Winter breakdowns

Car problems caused by extreme cold

Battery faults are far and away the most common cause of breakdowns at this time of year

Battery faults are far and away the most common cause of breakdowns at this time of year

The winters of 2009/10 and 2010/11 were among the worst in living memory with widespread snow and ice for weeks on end and temperatures regularly dropping well below -10C.

Records tumbled as the AA had its busiest day ever on Monday 4 January 2010 and then again, less than 12 months later on Monday 20 December 2010 when AA patrols handled more than 28,000 breakdowns.

Battery faults are far and away the most common cause of breakdowns at this time of year but such extreme weather throws up some unusual types of breakdown as well.

Frozen screen washers

Not really a breakdown, unless you keep running the pump until it burns out and blows a fuse affecting something like the immobiliser system! Use a screenwash additive all year round - undiluted in winter.

Frozen wipers

Trying to operate windscreen wipers stuck solid to the glass can lead to blown fuses affecting other more vital systems. If low temperatures are forecast make sure that automatic windscreen wipers are turned off – so they don't try to operate when you turn the ignition on. Make sure the wipers aren't stuck to the glass, before setting off too.

Frozen engines

Due to lack of anti-freeze. Make sure you get it checked regularly and top-up using a mix of the correct type of anti-freeze.

Stripped teeth on cambelt causing engine damage

Try to start a car with a frozen waterpump and you could strip the teeth off the timing belt leading to expensive internal engine damage.

Frozen door locks and door seals

A squirt of a water-dispersant like WD40 in the locks will help as will a light smear of Vaseline or silicone polish on the door seals. If snow falls clear it from the car while still soft rather than leaving it for days on end – the car will turn into a block of ice.

Frozen ignition locks

It's hard to keep the inside of the car completely dry when it's cold and wet outside but it'll help avoid this rare but annoying problem – don't leave wet clothes or boots in the car overnight.

Windows frozen to their frame

Windows can become detached from the mechanism inside the door if you try to power them down while the windows frozen in the frame. Best left until the car's warmed up and the ice melted.

Diesel fuel waxing

In extreme cold, wax crystals form in diesel fuel and can block fuel lines and filters. All diesel sold in the UK between 16 November and 15 March has to meet the 'Winter diesel standard' which ensures protection against waxing down to -15C. There's not much you can do to avoid it if the temperature goes really low – apart from using a garage overnight if you have one and trying to keep the car warm. Electric fuel filter heaters are available.

Electronic parking brake not releasing

If the driven wheels are on an icy road and can't grip it's possible that an automatic parking brake won't release.

Frozen rear drum brakes and handbrake cables

It's good to clean your car regularly through the winter to remove corrosive road salt but not if you use a hose or pressure washer and blast water inside brake cables or drums and the temperature drops. A drive after cleaning can help but it's best to take care when hosing wheel arches or wheels.

Frozen alternators

Fortunately very rare, but poor design of under-bonnet drains can lead to water from the windscreen getting into the alternator and freezing the rotor. A screaming noise from the 'fanbelt' accompanied by smoke, a burning smell and a battery warning light on the dash will tell you there's something wrong.

(3 November 2011)