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CarSmart Tip: Winter Wipers 101

By Richard Rowe

  • Keeping your wipers working efficiently through the many miles of winter is equal parts planning ahead, knowing what to do in the moment and not breaking anything in the process.

    English poet George Herbert wrote: "Every mile is two in winter." That's something anybody who drives in winter can relate to — especially when the longest mile's worth of work comes before you even leave your driveway.

    How Do Wiper Blades Work?
    In order to conform to the shape of the windshield, the standard modern wiper uses an articulated "backbone" frame. This frame holds the ends of a flexible rubber blade and uses a spring-loaded latticework in the middle to hold the center of the blade. This design maintains even, downward pressure on the windshield. Such blades work well, but the frame can clog up with ice and snow in the winter. Once the mechanism jams, it will fail to conform to the windshield, leaving streaks of glare-inducing ice behind.

    What Are The Basic Winter Wiper Blade Designs?
    The simplest way to keep snow and ice out of the wiper frame is with a rubber cover. Winter-specific wipers also use a high-silicone-content blade that's more supple than conventional rubber in very cold weather. Bruce Barnett is a sergeant in the Fairbanks, Alaska, Police Department and a winter expert. He says modern, "mono-beam" wipers — which don't have a frame mechanism to jam — are both effective and popular. But he adds, "I use heavy-duty, standard-type winter blades on my vehicles." While many drivers using mono-beam wipers are happy with them, Sgt. Barnett says Alaskans tend to prefer the tried-and-true, rugged durability of conventional "framed" wipers.

    Manufacturers Offer More-Specialized Options
    In addition to the traditional wiper choices, there are specialized winter wipers and wiper systems available. Some cars come factory-equipped with heated wiper blades, but for about $120 you can retrofit a pair to your car. Electric "shaker" wiper systems can be switched on and off periodically to shake off ice and snow that builds up. Some drivers like to keep a can of liquid or aerosol windshield deicing fluid in the trunk in case they have to get moving quickly. Once the car is on the road, Sgt. Barnett suggests a -20-degree-rated windshield washer fluid with a deicing agent may help to keep wiper blades working and the windshield clean.

    You Can Prevent Problems
    Wipers can be problematic after sitting overnight, when ice and snow can freeze them to the windshield. It's a chore to carefully peel the blades off the windshield, but turning on your wipers while they're frozen to the windshield can damage the wiper motor or tear the blades. To avoid this, some drivers flip up wipers for overnight parking. This can keep wipers from sticking to the windshield, but doing so extends the springs. Leaving a spring extended in freezing temperatures — for any length of time — may eventually stretch it, reducing the wiper's snow-clearing tension on the windshield. "Personally, I always do it," Barnett says. "But some folks put a piece of cardboard or something between the wiper and the windshield at night, or throw a towel or plastic bag over the wipers." To those who can't park the car in a garage overnight, he says, "Folks who stay the winter [in Alaska] usually get an auto-starter that can start the car from in the house." If you leave your defroster on when you park the car, a remote starter can let the car start clearing the windshield before you walk out of the house, and give you a warm car interior. Just make sure to check that your tailpipe isn't covered by a snowdrift or blocked with ice and snow; carbon monoxide buildup in your car's cab is a danger easily avoided by a quick look at the back of the car. Remember to turn your wipers off before turning off your engine - if snow or ice builds up, the next time you start your car, the wipers will turn on, possibly damaging the blades and the wiper motor.