Of the Baker City Herald

Dusty Christensen will tell you what your car can't:

It's freezing.

Christensen, a Baker City mechanic, offers a single word of advice for people who fear frigid weather will transform their cars into objects that look like ice sculptures and are about as useful for taking the kids to school or hauling home the groceries.


Christensen chuckles immediately after he says the word.

He understands that sometimes walking is not an option.

A 10-mile commute, for instance, is no mere stroll when the temperature's 10 below.

And who wants to endure a blizzard when you can't find your wool mittens?

But Christensen, who owns Precision Import Auto Repair in Baker City, said drivers can possibly prolong their vehicles' lives by sparing them certain trips during arctic conditions.

And although it seems contradictory, the toughest trips for your car are the sprints, not the marathons.

andquot;Your car doesn't mind sitting around in the cold,andquot; Christensen said. andquot;But it really hates being asked to get itself going in the cold.andquot;

Cold starting car engines

And Baker City's recent weather certainly qualifies as cold.

The temperature at the Baker City Municipal Airport dipped below zero on eight of the first 12 days in December. And the National Weather Service predicts similarly nippy nighttime temperatures for the next few days at least.

Here's what's happening inside your car's engine:

If you park your car outside on one of these sub-zero nights, at the instant you twist the key in the morning the oil inside the engine resembles molasses.

This thick oil moves so slowly that for the first few minutes it won't squeeze into all the motor's nooks and crannies, where it's supposed to prevent parts from grinding each other into minuscule, but eventually very expensive, metal shavings.

If your morning drive lasts just five minutes or so, the oil never reaches that hot, soupy consistency at which it lubricates best.

andquot;Most wear and tear on an engine happens during the first five minutes of operation,andquot; Christensen said. andquot;Once a car is warm there's very little wear.andquot;

You can't prevent that cold-start damage, he said, but if walking isn't feasible you can at least ease the engine's burden by letting your car idle for three to five minutes before you drive away.

At idle the engine parts don't move as fast as they do when you're driving, so there's less of that metal-on-metal contact.

Allowing a car to warm up a bit before you drive is wise for another reason, Christensen said one that could lengthen your own lifespan as well as your engine's.

andquot;Let the engine warm up so your defroster can clear the windows,andquot; he said. andquot;If your engine is cold the heater won't blow warm air and then you're out driving on icy roads without being able to see. It's a safety issue.andquot;

Christensen said a pre-drive warm-up isn't necessary until temperatures plunge well below freezing, although allowing an engine to idle for a minute or two at any temperature won't hurt anything except your gas mileage and, potentially, your schedule.

Batteries: Less Power When You Need More

The preceding paragraphs assume that you've actually started your car.

But as Christensen pointed out, during cold snaps cars can be as hard to awaken as a couple of teen-agers who stayed up til 3 a.m. swapping instant messages.

Car batteries, in particular, are prone to mechanical narcolepsy when temperatures turn polar.

A battery loses about 60 percent of its juice when the temperature tumbles from 80 to 0.

Yet that same battery needs to produce about twice as much power to crank a car's engine at 0 degrees as it does at 80 degrees a factor due, in part, to that aforementioned sludgy oil.

This dilemma batteries producing less power precisely when they need to produce more probably leaves more rigs stranded in driveways than any other problem, Christensen said.

He recommends drivers test their batteries once a year.

The Antithesis of Anti-Freeze

Water, that is.

You want some water in your car's radiator, but unless you relish replacing the radiator and possibly the entire engine that water should be mixed with anti-freeze.

Pure water freezes at 32 degrees, and most years in Baker City the temperature falls below 32 almost every day between mid-November and late March.

When water freezes it expands, of course, a feat neither your radiator nor your engine is designed to duplicate.

To foil frost, fill your radiator with a cocktail containing about equal parts water and antifreeze. That mixture will remain liquid down to about 34 below zero. And it's been that cold in Baker City just twice in the past 50 years or so.

If 34 below doesn't seem a sufficient cushion, you can boost the antifreeze percentage up to a maximum of about 60 percent, which will protect your radiator and engine to about 60 below.

Don't overdo the antifreeze, though surpass that 60-percent figure and your car might be more susceptible, not less, to freezing. Excessive amounts of antifreeze also can lead to the opposite problem during summer: overheating.

Christensen said he rarely has to replace or repair a frozen radiator or engine.

andquot;Most people in Baker County are very savvy about antifreeze protection,andquot; he said.

But Christensen said he did deal with an ice-clogged radiator just a week or so ago.

That car's owner made a common mistake, Christensen said.

The radiator leaked this summer and the customer refilled it several times with plain water.

The customer forgot, however, that all those water transfusions had dangerously diluted the antifreeze mixture in the radiator.

A radiator that contains 30 percent antifreeze, for example, could freeze at between 5 and 10 degrees.

You can ask a mechanic to check the antifreeze mixture in your radiator, or do it yourself with a simple device, available at auto part stores, that sucks an ounce or two of fluid and tells you how much cold your radiator and engine can tolerate.

Where You Don't Want Any Water

In your gasoline.

Water and oil don't mix, as you know, and gasoline, after all, is nothing more than heavily tinkered with oil.

When water contaminates a car's fuel filter, and then the temperature drops, the filter can sprout an ice cube that prevents gas from getting to the engine, said Jim White, a Baker City mechanic who owns The Car Shoppe.

White recommends drivers replace their fuel filters at least once a year. However, vehicles that have filters inside the gas tank, including Jeeps and most other Chrysler problems, aren't so susceptible because their filters are larger, he said.

You can also reduce the risk of fouling your filter with water by keeping your gas tank topped off, White said.

The fuller the tank the less room there is for the air which, through condensation in chilly weather, contributes the water to this engine-stalling equation.

Another bit of preventative medicine: Add a bottle of moisture remover to your tank, at a cost of about a buck, every couple weeks.

Another fuel problem affects diesel drivers only.

Diesel fuel can gel in sub-freezing weather, White said. And gelled diesel in your tank is about as useful as, say, grape jelly.

White said gas stations in cold climates, including Baker County, are supposed to add an anti-gelling chemical to diesel during winter.

But stations in warmer places, including Portland, do not, White said, so drivers who fill up there before returning to Eastern Oregon ought to add some anti-gel to their tank.

Give Your Brakes a Break

Here's a habit you'll want to break during winter: Yanking the parking-brake handle (or stomping on the parking-brake pedal) when you come to a stop in your driveway.

The problem, White said, is that the cable that controls the parking brake can freeze in frigid weather.

If the cable freezes your car might not move, which is bad, but possibly not as bad as what could happen if your car will move.

If your parking brake cable is only partially frozen, you might be able to drive. The trouble with that, Christensen said, is your brakes might be partially activated, as though you had your foot pressed gently, but constantly, against the brake pedal. This will rapidly ruin your brakes.

To cure a frozen cable either wait for warmer weather or, if possible, move your car into a heated garage. White said he has done just that for several customers during the current cold spell.

Watch Your Wipers

Before you flick the windshield wiper switch, make sure the wiper blades haven't suctioned themselves, leech-like, to the ice-glazed glass, Christensen said.

Turning on the switch without dislodging frozen wipers can, at best, wreck the blades, and at worst damage the linkage between the motor and the blades, or burn out the motor itself, he said.

Heater Acts Like Air-Conditioner

If the air that blows from your dashboard vents stays cool, even after you've been driving for half an hour, your engine's thermostat might be malfunctioning, Christensen said.

A telltale sign of trouble is the temperature gauge. If the needle stays stuck near the andquot;Coldandquot; mark and fails to move into the andquot;Normalandquot; range, you should have the thermostat checked. It's a valve that allows the antifreeze/water mixture to flow between the engine and the radiator.

Christensen said he understands that some drivers especially those who have been stranded with an overheated engine might think a cool-running engine is a happy engine.

Not so, he said.

Cold-running engines waste gas, for one thing, and they might not produce enough heat to keep windows defrosted, Christensen said.

In most cars built within the past 10 years, the andquot;Check Engine Lightandquot; will glow if the engine is running too cool, he said.