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Car not starting in sub-zero temps in Montana? Here are some tips to not let it happen again

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Posted at 11:28 AM, Feb 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-11 13:28:55-05

BILLINGS — There's nothing worse than waking up for a morning of work during sub-zero temperatures and getting into a car that won't start.

Some preemptive vehicle maintenance, done hopefully before the snow flies, can ensure a reliable cold-weather start, said Jared Mcdermott, general manager of L.P. Anderson Point S Tire and Auto in Billings Wednesday.

“One of the biggest issues is either having a weak battery or having ice build up in the fuel line in your fuel system," Mcdermott said.

Ice build up in the fuel lines is exactly what happened to the vehicle owned by Q2 meteorologist Miller Robson earlier this week. After leaving the garage at home, Robson's fuel lines froze up after about five hours outdoors.

“I could just see the dollar signs floating in the air of how much this is going to cost," Robson said.

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Q2 Meterologist Miller Robson stands in front of his now-running car that had been sitting with frozen fuel lines for the previous two days.

Robson had been living in Georgia since 1985 before moving to Montana this winter, so his vehicle wasn't prepared for the cold. After spending two days in the Q2 studio garage and adding a bottle of fuel additive that evaporated the water in the fuel lines, Robson's car engine finally turned over and he was able to drive it off.

"Prepare, be diligent with the cold weather and take it seriously. You have definitely lived here longer than I have, and I’m living proof that if you aren’t prepared that it can sneak up and it can bite you," Robson said.

To prevent condensation from freezing in a vehicle's fuel lines, Mcdermott said a good strategy is to keep your gas tank full.

“When you have a full tank of fuel, you don’t have air space in the tank where condensation can develop. If you get condensation developing, those water molecules will run down into the fuel system and they can freeze and cause ice blockages in the fuel lines themselves," Mcdermott said.

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Jared Mcdermott, general manager with L.P. Anderson Point S Tire and Auto in Billings speaks with Q2 in the shop on Wednesday.

There is also an additive for vehicles burning diesel fuel to prevent the fuel from gelling up in the cold temps. Mcdermott said gelling is often not a problem with winter blends of diesel fuel that are available on the market.

The other piece of a vehicle that's stressed in cold temps is the battery, Mcdermott said. Cold temps make engine oil less viscous and more thick, in turn using more energy from the battery to start up.

"What happens is the battery is usually going bad over time. So in warm weather, obviously it doesn’t take as much energy to get a vehicle running, so it still starts fine. When it’s sub-zero, that engine takes a lot more energy to get started. The oil is thick, and those pistons and everything inside that engine have to turn. It’s sticky and thick and it takes a lot of power to do that. So having a good quality battery is really important this time of year," Mcdermott said.

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Car batteries and water frozen in fuel lines are often causes of a car that won't start on a cold morning.

Another advantage you can give your car over the cold is to install an engine block heater, which keeps the engine oil warm on a cold winter night and makes the vehicle easier to start.

"It just makes it easier to start, puts less wear and tear on your battery, your starter, your electrical system and all those things. So it’s definitely a great idea to have an engine heater,” Mcdermott said.

However, a block heater is an added expense that doesn't come standard on most vehicles.

When it comes to warming up your car before you hop in and drive, Mcdermott said its a good idea to let it run for five or 10 minutes to let the oil move through all the engine's moving parts.

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The L.P Anderson Point S tire shop in Billings at 3741 Montana Ave.

“If you take off with a cold engine, the oil is not flowing very efficiently through the engine and lubricating those moving parts. When you get up into higher RPMs, you’ve got things moving fast that aren’t lubricated. So letting it warm up is a good idea. Of course, we’ve all heard the stories about cars being stolen out of the driveway. So you want to make sure your vehicle is locked any time you leave it running outside in Billings,” Mcdermott said.

Another thing to consider before driving on winter roads is the tires on your vehicle and make sure they have the right amount of air before rolling.

Mcdermott said for every drop in 10 degrees Fahrenheit, you lose 1 pound per square inch (PSI) of air pressure in your tires.

“If the temperature drops 50 degrees over the couse of a few weeks, you’ve already lost five PSI of air pressure. A lot of times, that’s enough to set off your low tire indicator light. Just making sure that you keep those tires topped off in this cold weather is important," Mcdermott said.

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Cold temperatures can cause under-inflated tires and lead to poor vehicle handling and less traction.

Cars can experience a negative change in handling, carrying capacity and traction if they have tires that are low on air, Mcdermott said.

The real time to do this maintenance is before the snow hits, Mcdermott said, but this winter could still have a lot of snow left.

"If this storm caught people by surprise and you want to be prepared for the next storm, definitely getting a block heater installed, certainly making sure that your fuel tank is full or close to full during these conditions is important. Then getting those batteries checked out,” Mcdermott said.

RELATED: Safety tips to prepare your car for winter driving