come earlier than you’d expect. Now’s the time to dig out the ice scraper (bummer, we know), emergency blankets, first aid kit, gloves, and other items you’ll need during winter. Since it’s the end of daylight saving time, you’ll especially want to make sure you pack your flashlight, too.
12. Accessorize for the Season
You might accessorize your wardrobe for the season with a snazzy scarf or colorful new sweater. While you’re at it, don’t forget to pick up some swag for your car as well. Your ride might benefit from:
- A set of all-weather floor mats to protect against mud and snow
- Aftermarket seat heaters to keep you toasty
- A windshield frost protector to prevent frost buildup and eliminate windshield scraping
- A remote starter to warm the car up before you get inside
13. Give Yourself Extra Commute Time
When it gets dark outside earlier, you’ll need to reduce your driving speed to compensate for limited visibility. Also, because the kids are back in school, you’ll encounter more traffic. Give yourself additional commute time to compensate for these factors.
14. Hone Your Fall Driving Skills
Every season has its unique driving challenges. In the fall and early winter, you’ll face a variety of obstacles, such as fog, frost, and lots of leaves. Make sure to practice safe driving habits like traveling at a reasonable speed and keeping a safe driving distance. You’ll also want to be extra cautious of wildlife (fall is mating season for many animals), avoid braking on slippery leaves, and wear your sunglasses to prevent glare.
15. Make Sure the Stereo is Ready to Rock
We’re mostly kidding. But having the tunes cranked up is an excellent way to enjoy fall and early winter. So get your seasonal car care checklist crossed off, turn on your favorite song, and hit the drive-thru for a pumpkin spice latte. You earned it.