What to Do If Your Car Won’t Start In Cold Weather

Cold weather and cars aren’t necessarily sworn enemies, but they’re never going to be best friends. In the Cleveland area, where the temperatures start dipping in the fall and hit freezing by November, winter can be especially hard on vehicles.

On top of such things as snow, ice and slush, winter in Ohio brings below-freezing temperatures. For drivers, that sometimes means waking up to a car that won’t start, or takes a while to start, on a cold winter morning. Knowing what causes this problem and learning how to prepare your car for winter can help you avoid such an unwelcome surprise.

Why Your Car Won’t Start When It’s Cold

Cars that start when it's warm but don’t start when it's cold could have a number of different problems. Oftentimes drivers assume it’s a dead battery — and in many cases, they're right. However, that's not the only reason your car won't start when it's cold, so let's look at four common culprits that can keep your engine from turning over:

Possible Cause: Fuel

When your engine cranks normally but doesn’t turn over, the problem could be traced back to the fuel system. That’s because gasoline has to vaporize before it can burn, and freezing (or below) temperatures make that difficult. As the level of gas in your tank drops, there’s more room for condensation to form in the tank. When the condensation gets into the fuel lines and the temperature plummets, the water can freeze the fuel lines and prevent gasoline from reaching the engine.

Solution: Get the car to a warmer environment, such as a garage. (You may need to have it towed.) To lessen the chances of this happening, keep your gas tank above the half-full mark so there’s less room for condensation to form.

Possible Cause: Engine Oil

Freezing and sub-freezing temperatures can cause your engine oil to thicken, which keeps it from moving through the vehicle as it should. Your cold motor needs this lubricant to keep all the parts moving but if the oil is too thick, your starter motor can’t move it and your engine won’t start.

Solution: Make sure you’re using an oil weight that’s suitable for winter and also check to see if your oil levels are low. If you haven’t had an oil change in a while, try that, too, since oil gets thicker as it gets older.

Possible Cause: Spark Plugs

Everything has to work harder in winter, and if your spark plugs and wires are aging, they may not have enough power to generate the spark you need to fire up the engine.

Solution: Have your spark plugs checked out and replaced if necessary. You can read our topic on when to change spark plugs to learn about additional signs of spark plug failure.

Possible Cause: Battery

The colder the temperature, the harder it is for your battery to perform. When the culprit is a dead battery, your starter might run slowly or it might not have enough juice to turn at all.

Solution: If you suspect it’s a battery issue, shut off anything that’s draining power (stereo, chargers, heater, etc.) and turn the key/press the ignition button. If that doesn’t work, you’ll probably need a jumpstart. You can also remove the battery and take it inside to warm it up and see if that temporarily resolves the problem.

Preparing Your Car For Cold Weather

Since nobody looks forward to being stranded with a car that won’t start, it’s important to make sure your vehicle is ready for winter. Just as you winterize your home and get out the sweaters and snow boots, your car needs a little extra attention to make sure it’s ready for winter.

One of the best things you can do for your vehicle is to give it a warm place to park at night. Being able to maintain above-freezing temperatures will make it easier for your car to start (and, bonus, the interior will warm up faster, too!).

If your garage has heat, turn it on, but even an unheated garage is going to help mitigate some of the cold. If you don’t have a garage, an insulating cover for your hood or a battery blanket can both help protect your car from the cold.

Two other options are a plug-in block heater, which will keep your coolant warm overnight, and a trickle charger that will keep your battery charged.

Your Pre-Winter Car Checkup

If your car is already struggling to turn over as the temperatures drop, you need to get to your mechanic or repair shop as soon as possible to avoid waking up to a car that won’t start. Even if you aren’t seeing warning signs, taking your vehicle in for a pre-winter checkup is a good idea, since your mechanic can spot potential problems and also get your car ready for winter. Among the things to have checked are:

  • Battery. Make sure terminals are clean, the battery has plenty of life left in it and the electrical system is operating at its peak efficiency. If your battery strength is waning, this is a good time to replace it; it's much easier (and less expensive) to buy a new battery before it leaves you stranded.
  • Oil. As mentioned earlier, it’s important to have clean oil that’s the proper weight for winter. A new oil filter is a good idea as well.
  • Coolant. The proper ratio of coolant and water is essential to ensure that it won’t freeze in the winter.
  • Starter. A bad starter can draw too much power from the battery and that can keep your car from turning over. Make sure the entire starter system is operating properly.
  • Alternator. The alternator is responsible for keeping your battery charged, so if it’s defective, you’re not going to be able to start your car. Replace it if necessary and also have the drive belts connected to it inspected.

Properly preparing your car for winter in Ohio can prevent that unwelcome surprise of a dead car, and can save you the cost of a tow as well as the frustration that comes with it. There’s nothing you can do about the weather, but there are plenty of ways to make sure your vehicle is prepared to face it. Avoid costly and unnecessary repairs by staying on top of your car's service needs. Visit a local repair shop today and get your car ready for the upcoming months. 

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