COLD Weather vehicle prep:

When the rest of the world looks at Canada, or “the Great White North”, there is a perception that we all live in Igloos, and deal with cold, ice and snow much of the year. While this myth is largely just that, most misconceptions are borne out of a kernel of truth. And this winter in particular, I’m thinking Al Gore and that whiny German teenager have it all wrong.

If this is “global warming”? I want a refund.

Alberta tends to yoyo in terms of winter weather, but the last week or so is a stark reminder of why cold weather vehicle prep is so important. All hyperbole aside, we were the coldest place on the planet at times over the last seven days. I have a friend currently working in Antarctica, and he’s likely going to razz ME about the weather. The Calgary Zoo cancelled the weekly “Penguin Walk” because the temperatures were too low. FOR THE FREAKING PENGUINS!


Yes. Okay, get over it. A Chinook is on the horizon, and we should be in the plusses again (Celsius) by Monday. But what about our rigs? How do they cope with this weather? Like most things done well, it’s all about planning.


In the coldest parts of the country, like here on the prairies, a “block heater” is a must. This dealer installed accessory is a miniature element that replaces one of the frost plugs in your engine block, and heats the water jacket by direct immersion. They usually run at 400 watts, and require AC power to plug in. Subsequently, many hotels, places of employment, and apartment building parking lots have outlets available, one per stall, to enable “plugging in” your car.

There are other methods of plug-in pre-heat when an immersion frost plug heater is not an option. Some of these are engine pad heaters, battery warmers, and lower rad hose heaters. While not as effective as heating the coolant directly in the block, any preheating of the vehicle via mains power is better than nothing. If no plug-ins are available, such as is the case with big rigs, fuel powered mini-heaters from companies such as Webasto and Espar do an even better job of heating the water jacket, and often the interior of the vehicle, by running a tiny diesel or gas heater, separate from the vehicle’s internal combustion engine. These are even more effective, but installation costs are ironically way hotter than the humble block heater.

My latest rig, a JDM Toyota diesel, didn’t come with any kind of preheat. Since the 1KZ-TE was not available in North America, I’ve been unable to source a block heater or information about which frost plug to use if I could find one. So the lowly lower rad hose heater is my go-to. Combined with dual batteries, it’s been adequate.

All righty. Your rig is plugged in. Good to go, right? Not so fast. There are other factors.

Forget Triple AAA. Count your CCA’s!

CCA refers to cold cranking amps. If you’ve ever looked at a chart of the cranking amps available at a given temperature, you’ll know that every step below room temperature takes a toll on your battery’s ability to provide the necessary juice to start that cold engine. When you’re deep into the minusses? You’re gonna need every one of those CCA’s to step up!

Here is a chart comparing battery efficiency to temperature.

Credit goes to THIS PAGE for the chart. I’d encourage you to follow the link, if you want more information about 12V batteries and how temperature affects them. Suffice to say, there were days last week where car batteries around here were sitting at less than 40% efficiency, and that’s assuming they were healthy, and in a good state of charge!

Even battery type has an effect on your vehicle’s ability to turn over. Lead acid batteries are unforgiving when it comes to deep discharges, insufficient electrolyte, or even vibration. Absorbed Glass Mat (AGM batteries), although more expensive than traditional types, are much more tolerant of abuse, and are possibly a better choice when the mercury goes “SOUTH”.

In our fleet, both of our gas trucks, and the diesel Land Cruiser all run AGM batteries. The record holder in the garage right now is a Yellow Top Optima, which was put into service in December of 2008, and is still performing AUX duties 12 years later.

Slower than Molasses in January

This idiom has truth to it, when it comes to a cold engine. EVERYTHING is thicker. If it has fluid, viscosity decreases as the temperature drops. With the exception of “electric power steering” on some new vehicles, almost everything relies on fluid, for either lubrication or hydraulic movement: differentials, transmissions, brakes, clutches… and of course engines. If you drive a diesel, cold weather is a stark reminder that even your fuel is an oil.

As for coolant? For now, let’s call it anti-freeze. A fresh 50/50 mix is still your best bet, along with the proper stat, but make sure it is in good shape. Heating is just as difficult for an engine to accomplish as cooling, if it isn’t in good working order. And I actually know of a few folks who have OVERHEATED in the winter because their rad froze, and created hotspots in their cooling system. Yes, there is definitely some cold irony there.

Synthetic oils, and lower numbered blends can help. I run a full synthetic engine oil all year, but in the winter, I lean toward the 5W or even 0W varieties, until things get back to sensible temperatures.

Remote start and simply warm it up first: IDLE thoughts?

What’s all this business of preheat, and expensive batteries? Just warm it up first! Then go and put on some more coffee…
I don’t need to tell you that Al and the Fräulein wouldn’t want you to idle for 20 minutes, but what about what your rig wants? Well, in this case, it is not a fan either. Vehicles make heat much quicker and more efficiently if they are under load. Some experts contend that extended idling shortens the life of your engine. I won’t dive into that debate, but it certainly burns fuel: 10 seconds of idling equates to a restart. Diesels in particular, can idle for a LONG time before the temperature needle thaws. A more effective approach in my experience is to start your vehicle, wait for a steady idle, confirm everything is working as it should, and then slowly and deliberately begin to drive. This might mean changing your route, to avoid sudden acceleration.

Just this Wednesday past, on a frigid morning of minus 37 degrees Celsius (not counting the wind chill), I started the J90 Land Cruiser diesel, put on my seatbelt, managed to find a very mushy reverse, backed out of my spot, and drove away. Yes, I deliberately chose a school zone route (MAX: 30km/h), held my revs a little longer in each gear, and took it extremely slowly, but within five minutes I was showing heat on the temp gauge. I think too many folks these days simply remote-start, and then idle for half an hour before finally going outside and driving off in a cloud of exhaust.


Last week was an extreme example, and is not the norm, even here in “the home of the brave”. My dash was creaky. My seats felt hard. My jacket crinkled like a paper bag. Even the soles of my boots felt wooden as I depressed the clutch, an exercise better left to the gym. Finding first gear was akin to “Pin the Tail on the (COLD) Donkey.” My tires were actually frozen slightly out of round until I had driven a few kilometers.

Ultimately? I’m not worried. I have fresh belts, including the timing belt. All my fluids are fresh and at the correct levels. My glowplugs get hot. I preheat my engine’s coolant by plugging in when I can. My tire pressures get checked regularly. I carry an emergency kit and a few other things in case I pass someone who needs them. This too shall pass, and soon I will be turning the A/C to COLD again, and complaining that it is too warm.

But until then? The weather will continue to test us, whether we like it or not.
Make sure YOU are ready!

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1 Comment

  1. Great article Phil. It’s like you’re our man on the ground weather reporter from the arctic. Quick question, are you far enough north to have radically short and long daylight hours depending on the season?

    On a warmer note, here in Virginia it has been pegged in and around the 50’s (that’s Farenheit 50’s, not surface of the sun Celsius 50’s) for weeks, when the norm is at or below freezing. I am not complaining a wink. I’ve been able to get loads of normally too cold to bother type of tasks done outside on the cars. It’s been a boom season for projects!

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