Niagara Gazette

January 30, 2014

TOM'S CORNER: Helping your vehicle survive the frozen tundra

By Tom Torbjornsen
Niagara Gazette

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

• Undercarriage

• Steering/suspension

• Engine cooling system

• Transmission/drivetrain

• Starting/charging systems

• Body/wipers


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

Frozen gas lines — Ice forms inside the 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 the extremely cold weather.

Ice & Snow packed ABS Exciter Rings — ABS relies upon a signal that is sent from each wheel to the control module. The module analyzes these signals and doles out commands to the wheels that it “sees” locking up to control braking. When ice & show gets packed tightly in the signal generators (exciter rings) the system “thinks” the wheels are locked up, hence 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 at a carwash that also cleans the underside of the vehicle weekly. This will slow the ice & snow buildup in the exciters.

Electronic sensors — Electronic sensors get knocked off from ice and snow buildup when the weather gets bad. Oftentimes you will find an ABS, fuel or lighting connector dislodged. Simply have your shop check the vehicle over and reconnect/repair connectors.


Snow covered roads conceal dangerous road imperfections. Driving through them can result in steering and suspension carnage. 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 & navigate the snow-covered roads with caution, or pay the consequences.


Your engine comes from the factory with a pre-mixed antifreeze/water solution. This solution protects the cooling system from freezing when it gets cold outside. Antifreeze can lose its protection properties either over time or when the cooling system leaks and is refilled with water. If your engine freezes up, the water inside it expands and can do catastrophic damage. Each cylinder has 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 2 years or 24,000 miles to protect it. 


Rocking the 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. Numerous drivetrains are destroyed from abuse during a snowstorm. Broken drive shafts, CV & universal joints, cooked transmissions, differential ring and pinion gears sheared off, transfer cases internally damaged. Why? Because the drivers refuse to dig out or call a tow truck when they get stuck. Many people get frustrated and start gunning the engine, shifting 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 — passenger rated vehicles are not made to plow snow, period. 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, not only did he damage the drivetrain, the air bags blew! He was saddled with the repair bill on his brand new truck with no warranty! Why? Because the vehicle was not rated to plow snow.


When its 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 battery 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 the starting/charging system check along with a battery load test. Tend to anything that’s marginal and you’ll be good-to-go.


Doors and glass — After parking a warmed vehicle, ice and snow light on the door glass. When the 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, this freezes the lock and window mechanisms. The next time you try to enter your vehicle the locks are frozen, so you force the lock or door handle to get inside the vehicle. Suddenly something pops and the latch feels sloppy. You have just broken a linkage or latch assembly. The door has to come apart and the lock and/or latch 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 doorframe 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 doorframe, 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

• Stripping wiper arms

• Damaging wiper linkage

• Overheating the wiring harness causing an electrical 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’

“America’s Car Show” with Tom Torbjornsen airs 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 9 a.m. Thursday and 11 a.m. Saturday on WBBZ-TV.

"America's Car Show" with Tom Torbjornsen airs 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 9 a.m. Thursday and 11 a.m. Saturday on WBBZ-TV.