Why Washing Your Car in Winter is Important

Baby, it’s cold outside. And if you live in a snowy area of the country, chances are your car is looking a little ragged these days. Frigid temperatures and roads covered with salt and dirty snow can make your car unrecognizable. Washing your vehicle in the dead of winter might seem counter-productive since it’s just going to get dirty again the second you hit the road.

And your neighbors might think you’ve lost your mind if they see you outside with a bucket of water and a hose. But if they’re honest with themselves, they’ll know you’re doing the right thing.

Road salt, snow, and moisture can cause rust on a car, and once rust starts it’s hard to stop. Rust can show up anywhere - under the paint, under the car where there is bare metal, and in nooks and crannies that you didn’t even know existed.

Rust is like a rash on your skin. You add a little cream to the infected area, it does some good, but then it crops up somewhere else. They cycle never seems to end. Rust acts in much the same way. It compromises the integrity of a car, and over time, it can eat away at the car body, rot out the exhaust system, brake lines, brake calipers, and gas lines. Frame rust is especially dangerous because chunks of a car can break off while you’re driving and injure other motorists.

To avoid the deadly combination of road salt combined, sand and moisture, you might think the best thing to do is let your car sit in the driveway all winter to save it from the elements. Will that strategy prolong the life of your car?

The good news is that by keeping it off the roads you’re not exposing it to road salt and sand. That’s always a good thing. However, will the bitter cold and snow affect it?

Ray Magliozzi, of National Public Radio’s “Car Talk,” has a blase attitude about leaving your car parked all winter. “If it’s an older car, you’re going to find things that don’t work [as well]. It's because they were ready to break anyway,” Magliozzi says. “If your muffler falls off when you first drive the car, well that was going to happen anyway. It’s just that you happened to park it two days or a week before it was scheduled to fall off and you put [the problem] off for two months.”

He says that if you plan to leave your car parked for the winter, shovel out the area around the tailpipe and the driver’s door, and let the engine run for ten minutes or so every week to keep the fluids moving. When you drive the car first the first time, you might have a rough go of it in the beginning, but things will smooth out. The tires, for example, might have some thumping noises, but they’ll smooth out after 20-100 miles of driving. Long-term, the car doesn’t know whether it’s hot or cold outside. Let it run once a week and it should be fine come spring.

Protect your car

Why invest time and energy getting your car ready for winter when you can’t stop the accumulation of salt and muck? The answer is actually quite simple: economics. Taking care of your car now means that it will last longer and hold its trade-in value.

When the weather starts to turn cold, give your car a thorough scrub down and wax job. Adding a coat of wax is important because it adds an extra layer of protection between your car and road junk.

When cleaning your car, pay attention the areas behind the wheels, the quarter panels, and the front grille, which are the main places where road salt collects (and where rust is likely to start).

Winterizing your car isn’t difficult or expensive. It just takes a some time and elbow grease.

Wash your car frequently

Once it starts to snow you should wash your car as often as possible. Maybe as often as every other week.

If you plan to wash your car at home, grab a few five gallon buckets and fill them with warm water. Use soap that is specifically made for cars, not dishwashing soap as so many people do. Dishwashing soap can strip off the wax you worked so hard to put on, and even more importantly, the clear protective coat that was sprayed on by the manufacturer.

Using warm water to rinse the car will not only keep your hands warm, it will melt away road grime.

Drive-in car wash bays with power nozzles are another option. The powerful spray will not only clean the top side of your car, it will allow you to wash underneath, knocking loose the big chunks of salt and slush that accumulate.

If you decide to use a power washer, spray water into as many nooks and crannies as you can find because salt and road crud hides everywhere.

You should avoid washing when the temperature is below freezing because the water will immediately freeze and you’ll be driving around in a popsicle. It will be especially hard to de-ice your windows if you wash your car when it’s below 32 degrees.

Instead, pick a day when the temperatures are moderate (i.e. maybe in the high 30’s or low 40’s). Washing on a warm day guarantees that the power windows won’t freeze, and your defrosters won’t have to work double time to de-ice the windows.

If you want to wash your car when the weather is at or slightly below freezing, drive it around the block a few times before you start to warm the hood, and turn the heater on high to warm the inside of the car. These two things will keep the water from freezing while you wash.

Plan on getting wet when you wash. Wear protective clothing that repels water, boots, waterproof gloves, and a hat. If you can’t find waterproof gloves, try buying a cheap pair of regular winter gloves and covering them with a layer or two of latex gloves. Put a rubber band by your wrists to prevent water from seeping in.

During the winter some people switch out cloth floor mats with those made of rubber. When you get in and out (particularly on the driver’s side) you track in salt, snow, sand, and moisture that can seep through both the cloth mats and floorboards, and cause rust. Custom fitted rubber mats can be found online.

Finally, “cleaning” your car doesn’t begin or end with the exterior and underbelly. Your washer fluid or water can freeze in the reservoir or on the windshield while driving.

While you’re winterizing your car, drain the windshield wiper fluid and replace it with a de-icing fluid such as Prestone or Rain-X, both of which can withstand temperatures of -25 degrees below zero.

The mechanics at YourMechanic can inspect and optimize your car’s wiper and washer system to ensure that your windshield can remain clean, and free of rain, dirt, sleet or snow throughout the winter. They can also show you where snow and ice like to hide so you'll know where to look when you wash your car during the winter.

Next Step

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