Winter car tips
November 9, 2005 9:20 AM   Subscribe

What do I need to get for / do to my car to have the best possible first winter in Minnesota this year?

Car type: 2003 Saturn Ion.
Parking situation at home: Parking is available on the street in front of my Uptown Minneapolis duplex and offstreet in the communal driveway in back. I know the street will be plowed, and I expect the driveway will also. I don't much know what this means from a practical standpoint. Does the plowed snow bury my car? Collect underneath it? Will I have to shovel it out? Should I just park the car in back and pretty much ditch it and take the bus/taxis for the winter? Not sure.
posted by grrarrgh00 to Travel & Transportation around Minnesota (36 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Get a set of snow tires. They make a world of difference.
posted by zsazsa at 9:28 AM on November 9, 2005

Make sure you know the rules for parking during a snow emergency.
posted by Coffeemate at 9:36 AM on November 9, 2005

The biggest thing is to learn Mpls' snow emergency rules. You'll have to move your car, lest it be towed, ticketed, and/or plowed in. It'll be confusing at first, but there's logic to the system, and once you grasp it it's easy (the specifics depend on whether your street is a Snow Emergency Route or not-- and don't worry, the Strib generally posts the relevant info when the time comes).

The roads get steadily narrower as winter goes along, because snow builds up along the curbs. So, especially in uptown, be ready to do a lot of pulling to the side and waiting for traffic going the other way to squeeze through two-ways.

You can also count on the presence of a single snowflake to tie the freeway system into knots. If you can avoid the freeway while it's snowing, do it. After the roads get plowed, though, it's business as usual.
posted by COBRA! at 9:36 AM on November 9, 2005

I second snow tires. A shovel or a folding spade in the trunk should alleviate the fear of being plowed in. No need to ditch your car, driving in the winter is quite manageable.
posted by lazy-ville at 9:39 AM on November 9, 2005

The best thing you can do is mount a set of four severe snow tires which are marked with a mountain and snowflake symbol in Canada. I'm a fan of studded tires myself if Minnesota allows.

Next you need a winter kit in your car which includes things to keep you from dying if stuck in your car over night (blankets and clothing) and stuff to help you get unstuck. Big box retailers sell fairly sturdy plastic shovels designed for kids that are a lot better than your hands for shovelling for cheap. If you have a bit more money to spend a collapsible avalanche shovel is better and takes up less room. Everyone's kit varies but other common items are a 6X8 tarp, some gaffer tape (or duct tape but it leaves a residue) some sand, maybe a chocolate bar or two.

You'll also need an ice scraper/snow brush. I like the wood handled variety about two feet long, about $2 a piece. I buy two for each car each year because a) they wear out and b) you inevitably lose one or break one somewhere along the season. Brushing 15 centimetres of snow off you car with a cd case is not fun DAMHIKT.

I doubt your drive way will be plowed unless it's included in your rent. You'll need a snow shovel for loose snow and a square spade or similiar for packed snow(which is produced by plows).
posted by Mitheral at 9:43 AM on November 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

Get a remote-starter so you can start the car early and have it all toasty warm for you when you get in.

You can get these installed aftermarket for like $200 or so, IIRC.

I had a hell of a time with my car due to the fact that the battery wouldn't work if it was too cold. so I'd have to dig up this little hand-held chager and then jump start my car in the cold. That was not fun. but you're car is a 2003 so it should still have a nice, new battery
posted by delmoi at 9:46 AM on November 9, 2005

From my experience in Cleveland, make sure your battery is in good shape and also keep a "snow kit" in your car, as stated above.

I'm not sure about road salt usage where you live, but be aware that salt will slowly damage your car's undercarriage after a while, so you might want to have it cleaned every now and then.
posted by vkxmai at 9:49 AM on November 9, 2005

Also, when it snows, expect it to take twice as long as normal to get anywhere. It's better to leave late (unless you have to punch a clock) then to leave early on the snowy days.
posted by jodic at 9:49 AM on November 9, 2005

Oh yeah, I second snow-shovel.

I remember one day driving my little Tercel all over town in the deep snow trying to find a snow shovel to help some friends who a plowed-in driveway. It was quite an adventure. (I love sliding all over the place in the snow :P)

I ended up getting plowed-in myself a bit later, and that show shovel came in mighty-handy.
posted by delmoi at 9:50 AM on November 9, 2005

Everyone else has covered your safety (snow tires, emergency kit), so I wanted to answer what might be good for your car.

I would have the car well cleaned (on the outside) and waxed before the snow gets heavy. A good coat of wax I think would last through the winter. I have never looked into undercarriage protectors, even though I live in Michigan. In general I consider that bunk, but you may find a legitimate product of some kind.

The absolute best thing to do to protect the car is to park it inside. I guess that's not an option for you, but if it is, I would suggest pulling it into a garage and knocking the big hunks of ice off every evening. I do this to keep the trapped water away from the body panels. I haven't waxed my truck for this winter, and I don't know when I'll be able to, but I think it's a good idea.
posted by Slothrop at 9:55 AM on November 9, 2005

a good batery (atleast 1000 cold cranking amps)
posted by blue_beetle at 9:55 AM on November 9, 2005

Some sort of shovel/ice chopper/whatever in the trunk;

A snow brush to remove snow from the car without chipping the paint (I keep it on the floor of the back seat for easy access);

A plastic ice scraper to remove ice from windshield (may be combined with brush above);

Windshield wiper fluid with antifreeze in it, the really good toxic stuff good to -40 degrees or so - you go through a lot of wiper fluid in winter (salt spray) so buy two jugs and put the second one in the trunk;

Remember it takes an extra 15 minutes to clear ice from the car, so get out the door early.

AAA subscription? Sense of humor? Strong back and tylenol? Gloves so your hands don't freeze while you're clearing snow? Drive slowly in snow until you get the hang of it (and even after).
posted by jellicle at 9:56 AM on November 9, 2005

Oh, and waxing wouldn't be a substitute for washing it periodically. I do both, if I can.
posted by Slothrop at 9:56 AM on November 9, 2005

Slothrop writes "The absolute best thing to do to protect the car is to park it inside. "

As long as the garage is unheated. A heated garage will create a water/salt mix which is much worse than a ice/salt mix.
posted by Mitheral at 10:15 AM on November 9, 2005

muhahah -- have FUN this winter in mnpls.

a heater to plug your car into the garage for about an hour before you drive is a good idea, saved my ass plenty of mornings.

try to park inside if possible. also get one of those deicing sprays for your keyholes (and keep it on you always!)

a cellphone is always handy but of course people lived for many thousands of years in cold without them. but, its really nice for those days (and you'll have them) when the car dies.

i DO NOT think snow tires are that necessary, imho. even in the worst snowstorms, the city is amazing about sweeping and cleaning, and anyway if there is a horrible snowstorm, things shut down. what to watch out for is black ice, especially on highway on- and off-ramps.

good luck. you'll need it.

posted by yonation at 10:36 AM on November 9, 2005

Get a coolant flush, you should do that every couple years, and now would be a good time. The cold might be a test of the battery as others mentioned, but I think your car is new enough that it should fare very well as is.

The coolant thing can be counter-intuitive. If your mixture of antifreeze/water is old, it might not handle the cold so well anymore, so it might freeze. If the coolant freezes, then it won't circulate around the engine, and you end up overheating your engine when you drive it. So, oddly enough, cold weather seems to be a common cause of overheating.
posted by knave at 10:43 AM on November 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

Does the plowed snow bury my car? Yes.
Collect underneath it? Yes.
Will I have to shovel it out? Yes.

Follow your local areas snow ordinances for parked cars (as mentioned above.)

Get something like this. It's a portable air-compressor (for flats/slow leaks) / battery charger (for dead batteries) / 12V power supply (emergency power).

Get a small snow shovel and ice scraper (preferrably one designed for cars if space is at a premium).

Make sure your wheel lug nuts aren't over-torqued. That is to say, try and remove all four wheels (go ahead and rotate them while you're at it). This is just a test to make sure they're not rusted on the hub or overtightened. If you can't get them off, spray some penetrating oil on them. You need to be able to remove them in an emergency, and the car's built-in jack/tire iron doesn't have much strength.

Put good snow tires on those wheels.

Obviously carry a cell phone, and keep it charged. Have a charger for the car's lighter.

Thermal blankets are good to have just-in-case.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:49 AM on November 9, 2005

Something I haven't seen mentioned here is that you may want to change your oil to a lighter 5W30 oil. (Instead of the 10W30). Your best bet is to contact your local Saturn dealer, since he will know the car and the weather, and he can say if it's needed or not.

I'm not sure if anybody mentioned a block heater, which keeps things warm in the engine, just plug it in at night.

Winter tires are very nice to have. They do help in the snow, as they channel the snow away from the wheel much better than a normal tire, which compact it into the treads and make things slippery.

Drive slow, take your time, and never do more than one thing at once. (Brake. Then Steer. Then accelerate.)
posted by defcom1 at 10:50 AM on November 9, 2005

I don't think snow tires are necessary either, unless you live in a rural area. I lived in MSP for several years, and they did an AMAZING job of keeping the roads clear.

In fact, my first winter in MSP I attempted to buy snow tires, and the man at the tire store explained that they don't keep them in stock and have to special order them for those who drive outside the cities or who "insist" on having them.
posted by Sheppagus at 10:52 AM on November 9, 2005

Oh yeah, and make sure you warm your car up properly before driving off. The bulk of engine wear happens when you first start the car, when the oil hasn't had a chance to circulate. But the second-most likely cause of premature engine wear is when the engine block itself hasn't warmed up: thermal expansion and all that, particularly if your engine has different metal types (say, an aluminum head on an iron block, for instance).

Start 'er up and let 'er idle for about 5 minutes before driving. Make sure you clear any obstructions from the tail pipe (e.g., snow) beforehand!
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:53 AM on November 9, 2005

yonation writes "what to watch out for is black ice, especially on highway on- and off-ramps."

Snow tires have wildly better grip, especially at low temps making the chance of an accident from black ice much reduced.
posted by Mitheral at 10:55 AM on November 9, 2005

How cold is it expected to get there? Here in Alaska, no vehicle would survive the winter without a block heater and oil pan heater. You can also have a battery blanket installed. Plug your car in a few hours before you want to start it and the thing will actually start.

And if you plan on driving any distance in below-freezing temperatures, keep an extra set of warm clothes in the trunk. You don't want the car to break down in the middle of nowhere at -50°F without an extra set of socks, gloves, and other warm clothes.
posted by rhapsodie at 10:59 AM on November 9, 2005

Snow tires definitely aren't necessary, unless (as stated above), you'll be doing a lot of driving outside of the city. The roads are generally cleared within hours of a big snowfall - the biggest problems you'll face are parking and other idiot drivers.

(I'm a lifelong Minneapolitan, and I've lived in the Uptown area for 5 years)
posted by elquien at 11:01 AM on November 9, 2005

I lived at 32nd and Lyndale about 3 years back and I lived in MN for close to 11 years.

If you've got all season tires on your car, you should be fine. I had performance tires on the car I had so getting an extra set of winter tires was pretty much required. All seasons should be fine in town (unless they're bald).

Get a small shovel that you can bring with in your trunk in case you get stuck/plowed in when you're parked somewhere else, and get a really good ice scraper. You're going to need it.

Also, the first few snowfalls are the most dangerous as everyone has forgotten how to drive on snow.

Good luck. I love everything about Minnesota except for the weather, which I despise with a white hot heat.

Stifiling summers and brutal winters, with about a month period around October that is beautiful. It's all downhill from here.
posted by freshgroundpepper at 11:17 AM on November 9, 2005

defcom1 writes "I'm not sure if anybody mentioned a block heater, which keeps things warm in the engine, just plug it in at night."

A note on block heaters. 3 hours on time before engine start is enough for them to do their jobs. A timer rated for a 15A resistive load will save you significant amounts of electricity.
posted by Mitheral at 11:22 AM on November 9, 2005

Something you might not have thought of, get yourself some good Sorrel type boots and some good gloves. You can thank me in Spring.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:07 PM on November 9, 2005

Another Minneapolitan here.

Unless you live in the middle of nowhere, snow tires aren't necessary. Good quality all season tires are sufficient. Same goes for the coffee-can-chocolate-bars-warm-clothing stuff. It's not necessary unless you plan a long road trip during the winter. Having a shovel in the trunk, or some kitty litters, can be helpful sometimes.

Other preparations: You know, there may be 5W oil in that Ion already. You could even consider a 0W synthetic. 10W is right out. Do a coolant check. Make sure that your battery is decent-- probably okay in your case, but be aware that batteries lose power more quickly in the cold. Plenty of windshield wiper fluid and a nice window scraper.

Finally, keep a can of de-icer at home for that one ice storm. Not in the car, since that's useless. And not the little pocket-sized keychain can. Get the big yellow can with the scraper on it. It will melt a good quarter inch of ice in a hurry. (De-icer is also handy for you compulsive car-washers out there.)

Snow emergencies: Follow the instructions. In some neighborhoods (the ones with bad parking to begin with) enforcement is more lax. But when a snow emergency is first declared, never, never, park on a snow emergency route. Even if you think you can beat the system, think about all the fun and expense of a trip to the impound lot. (Around $160-180, I think, after you pay for the ticket and the tow.)

The block heater isn't really necessary if your car is a good winter starter. At most it slows engine wear, and your 0W oil will do that just as well. If you're parking on the street, or even in the alley, stringing a cord will either be a pain in the ass or impossible. (You really don't see block heaters much in Minneapolis anyhow.)
posted by Scooter at 12:08 PM on November 9, 2005

I...second (or more) the need for an extra jug of wiper fluid. The best snow-tires in the world won't get you anywhere if your windshield is a crappy, brown mess.

Here's a tangental question about wipers: I *always* run into the problem where my wipers get misshapen (because of the cold...?) and they don't hit the windshield in certain spots...usually leaving a huge smear of road salt and splattered, untouched washer fluid right across my vision. I run my defrost to "warm" the wipers...but that usually doesn't work. My wipers are always fairly new (they get replaced before each winter at the dealership)...are there "winter wipers" to avoid this?

This is seriously the most annoying thing I encounter driving around in the New England winter.
posted by tpl1212 at 12:30 PM on November 9, 2005

tpl1212 writes "are there 'winter wipers' to avoid this?"

If the problem is caused by gunk freezing up in the joints of the wiper you can buy winter blades that have sealed rubber boots covering the joints. Just bought a set of three for my Caravan from the local borg for $8 a piece.

On winter tires: yes your car won't immediately fall off the road with out them. But for the cost of a second set of rims why not have season specific tires? The tires themselves don't actually cost you anything extra in the long run because while your running your winters your not wearing out your summers. It's got to be the best $100 you can spend.
posted by Mitheral at 12:40 PM on November 9, 2005

Kind of a poor mans block heater: if you can run an extension cord with a lightbulb on it to put under the hood, the car will start more easily.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:09 PM on November 9, 2005

If the problem is caused by gunk freezing up in the joints of the wiper you can buy winter blades that have sealed rubber boots covering the joints. Just bought a set of three for my Caravan from the local borg for $8 a piece.

I think it's more with the blades being "frozen" into a slight arc that doesn't quite make full, normal contact with the windshield...though, now that I think of it, maybe it is gunk in the joints you mention that is keeping the blade from creating enough pressure to hit the windshield...i'll look into said wipers, thanks!
posted by tpl1212 at 1:15 PM on November 9, 2005

Just a few "me too"s from someone who grew up in Mpls:

-Never heard of anyone using snow tires
-Almost never saw anyone plug their car in.

(That's not to say you shouldn't take these extra precautions if you want to, just that they probably won't be necessary.)

-Everybody does have a snow brush and ice scraper in their car.

Regarding snow plows burying your car with snow, that's not going to happen to any great degree. Generally things get plowed so quickly that there's not enough snow on the ground to really cover anything up when it gets pushed to the side. (Except for suburban shopping mall parking lots. There's huge piles on the sides of those when they get cleared.) I've never heard of anyone's car getting buried by a plow.

If you've never done any winter driving before, the most important thing to remember is simply to slow down. Start braking earlier, accelerate gently, turn gently, etc. Sliding around on icy streets is not fun. You'll probably slide through an intersection or two before you get fully calibrated. Luckily these will probably be between little used side streets and so probably won't hit anyone, as the busy streets (Hennepin, Lake, Lyndale) are "Snow Emergency Routes" that usually get plowed so quickly that they don't have time to get very slippery.

Lastly, I'll just say that it's probably not going to be as bad as you think. Since I've moved to SF, I haven't "missed the seasons," as Minnesotans told me I would, but that doesn't mean I couldn't tolerate another Mpls winter just fine. Remember that if the weather really gets screwy, things will just shut down and you'll get to stay home.
posted by epugachev at 1:16 PM on November 9, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks a ton, everyone. Now I'm loaded with good winter car advice and I'm jonesin' for my first-ever meetup sometime soon, with all these MeFites around. (After four years of membership! Where are all my Fresno MeFites? St. Pete? Dang.)
posted by grrarrgh00 at 4:42 PM on November 9, 2005

A block heater with a thermostat or timer, spring loaded wiper blades to clear snow and ice, a spare jug of winter washer fluid (nothing funner than spraying your window and having it all freeze solid immediately after), the correct oil for your vehicle in the winter, snow tires (an absolute must unless you drive a Suby or similar AWD if you're new to snow and ice), spare clothing, a snow scraper that you keep in your house OUTSIDE your car and another one for inside, cat litter for if you get stuck parked on ice (better traction than sand), AAA membership, the spray in flat fix incase you get a flat someplace it's too icy to safley jack your car up (happened to me twice), and boots or mittens to wear over your work clothes for getting into out of your car.
posted by fshgrl at 8:50 PM on November 9, 2005

Fshgrl is absolutely 100% correct - great set of answers.

To add to Fshgrl comments:

Agreed, agreed - like most, I say if you don't have AWD - snow tires are worth the money. They really, really are. I have had a chance to drive my car with and without snow tires in similarly bad conditions. No question it is worth it (in fact even if you have AWD).

A good, strong battery with highest cold-cranking amps you can get (don't replace if the battery is pretty new).

Get sand - 100 lbs or so. Also keep a blanket in the car.
posted by gnash at 8:57 PM on November 9, 2005

Practice! Find a snowy parking lot and practice skid control until security asks you to leave. There is no subsitute for building the twitch reflexes that are specific to your vehicle.
posted by Triode at 9:53 PM on November 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

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