December 4, 2023
  • Avoid using warm or hot water to defrost anything on your car.
  • Pesky frozen windshield wipers require a little extra attention to prevent damage.
  • Judging your tire pressure can get tricky during cold weather.

We’ve all been there. You’re in a hurry to get from Point A to Point B in the winter, but cold weather conditions get in the way, causing you to hastily skip out on steps you’d normally take to prevent damage to your ride.

So, we decided to ask a couple of experts about the most common winter car-care mistakes people tend to make in the cold months, and how you can prevent that damage. Kristine D’Arbelles, a senior director for the Canadian Automobile Association, and David Bennett, a repair manager for AAA, shared their thoughts with Popular Mechanics.

1) Driving With Ice and Snow on the Exterior

car parked on the street covered with snow

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Okay, so this one is a bit obvious—but being an igloo on wheels is even against the law. Driving without clearing ice and snow from your exterior windows and mirrors before you start driving is an accident waiting to happen. D’Arbelles cautions not to forget about the inside of the car, either. “Your AC is also a dehumidifier,” she says, so “use it to clear foggy windows for better visibility.”


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2) Filling Up With Regular Windshield Washer Fluid

the male driver pours antifreeze into the tank to spray the windshield during a snowstorm

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From an ice scraper for the windshield to proper parts under the hood, Bennett advises to always use the correct parts. “Don’t try to rig something up,” he warns. One problem he’s seen too often is when the windshield washer fluid gets low, people fill it with regular water. That can lead to a freezing issue that can then impede the assembly. Instead, use the proper windshield wiper fluid—there’s even a winter blend to help stave off freezing. “You want to put the proper fluid in there,” he says.

3) Warming Your Car By Idling

close up of car exhaust pipe, car with diesel engine

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Bennett says your window visibility is key to knowing how much you should warm your vehicle before you drive. A car will always warm more quickly while driving than by idling. Warming a car by idling is a “waste of money, just a waste of gas,” he says. “Take the time to defrost the windows, making sure you are scraping the ice. Wait until you can see out the entire window and not just that tiny, little spot.”

4) Using Your Windows While They’re Still Covered in Ice

ice scraping on windscreen

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Be cautious when de-icing your windows. Bennett suggests not using any fluids, such as warm water, to clear the windshield. Instead, start your car and let the heater and defroster do the hard work; blast the heat on full while you use a scraper to clear ice off the windows.

“You don’t want to put anything warm on something that is already frozen,” Bennett warns. “Once it is frozen, it becomes brittle, and if you introduce a temperature change, it becomes more brittle, and something could crack or break.”

And, please, don’t start using your windows if there is ice still on them. The mechanism required for lowering and raising them is extremely cold and could become stressed with the additional ice, potentially causing it to break. (Trust us: this recently happened to one of the Pop Mech editors).

5) Forgetting to Defrost Your Locks and Handles

unlocking car door in winter

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Dumping hot water on your frozen door locks and handles can damage the mechanisms inside. Don’t do it. Instead, use commercially available de-icing spray, D’Arbelles says. Just make sure you store that spray somewhere that’s not the inside of your car; otherwise you’re going to rush to get those frozen locks and handles thawed, which can lead you back into the cycle of damage.

Bennett also warns against water on frozen locks and handles, and suggests a commercial de-icer. If you don’t have one, you can simply blast a hair dryer to melt the ice around the lock, he says. Remember not to get too close though, because getting the paint on your car very hot can harm it.

6) Lifting Up Your Wipers Before a Storm

car covered with ice and snow

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Lifting your wipers before a snowstorm to clean your windows more easily may seem like a no-brainer. But it isn’t a good idea, D’Arbelles says. “Over time, doing so is likely to reduce the pressure of the blades against the windshield, which could result in visibility issues, especially in snowy conditions.” Also, if one of the wipers unexpectedly loses tension and snaps back toward the window, it could crack the windshield, especially if it happens on a particularly cold winter day. With wipers having a life of only half a year, some drivers ward off problems by switching to winter wipers instead.

7) Ignoring Your Tire Pressure

stuck in parking lot

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Cold weather forces tire pressure to drop. If you have a tire pressure sensor, it may alert you to issues, but filling your tires carefully so you prevent over-inflating is just as important.

To figure out your car’s suggested tire pressure, see the inside of the driver’s side door. Bennett says to follow these tire pressure requirements—they will be more specific to what your car needs than the specs on your tires’ sidewalls. He also recommends filling tires when the car is relatively cold—not after you’ve driven for an hour, so that the resulting pressure reading is more accurate. Driving causes heat to build up in the tires, causing the air pressure reading to rise as the air expands, so the low-pressure warning light turns off, giving you a false sense of security. Keeping a tire pressure gauge at home can head off problems, according to Consumer Reports.

8) Keeping Your Fuel Tank Low

close up of car fuel gauge with red needle

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Prevent your gas line from freezing by knowing that water in your tank is the enemy. “Keeping your tank at least half full reduces the buildup of condensation,” D’Arbelles says, “which can freeze and stop fuel from reaching your engine.”

9) Leaving Your Paint (And Undercarriage) Dirty

A preventative measure could help protect the exterior of your car. Bennett suggests getting your car washed and waxed before the winter season, allowing the wax to protect the paint from rust, salt, and chemicals. “Then, any time you know you’ve been driving in slush and have salt under there,” he says, “get that washed off your vehicle as soon as possible.”


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