Those of us who live in cold climates know “winterizing” your vehicle is a real thing. Of course the checklist varies depending on the type and model of vehicle, but assuming that vehicle has an engine, oil should factor into the equation. A winter oil change isn’t that different from doing the same thing in the summer, but there are a few extra factors to consider, decisions to weigh and some things to avoid altogether.
It should go without saying, no matter the season: don’t skimp on quality and don’t neglect to get regular oil changes. Generally, it’s a good idea to change your oil before the cold sets in, especially if you’re doing it yourself (no one wants to drop oil in freezing weather). However, if you plan to store your car over the winter months, it’s even more important to change your oil and filters before letting it sit. Water and acid are just two byproducts of combustion, and old oil contains these contaminants, which can damage the inside of the engine prematurely.
Before storing, change both oil and filter, allow the engine to run about five minutes to circulate oil through the system, and then put your toy away for the winter. Better to avoid periodically idling it through the cold months and just let it be.
Oil is rated by viscosity, but temperature affects it’s thickness. In cold weather, it gets very dense and might have a hard time at start-up circulating through the system for proper lubrication. However, it’s important the oil you put in isn’t thin enough to run past all the components without properly adhering. In the old days, it was necessary to change the weight/viscosity of oil used from summer to winter, and if you have an older car you might still consider it, but it’s largely unnecessary now.
The advent of multi-viscosity oil and newer engines mean you can and should stick to the oil recommended in your owner’s manual. Also remember, oil companies put a lot of work and research into formulating the best products they can, and their mixtures already contain additives to address changes in temperature. Most aftermarket oil additives are ineffective, or worse, might actually be incompatible with your oil and do some damage. Resist the temptation to play mad scientist and leave well enough alone.
Cold Weather Tips
If you do have to change your oil in the cold, consider the following to make your life a little easier — run the engine for five minutes or so to warm the oil, that way it thins out and drains faster. Also, a very specific detail, you might want to store the wrench you use to loosen the drain plug in a warmer area. Metal attracts and holds onto cold and when it’s in your hand, even a gloved one, it sucks the heat right out and can be very chilly to wield. Make sure it’s a properly sized box wrench, otherwise you risk stripping the head.
One last word on oil ratings. If you live in a very cold climate and really feel the need to switch oil viscosity during the winter, it’s not going to kill your engine. Just remember the most important piece of information on which oil to use is in your owner’s manual. When in doubt, always refer to your owner’s manual, it will tell you exactly which oil can be used on your specific vehicle.
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Matt Keegan has maintained his love for cars ever since his father taught him kicking tires can be one way to uncover a problem with a vehicle’s suspension system. He since moved on to learn a few things about coefficient of drag, G-forces, toe-heel shifting, and how to work the crazy infotainment system in some random weekly driver. Matt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association and is a contributor to various print and online media sources.