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excel at winter driving

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excel at winter driving

Driving in inclement weather is always a challenge, but perils like black ice and snowstorms make driving in winter even more treacherous. This MasterKit will help you hit the roads with confidence, by teaching you how to outfit and operate your car for safer winter driving.
installing an engine block heater
Article / 3 MINS

Managing Winter With an Engine Block Heater

An engine block heater can take some of the worry - and misery - out of starting the car in frigid weather.

There's nothing quite like the misery of trudging outside on a winter morning, only to be greeted by a freezing car. Then there's that that moment of sinking panic when you're shivering, your fingers are starting to go numb from the cold, and the engine just doesn't quite want to start. Fortunately, an engine block heater can help tame winter's effects on your car - and make those first few minutes of your drive a little more comfortable, too.

Exactly what it looks like and how it's installed can vary based on the model of both the car and the heater. But, generally speaking, it's installed under your hood and typically has a connection for an extension cord that threads through the grill. You plug it into an outlet while the car is parked and off. The heater warms the engine block, which ultimately warms the oil, helping it thin out and allowing it to lubricate the engine's moving parts faster than when it's cold and sluggish.

In places where the winter climate is truly frigid, an engine block heater can be an absolute necessity. If you've just moved from a warmer climate to a place where all your neighbors have little plugs threaded through the grills of their cars, you probably need one, too.

Well-meaning auto advice columnists (and engine block heater manufacturers) often recommend them for anyone who lives anywhere winter temperatures ever dip below 0°F. The reality is a little more complex. If your winter temperatures are rarely that cold, you probably don't need one at all. But many drivers live somewhere between these extremes, and whether you'll actually benefit from an engine block heater depends on your car and your home.

Pro Tip: A remote starter is another way to make cold winter mornings a little easier because you can start the car with a keychain fob before you even leave the house. A remote starter is an option on many new cars, or you can buy a kit at an electronics or auto parts store. It's best to have a pro install it, and you'll want to weigh whether the price tag - the most basic kits start at around $150 - is worth the comfort and convenience.

First Consideration: Gasoline vs. Diesel

Whether you need an engine block heater varies based on the type of fuel your car uses. In most cases, a gas-powered car will start up fine in the winter without an engine block heater. So, the decision of whether to use one is more of a matter of comfort and convenience than of your car's longevity: The air in the car will get warmer a little faster if the engine itself is already warm.

If you drive a diesel vehicle, you might want to consider an engine block heater even if winters are relatively mild where you live. Diesel fuel gets thicker (or "gels") starting around 32°F.1 When temperatures drop further below the freezing point, the diesel fuel begins to solidify, which will clog the fuel lines and prevent the fuel from moving through the engine.An engine block heater can help prevent this problem, making it a much better investment for people whose cars run on diesel.

Regardless of whether you're driving a gas or a diesel car, using an engine block heater can also give you a small boost to your wintertime fuel economy, since a warm engine is more efficient than a cold engine.

Pro Tip: The idea that driving with a cold engine is bad for your car is a popular misconception. Letting the car idle for a long time while cold is worse, because it can cause buildup in the engine and on the spark plugs and waste fuel. Instead, give the car just a couple of minutes to warm up, and then go. The engine sustains less damage, and you waste less fuel.

Second Consideration: Electricity

Most block heaters run off of household electricity, so they require a nearby electrical outlet. Ideally, you can park the car in your garage and plug it in there. If you park in a driveway, you can run a power cord to an outlet outside your house or apartment. If you have to park on the street, you may still be able to run a cord to a plug outside your home, but this really only works if you're parked right in front of your house, on the same side of the street.

Make sure the cord is rated for outdoor use and long enough to reach from your heater to the outlet. Don't daisy-chain extension cords together, it's a dangerous practice indoors and even more hazardous outside, where the cords will be exposed to the elements. Auto supply stores carry extension cords specifically made for engine block heaters.

Pro Tip: Use a timer to keep the heater from running too long and overheating. Follow manufacturer guidelines for your car and heater, but as a rule of thumb, set the timer to turn on the heater at least an hour before your departure, which will provide a smooth and easy warm-up.

If you're buying a new car, an engine block heater may be an option or an accessory straight from the manufacturer, and they may offer clear recommendations on who needs one. If you're not in the market for a new car, there are also plenty of aftermarket makers of engine block heaters. There are different types for different kinds of vehicles, and whether or not you can set it up yourself depends on your mechanical prowess. If you’re not sure, get a mechanic's help in choosing and installing the heater.
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