Surviving The Frozen Tundra with your Vehicle

Surviving the Frozen Tundra with Your Vehicle

By Tom Torbjornsen, Host of America's Car Show

Wintertime is hard on vehicles, period. There are common vehicular failures that are winter-related, and they typically settle into six distinct categories:

  • Undercarriage
  • Steering and Suspension
  • Engine Cooling System
  • Transmission and Drivetrain
  • Starting and Charging Systems
  • Body and Wipers


Twisted and/or broken fuel, EVAP and brake lines
During the winter, ice and snow builds up on the roadways creating obstructions. When a vehicle passes over these, steel lines are torn from their positions, resulting in fuel leaks, check-engine lights or loss of brakes. These lines must be replaced. When techs replace damaged lines, they typically tie them up closer to the vehicle’s underside in order to shield them from road hazards.

Frozen gas lines
Ice forms inside gas lines from condensation buildup. To avoid this, keep your gas tank at least half full at all times. Also use gas line antifreeze with isopropyl; it’s compatible with today’s computer controls and fuel injection systems. Use gas line antifreeze at least twice a week during extremely cold weather. Ice and snow-packed ABS exciter rings ABS brakes rely upon signals that each wheel sends to the control module. The module analyzes these signals and sends out commands to the wheels that it “sees” locking up to control braking on slippery roadways. When ice and snow gets packed tightly in the signal generators (exciter rings), the system “thinks” the wheels are locking up, so every time you hit the brake, ABS activates. The best way to stop this from happening when winter sets in is to have your vehicle washed weekly at a carwash that also cleans the underside of the vehicle. This will slow the ice and snow buildup in the exciters.

Electronic sensors
Ice and snow buildup can knock off electronic sensors when the weather gets bad. Oftentimes, you will find an ABS, fuel or lighting connector dislodged. Simply have your shop look the vehicle over and reconnect/repair the connectors.

Steering and Suspension

Snow-covered roads conceal dangerous road imperfections. Driving through them can result in steering and suspension damage. Deep potholes, speed bumps, curbs, large rocks or icepacks can do massive damage to the underside of your vehicle, especially if it’s a car that’s low to the ground. Ball joints, control arms and steering linkages have movable joints that are either a pivot or ball-and-socket design. Hard and shocking impacts can actually cause joint separation. So, slow down and navigate the snow-covered roads with caution, or face the consequences.

Engine Cooling System

Your engine comes from the factory with a pre-mixed antifreeze and water solution. This solution protects the cooling system from freezing when it gets cold outside. Antifreeze can lose its protective properties either over time, or when the cooling system leaks and is refilled with water. If your engine freezes, the water inside it expands and can do catastrophic damage. Each cylinder has lining it a set of “water jackets” that coolant runs through to cool the engine. If the coolant in the water jackets freezes and expands, the engine block can crack, destroying the engine. Flush and refill the cooling system with fresh coolant every two years or 24,000 miles to protect it.

Transmission and Drivetrain

Rocking your car out of deep snow
On snowy days it’s easy to get stuck in a snowdrift, especially if you don’t have adequate winter tires. The abuse from winter snowstorms can destroy drivetrains: broken drive shafts, CV and universal joints, cooked transmissions, differential ring and pinion gears sheared off, and transfer cases internally damaged. Why? Because many drivers refuse to dig out or call a tow truck when they get stuck. Many people get frustrated and start gunning the engine, shifting between forward and reverse, while keeping the gas pedal floored. They think they can “rock” the vehicle to get enough momentum to free themselves. It’s like setting off a grenade in the drivetrain every time you reverse direction. Internal parts are made of steel that goes through a special heating process during manufacturing. This hardens the steel so that it resists steady wear over long periods. There is one drawback to hardened steel – it is brittle and cannot sustain hard and sudden shock. Impact of this sort causes stress cracks, shearing and breaking of parts. Call a tow truck when you get stuck in the snow – it’s cheaper in the long run.

Transmission and differential damage from snowplowing
Bottom line, passenger rated vehicles are not made to plow snow. Transmissions, differentials, axles and CV/Universal joints break under this abuse. Only heavy-duty vehicles are built to withstand the rigors of snowplowing. Recently, I heard of a man who installed a plow on his new light duty pickup. While plowing, he hit an ice-packed snow bank, and not only did he damage the transmission, but also the air bags blew! He was saddled with the repair bill on his brand new truck with no warranty coverage. Why? Because the vehicle was not rated to plow snow.

Starting and Charging Systems

When it’s cold, a car battery that is in marginal condition will fail. It is the combination of the cold, increased electrical load from running heaters on high, wipers going, lights, starter draw and a weak charge that breaks the back of a marginal battery, not to mention a loose or worn serpentine belt causing the alternator to slip and not properly recharge the battery. The best thing you can do is, just prior to winter setting in, have a starting and charging system check, along with a battery load test. Tend to anything that’s marginal and you’ll be good-to-go.

Body and Wipers

Doors and glass
After parking a warmed vehicle, ice and snow alight on the door glass. When precipitation hits the glass, it melts and runs down to the base. There’s a squeegee gasket made of rubber designed to stop water from going down inside the door. If this gasket is worn or maladjusted, water gets inside the door and soaks the door linkage, lock mechanisms, and window regulator, and this freezes the lock and window mechanisms. Attempting to force a frozen lock or door handle can lead to a broken linkage or latch assembly. You may hear a pop and then the latch will feel sloppy. Then, the door has to come apart and the lock and/or latch must be repaired or replaced.

Frozen door frames
Ever go to open the car door and the latch works, but you just can’t get the door open? Chances are, the door frame gasket is frozen to the body. This gasket is designed to keep water from coming into the car. When it’s not sealed, water enters forming ice between the door gasket and the door opening. If the gasket is not torn, go to a shop and have the door striker adjusted to pull the door more tightly into the door frame, thus sealing out water. Once this is done, lubricate the gasket with silicone lubricant. This will keep the gasket soft and pliable and, most importantly, form a moisture barrier inhibiting ice buildup.

Frozen windshield wipers
Snow and ice settle at the base of the windshield, binding the wipers. Some people think they can clear the windshield of snow and ice by turning on the wipers – not true. The wiper system is designed to clear the weather elements from your windshield as you are driving, not the glacier binding the wipers. Here are some consequences of overtaxing the wiper system:

  • Burnt up wiper motor
  • Stripped wiper arms
  • Damaged wiper linkage
  • Overheating the wiring harness causing a short or fire

Clear the wipers of all ice and snow before activating the system. Remember, they are called windshield wipers, not windshield plows!

‘Til next time…Keep Rollin’

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