A few words on your car’s heater

Read the fol­low­ing to pre-emp­tively pre­vent heater prob­lems with your ride this win­ter


In gen­eral, we hu­mans like to be warm, though many Cana­di­ans live in a cli­mate where this is chal­leng­ing for much of the year.

Since most of us can’t just pack up and head to Florida for five or six months, it’s es­pe­cially in­fu­ri­at­ing when the heaters in our cars and trucks per­form poorly, which is most likely to oc­cur in the mid­dle of the win­ter when they’re needed most.

To help you make your way through the up­com­ing win­ter months with a prop­erly-func­tion­ing heater (and de­froster), read the fol­low­ing tips and checks.

Some­times, mak­ing sure your win­ter driv­ing is free of heater-re­lated prob­lems is just a mat­ter of mak­ing a few quick in­spec­tions and un­der­stand­ing a few sim­ple con­cepts about how your heater works.

Cool­ing sys­tem

Your en­gine’s cool­ing sys­tem tends to get all of the at­ten­tion dur­ing the sum­mer months, where it works to pre­vent your en­gine from over­heat­ing.

But your cool­ing sys­tem is con­fus­ingly named, as it’s also largely re­spon­si­ble for heat­ing your ve­hi­cle’s cabin in the colder months.

As such, you’re best to make sure it’s healthy, be­fore the cold sets in: Check the coolant level as per the in­struc­tions in your owner’s man­ual, have that cool­ing sys­tem flushed and fill com­pleted sooner than later if this ser­vice is due, and con­firm that the ther­mo­stat, which con­trols how hot the coolant gets (or doesn’t), is still healthy and in good shape.

Check for any sign of worn or cracked coolant hoses, or any vis­i­ble coolant leaks, pos­si­bly ev­i­denced by pud­dled of fluid (of­ten bright green or or­ange) be­neath the ve­hi­cle.

If in doubt, ask a tech­ni­cian to check the sys­tem over for you. En­sur­ing your cool­ing sys­tem is healthy is easy, quick, cheap and a fan­tas­tic way to fend off heater prob­lems for the up­com­ing cold­weather travel sea­son.

Let it warm up Re­mem­ber that the heat your ve­hi­cle needs to warm the cabin comes from its en­gine. Re­mem­ber, too, that said en­gine needs a few mo­ments to ‘warm up’ be­fore that heat be­comes avail­able.

At start up of a cold en­gine, heat builds up over a few min­utes of the en­gine run­ning, at which point it’s ab­sorbed by the coolant in the cool­ing sys­tem, which pumps it into the ve­hi­cle’s cabin.

Avoid the temp­ta­tion to start your en­gine and im­me­di­ately crank the heat to MAX on a cold morn­ing as this can ac­tu­ally make it harder for your en­gine to warm up.

Start the car and turn the heat down low, us­ing a low fan speed for the first minute or two of your drive. This typ­i­cally al­lows your en­gine to heat up more quickly, which means that ul­ti­mately, you’ll be warmer, faster. This holds es­pe­cially true in newer ve­hi­cles which are of­ten us­ing smaller and smaller en­gines to heat larger and larger cab­ins.

Change that cabin air fil­ter Did you know that your ve­hi­cle prob­a­bly has a so-called cabin air fil­ter that cleans the air pumped into the cabin by the cli­mate con­trol sys­tem?

If not, chances are that said fil­ter is clogged full of bugs, dirt, dust, pollen and other de­bris. If that’s the case that fil­ter is suf­fo­cat­ing your heater and keep­ing it from per­form­ing prop­erly.

Lim­ited air flow caused by a clogged cabin air fil­ter means lim­ited heater per­for­mance, since the heater sim­ply won’t be able to move enough air into the cabin to heat the ve­hi­cle prop­erly.

If you’re not sure when your cabin air fil­ter was last changed, it’s prob­a­bly due. This is (typ­i­cally) a fast and cheap job and one best han­dled be­fore the weather gets too cold.

Your owner’s man­ual has the scoop. Don’t put this one off: Clogged cabin air fil­ters are a num­ber-one cause of poor win­ter­time heat in your ve­hi­cle.

They can also cause prob­lems with the ef­fec­tive­ness of your wind­shield de­froster.

Soft­ware up­dates Vir­tu­ally all as­pects of the modern au­to­mo­bile are com­puter con­trolled and the heater and cli­mate con­trol sys­tem are typ­i­cally no ex­cep­tion.

Some­times, au­tomak­ers re­lease re­vised and up­dated soft­ware which ad­dresses a la­tent prob­lem, or im­proves or cor­rects the op­er­a­tion of one or more ve­hi­cle sys­tems. These soft­ware up­dates (which work sim­i­larly to a ‘patch’ in­stalled to your lap­top or PC), are usu­ally in­stalled by a dealer tech­ni­cian when your ve­hi­cle is in for ser­vic­ing.

Some­times, soft­ware up­dates can di­rectly, or in­di­rectly, af­fect the per­for­mance of your ve­hi­cle’s heat­ing sys­tem in the win­ter, so if you ex­pe­ri­ence any is­sues or con­cerns, ask your dealer’s ser­vice depart­ment if any soft­ware up­dates may be avail­able to ad­dress your prob­lem.

Though rel­a­tively rare, var­i­ous au­tomak­ers have soft­ware up­dates for nu­mer­ous makes and mod­els that di­rectly af­fect the per­for­mance and con­sis­tency of the cli­mate con­trol sys­tem. Your ser­vice depart­ment has the scoop.

Leave the A/C on

In some sit­u­a­tions, even in ex­treme cold, your ve­hi­cle will turn on its air con­di­tioner.

Many driv­ers think this is a fluke or flaw be­cause, of course, the air con­di­tioner is some­thing you use when it’s hot out, not in the mid­dle of Jan­uary — right? Sort of, but not so fast.

The air con­di­tioner cools the air go­ing into your ve­hi­cle but also dries it by re­mov­ing mois­ture.

In win­ter, this func­tion is nor­mal and in­ten­tional. By dry­ing the air in your car, mois­ture is re­moved, which can keep win­dows from fog­ging up and re­duc­ing your abil­ity to see out of your ride.

If you no­tice the air con­di­tion­ing turn­ing it­self on, even in the cold, leave it be; it’s got an im­por­tant job to do.


Mak­ing sure your win­ter driv­ing is free of heater-re­lated prob­lems can be just a mat­ter of mak­ing a few quick in­spec­tions and un­der­stand­ing some sim­ple con­cepts about how your heater works.

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