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How to Protect Your Car From Rust in Winter

202301 how to protect car rust 1 8 gif Protect your car from rust | Cars.com graphic by Paul Dolan

Winter weather can undoubtedly take a toll on your car, but here’s the kicker: Some of the safeguards meant to protect drivers from the elements actually pose one of the biggest threats to a vehicle — rust. A AAA survey found that as liquid de-icing methods have replaced rock salt in recent years, more drivers have experienced problems linked to rust damage. The chemicals in liquid de-icers are to blame, says the organization, so it’s important to know how to protect your car from rust during the winter months to help avoid other issues down the road.

Related: Video: Get Your Car Ready for Winter

The Effects of Rust

“Many state and local transportation departments have shifted from using rock salt to liquid de-icers to combat ice and snow on the roadways,” AAA said in a statement. “These newer alternatives are more effective than traditional salt because they can be applied before a snowstorm, have a lower freezing point, and melt ice and snow faster.

“However, these same characteristics can be even more damaging to vehicles since the chemicals remain in liquid form longer and are more likely to coat components and seep into cracks and crevices where corrosion can accelerate.”

winter car snow ice rust 2023 01 exterior rear angle scaled jpg A vehicle with rust damage | Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry

AAA’s survey showed that damage from these newfangled road de-icing methods cost U.S. drivers billions of dollars a year in rust repairs. That’s because cars incur rust-related damage to brake lines, fuel tanks, exhaust systems and other critical components as a result of the de-icing. Telltale signs of such damage include a spongy brake feel, loud exhaust or fumes around the vehicle, a gas or diesel smell when the vehicle is parked or running, and, of course, in-dash warning lights for susceptible vehicle systems.

New cars are less likely to rust compared to older models thanks to the use of galvanized steel, which protects against corrosion. Unfortunately, that doesn’t guarantee that a new vehicle will be rust-proof. Take, for example, the Cars.com Best of 2021 award winner and long-term test vehicle, the 2021 Ford F-150. After only a few months of ownership, the Cars.com editorial team discovered a significant amount of rust on the pickup’s underbody.

Protecting Your Car From Rust

Luckily, one of the best solutions to protect your vehicle from winter’s wrath is a relatively simple one: regular car washes.

“Washing your vehicle in the winter, especially after roadways are treated for ice and snow, is critical to avoiding costly repairs down the road,” said Daniel Armbruster, AAA Texas spokesperson. “Over time, rust can not only cause cosmetic issues but serious safety issues if components on the underside of your vehicle become damaged.”

How often you should wash your car in the winter months depends on the severity of the conditions in your area. According to car-maintenance experts, getting your car washed as frequently as every two weeks may be necessary.

AAA offers these additional tips to keep your vehicle damage-free in the winter:

  • Limit driving immediately before, during and after winter storms, when road de-icers are at their highest concentrations.
  • Clean your vehicle’s exterior, particularly the undercarriage, frequently in the winter with a quality car-wash solution to get rid of salt and de-icers.
  • Immediately repair body damage and touch up paint scratches that expose metal to rust risk.
  • Give your car a thorough wash and wax before cold weather comes and again in the spring (remember to not neglect the undercarriage).

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