Winter Breakdown Advice

Frozen engines not so cool warns AA

16 December 2009

Servicing cutbacks may come home to bite millions of motorists this winter

Servicing cutbacks may come home to bite millions of motorists this winter

The 4.3 million drivers1 who said they were likely to cut back on servicing during the recession may be in for a chilling shock this winter, warns the AA.

Over time, the antifreeze in engine coolant deteriorates, leaving it vulnerable to freezing – with no coolant circulating through the radiator, the engine can overheat resulting in potentially severe and expensive damage.

Last winter, the AA attended around 1,200 frozen cooling systems and engines with likely repair costs ranging from a few hundred to several thousand pounds.

As well as the risk of a frozen engine, old antifreeze also loses its ability to prevent corrosion in the cooling system, which can allow rust and sludge to form, increasing the risk of the radiator getting blocked.

Stewart Topp, AA breakdown patrol of the year Stewart Topp, AA patrol of the year, says: "If your car has been properly serviced and the coolant renewed every four to five years then it should be fine. However, if you have concerns about it or need the concentration increased for the winter, take your car into a garage – it's not really a DIY job, unless you know what you're doing, as using the wrong antifreeze can cause problems.

"Many garages test the coolant as part of a free or low price winter service check, which is worth getting for the peace of mind that your car is in tip-top health for the strain of winter."

Basic winter checks

As well as checking the coolant, the AA recommends these other basic winter car checks:


(140,000 AA call-outs last winter)

This is the most common cause of breakdowns, especially in winter when electrical loads are higher. Cars that do short journeys on cold mornings are most at risk, so either make a regular long journey with minimal use of the car's electrical items or arrange to trickle-charge the battery from time to time.2

If your car's been struggling to start, it may well be the battery, so get it checked and replaced, if necessary (particularly if it's more than five years old) to avoid the inconvenience of an unplanned failure.


(7,400 AA call-outs last winter)

Winter weather and traffic jams can cause unexpected delays, so it's sensible to keep at least a quarter of a tank of fuel in your car and fill up when it gets low rather than waiting till the warning light comes on.


(1,200 AA call-outs last winter)

Check and clean all lights regularly (at least weekly) not forgetting brake and number plate lights. The handbook will show you how to replace bulbs if required though some headlight bulbs might require a visit to the garage. Carry some spare bulbs suitable for your vehicle.


(1,600 AA call-outs last winter)

Cars can consume as much as a litre of oil every 1,000 miles. Check the oil level regularly (your handbook will show you how).


(95,000 AA call-outs last winter)

Check all tyres for condition, pressure and tread depth. At least 3mm of tread depth is recommended for winter motoring, to more effectively clear water, but when tyres are at the legal minimum of 1.6mm they are only 55 per cent effective compared to new tyres, significantly increasing stopping distances.3


Dazzle from low sun can be a problem at this time of year. Improve vision significantly by making sure that the windscreen is clean – inside and out. Keep a good quality pair of sunglasses within easy reach and a rubber blade (ice scraper) to clear condensation from side windows.

Windscreen washer fluid

(600 AA call-outs last winter)

Use a 50 per cent mix of a good quality screenwash and water to reduce the chance of freezing in frosty weather. Don't use ordinary engine antifreeze or washing-up liquid and do check the handbook carefully to ensure you fill the right reservoir.

Windscreen wipers

(1,200 AA call-outs last winter)

Blades will last for two years at the most. New blades clear the screen more effectively and reduce the dazzling effect of the sun as a result so now's a good time to renew worn blades.


All breakdown figures for the period December 2008 to February 2009 inclusive.

The AA has produced a handy checklist of basic, year-round car checks using the acronym FLOWER.

More comprehensive winter motoring advice »

1An AA/Populus survey of 11,147 drivers conducted in Jan/Feb 2009 found that 12 per cent of drivers said they were likely to cut back on servicing this year, women more than men (14% v 11%)

2A recommended, award-winning battery charger – the CTEK Multi XS 3600 – is available from the The AA Shop.

3 Source: Continental Tyres

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21 December 2009