Car wash is vehicle's best winter friend, experts advise
Last week’s winter appetizer of snow and slush provided motorists with a mild taste of cold weather driving hazards, but nonetheless served as a reminder of the special challenges of the season.
One of the main messages car owners should remember, according to the Automobile Association of America, is that the road salts used to keep winter driving safe can eat away at vehicles.
“We encourage people to remember to wash their cars regularly throughout the winter, so road salt doesn’t affect brake lines and to prevent rust,” said Amy Parmenter, AAA spokeswoman.
Chris Ackart, service manager at Guy’s Oil Service Station in Niantic, recommends washing the underside of cars at an automatic car wash at least once a week in the winter.
“Brake lines seem to be the main issue,” he said. “You need to get underneath when you wash.”
Along with brake lines, tire rims and frame rails of vehicles are most vulnerable to corrosion and rust, he said.
While some are quick to blame the road salt mixture used by state highway crews for accelerating rust and corrosion, a study released in November by the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering endorses the state Department of Transportation’s winter road protocols.
“Vehicle washing is the best defense to reduce and prevent corrosion, and the public should be educated on the need to wash vehicles, including the undercarriage,” the report states.
The study, conducted in response to a 2014 state law requiring the DOT to conduct an analysis of the effects of its road treatments on cars, bridges, highways and the environment, concluded that the agency should continue its current practices because there is no better alternative. It also found no evidence that corrosion inhibitors that could be added to deicing chemicals would be effective, so recommended against their use.
DOT paid $148,250 for the study, using federal funds set aside for research, according to Kevin Nursick, DOT spokesman. The academy is a private, nonprofit agency chartered by the General Assembly to provide expert information about science and technology topics.
Since 2007, the DOT has pretreated roads with a thin coating of saltwater to enhance melting once a storm begins. During storms, it uses a mixture of rock salt — sodium chloride — and liquid magnesium chloride that helps melt ice and snow when temperatures drop below 25 degrees, Nursick said. The mixture of about 1 gallon of magnesium chloride solution per 200 pounds of salt is applied to each mile of highway, he said. For storms when temperatures stay above 25 degrees, the DOT uses straight rock salt. The so-called “salt priority” protocol replaced the salt-sand mixture used on highways before 2007.
“We think we’ve found the right balance of effective road treatment, but not at a cost to the environment or corrosion to vehicles,” Nursick said. “It’s a very weak conservative mixture, but it does the job. We use less material per mile than every other New England state, and it’s carefully calibrated so we’re not over-applying or under-applying.”
He encouraged drivers to regularly patronize a car wash through the winter that uses clean water on vehicles.
“Some car washes are recycling water,” he said. “You need to know how the water’s being filtered, so you’re not just washing it with salt water.”
According to the study, alternative organic chemicals are far more expensive, not readily available and not as effective. In addition, they carry more negative environmental impacts to aquatic wildlife, the study found.
The study found that since the DOT began pretreating and using the “salt priority” protocols, vehicle crashes during winter storms that resulted in injuries have decreased from an average of 800 per season to about 600, 33.5 percent less than in the previous seven years.
The study also pointed out that the DOT is not the biggest user of road chemicals. Municipalities apply about 350,000 tons of various salt mixtures annually to town roads, compared to about 153,000 tons applied by the DOT. In addition, private contractors clearing store parking lots, driveways, walkways and shopping centers apply more than half of the chemical deicers used on pavement around the state, the study found.
Winter Highway Maintenance Operation Report (PDF)
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