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Cold weather car safety

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FARGO — You wake up, open the blinds and greet the morning sunshine. But within seconds you notice a bizarre but troublesome view. There on the street — paralleled parked — is a car with its hood up ... in flames.

While no one wishes to be in that situation, winter brings a whole new set of vehicle-related dangers.

"It's never recommended to try and jump-start a frozen battery," says Brian Rempfer, an automotive technology instructor at North Dakota State College of Science (NDSCS) in Wahpeton, N.D. "There can be a buildup of hydrogen gas that cannot escape from the battery. (The battery) has a vent that, in the summertime, is open to let it escape. In the winter, it can freeze because the battery has been run dead and then left out in the cold. If the electrolyte in the battery is low, the plates now are exposed to air and they can spark. And that's what can cause the battery to blow."

While you need not be paralyzed by these could-be scenarios, you must know what to look for before trying to jump-start a potentially-frozen battery. Some batteries are wrapped in insulation or put in such a place you can't immediately see them, but it's always good to check for signs of frost, expansion or cracking of the battery case. A rotten egg smell is also something to be aware of because it indicates hydrogen gas in the area.

When starting a vehicle, if it tries to turn over — but is just cranking slow — the battery shouldn't be frozen.

"It still could have a problem (if it cranks). You don't know — you can't see inside the battery," Rempfer says. "But your chances are a lot less of having a problem if it's still cranking."

Rather than causing a potential fiery explosion, if you believe your vehicle battery to be frozen, you can either request a tow or remove the battery from the vehicle to let it thaw out.

"Usually a frozen battery won't come back to life, but there are some tricks as technicians we can try. If it froze, it's a 95 percent chance you need a new battery," Rempfer says. "And then you need to find out why it froze. Does the charging system indicate a problem? Is there something that was left on, running the battery dead?"

Chris Higgins, lead master technician at Matt's Automotive Service Center in Fargo, says preventing this is a less expensive option.

"At least during the cold months, if you have the opportunity a couple or three times a week, let your vehicle thaw out, whether it's in a climate-controlled garage or even just a garage out of the elements," he says. "When it's not in the elements, that definitely goes a long way."

Manufacturers stand behind most batteries for four to five years, if maintained properly.

The following are other aspects to keep an eye on during wintertime.

Warm up your vehicle

While diesel-fueled vehicles can run for hours at a time, gas-fueled vehicles are not recommended to sit and run for long periods of time.

"As far as operation of the engine transmission, usually when it's cold outside, it just takes a few minutes and the fluids are warmed up and the vehicle can be driven safely with no problems," Rempfer says.

Rempfer says utilize the temperature gauge in the dashboard to determine when the vehicle's engine is warm enough to drive.

"If it's starting to come off the lowest mark, you should be good to go. Within a few minutes, it's going to be at operating temperature," he says.

Temperatures below 10 degrees should have a minimum run idle time of 5 minutes, Higgins says.

"In really cold temps — anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes at least is good to allow your fluids to get flowing a little bit," he says. "If it's 32 degrees and above — start it up, let it run for 30 seconds and you should be good to go."

Check tire pressure

Drivers should make a practice of checking tire pressure once a month year-round but even more frequently in winter, Rempfer says.

Why? Because tire pressure fluctuates when it's cold.

"For every 10 degrees below freezing, it can drop 1 to 2 PSI (pounds per square inch), depending on the tire," Higgins says. "You don't want to drive around under-inflated tires. For one, that compromises the life of the tire and, two, especially in the summers, it can actually overheat the tire and cause it to blow or burst."

For recommended tire pressure, vehicle owners can review the sticker placed on the inside of the driver's side door ham.

For newer vehicles where the dash monitor provides tire pressure information, even better. Rempfer says it's typically pretty accurate.

Ensure adequate fluids

Being aware of both oil levels and quality is imperative. While some people wait until their dashboard reminder comes on to get an oil change, Rempfer recommends monitoring the time between oil changes yourself.

"Basically the oil is broke down to where the additives aren't doing anything when you're at 0 percent (on your oil monitor)," he says. "I've always been an advocate that oil is cheap and engines are expensive, so I always recommend changing oil sooner than maybe what the oil light reminder tells you."

Between oil changes — in fact, every other time you fill up gas — you should be checking your oil levels, Higgins says. When checking oil, wait until your vehicle has been sitting overnight (not immediately after running) to check your oil level on the dipstick. Checking it right after running may mean an inaccurate read, showing low oil levels.

Coolant is another fluid to observe frequently.

"If your coolant is low, you're going to have poor heater performance," Higgins says. "It's not going to be able to protect your engine as well."

The grade of coolant also matters. Vehicle owners should make sure their coolant is rated for -30 degrees, ensuring it won't freeze, expand and damage the engine block or radiator in cold temps.

The same can be said for windshield washer fluid. Drivers may consider running winter-rated washer fluid year-round to ensure they don't get caught with it once temperatures drop.

"This time of year it's really important," Rempfer says. "I think you use wipers way more in the winter than you do in the summer."

Above all, just pay attention to your vehicle during the winter.

"Nobody knows their own vehicle better than themselves," Higgins says. "Every car has its own little tell tales — warning indicators, some have charging gauges, some have oil pressure gauges. Just keep an eye on your gauges and remember that they're there for a reason."

Winter car care

Here Rempfer and Higgins share other vehicle-related tips for safe driving during the remainder of winter.

• Scrape your windows: "Something I notice around here is that people are in a hurry — their vehicle is outside, they've started it and they scrape out a little hole in the frost," Rempfer says. "Then they're driving and looking through that little hole — that's how a good friend of mine's dad got killed. He was out on a walk and a lady didn't see him because she didn't scrape her windshield — ran him over." Taking time to clear your windows is imperative.

• Keep safe distances. During winter, it's especially important to allow safe distances between you and the car in front of you. "If you give yourself enough room, the brakes will get you stopped even if you don't have an (anti-lock braking system)," Rempfer says.

• Start your vehicle during the day. "A lot of people don't leave work during the day so their car is sitting outside for 9 or 10 hours," Higgins says. "If you can, just let your (remote start system) run through one cycle over lunch just so it has a chance to not get super frozen."

• Monitor battery life. Slow engine cranking, clicking noises, corrosion, dashboard warning lights or failing electrical components (including power windows and seats, windshield wipers or dim headlights, interior or dashboard lights) are all signs of a weak battery. Make sure to have your battery tested, especially if you make short trips frequently, which doesn't allow the battery to completely recharge.

Alexandra Floersch

Alexandra Floersch has worked for Forum Communications since February 2015. She is a content producer and photographer who enjoys writing about finance, fashion and home.

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