Starting your car when the temperatures have plummeted

Winter driving can be full of frustrations, from slippery roads to the constant need to clear snow and ice off your vehicle before a trip. It's also the season when frigid temperatures alone can knock your ride out of commission.

This can be particularly vexing if you need to get to work or some other urgent appointment. Turning the key results in nothing more than a clicking noise or a vain, sluggish attempt of the engine to turn over, leaving you to call a cab or roadside assistance.

Understanding the reasons why vehicles may not start in freezing temperatures can help you determine the cause of the problem. You can also take steps to keep these issues from coming up or try a few solutions if you find yourself with an uncooperative engine.

Possible problems

The battery is often the source of cold weather starting problems. Holt Lloyd, an English automotive products company, says colder temperatures slow down the chemical reactions in the battery, causing it to produce less current.

The cold can also sap a considerable amount of your battery capacity. Rick Popely, writing for Cars.com, says this might be enough to keep your vehicle from moving if the battery is already a few years old and has lost some of its charge.

The demand on your vehicle's electrical system can also be higher in the winter than at other times of the year. The shorter days mean you'll be using your headlights and dashboard display more often.

The oil might also be to blame. Holt Lloyd says oil gets thicker in cold temperatures, so it circulates through the engine more sluggishly. The extra effort needed to pump the oil can also deplete your battery more quickly.

Your fuel lines should be free of moisture, but water can still make its way there. Sturtevant Auto, a used auto parts company in Sturtevant, Wis., says temperature changes can cause water to condense in the lines. If this moisture freezes, it can block the transfer of gasoline to the engine.

Older vehicles will have carburetors instead of fuel injection systems. This part can become clogged, preventing water from evaporating and causing it to freeze.

Solutions

Turning off some electrical components might free up enough power for your vehicle to start. Holt Lloyd says you might turn off the heater, headlights, and radio before trying to start the vehicle again.

For manual vehicles, dipping the clutch slightly can sometimes help you start the vehicle. This also reduces the battery's workload.

If you have some time, you might try doing some work on your vehicle. Clean the battery with a baking soda solution to scrub away any corrosion and check the cables to see if any are loose. Check the oil level, and make sure any oil you add isn't too thick.

Some specialized sprays are designed to be directed into the engine's air intake to help with ignition. This spray will assist with the start by making the fuel-air mixture more combustible.

A jump start might be necessary to get your vehicle going. Your engine and the engine of the vehicle whose driver is assisting you should both be off. Connect the positive cables first, then attach the negative cable to the good battery and the other end to a bolt or other metal surface on the vehicle with a dead battery. A few minutes after the vehicle with the good battery has been started, turn the key on your vehicle and idle it for a few minutes to build up a charge.

Some recommended practices for cold weather starts are out of date or inaccurate. Jay Bennett, writing for Popular Mechanics, says idling the vehicle to warm it up was useful for vehicles with carburetors, but is unnecessary with fuel injection systems. However, a limited idle can help start the circulation of oil on particularly cold days.

One suggestion holds that turning on your headlights first will help start up the car. Eric Brandt, writing for Autotrader, says this purportedly helps prepare the battery, but in reality will drain more juice and make it harder to start.

Prevention

The easiest way to avoid cold weather starting problems is to keep your vehicle stored in a warm place. A heated garage will keep your engine running well. Sturtevant Auto says you can also warm up an unheated garage with space heaters.

An block heater or electric blanket can also keep the engine warm enough to make it start more easily. Blankets should not be placed directly on the engine, as this can create a fire hazard.

Inspecting your battery can help ensure that you won't be greeted with a dead battery on a chilly morning. Look out for signs of a dying battery, such as dim headlights or a slow engine crank. Your battery may also need replacement if it is more than a few years old.

Check the battery features to make sure it will work well in cold weather. Jim Gorzelany, writing for Forbes, recommends buying a battery which is newer than six months old and capable of meeting the recommended amount of cold cranking amps.

The battery inspection should take a look at the alternator as well. Sturtevant Auto says you can easily waste money on a battery replacement if the problem actually lies with this other component, which recharges the battery during a drive.

Make sure that your fuel tank doesn't run too low during the winter. Holt Lloyd says more fuel is necessary to start the engine in cold weather, so you might have less luck if you're running on fumes.

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