How do I stop my car from freezing solid?
January 7, 2010 9:04 AM   Subscribe

How do I keep my car from freezing solid?

Here in Laramie, it gets cold. Like, -30 F cold, with the windchill. When this happens, my car freezes and won't start. I think the battery is fine, because it's new and the car starts to turn over, but it won't quite make it.

The last time this happened I had to try and start it quite a few times, which I think warmed it up enough to where it would start. I looked at engine and battery warmers, but I don't have an outside plug to plug them into. Please help!
posted by elder18 to Travel & Transportation (27 answers total)
Block heaters are really the best option, from what I've read.

The problem you'll run into is that your water pump won't be able to move (being encased in ice and all). If the water pump has plastic internals, you may risk breaking the tines off the impeller. If it is metal, the belt will slip over the pump until the engine gets warm enough to melt through it all.
posted by tmt at 9:10 AM on January 7, 2010

I think your only real option is an engine block heater and a good, long extension cord.
posted by zsazsa at 9:11 AM on January 7, 2010

Oh, also. Look at getting thinner oil for the winter. Thicker warm-weather oil will provide too much resistance when cranking in the negatives.
posted by tmt at 9:11 AM on January 7, 2010

You can try wrapping the engine block in blankets, etc, but is it really impossible to get outside power? Engine warmers are the answer here, really.

(Also, I'm assuming you have a petrol engine; diesel starts getting funny at these temperatures and that needs dealt with separately.)
posted by bonaldi at 9:12 AM on January 7, 2010

The best approach seems to be block heaters or a garage. I've seen some people try to use a blanket, but if it's really cold, eventually the blanket will get to the ambient cold temperature. Then you'll have a -30 blanket on your car.

So it looks like you need to get an outside plug if this is really an issue you want to fix.

Also, your battery can get really unhappy when it's cold.
posted by leahwrenn at 9:13 AM on January 7, 2010

"I looked at engine and battery warmers, but I don't have an outside plug to plug them into. Please help! "

Higher end remote starters have timers built in that will start the car for a few minutes every few hours. This keeps everything warmed up.

PS: your car doesn't sweat so it doesn't care about wind chill; its only the actual temperature you need to worry about.
posted by Mitheral at 9:14 AM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I do know that folks in Vermont often put blankets on their cars when it drops far below zero. Whether this works or not, or is even useful? That I have no experience, and I can't imagine anybody's ever tried to prove it.
posted by General Malaise at 9:17 AM on January 7, 2010

It gets -30 here (and colder) at need a block heater. There really isn't much good in other options, including the remote start mentioned above. The engine cools down very rapidly in these temps.

Don't go for the magnet/stick-on versions...they are cheaper but not as effective.

You may also consider a plug-in interior heater as well. I love mine (no scraping, for one big benefit).
posted by swimming naked when the tide goes out at 9:22 AM on January 7, 2010

Those guy on Ice Road Truckers never turn their rigs off.

If you can't park in a garage and you don't have a power plug for a block heater try this...

Make sure your antifreeze mix will protect to under -30.
Remove the battery and bring it inside over night.
Warm the engine up with propane space heater.

I live in NC, so I'm just talking out my butt here.
posted by wrnealis at 9:35 AM on January 7, 2010

My car gets a lot of exposure to -30 to -40F and I haven't had any problems with it. Make sure you're using low viscosity oil, anti-freeze, and a block heater. Let your car warm up for 5-10 minutes before driving.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:38 AM on January 7, 2010

How about propane? We use pre-heaters on aircraft engines in the cold that are essentially a propane tank on a dolly with a combustion area and some ducting. Shove the ducting into the cowl inlets and let the warm propane exhaust heat up the block.
posted by backseatpilot at 9:44 AM on January 7, 2010

A block heater is the best option. Run a very long extension cord if you have to (but make sure it is rated to handle the load of you block heater).

That said, I live in a similar climate and while a block heater is nice it isn't absolutely essential. Your car should still start on cold mornings. A few things to check: is your coolant properly mixed for cold temperatures? is your engine oil winter weight (thinner oil makes it easier to turn the engine over)? is your battery sufficiently powerful and does it have good, clean connections to the cables (batteries have a rating for cold cranking amps, sometimes at multiple temperatures, you may need one that can provide more amps at the temperatures you encounter in order to turn the engine over fast enough)? Even with everything in tip top shape, you should expect that it will take a little cranking on very cold mornings to get the engine turning over fast enough to start.

From your description (the car starts to turn over, but it won't quite make it), it sounds like your battery simply can't supply enough current to turn the engine over fast enough at cold temperatures. So either get a battery that can supply more current at lower temperatures or make the engine easier to turn over (lighter oil) or, ideally, do both.
posted by ssg at 9:52 AM on January 7, 2010

Hi. I live in Cheyenne and commute to Laramie for school. I've never needed a block heater for my car to start in winter, but it sounds like that's what you need. (Also, as someone else said earlier, wind chill doesn't affect cars).

I looked at engine and battery warmers, but I don't have an outside plug to plug them into. Please help!

Wikipedia says "Block heaters are usually inserted into a freeze plug manufacturing hole in the cylinder block, heating the metal, coolant and oil. These can be installed at the factory, or by any qualified automotive service center. A block heater can even be installed by the handy do-it-yourselfer." Sounds like you'll need to call a mechanic.
posted by Lobster Garden at 9:53 AM on January 7, 2010

As others have said, block heaters are the way to go. Can you run an extension cord from inside through a purpose-drilled hole, or from a neighbour? The cost in electricity shouldn't be much. Or have an electrician install an outdoor outlet? One-time cost, permanent solution, if this is at a house you own.
posted by Dasein at 9:54 AM on January 7, 2010

Ah crap, I thought you meant you didn't have a plug in your car.
posted by Lobster Garden at 9:59 AM on January 7, 2010

backseatpilot writes "How about propane? We use pre-heaters on aircraft engines in the cold that are essentially a propane tank on a dolly with a combustion area and some ducting. Shove the ducting into the cowl inlets and let the warm propane exhaust heat up the block."

Propane stops developing vapour pressure at -42 and it's pretty negligible at -30 so if you go this route, and please post pictures, make sure you keep the tank someplace warm.

swimming naked when the tide goes out writes "It gets -30 here (and colder) at need a block heater. There really isn't much good in other options, including the remote start mentioned above. The engine cools down very rapidly in these temps."

I'm not too sad I can't speak from personal experience on this one but my uncle lives in Fort Chipewyan and he's had good luck with his. I'm not sure if he uses his overnight but he does use it when his truck is parked all day at remote sites instead of just leaving his truck run for 12 hours at a time. The engine of course won't stay warm but an engine at -10 is a lot easier to start than one at -30.
posted by Mitheral at 10:12 AM on January 7, 2010

Echoing block heater as the best and most efficient way of dealing with this, as well as lighter (while still manufacturer appropriate) oil to ease turn over. Check your coolant anti-freeze level/rating as well.

When people get a new batteries for the cold, one thing that I have always done that doesn't seem that common is to get the largest, most powerful battery I can physically fit into the hole it goes into. As long as it has the same orientation and style of terminals (ie round posts or little blocks with holes in - same as before) then this will very much help cold starting.

Other than that, propane heaters are impractical and more likely to damage the front of your car before they get the engine appreciably warmer, and without some sort of 12V pump/heater device plumbed into your block or water system, a big fat battery and parking the car in as sheltered a spot as possible to minimise the difficulties are probably your only hope. Don't forget that open areas (even though cars are impervious to wind chill, as noted) will get colder than protected areas such as under trees or next to buildings.

Also: If you water pump 'will break the tines off or slip the belt' because it is encased in ice, then turning the engine over is the least of your worries. This is an unlikely scenario. A proper antifreeze mix (over rate if you can for a lower temp) will prevent this issue, but if your water pump is iced up, then chances are much worse has already occurred. Water expands as it freezes and core plugs will potentially pop out* or other wise damage internals. Most likely issue from frozen coolant is the engine will locally overheat due to lack of water flow when it initially runs.
posted by Brockles at 10:21 AM on January 7, 2010

Those guy on Ice Road Truckers never turn their rigs off.

They have a problem that gasoline cars (and, I presume, the poster) don't have. Diesel fuel can start to solidify at -20C. Fuel crystals clog the fuel pump and prevent the truck from starting. That's why winter diesel exists. It gives another 15-20C wiggle room, at the expense of somewhat higher cost and higher fuel consumption.
posted by bonehead at 11:15 AM on January 7, 2010

And yeah, speaking as a former Edmontonian, a block heater is the only way to go. On really cold days a battery heater can help too, but that's not really necessary at only -10 to -20.

Also, the modern solution now isn't so much to use a lighter engine oil, which is hard to find now, but to use the (expensive) synthetics. They don't have viscosity increases anywhere near as much as the natural engine oil products.
posted by bonehead at 11:19 AM on January 7, 2010

Here in NE we get -30 windchill somewhat regularly (like all this week!) but I do not know anyone who uses a block heater.

I fixed a cranking problem on one of our trucks last week. It would only crank sometimes, and I discovered that when it worked, it gave a shower of sparks from the connection between the big cable from the battery and the starter motor's post. It was very tight but obviously corroded from road salt. I found later that the split washer had also welded itself shut so it wasn't springy anymore. The solution was just to take it apart and wire-brush both pieces, and put it back together with a new split washer. Now it cranks strong again.

Another of our trucks became a reliable starter this year with a new battery. Like Brockles says above, we got the physically largest battery that could possibly fit in the tray. It doesn't matter what the store's computer says will fit. Get the biggest one.

On reread I see you have a new battery already - I was going to advise replacing it if it's more than 3-4 years old. You should also check the condition of the cables and ends. If it's a top-post battery, those ends sometimes don't clamp very well after a few cycles and they may need to be replaced. If your car is old, maybe it even has cheap undersized battery cables that a previous owner put on. In the bitter cold all these things make a difference.

If your neighbors' cars start without heaters (or yours did last winter), I think you have a problem that needs repair. A heater, while it might certainly help, is covering up the problem and you're just asking to get stranded somewhere you don't or can't plug it in.

If it gets -30 or colder, actual temperature (which is colder than it usually gets here), I don't have any experience with that and perhaps everyone in the area does need a heater.

Just a different viewpoint. Good luck!
posted by fritley at 11:40 AM on January 7, 2010

Propane stops developing vapour pressure at -42

The obvious answer is to get a heater for the propane.
posted by backseatpilot at 11:50 AM on January 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

-30 windchill

As stated above, -30 with windchill isn't -30 to the car; it's whatever the thermometer temperature is. Steel doesn't care about windchill---it's a completely useless number in this context (and I'd argue in just about all contexts, but that's another discussion entirely). Trust me, at -30(C) actual, most vehicles benefit from a block heater. Many can start, but that puts a lot of stress on the battery and starters. Starter motor replacements were very common where I grew up.

Newer and bigger batteries help a lot, but a block heater will also help prevent the starter from needing early replacement too.

Another option that hasn't been mentioned is trickle-charging the battery at night. Normally we do this on the vehicle, but if it's really cold, remove the battery and do it indoors. That gives you a bit more grunt to get going in the morning. A trickle charger runs $20 to $30, cheaper even than a battery replacement.

(Btw, you don't use propane to start a frozen diesel engine, you use ether. Better vapour pressure. NAPA stores have it in cans as diesel starter spray.)
posted by bonehead at 12:01 PM on January 7, 2010

I will mention, we had a problem last week after letting the car sit out for a week at -20, that the car wouldn't start---the engine wouldn't turn over, even after we let the car warm up. After hauling the battery to a shop (on the back of a sled, no less), it was determined that the problem was that the terminals were too corroded to get the proper amperage.

So even though it's a new battery, you might get it checked out; maybe for some reason it's just not handling the cold very well. If no one else in town uses a block heater, etc., then probably you don't need one either.
posted by leahwrenn at 12:07 PM on January 7, 2010

Block heater is the best way, yes. A LONG extension chord and a block heater. They aren't too expensive to have installed. I have also seen heated oil dipsticks which you could install yourself, though I'm not sure how well they work.

But there are other things you can try. FWIW I am a mechanic.

Try a fully-synthetic light-weight oil. It stays more fluid in the extreme cold. And go to a lighter weight, 5w30 or lighter. Depending on what car you own, you may be able go to 5w20 or even 0w20. There should be information in your owner's manual or whoever changes your oil should be able to help you.

Also, when have you last had a tune-up? Old spark plug wires can hold condensation easier than new ones, and when that condensation freezes, you will have problems starting the car. If it's been over 40,000 miles, I would suggest a tune-up, as well.

Also make sure you are putting HEET gas additive in your gas tank whenever you fill up. It is available at most gas stations or any auto parts store.

Depending on the age and mileage on your car, there could be other issues, as well. Again, I urge the Mefi community to ALWAYS mention the year, make and mileage of your vehicle whenever posting an auto-related question on Ask Mefi.

As far as a cheap way to ensure your car starts in the morning, just go out about every two hours and start the car and allow it to get back up to operating temp and shut it back down. Impractical as far as sleeping, yes, but this ensures that your engine doesn't get too cold to start back up.

Good luck and stay warm.
posted by peewinkle at 12:16 PM on January 7, 2010

I lived in a remote tent for a while where the temperature regularly got below -40F. The car would sometimes sit for a couple of weeks in the cold. If I needed to start the car I would take out the battery and warm it for a day next to the wood stove. I put the warm battery in the car and it would start right up.

So if getting electricity to your car is impossible, bringing in your battery each night to a warm location might do the trick. Gasoline is pretty volatile even at -40F. As long as you have unlimited battery power to turn the engine over and create a good spark, the car should start. The main effect of block heaters and battery heaters is just to make the engine easier to turn without lowering the voltage so much that you get a weak spark. A warm battery does much the same thing. You could even connect a battery warmer inside the house to get it really toasty.
posted by JackFlash at 1:02 PM on January 7, 2010

Also note that battery capacity goes from 100% at 70 degrees down to 30% at -40 degrees. That makes an enormous difference for starting.
posted by JackFlash at 1:29 PM on January 7, 2010

Thanks for the advice so far. I have a 1997 Saturn SL2 with around 183,000 miles on it. I'm not sure if other people use block heaters, but just where I work, five or six people missed work because of car troubles.

I'm going to try bringing my battery in at nights when it's supposed to be particularly cold. A heated dipstick, as was mentioned above, is something else I'm considering, but yeah, I don't know how well that would work.
posted by elder18 at 2:14 PM on January 7, 2010

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