Helping vehicle owners understand what it takes to get ready for the winter months
One of the challenges of selling winter maintenance is how to position this package in relation to regular maintenance checks and programs. It is certainly not as easy as it once was. Gone are the days when an independent service facility could simply place an advertisement in a local newspaper or put out a sign in front of the bays announcing a winter maintenance package, and the business would come rolling in. Winter maintenance packages often do not look very different from normal maintenance; and once common quarterly maintenance routines are becoming harder to sell today with the growing number of vehicles with extended maintenance intervals.
One way of tackling this problem is offered in the recent J.D. Power survey on customer satisfaction with automotive service at dealerships and aftermarket operations. J.D. Ney, supervisor of the Canadian automotive practice with J.D. Power in Toronto, remarked that vehicle owners are now bundling services together. If someone comes in for a mandated oil and filter change, the vehicle owner often uses that service visit to bundle several other service jobs with the oil and filter work.
Taking that insight one more step, as the fall months approach it is likely a good time to use these service opportunities to bundle a winter service package or a set of maintenance checks for the approaching winter months.
Creating a Customer-Friendly Check List
One thing is certain, most vehicle owners are not ready when winter hits and often don’t know what their vehicles need to be ready. Yes, there are some obvious things, but there are plenty of others that escape their attention. We will touch upon a couple of them in greater detail a bit later; but let’s first see about helping vehicle owners understand what you can do for them to gret ready for the winter months. This is where a check list can come in handy. Your service writers can have it at the ready and explain to vehicle owners why these things must be looked at. It is a great opportunity to explain the important functions these pieces play in keeping a vehicle running smoothly in winter. Here are a few things that should be on a check-list for winter:
When temperatures dip, having a fully charged and operating battery is critical. Too often batteries are neglected by vehicle owners until something goes wrong. In winter, that means getting into the car and finding it does not start. Batteries should be tested regularly, on each service visit. In winter, batteries that lack a full charge or cannot hold a full charge can freeze in very cold temperatures, damaging the plates. Batteries should also be checked to see if they have sufficient cranking and cold start amps. Many of today’s battery check scan tools come with a handy feature that will print off the results in an easy-to-understand graphic. Use that printout to show the vehicle owner the state the battery is in and why you are recommending the battery needs to be replaced.
A check should be done to make sure there are no worn or defective wires, the spark plugs are in good working order and the distributor cap is not damaged.
Should be serviced and checked for wear. It is critical that brakes and brake fluid are in good working order during winter months.
Recommend tires be switched to proper winter tires. While some vehicle owners may insist that All-Seasons are good enough for winter, you need to point out that traditional All-Season tires will perform poorly in winter months. Winter tires are designed specifically for winter and cold temperatures, with sipes and blocks that improve grip on snow, ice and slush. As well, the compounds used in Winter Tires are made to remain flexible in the cold so as to provide the needed traction and handling for driving on snow-covered and ice-covered roads. The compounds used in All-Season tires will become stiff when temperatures dip to near freezing and below, and the tire will behave more like a hockey puck skating across a frozen pond or rink, lacking the needed traction and grip for the safe handling of the vehicle.
Let’s take a look at two other critical parts of a check list: Lighting and Antifreeze.
Lighting is something overlooked when it comes to maintenance for most vehicle owners. The only time most think about their headlights are when they fail. It is quite surprising how many vehicles are on the road with dim headlights or with one failed headlight.
Failure of a vehicle’s headlights is unacceptable at any time, most especially in the winter months where “there are less daylight hours, plus there are more hazards on the road like bad weather,” says Bess Collins, marketing manager for Canada with GE Lighting. “Proper automotive lighting will not only allow you to see farther and more of the road ahead of you, but will also allow you to be seen by other drivers.”
What many fail to grasp is automotive headlights are wear items just like brakes, especially today’s modern halogen lights that do have a certain lifespan, says Alfredo de la Vega, vice-president, marketing and product management, NAFTA, Central and South America at Hella Inc. “With the coming winter months, it is crucial to do a full inspection of your lights, not just the headlights, but the rear lights and side lights as well. We advise our customers who have halogen light bulbs to inspect and regularly replace the halogen bulbs as they do have a certain life limit. The performance of a halogen light bulb can be reduced by 20 per cent each year under regular use. So you have to remember to replace your lights as you would replace your tires when they are worn.”
Service writers should ask drivers if they have noticed any dimming in the lights; or if the vehicle owner comes in regularly for service, to look at the service records to discover when the lights were checked and replaced. “Headlights will dim over time so (while) you may still have ‘working’ headlights, the light they emit may not be as effective as it was when they were purchased new,” Collins adds “A good rule of thumb is when you are winterizing or getting your car ready for a change in season, make sure you consider your headlights and change them. A simple and inexpensive change can make a big difference.”
Hella offers a range of high-performance halogen lamps, one popular one being the Hella Xenon Blue Halogen Bulb. Designed for improved safety, the bulb has a blue coating the company says provides drivers with a crisp white beam pattern that is closer to daylight and thereby improves night vision.
GE’s Nighthawk Xenon lights are designed to produce up to 120 per cent more light and closer to daylight, which on dark winter evenings is crucial for safe driving.
Sylvania’s SilverStar Ultra bulbs are another popular halogen replacement solution that can be offered to vehicle owners. It is made to provide up to 50 per cent greater brightness and according to the company can increase visibility down the road by up to 40 per cent and peripheral visibility by up to 50 per cent.
This used to be one of the more simple things. Remember when your dad or older brother or sister would simply get a bottle of green-coloured an
tifreeze and top off the radiator or just do a 50-50 mix of water and antifreeze when the cold weather started? Well, that has changed. A quick glance today will reveal a range of antifreeze products formulated for specific vehicle models. So a technician’s job is a bit more complicated than years before.
Still, makers of antifreeze products agree there are some common rules that technicians and service writers can apply and relate to vehicle owners.
“In regards to the cooling system, it exists to transfer heat from the engine and about one-third of the heat is exhausted through the cooling system,” says David Turcotte, technical director for the Zerex brand with Ashland Inc. “So if the system does not work properly, you will get a lot of issues resulting from that, one being engine damage.”
One of the simplest things to check for is to ensure that the system has enough coolant, then make sure the system is properly pressurized and all the hoses and connectors are in good working order. It is amazing how many times problems come from small leaks or pressure drops that many drivers overlook. Even a visual inspection can point to problems. If the coolant looks cloudy, black or brown or gives off a burnt or ammonia-like smell, then it has to be changed.
“Coolant should be tested with test strips and a refractor once a year (and) antifreeze/coolant should be changed according to the vehicle’s recommended change interval,” adds Jay Buckley, technical training director UCI-Fram Group, maker of the Prestone line of antifreeze and coolants.
What is crucial to tell drivers is even if a vehicle manufacturer has an extended drain interval on a antifreeze/coolant, in winter it is very important that the system be checked specifically to make sure the system has the right mixture of antifreeze and water. If the mixture is incorrect, one may find the system not able to operate properly in very cold temperatures.
“When checking your antifreeze/coolant, the proper concentration of a cooling system is a 50/50 mix of antifreeze/coolant and water [unless additional antifreeze/coolant or additional water is added, the concentration should still remain at a 50/50 mix],” says Tom Cholke, senior technical services manager at Old World Industries Inc., makers of the Peak line of antifreeze and coolants.
“If you have [the mixture] correctly diluted, 50/50, the freeze-point will be about minus 34°F,” adds Turcotte. “If you come from colder climates, it should be somewhere around 50/70 and it should be good for up to minus 84°F.”
What is most important is that technicians and service writers emphasize if the coolant system has to be flushed or the mixture changed to prepare for the winter months, the antifreeze used must be one recommended by the vehicle manufacturer. Today’s engines are built to much higher tolerances than before and the cooling systems require specific additives and corrosion inhibitors to maintain optimum efficiency over the lifetime of the vehicle. That is why you see all of today’s major coolant/antifreeze makers offering a range of products specific to domestic and foreign nameplate vehicles, with formulations matching the factory fill specifications recommended by the vehicle makers for the vehicles. Mixing the wrong antifreeze or coolant, or using an old-style ‘green’ coolant, will damage the cooling system over time.
“Mixing coolants can result in over-concentration leading to gelling of the coolant and other problems,” adds Buckley. “Using the old-style ‘green’ or silicate coolants in modern vehicles designed for OAT or HOAT coolants often results in leaking water pumps due to incompatibility of modern water pump seals with silicates. That is by far the most common mistake technicians make when changing coolants.”
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