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Even California Cars Need to Be Winterized

Who says there are no seasons in Southern California? The drifts may not be piling up in your driveway, but rain is on its way, bringing its special set of hazards. And extra precautions are in order if you’re heading for the snowy slopes. Here’s what you can do to prepare your vehicle for winter in not-always-sunny California:

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Get a Grip: During the dry months, oil from the unburned fuel in exhaust gases collects on roadway surfaces. Because oil floats on water, rain turns it into a treacherously slick film that can turn a fast stop into a skid. Check your tires to be sure they’re inflated properly.

Over-inflated tires are a hazard on any road. Under-inflated tires impede the flow of water from between the treads. Be sure your tires still have plenty of tread by inserting a Lincoln penny, head down, between the lowest treads. If you can see the top of Lincoln’s head, or if you see wear bars anywhere across the treads, replace the tires. Replace both front or rear tires at the same time, and put the best set up front.

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Check the Wipers: All summer, your windshield wipers have been idly basking in the sun--without the benefit of sun screen! They may look OK, but chances are the blades have dried out and lost their flexibility. Bad blades will streak your windshield or even disintegrate, allowing the blade holder to scratch the glass. Most are inexpensive and either snap or slide into their metal or plastic holders, depending on your car’s make, model and year. Instructions are usually on the package.

If you’d rather not monkey with them yourself, have the rubber blades replaced the next time you stop for gas. While you’re at it, check your windshield-washer fluid level and test-drive the wipers (on a wet windshield) to be sure they’re working. Sunshine can dry out the little motors that drive them, and fallen leaves can collect in the channel between the windshield and the washers and clog up the works.

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Check Heater and Defroster: Leaves collect in heater vents as well. Run the blower on high to clear the ducts. Then switch the ducts from “fresh” to “interior” and turn on the heater to be sure it’s functioning properly. You’ve probably used your defrosters to clear the windshield on misty nights, but it’s wise to check them anyway, just to be sure they’ll be there when you need them.

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Check Your Cooling System: If the liquid in the system hasn’t been flushed out and changed in the last year, do it now. If there’s rust floating around in it, or you have to keep adding liquid, have your radiator and radiator cap checked for leaks. Check the hoses to be sure they’re not cracked, brittle or squishy, and be sure the clamps that hold them in place are in good shape too.

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Check Your Brakes: Slippery roads can put brakes to the ultimate test. If yours have been pulling to one side, taking longer to stop or making weird noises, have them checked out now.

If you’re driving a new vehicle equipped with an anti-lock braking system, or ABS, check out the ABS Education Alliance Web site (https://www.abs-education.org) for tips on using ABS on slippery surfaces. Although a vehicle with ABS maintains steering capability and stops better on wet surfaces, it may not turn as quickly on a slippery road as it would on dry pavement. Practice ABS braking in a parking lot or alley before taking to the roads in extreme conditions.

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Check Electrical Systems: Winter weather puts those systems to greater use. Headlights, heaters and wipers make greater demands on your battery. When was the last time you had it checked or replaced? Dampness can get into your ignition system through cracked distributor caps and spark-plug wires and cause the system to fail. Scheduling a tuneup at the onset of winter is great preventive maintenance.

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Check for Leaks: Summer sun and smog can deteriorate weatherstripping. When the rains come, you may find yourself dodging the drops inside the car. Before it rains, close the windows, doors, sun roof or convertible top and aim a hose around the edges to see if leaks occur. A new rubber gasket can be expensive, but a short piece of BD adhesive-backed weatherstripping may be able to stop a minor leak if you stick it onto the rubber where the water is getting through. You can buy the stuff at any hardware store. It’s worth a try.

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Operate Your AC: You may not need air conditioning when the weather turns cool, but it’s a good idea to run it for a few minutes once a week to keep the parts lubricated. If your windshield mists up when you run the heater, running the air conditioner at the same time may clear things up more quickly.

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Heading for Snow Country? Be sure your tires can handle the snow. Most “all-weather” tires are up to the task. If you haven’t got them, you may need to carry chains to gain access to roads in snowy areas. It’s also advisable to bring along a small bag of sand (salt is a no-no, as it eats the undersides of cars and pollutes ground water) and a small shovel (they come with collapsible handles, and you can always use one at the beach).

An old blanket is cozy to have around if you get stuck in the cold. Tuck it over your engine if you park for a long time in extreme cold to prevent the oil in your engine from thickening up. (But leave yourself a note on the steering wheel to remove the blanket before you drive off again!)

A can of inflator-sealant will get you back on the road fast without having to change a flat in cold or rainy weather. Just be sure to tell the garage you’ve used it when you have the flat repaired.

Highway 1 contributor Deanna Sclar is the Los Angeles-based author of “Buying a Car for Dummies” (1998) and “Auto Repair for Dummies” (forthcoming in 1999) from IDG Books.

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