Be prepared: winterizing vehicles
Preparing your customers’ cars for winter is not the routine service it used to be. Not that long ago it was necessary to drain and fill a car’s cooling system with antifreeze every year or two. Sometimes the thermostat was replaced with a higher temperature, “winter” thermostat. Summer tires went into hibernation and the snow tires, often with studs, took over the job on the drive wheels. It was unthinkable to head into the temporary tundra without a complete tune-up.
Many shops offer pre-winter check-up specials that include a quick once-over of the vehicle. Obviously, how you price it is up to you. But many dealers like to begin with a one hour labor charge (higher for 4WD vehicles) as a starting point. In that short amount of time, you can:
✔ check and top off the fluids,
✔ inspect all the lights,
✔ check the coolant level and protection,
✔ test the battery/charging/starting system,
✔ inspect and rotate the tires and adjust pressure,
✔ inspect brakes,
✔ inspect exhaust system integrity, and
✔ test functions of the HVAC system.
Put a value price on the service, and then market it at a discount.
Now, it seems that nearly everything is “all-season.” There is all-season coolant, all-season oil, all-season tires and all-season windshield solvent. But that does not mean your customers can just forget winter car care.
Becoming stranded due to an impassable mountain pass or a highway-closing blizzard is rather remote yet not unthinkable. Breakdowns, on the other hand, are a bit more likely. Your customers can avoid being stranded if you prepare their vehicles now.
The acid test
Once upon a time, installing antifreeze was an annual ritual. With the advent of “permanent” antifreeze — the kind that could remain in the engine all year ‘round, that ritual has become as obsolete as the pay phone. Yet, permanent antifreeze is anything but permanent. Although it may protect the coolant from freezing for many years, the additives that protect the engine and radiator are generally used up in a few years. Although the newer OAT (organic acid technology) extended life coolant lasts up to five years, time is not the most reliable factor.
Two tests should be done. First, test the coolant’s level of protection against freezing using a refractometer or hydrometer. This will tell you if the water-antifreeze ratio is adequate. Ideally, it should be 50/50. Second, test the health of the additive package using test strips. It is essential that the reserve alkalinity is adequate to prevent cooling system corrosion.
If the coolant alkalinity is too low, or even on the acidic side of normal, the coolant will have to be flushed and refilled. If the alkalinity is too high, especially in a vehicle that calls for extended life coolant, there may be old-style coolant in the system or there’s a mechanical problem that requires repair. Otherwise, the fresh coolant will soon suffer a similar, excessive alkalinity fate.
Using test strips is a good show-and-tell to sell an important service to your customer. If the coolant level is low, let your customer know. There could be a cooling system leak, either external or internal. Visually inspect the pressure cap seals and the cap’s mating surface for defects. You may have to perform a cooling system pressure test to find the root problem. Don’t forget to test the pressure cap.
Suggestions for the Snow Belt
Inspect the belts and hoses visually and squeeze the hoses to see if they are too soft which could lead to failure. Cooling system problems are the number one cause for roadside breakdowns in the winter.
Visually inspect the serpentine belt and if you have any doubts, test the groove depth with a go/no-go tool. They are available free from your jobber or WD.
The first snowfall of the season brings with it an extraordinary number of spin-outs and fender benders caused primarily by driver error and worn tires. As you know, all-season tires have a way of lulling many motorists into neglect. If they are about due for new tires, encourage your customers to get them now — before the first snowfall. Tell them to avoid the rush for tires when winter really hits.
For owners with expensive alloy wheels, steel wheels make a good add-on sale. The performance tires can remain mounted during storage, ready to go back on when the weather breaks. If you have the space, or access to additional space, offer to store their wheels and tires for a reasonable price (see the tire storage article on page 36).
Keeping the spark alive
More cars fail to start in the winter from worn spark plugs than from weak batteries. Of course, extended cranking eventually takes its toll on the battery. If the car is getting close to a scheduled spark plug service — usually around 100,000 miles — suggest a new set of spark plugs.
Test the battery, charging system and starting system. Digital analyzers make this a snap, and some offer a printout that you can staple to the customer’s receipt if everything is OK. At the very least, inspect the battery terminals and cable clamps and check the alternator drive belt condition and tension. A weak battery probably won’t make it through the winter.
Clear it up
Most workers’ commutes will begin before daybreak and end after nightfall. Good vision is vital.
Turn on all the lights and walk around the car. If any are burned out, recommend that the vehicle owner replace them. If any lenses are cracked or broken, offer to replace them, too, or condensation will likely build up reducing light output.
Check the headlights on both high and low beams. Test the turn signals and hazard (four-way) flashers.
Make sure the headlights are properly aimed. Not only does this help motorists see where they are going, it keeps them from blinding oncoming drivers. If your customer routinely carries heavy loads in the trunk, make sure the lights are aimed under the same conditions.
Cloudy headlight lenses offer an opportunity to restore your customer’s view down the road. Several aftermarket suppliers offer products to make cleaning and polishing those plastic lenses quick and profitable. And your customers will immediately see the difference. (Author’s note: I have used the professional 3M kit and it is excellent).
Another customer favorite is windshield rain repellent. Although you could service the windshield only, explain the benefits of treating all the glass.
On the windshield, it helps keep the glass free of slush, salt and muck by eliminating microscopic pits and scratches to which stuff clings. It helps the wipers do their job.
Repellent also makes it easier to scrape ice and snow from the windows. When applied to other outside surfaces, ice and snow come off with minimal effort. (One type is Aquapel from PPG, which used to be a professional-only product but is now available for shops.)
Speaking of wipers, suggest replacing the standard blades with winter wiper blades or beam blades. Nothing is as aggravating as wipers that only clear one inch of the windshield. And, invariably, that inch is not in the normal field of view. Although they are a little more expensive, winter blades are worth the investment.
Traditional winter blades have a thin rubber sheath covering the superstructure to keep snow and ice from building up, allowing the entire wiper blade to stay in contact with the glass. Beam wiper blades have that same advantage plus the extra benefit of staying in contact with the glass at high speeds.
Remind your customers not to yank or chop at their wipers if they are frozen to the glass. That will probably tear chunks out of the squeegee causing streaking. Instead, instruct them to start the car and turn on the defroster as they clear the other windows.
If your shop offers exterior care, suggest a good wax job before the snowflakes fall. Not only does the wax protect the paint, it makes the snow slide right off for easier clearing.
Otherwise, consider entering into a co-op with a local detailer, car wash or automotive detailer. ■
Bob Weber is president of Virginia-based Write Stuff. He is an award-winning freelance automotive and technical writer and photographer with over two decades of journalism experience. He is an ASE-certified Master Automobile Technician, and has worked on automobiles, trucks and small engines. Weber is a member of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and numerous other automotive trade associations. He has worked as an automotive service technician, a shop manager and a regional manager for an automotive service franchise operation.
The winter emergency kit
As a service to your customers, staple a copy of this winter emergency kit to their receipts. Another idea is to partner with your local Boy Scout troop to create basic kits with proceeds going to the organization. After all, the Boy Scout motto is “be prepared.”
Container — A plastic milk crate, storage box with cover, sports bag or airplane carry-on bag works well.
Blanket — It quickly gets cold in the car if the engine stops running. A couple of those chemical hand warmers are a good idea, too.
Candles and matches — They should keep a couple votive candles or pillar candles and matches in a coffee can. They can even melt some snow in the can if they need water.
CB radio or walkie-talkie — The craze peaked in the 1970s, but plenty of people (truckers, RVers and survivalists) still use them. Channel 9 is the common emergency channel.
Cellular phone — Even better than a CB, as long as there is coverage.
First aid kit — They should buy one or make up one of their own. They need adhesive bandages, gauze, tape, moist towelettes, burn cream and antiseptic. They may want to include scissors, aspirin, tweezers and latex gloves.
Flares — Emergency flares and reflectors alert others if they have a breakdown. If they have never lighted a flare, they should practice. It can be a little tricky and scary the first time.
Flashlight and batteries — They need to be sure the batteries are fresh and keep a spare bulb, too.
Gloves — Work gloves and latex gloves may come in handy.
Jumper cables — A heavy gauge (the lower the number, the better) with strong clamps. They should avoid cheap ones that will melt before they get a dead battery jumped.
Knife — A multifunction knife like a Swiss Army or Leatherman.
Radio — Battery-powered or crank-operated.
Rags — Shop rags or old towels come in handy to kneel on as well as for cleanups. They should keep some cloth towels, paper towels and hand cleaner in the kit.
Rope or bungees — Twine is usually handy. So are bungees of various lengths.
Snacks — Energy bars, granola, dried fruit and beef jerky store well.
Tire inflator — This “air in a can” often contains a tire sealant, as well. But they should avoid products that are flammable which could injure them or the tire technician who repairs their tire. They also need to be sure the product is safe for tire pressure monitoring systems. They need to be aware that this is only an emergency fix, remind them that they must have the tire repaired as soon as possible.
Tool kit — This should include a pair of pliers, flat-blade and Phillips screwdrivers (both medium and large bits), an adjustable wrench, tire gauge, knife, work gloves, black vinyl tape and duct tape.
Water — A few bottles of water for thirst and other possible uses.
Whistle — A loud whistle can help get attention better than yelling.