from Goss’ Garage by Pat Goss

Once upon a time a particularly wise person observed that fall follows summer and precedes winter. Probably will again this year which makes a pre-winter checkup before the cold hits is an excellent idea. Winter is really stressful on cars so to maintain reliability and minimize damage your car must be properly winterized. Winterizing early prevents being caught off-guard by a sudden cold snap; it avoids last minute service confusion and is usually cheaper. Waiting until the first hard freeze prediction is a terrible time to winterize … long waits … mistakes … high prices plus you may wind up with whatever-they-have-left products?

Our elders called it anti-freeze we call it coolant, either way the first step in winterization is hydrometer-testing this vital fluid. Hydrometers measure specific gravity and are based on the Archimedes principal so they’re centuries old. Hydrometers look a bit like a turkey baster with floating balls or discs inside a clear chamber. They’re a quick, simple way to tell how low the temperature can drop before your engine becomes frozen, cracked scrap metal. But if this is the only test performed you better find someone just a tad smarter.

Today’s coolants are radically different from your uncle Muffin-Top’s old anti-freeze and so are the proper tests. In addition to checking freeze protection it’s important to check coolant pH which determines how acidic and corrosive your coolant has become. Modern coolants don’t age gracefully and eventually become extremely acidic. You don’t have to be a chemist to visualize what acid does to metal. Lower pH equals more acidic coolant; more acidic coolant equals more cooling system damage.

Don’t gamble with these numbers; you have a better chance of winning a million at Blackjack than not having damage when your coolant goes south. When pH drops out of spec it quickly begins dissolving expensive cooling system parts. Head gaskets, water pumps, radiators and even engine castings can all die expensive, acidy deaths. A pH test strip shows if yours has fallen from grace. Here’s a recipe that’ll get you a hug from your mechanic: Take a pinch of too-low pH fold in a dash of time, add a teaspoon of stray electricity, bring to a slow boil and out pops a monster repair bill.

Luckily, following some simple rules can help avoid problems. If your car came from the factory with a vehicle-specific coolant, don’t use universal, one-size-fits-all products. There are multiple vehicle-specific coolant formulas each engineered to match unique vehicle operating conditions. So a tiny bit of common sense says it’s highly doubtful that a single universal formula could be best for all cars.

Reign in your optimism when reading your owners manual which may say something like: The coolant in your vehicle is engineered to last up to 5 years or 150,000 miles. Read it optimistically and it’ll max-out even a healthy credit card! Sadly, most drivers choose to read it as: The coolant in your new vehicle absolutely will last 5 years or 150,000 miles. Based on that foolish interpretation you ignore your coolant until one fateful day your cooling system is a rusty, nasty, eaten-up catastrophe.

Save money, enjoy better reliability, make cooling system maintenance a year round routine not just a fall or winter check. Check coolant pH in the fall and also in the spring, flush and install new vehicle-specific coolant if the pH is low, it’s time or miles have expired or the coolant has changed color. If your car has a traditional radiator cap remove it and check the coolant level in the radiator monthly; do not rely on the level in the plastic bottle, it can be full and the radiator low. Replace your radiator cap every two years and always use the proper coolant for your car. Prevention is cheaper than repairing and saving money is a lot easier than earning more money.