Should You Warm Up Your Car in the Winter?

A partially frozen sports car

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You wake up and rub the sleep out of your eyes. You shuffle to the bathroom and wait for the shower to get to the perfect temperature. Then you brush your teeth, put on your clothes and get ready for work. Before you walk out the door, you realize that it’s the middle of January and your car is freezing. It may have even iced over during the night. Should you warm up your car in the winter to prevent this problem?

While the summer months offer up an abundance of pleasantries, the winter tends to bring you down. Seasonal depression kicks into high gear, and life just seems to get harder. Not to mention the fact that it’s always around 30 degrees in the morning. As such, your next step is to warm up your car. After all, you’ve probably been told that running the engine before you drive the vehicle is good for the car. But, is this true?

What Changes When It’s Cold Outside?

The steps you take to keep your car performing when it’s cold out make more sense when you understand what motivates them.

As the mercury drops, the oil in your engine thickens, and accessories like your stereo and fans require more power to operate. That means an additional load on your battery each time you start the car and prolonged energy use as you drive.

a Ford truck pushing through heavy snow

Electrical components aren’t the only thing that changes when it cools down. Ice and snow reduce traction, which can make driving dangerous, and harsh weather conditions can even take a toll on your car’s exterior.

Fact or Fiction?

One of the major myths involving warming up cars is that the car needs to idle to function properly. After all, doesn’t running the engine keep it healthy? Doesn’t it make sure your car runs smoothly as you cruise down the snow-covered highway? No. No, it doesn’t.

In fact, it pretty much does the opposite. But, why? And how? The answer is more simple than you may think. What happens in an engine involves pistons and compression. The pistons in the engine compress both air and vaporized fuel. This is the basic structure of how an engine runs. But, that doesn’t explain why a hot car makes the engine run better.

According to the myth, warming up your car “primes” your engine. It gets it ready for the road. Think of it like a warmup for an athlete. However, engines need more than just a small warm-up to run properly. According to a Popular Mechanics article, you don’t need to let the car sit for 15 minutes while you sit inside and sip your coffee. In fact, letting the car idle for too long vaporizes too much gasoline, which can damage the car’s pistons and cylinders.

a sports car covered in frost

So how long should you let your car warm up in the winter? Ideally, you want to start the car for only a minute or two. Take this time to clear your windows of any snow and ice. You then want to proceed to get in your car and take off to your destination.

Know Your Car

But, there is another side to this. Cars with carbureted engines should sit idle. Most cars aren’t carbureted, so most of you don’t have to worry about it. If you’re interested, you can always look up your car online. Moreover, you should also learn what oils and fuels are best for your car. Knowing more about your car is never a bad thing.

Now, even though you shouldn’t let your car idle in the cold, there are some positives to warming up your car. First of all, you get warmer! And a warmer you is a happier you.

Secondly, the warm air will help you knock the ice off your windshield. Admit it. You’ve done the hunched-over drive where you’re glancing and squinting around the ice on your windshield. Not only does this look bad, it’s downright unsafe. Work can wait when it comes to your health and safety. Take the extra time in the morning and get all of the ice and snow off of your car. It’s the smartest thing to do.

It’s also smart to not lock your keys in your car while it’s running. This has happened to me more times than I can count. Police officers are excellent sources of help when it comes to car-related troubles. If you get in any sort of car jam, don’t be afraid to flag down an officer of the law.

A range rover covered in a thin layer of frost

Fighting the Effect of Extreme Cold on Cars

What can you do to defend your car from the elements? One simple solution is to keep it in a properly insulated and sealed garage. While it won’t make the roads less slick, storing your car in a garage will keep your battery and fluids warmer, reducing the chance of failures and prolonging battery life. For the best results, use a trickle charger to keep your battery close to fully charged, which will help prevent it from freezing.

You will also avoid the harsh effects of rain, snow and even hail on your car’s finish. While a little rainfall can have a nice cleaning effect, these elements will eventually wear down any protective finish on your car’s paint and could lead to pitting. Driving on wet, salted roads can even lead to rust, so parking inside when you can is a good way to let your car’s undercarriage dry out.

Before you make it home you have to navigate slippery roads, and for that, there’s no better solution than a proper set of tires. Foul-weather tires range from all-season radials with siping to cope with a little water to fully studded snow tires. Talk to your tire shop to find out which style is best for your area.

So Should You Warm Up Your Car in the Winter?

I’m sure you’ve spent plenty of mornings standing in your house as your car starts warming up. I mean, it’s great if you’ve got time to spare. But, most of the time, it’s an afterthought. You’ve forgotten all about that quarter inch of ice that accumulated on your windshield over the night. And now you’re late for work.

While letting your car idle and warm up in the winter is great for the more practical purpose you’re using it for, — warming it up to a toasty degree — it’s not necessary for maintenance.

Originally published 1/11/2016 – Updated 2/26/2024

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