by Kelly Taylor
We help break down the best practices for storing your vehicle during the cold months so she'll be ready to go come Spring
Mechanical devices such as automobiles aren’t made to be stored. Engineers don’t spend countless hours dreaming up ways to improve reliability of vehicles only to have you park them for six months. To stay fresh, seals need frequent lubrication, often from oil splashing around the engine. To prevent corrosion, coolant and oil should be flowing through engines and related components on a regular basis. Tires develop flat spots when stored for six months, but suspension components can also develop issues if you try to elevate the wheels and take weight off the springs and shocks.
...Keep the checklist at the end of this feature handy.
Transmission fluid can’t protect transmission components by sitting in the bottom of the transmission's oil pan all winter. It is for all these reasons storing a car is never as easy as it seems. That said, there are some cars you just absolutely don’t want slopping around in the slush, the snow and the salt. Particularly if it’s from a vintage when rust wasn’t the enemy but, rather, a profit centre in a scheme of planned obsolescence.
Follow this checklist to store your car for winter like a pro:
1. So fresh, and so clean
Get it absolutely as clean as you can get it. Give it a wash like you’ve never washed it before: Get on your knees and jet away crud underneath. Clean the wheel wells. Clean all the nooks and crannies you can. Find a stall at the wand wash you like, because you’re going to be there a while. Dirt that’s not on your car can’t hold moisture against your car and lead to rust. Then give it a right proper waxing, with lots of arm-tiring, cliché-inspiring "wax on, wax off” moments. Make Miyagi-san proud. Wax any chrome pieces. Don’t use chrome polish, which has abrasive qualities.
2. Pass on the grass
Few things can turn a car from road-ready to crusher-ready faster than parking on grass. Park your car on a solid surface such as a garage floor or asphalt driveway. As level as possible, too. This will help reduce moisture retention around suspension components, leading to rust, and it will also help highlight any fluid leaks. Miss the wrong leak and you could lunch your motor the first time you try to start it.
3. Warm isn’t necessarily better
Inside is the only way to go, but a warm place to park your car will only make it easier to start in spring. Cold has its advantages, too, namely, that water in solid form (ice) doesn’t cause rust at the same rate as liquid water. When spring comes and you start driving it again, you’ll displace water that will only have been there in liquid form since the thaw rather than all winter long.
Besides, a car only needs a day or two of warm weather to be just as easy to start. If you have garage that you heat for other purposes, fine, but I wouldn’t use energy just to keep a car warm.
4. No Cover
I’m not a big fan of car covers. Even the good ones can trap moisture and dirt right against your paint. Give your car a good pre-winter waxing instead.
But if you're in the market for a car cover either way, check out our review of this vehicle cover.
5. Charged up
There are two ways to safeguard your battery during winter: Take it out of the car and store it inside or leave it in the car with a trickle charger. If you take it inside, make sure to elevate it off a concrete floor either by not leaving it on a concrete floor or by putting some wood underneath it. I prefer the in-car storage option. A fully charged battery won’t freeze, and it will make the next tip easier.
Here's a portable charger we reviewed - one that'll fit in your glove box.
6. Start me up
Seals that aren’t getting a steady diet of oil will dry out and crack. Cylinder walls can develop some corrosion without the usual film of oil and coolant components similarly are use-them-or-lose-them propositions. So start your car regularly. I’d say at least once a week. Obviously, open the garage door or vent the exhaust outside.
And if you use a device to block the exhaust pipe and prevent critter intrusion, obviously take it out before you start the car. Let it run 20 minutes to get properly warmed up.
7. Plenty of fluids
It doesn’t just apply to the common cold. Give your car an end-of season oil and filter job, and run the motor for a bit afterwards to get the new oil distributed throughout. Brake fluids can also be problematic. Moisture intrusion into glycol-based brake fluids is inevitable, which can lead to corrosion.
Get your mechanic to check it before you put your car away. Fill the fuel tank and use a stabilizer or (for diesels) anti-gel fluid. Your transmission fluid, whether standard or automatic, should be checked at the same time as the oil change.
Overall, there are essentially 6 vehicle fluids to know about, whether you're checking them yourself or to keep in mind when chatting with your mechanic. Alex Leanse at Popular Mechanics outlines them all here.
8. Don't engage the brake
Don’t engage your parking brake. Chock the wheels instead. Leaving your brakes engaged, even the parking brake, can cause the pads to corrode to the drums or discs over time.
9. If you really cared, you'd swap the tires
Lifting a car off the wheels and letting the suspension components hang unnaturally in mid-air is a bad idea. But so are flat spots on good tires. Here’s the trick: get yourself a set of storage tires. Never heard of storage tires? That’s because they don’t really exist.
My idea is to put on a set of the least-expensive used tires that fit and let them take all the flat spots you need them to. In spring, go back to your good tires and you’re set. Mount them on their own rims (used, of course) and you can change them yourself.
10. Mouseproof the house
Your storage area should be clean and uncluttered. If you can see the wall-to-floor interface all around your garage, you’re golden. Clutter attracts mice and mice can, and will, find a way into your car. Check your walls and foundation for cracks and seal any you find. Leave out poisoned bait.
If you have pets, there are containers that will allow mice but not larger animals to get at the bait. Check with a local pest-control company for the best strategy for your situation. Mice can turn your prized ride into scrap metal in no time.
All things being equal, storing a car is never as good as driving it. But if you have a car you absolutely don’t want to drive in winter, be sure to take the right steps when storing it. And if you are driving in the cold months, make sure you've got the right winter tires (here's a set we reviewed by BFGoodrich).
Keep this checklist handy: