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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

October 16, 1998

As I write this column, I'm looking out the window at sunny skies and green trees swaying in the wind. I also see that the leaves are beginning to fall so it's obvious that the sky will soon turn gray and rain will follow. Over the years, we've discussed taking care of your car or truck, but winter can make borderline problems even worse. Here are some areas to check before the weather really gets bad:

BATTERY - To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, batteries don't get no respect - until they fail and won't start your car or truck in cold weather. Then they get yelled at. Your battery is that big heavy box- like thing with fat wires attached to it that is usually (but not always) found under the hood. If it's more than three years old, it may be living on borrowed time. Have your mechanics load-test it (they'll know what I'm talking about) and if it's marginal, replace it. If you decide to soldier on with the old one, take it out, then clean the case, the terminals and connectors. Your local parts store will guide you through and sell you the cleaning materials.

DRIVE BELTS - The drive belts under your hood are driven by the engine and spin things like the water pump, alternator and air conditioning compressor and sometimes the fan. If the air conditioner belt fails this winter, it won't be catastrophic, but if the alternator belt goes, that new battery you just bought will last maybe an hour driving at night. Check the tightness of your belts and their condition (they get scruffy on the back side) and have them tightened or replaced as necessary. Some engines use a different kind of belt to operate their valve trains, too, and they're supposed to be changed periodically. If it fails (especially in winter) your engine simply stops, sometimes with expensive results, so check the service schedule in your owner's manual. Your car or truck may be long overdue.

BRAKES FLUID - Most hydraulic brake fluids will absorb moisture from the atmosphere and create a certain amount of rust in the hydraulic brake system. The debris settles to the lowest point of the system, which is usually the brake calipers or wheel cylinders. There, it begins to attack the metallic parts and scratch the seals and cups. Many auto makers recommend periodic replacement of the brake fluid (Honda, Acura, etc.) and if you haven't had it done since your car or truck was new, it might be a good idea do it now, before winter sets in. Water in your brake fluid also lowers its boiling point, which is a bad thing, too.

CELLULAR PHONE - You don't have a cell phone in your car in case of emergencies? You'll wish you did if you have a problem this winter and have to walk miles in the rain to find a phone to call your auto club. Some cell phone companies have special promotional rates and if you don't use it very much, it costs about as much per day as a cup of coffee.

EMERGENCY EQUIPMENT - Hopefully all that emergency stuff we've discussed in previous columns is still stowed away in your trunk or behind the seat. It's a good idea to check it out while the sun is shining to make sure the flares didn't disintegrate when your teen-ager was tossing your car around the turns of your local back roads. And while you're back there, check the spare tire for air, and all the other stuff that you hope you'll never have to use.

GAS DRYER - Your fuel tank is designed to draw air into it as the gasoline is used and its level goes down. Gasoline also absorbs water from the atmosphere and as fresh air is drawn into your tank, water comes with it. Most of the water that gets in is burned by the engine, but some is always left behind. A bottle or can of a liquid gas drying agent (all auto parts houses carry a half-dozen brands) poured into your tank once or twice a year helps keep it under control, especially on high-mileage machines.

HEATER/DEFROSTER ACTION - Try your heating and defrosting system now before you have dire need for it. Sometimes the doors and flaps under the dash that direct hot air to the windshield stick or have their power source shut off, so make sure that the defroster air is going where it's supposed to. While you're thinking about it, make sure that the electric grid that defrosts your rear window is working, too.

LIGHTING - If one tail light goes out, you may not notice. If both are gone, that 18-wheeler in back of you on a foggy winter's night might not notice it either. Check all your outside lighting yourself (and that includes turn signals both front and rear) and if you can't get someone to help you check your brake lights, back up close to a light-colored garage door or wall and watch in your rear view mirror while you press the brake pedal. Replacing a bulb in an older vehicle isn't too hard but if you're driving something that is modern and high-tech, you may need to have a burned-out unit replaced by a technician. The lighting wells of new cars can sometimes be complex. And don't forget that flashlight in your glove box.

WIPERS - If your wiper blades are more than two years old, they may make visibility out the windshield worse than before. Inspect them closely for brittleness or cracks and if they're bad, replace them. Although they're not as hard to replace as a headlight bulb, they're sometimes daunting for a first-timer so you might need an assist from whoever sold them to you.

One of Murphy's Laws states that if you're prepared for the worst, it won't happen. Unfortunately, the converse of that law is also true.