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Open Diff: The winter garage

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Add a pair of SUVs, and winter garage space is… tight. Photo by author.

Winter has already descended on southwestern Vermont, weeks before the calendar makes it official. The convertible is already tucked into the back corner of the garage, parked sideways to make room for 2 tons of bagged wood pellets—used to heat the living room and cut down on the oil bill—plus two daily drivers, both SUVs. Without heat or insulation in the garage, a bit of prep is required to weather the next few months, while still retaining a bit of functionality.

First and foremost, I’m ready to do battle with the local rodentia, the subject of an earlier Open Diff column. I’ve sealed all the cracks I can, removed any possible food sources, and limited the warm and dry places for mice to hide. The bait stations are new, as is the Fresh Cab, a pine-scented repellent used to keep mice out of enclosed spaces, like the ventilation systems of our two Toyotas.

Does it actually work? Anecdotal evidence suggests that it does, as I’ve had no further mouse infiltration since I began deploying it two years ago. I’ve also taken to parking our cars with hoods up, eliminating a warm and safe spot for rodents to bed down overnight, so I can’t say which is the more effective deterrent. Either way, so far, so good.

I won’t be washing cars in the driveway for the next few months, so any automotive chemicals have already been moved to the warm and dry basement. The same is true for aerosols, including spray lubricants and paints, which can also be damaged by the freeze-thaw cycle. I do keep dry chemical fire extinguishers (plural, one by the entry door and another on the opposite wall) in the garage year-round, because when it comes to garage fires, there’s no such thing as too careful.

While the wrenching time is reduced in an unheated Vermont garage during winter, it’s not eliminated. Oil changes are indifferent to weather, and things break as often in the winter as they do in summer. The tools reside in the garage year-round, though every spring I chastise myself for not doing a better job of wiping them down with oil to prevent rust. On the other hand, it makes my impact sockets easy to identify when wrenching with friends; just look for the rusty, textured ones, and they’re mine.

Even basic wrenching requires a bit of forethought in the winter garage. Step one is making sure any needed rechargeable lights are topped up with electrons, and any battery-powered ones have fresh cells, since battery life is reduced in cold temps. Handy tip—if you don’t already own a good battery-powered headlamp, buy one. You’ll wonder how you ever worked without one, unless you yearn for the days of tangled extension cords, broken bulbs and flesh seared by old-fashioned drop lights.

Next, be sure to sweep the floors well, removing as much snowmelt, grit, and salt as possible, and providing a clean-ish and dry-ish area to work in. Creepers don’t roll well on a gravel-covered cement floor, and lying on one’s back in a fresh puddle of melted slush isn’t fun. Also, be sure to grab more shop towels or rags than you’d ordinarily use, since it seems like drying parts or wiping things clean is a never-ending process in winter.

Some prefer the dexterity of working without gloves, but unless you’re assembling small parts (a task best done indoors, anyway), a decent pair of mechanics gloves will provide a layer of warmth and protection, even beyond thick nitrile gloves. Speaking of insulation, it’s best to dress in layers, too, ensuring that the outermost garment isn’t one you care about. Things tend to get dirtier and grittier in the winter garage than in the summer one.

Finally, the most important thing to remember about winter wrenching is this: Don’t rush, no matter how tempting it is to wrap things up and get back inside a warm house. That’s when mistakes happen, and there’s no worse feeling that the realization that a dropped bolt has turned a 30-minute job into a three-hour ordeal.

For those living in colder climes, is winter wrenching a necessary evil for you as well? What tips can you offer that we haven’t covered above?