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How to Start a Cold Car Engine

Side view of a white SUV parked on muddy, snowy grass

If you live in a place where temperatures routinely plunge to below freezing, you’ve probably noticed that your car is harder to start in the winter. Many factors contribute to this common problem, but no matter the reason, there are a few tips and tricks that can help you get out of your driveway this winter. Read on to learn how to start a cold car engine.

Cold HonkyHow to Start a Cold Engine

While there are many issues that could cause an engine to struggle in the cold, batteries are usually high on the list. Batteries actually take the most damage when they get too hot, but they tend to act out more in the cold because the internal chemical reactions that provide power are slower in colder temperatures.

Engines need to “turn over” to run efficiently, which requires mechanical components covered in oil to move. Since cold thickens oil, it makes those movements feel like a slog through the mud.

Additionally, winter can cause fuel issues that affect how the engine functions. The engine’s demand for fuel at startup is higher when it’s cold, and it’s possible for small amounts of water to get into the system and freeze the fuel lines. Diesel fuel gels when it’s very cold and doesn’t flow easily. Cold carburetors have their own set of problems in the winter, but you’re not likely to deal with one these days.


Hard (Starting) Times

If your engine is giving you trouble, here are a few things you can try:

  1. Start by eliminating systems that the battery has to power. Turn off all lights, the radio, etc. to lighten the load.
  2. Then, try cranking the ignition for up to 10 seconds. Don’t crank it for longer than that or you run the risk of burning up your starter.
  3. If that’s still a no-go, wait a few minutes and try again.
  4. Unfortunately, if it still doesn’t work, you’ll likely have to jump-start the battery.
  5. And if that doesn’t work, or you’re finding yourself jump-starting your battery often, it’s probably time to replace it.

One more tip: Avoid the urge to use starter fluid, as it isn’t worth the potential damage it could cause the engine.

Don’t Catch Cold

You can help prevent hard starts this winter in a few ways. First, make sure you’re using the right engine oil for your vehicle and region. Always follow manufacturer specifications, but there’s usually a little wiggle room for colder climates. Next, keep your engine warm overnight by parking in a driveway or under a tarmac or, in extreme conditions, using an engine block or battery heater. Ensure your battery terminal connections are clean and tight, and include a battery health checkup on your pre-winter checklist. Lastly, try not to let your fuel tank fall below a quarter full. Doing so puts extra stress on an already-strained starting system.

Hard starting in the winter is a common complaint, but you don’t have to be its victim. Do what you can on the prevention side, and you’ll soon be on your way, even on the most frigid of mornings.

Check out all the engine heating products available on NAPA Online or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on how to start a cold car engine, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.

Photos courtesy of Blair Lampe.


Blair Lampe View All

Blair Lampe is a New York-based professional mechanic, blogger, theater technician, and speechwriter.  In her downtime she enjoys backpacking wherever her boots will carry her, rock climbing, experimental theatre, a crisp rosé , and showering love on her 2001 Sierra truck.

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