Winter Car Battery Care

Dear Tracy,

Do car batteries require any maintenance? I have heard that car batteries run out of energy more quickly in the winter and I want to do all that I can to make sure I am not left stranded in the cold.

Lucy M.

Dear Lucy,

You are very wise to be thinking about battery care, now that the weather is taking an icy turn! It is always best to have maintenance and inspection checks done on everything, including your battery, before winter strikes.

Ask your auto care professional to test and inspect your car’s battery.  If needed, they may also clean the battery tray and terminal posts. Often the terminals are sprayed with a protective solution to inhibit corrosion. Along with the battery check, your auto maintenance professional will inspect your alternator and starting system to be sure everything affecting the performance of your battery is working as it should be.

As for batteries running out of energy faster in the winter, it is true that extreme cold can have an adverse impact on battery performance. Cold temperatures inhibit the power of chemical reactions within the battery and increase the battery’s internal resistance, both of which can cause a reduction in cranking power. Since motor oil tends to get thicker at lower temperatures, engines need an increased amount of cranking power in cold weather.

Watch for the signs of a low or dying battery, so you can address the problem before you end up stranded. A starter that is slow to turn may mean your battery is failing or that alternator wiring problems are keeping the battery from charging fully. Dim headlights that  become brighter when you accelerate the engine is another battery problem sign. A simple thing you can to is to look for a purchase date on the battery itself – the battery case should have a decal listing its expected life. The battery should be replaced if it is approaching the end of its expected use life.

Last but not least, always carry a set of jumper cables in your vehicle so that you will be prepared if you ever do have to deal with a dead battery.

What the Smell? What Car Odors Can Mean

Recently, a friend of mine nearly went crazy trying to find the source of an obnoxious smell, which had developed in her new car. Her first inclination was to blame her toddler, who likes to munch snacks and sip drinks in the car. When an inspection of his car seat, and thorough vehicle inspection failed to turn up a cause, she was ready to give up and hand over a tidy sum to an auto detailer to fix the issue. That’s when her oldest child finally confessed to spilling milk on the floor and merely patting it dry. Once the carpet deep cleaned, the problem was solved!

Sometimes, mystery odors in your car can be more than the result of a careless mishap. Often they are a warning of potential problems relating vehicle operation. Below is a list of some possible offensive odor auto issues (try saying that five times fast). Whatever it may be, if you find yourself with a mysterious car odor, have it checked out to make sure it is not a serious issue.

Maple Syrup

If you start craving pancakes as your engine warms up, it could mean  a ethylene glycol leak, which can smell sweet, like maple syrup. An ethylene glycol leak can come from failures in the intake manifold gasket, heater hose, radiator hose, or cylinder head. When the odor is most noticeable outside of the car, the problem may be a radiator cap leak. If the smell is stronger inside the car, it could indicate an issue with the heater core.

Rotten Eggs

A sulfur smell that seems like rotten eggs can be caused by a bad catalytic converter. During normal operation, gas that passes through the catalytic converter is transformed into odorless sulfur dioxide. If the sulfur is not being converted, you may smell it, and that may mean that your catalytic convertor is not working.


A leak in the fuel tank vent hose or the fuel injection line may be to blame if your car smells like a gas station. Since gasoline is flammable this is obviously not a good situation. While a gas smell can be common in classic cars that were manufactured in the 1970’s or earlier, it is not normal in newer cars and likely the sign of a serious issue.

Carpet Burning

If you smell something like burning carpet, it could be the result of hard braking causing the brake pads to overheat. While it may be normal to smell this temporarily during some driving situations, if you smell a burning smell regularly, during normal driving, it could mean you are driving with the parking brake on, or it could mean faulty or damaged brakes.

Damp and Musty

If climbing in your car is like climbing into your high school gym locker, it could be mildew in the air conditioning system. Simply turning off the air conditioning system and running  the fan on high will often cure the problem by drying out your system, but if it persists, you may need a more thorough cleaning.