Auto Service World
Feature   September 1, 2006   by Nestor Gula

Winter is the cruelest season for drivers, automobiles alike

Service shops have an opportunity to boost sales by helping clients get ready for the inevitable winter blues.

Usually the first snowstorm of the year catches people unaware. Many have never given a thought to how the long winter months and extremes of weather and temperature affect their vehicle, or how to prepare their car for winter.

Your shop’s technicians, however, can help customers be prepared by creating a winterizing program that will not only have your customer’s vehicles ready for the inclement weather, but can increase the sales and the profitability of your business. This can be done by focusing on several key items that are crucial for winter driving and which can provide additional revenues for the shop, while ensuring safety for the customer.

Time to break out the new tires for winter driving

Several decades ago winter tires were the norm for the large rear-wheel drive American cars of that era. Mounting on a set of these heavy tires was a ritual that was done every fall and then reversed in the spring. Then came the late 1970s and the phenomenon of All-Season tires sprang up. It presented a great solution for year-round driving and the tire changing ritual started to fade.

“At that time, the winter tires were really snow-tires,” says Normand Latremouille, winter segment marketing manager for Michelin North America (Canada) Inc. in Laval, Que. “They were really big, luggy tires that were developed for snow or mud traction, and were very noisy.”

Although All-Season tires seemed to work out fine, there were some problems.

“In the 1990s a shift started coming. People started realizing that the All-Seasons tire was not the best solution for driving in the winter,” Latermouille continued.

If you have the severe weather conditions like you have in Canada, you need a tire that provides better traction in the winter, he said.

“Back then, the Michelin Blizzak tire did a lot of work promoting its performance on ice and in the slush,” said Latremouille. “But many people still think that if it is dry, they do not need a winter tire that they think only works well in the slush and in the snow. What they don’t realize is that they need good traction in the wet and in the dry. When the pavement is cold (and dry), a regular All-Season tire will not perform well.”

The reason is the rubber in all All-Season tires will lose flexibility as the temperature drops and when a tire loses flexibility the grip goes away, causing a potentially dangerous situation for a driver. For cold weather, a winter tire will give a car much better traction than any All-Season tire can, because it is designed to remain flexible in colder temperatures and provide a large amount of grip.

“Of course, if you are driving a winter tire in 37-degree Celsius weather, that is not good for the tire or for traction either,” said Latremouille.

Tire performance in the cold is also critical for cars that come with low-profile performance tires. These performance tires have a greater burden to maintain a level of grip and traction. Many of the newer performance cars come equipped with three-season tires implying that they should be shod with winter tires about the time the leaves start to fall off the trees, something technicians should remind owners of such vehicles.

Don’t be fooled by traction control

Vehicle owners love traction control. However, electronic traction control can often lead a driver into a false feeling of security.

“These are great when you are talking about ABS, traction control and any other driving aid that controls the wheels. But what really holds the vehicle to the road is the four little patches of rubber on the ground,” explained Latremouille. “So it is very good to have all these electronic controls, but if you do not have a good grip on the road then all of those systems are useless.”

Thirty years ago, in the days of the big rear-wheel drive cars, winter tires came in sets of two and they were mounted to the rear wheels only. Today, all four tires should be the same, said Latremouille. “Even though nobody recommends you put only two winter tires, you still have to put tires with better traction on the rear, even if the vehicle is a front wheel drive car.”

If you were to put them on the front of the car, you will lose grip in the rear potentially causing the back end to break away while cornering, he added. However, the point is rather moot as all the car manufacturers recommend that you always have the same types of tires on all four corners of your car.

“If you want to benefit from all the electronic controls, have total stability of your car, make sure all tires are the same,” said Latremouille. “Some high performance cars have different tires up front than in the rear so following the manufacturer’s recommendation is essential.”

New light for the long winter nights and drive home

Unless you live on the equator, winter days are shorter than summer days in the overall amount of daylight hours. In Toronto you have about six hours less sunlight in winter than in the summer. The farther north you live or venture, the less daylight you will have. This usually means many drivers will commute to and from work in the darkness and lights in their vehicles will be a critical part of staying safe during winter.

Some high-end cars are now equipped with HID lights (High Intensity Discharge). These lights are intensely white and rather bright. You cannot alter the standard halogen lights on your customers’ vehicle without doing more work than it’s worth and breaking a few Highway Traffic Laws. An inexpensive solution does exist for your customers, and one which a shop’s technician can recommend for added winter driving safety and to bring in a few extra dollars to the shop’s coffers.

“The SilverStar bulb gives the look of HID (lights) because they give (off) the same colour light,” said JoAnn McKeown, product manager at Osram Sylvania Ltd. in Mississauga, Ont. “They do not give the same amount of light, but the colour is the same and will improve the a driver’s ability to see.”

The SilverStar bulbs are also more powerful than a standard OEM halogen bulb. “Many consumers still do not know that there is a premium light out there,” said McKeown. “Our research tells us that many consumers complain about the lights that are in their cars. They do not know that there is a better option out there. The SilverStar is 20 per cent brighter than the standard bulb that comes with new cars.”

McKeown pointed out that bulbs dim with age and should be regularly replaced every two years or so. “If one of the bulbs is burnt out, replace the other one as well because it will burn out in a short time as well,” she added.

In order to offer vehicle owners improved nighttime lighting and visibility, Robert Bosch Inc. offers the Xenon lighting technology that can be used in many of today’s newer cars. The Xenon technology is made to provide better illumination than standard incandescent car lamps, 2.5 times higher, according to the company. The lights also require less energy, needing only 35 watts than the 55 watts needed to power most halogen lamps, a strong selling point as winter driving can be a strain on a vehicle’s battery.

Feeling tired? It’s the same with a car battery

Most people ignore the battery in their car until it dies. And sometimes a car battery will die at the most inopportune moments, such as during the middle of a bad spell of very cold winter weather or a heavy snow storm, leaving the driver stuck on the road and later paying an expensive towing bill.

“When most people get into a vehicle, they tend to think that they are already driving to their destination, rather than starting the car,” said Gale Kimbrough, technical services manager of Interstate Batteries System of America Inc. in Dallas, Texas. “Don’t take your battery for granted. If it is rated for certain cold cranking amps, then the car needs to receive them to work properly.”

Kimbrough suggested a test of the battery and of the vehicle’s electrical system be carried out as part of any winterizing regime offered by high-quality service shops. “We have an ED-18 tester that has been out for about four years. It is an early detection device that tests the battery and charging system,” he said. “It will actually detect if there is a potential problem in the battery before it happens, before it actually goes out. It tests the battery and analyses the charging system and the starting system.”

The two times of the year which have the worst effect on the battery are the winter and summer, according to Kimbrough. Together, they can cause problems for a car’s battery. High temperature will tend to corrode the internal components of a battery, and that corrosion will begin to deteriorate the battery. While the battery will seem OK, the damage will soon make itself apparent when the driver goes out to start the vehicle, and it just sits there. The reason is the battery simply cannot supply the current necessary to start the vehicle in the cold weather.

“Both ends of the temperature spectrum, extreme heat and extreme cold, are tough on batteries,” he said. “What we typically say is that the extreme heat starts to deteriorate the battery, and the cold finishes it off.”

Kimbrough said that in studies conducted by Interstate Batteries found that in different parts of North America batteries last different lengths of time. “In extreme heat conditions, like Phoenix, Ariz., a battery can last the least amount of time because of the high temperatures that are present for most of the year. But in places like Vancouver, B.C., batteries last an extremely long time because you do not have the extreme heat or extreme cold weather conditions. Ontario has both ends of the spectrum so batteries won’t last as long.”

Since the varying climates in different North American regions affect automotive battery “life-spans” differently, Kimbrough recommends, “When a battery gets to the range of two years old, have it tested occasionally to ensure that it works as it should.”

Don’t forget to check, change the fluids when the temperature dips

Another often-overlooked aspect of a vehicles health is the coolant. Coolant should be looked at just as often as one would the condition of a vehicle’s tires and its oil.

A simple check of the fluid level is not enough said Alexi Gershun, senior research scientist, with Prestone, a unit of Honeywell Consumer Products Group in Danbury, CT. “You need to see what is inside the expansion tank. You need to determine the concentration of the glycol and water, in this way you can determine the health of the liquid.”

If the coolant has too high a concentration of glycol you should recommend that the system be flushed and new coolant added. If the coolant has a low concentration of glycol you need to use a concentrated solution of antifreeze to top off the coolant to bring the concentration up.

A common problem that is evident in the fall is a weakening of the coolant solution. This is because during the summer it is customary to top off the coolant with water by adding it to the overflow tank. This then changes the ratio of glycol and water and compromises the cooling system.

“This addition of water can also compromise the heat transferring capabilities of the vehicles cooling system,” said Gershun. “The same negative results will happen if there is too much glycol in the system with an added negative impact that the cooling fluid will be thicker causing the water pump to work harder and potentially causing this key part to fail.” Too much water in the coolant can also cause the coolant to freeze in the microscopic cracks that can develop in any engine.

If the fluid looks dirty, “It can contain oil, rust or other particles, or something floating on the surface, or it looks kind of milky, the mechanic should show this to the customer, and explain the problem and also explain why it would be a very good reason to do a coolant flush,” said Gershun.

Also, technicians should check that there are no leaks around the water pump or that the hoses are not too soft and that there are no leaks around the areas that they connect to the engine or the radiator. Some manufacturers recommend that the cooling system be flushed periodically and these recommendations should be adhered to.

To avoid future problems with the cooling system, technicians should recommend customers carry a bottle of 50/50 pre-mixed antifreeze and use this to top off the overflow tank. This way the level of coolant can always be maintained at a proper ratio and that the water that goes into the system is distilled and contains no contaminants. All water in the coolant system should be distilled according to Gershun.

And finally, don’t forget the wipers

Windshield wipers are often the most neglected item on vehicles. Owners never really think about them: wipers just seem to be there all the time and are ready to go whenever the weather turns bad. But technicians need to remind drivers that winterization must include regular wiper inspection and replacement with a wiper that can handle the severities of winter driving.

According to Cameron Young, the national sales manager for Robert Bosch Inc. Mississauga, Ont., “wipers should be inspected every season and changed every 12 months.” There’s no better time to do this than now, as winter approaches.

When changing to a new blade for winter, the temptation is to go for a heavy duty winter blade. This is not really necessary as a good quality blade will prove to be up to the task during the harsh winter months. “There continues to be a market for Winter Wiper Blades in our country,” said Young. “Our newest wiper blade, the Bosch Icon, has no metal structure for ice and snow to build up on. This all season blade is expected to displace a lot of the current winter wiper blade market. This new generation of blade has a dual rubber technology that eliminates chatter and has built in spoilers to ensure the blade is sitting properly on the windshield.”

By incorporating features from solid winter blades and new wiper technology, quality wiper blades will do their jobs year-round.

Winter driving requires a significant skill set and having a properly maintained and prepared vehicle can ensure your customers’ safety. A vehicle breakdown is aggravating and potentially dangerous at any time but even more so when the weather is cold and the days are short. By doing a few simple tests on your clients’ vehicles, and explaining the benefits of doing a proper winterization as part of preventative maintenance regime, a garage can increase its profits, and maintain a safe and loyal customer base.

Tips for getting a vehicle ready for winter

1. Check the coolant (antifreeze). Most vehicle manufactures suggest coolant be flushed and replaced every two years. If the car owner is a first-time customer to the shop, a technician should ask when was the last time the coolant was flushed and replaced in the vehicle; if it is a regular client, the technicians should check the records and recommend a fluid flush and replacement as per the vehicle’s maintenance schedule.

2. While regular oil changes are important and should be encouraged, technicians can recommend a ‘winter weight’ oil if the climate is particularly severe.

3. Cold weather can be a stain on a car’s battery. According to the American Automobile Association, a battery can lose 35 per cent of its power when the temperature dips bellow freezing. Technicians should check not only whether a customer’s battery is in good working order, but also the electrical system to make sure it is functioning properly.

4. Check the tire tread depth and tire pressure to make sure the tires are in good working order for winter driving. A technician can even suggest using a set of winter-rated tires if winters are severe or the customer will be driving extensively through snow and ice.

5. Inspect all lights to make sure they are working properly and are correctly aimed. Replace any lights that are showing signs of age and recommend upgrading to new lights.

6. Regularly inspect and replace wipers. Technicians should also recommend special snow blades if winters are severe.

Wiper blade tips

While seemingly insignificant, windshield wipers are crucial for winter driving safety. Robert Bosch Inc. has a set of windshield wiper car tips that service technicians can use to educate their customers on the importance of keeping wipers in good condition and the wiper system operating properly.

1. Do not operate the wipers on an icy windshield if the car has been sitting (especially outside) for long. Be sure to first turn on the washer before operating the wipers or it will damage the wipers.

2. Check windshield wipers and washer fluid frequently, at least every few weeks. Take a minute to turn on the system to see that it is working well.

3. Check the entire wiper system assembly — the blade the arm and the frame. Inspect the blades to see if they are still sharp, smooth, straight and clean.

4. Run a sponge along the entire length of the blade to remove all the dirt that might be lodged between the blade and the glass.

5. Make sure the blades are not cracked or split. This is usually caused by long-term exposure to the sun’s rays which dries the rubber, making it brittle and liable to tear or break more easily. In a colder climate, look for discolored and scarred rubber, usually the result of salt-removing chemicals.

6. Also, each time the customer stops to fill up the gas tank, remind them to take a few minutes to clean the dirt and grime that collects on the windshield. Dirt can scratch the windshield and reduce the flexibility of the wiping element.

7. Windshield wipers can last longer if they are kept clean. Clean them with either alcohol, or soap and warm water or washer fluid.

8. If the customer notices the blades are beginning to smear, squeak, squeal or chatter it’s time to replace them. Ideally change the blades on a vehicle once every six months to a year.

9. If the customer happens to drive an SUV, or minivan or a hatchback, check the rear windshield wiper. Even some sports cars have one. Rear windshield wipers are as susceptible to the elements as are front wipers and are as essential in snowy weather. They need as much care even though they may not be used as frequently.

10. Have the customer invest in premium quality wipers.


Interstate Batteries System of America Inc.

Michelin North America (Canada) Inc.

Osram Sylvania Ltd.

Prestone, a unit of Honeywell Consumer Products Group

Robert Bosch Inc.

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