How Road Salt Affects Your Car in Winter

February 5, 2024
By MJ Brioso
6 min read
How Road Salt Affects Your Car in Winter

Winter's arrival often means our roads are adorned with a layer of snow and ice, making safety during travel a top priority. To keep the icy danger at bay, officials frequently deploy an old faithful friend: road salt.

This common de-icing agent is a winter essential for preventing dangerous driving conditions. However, while its benefits for road safety are clear, it doesn't come without a cost.

This article will peel back the frosty veil to reveal how road salt can corrode cars, compromise mechanical integrity, and inflict aesthetic damage that goes beyond the surface deep.

The Role of Road Salt in Winter Safety

In the depths of winter, ensuring that roads are safe becomes a top priority. This is where road salt steps in as an invaluable resource. Its main trick? Salt reduces the temperature at which water freezes, a scientific concept commonly referred to as freezing point depression, which in turn helps to keep our roads free from treacherous ice.

When applied, salt begins to dissolve into brine, breaking the bond between the road surface and the ice, allowing for easier and safer removal of snow and ice. This simple chemical reaction is crucial in maintaining drivable conditions and preventing vehicles from skidding on ice, significantly reducing winter weather-related collisions.

While various materials can provide traction, none works quite as effectively and economically as salt. Its usage helps to keep economies running smoothly during harsh weather, ensuring that emergency services, supply chains, and daily commutes can continue with minimal disruption, thereby safeguarding the well-being of communities.

How Road Salt Impacts Your Car

When winter arrives, so does the familiar sight of road salt. While it's a lifesaver for maintaining safe and drivable roads amid snow and ice, it can be a silent nemesis to your vehicle.

Corrosive Chemistry

Sodium chloride, or common road salt, poses a threat to vehicles as it wears away the metal's protective oxide coating, leading to rust. Over a period, this deterioration can affect your car's framework, resulting in hefty repair bills and potential safety risks. Early detection through routine undercarriage check-ups is key to preventing serious damage.

Paint Degradation

When the paint on your car starts to chip due to road salt, it leaves the metal underneath open to the harsh environment, paving the way for rust. It's crucial for motorists to repair any such damage without delay and consider using a sealant or wax as an added shield against salt.

Underbelly Attack

The car's undercarriage houses critical components often unprotected from salt kick-up. Installing protective guards and washing the underbelly regularly during winter can prevent salt accumulation and subsequent corrosion of exposed parts.

Hidden Havoc

Salt's ability to lodge in small spaces can lead to "out of sight, out of mind" damage. Car owners should make sure to clean these crevices thoroughly and might consider a professional undercarriage cleaning service to reach areas that are hard to clean at home.

Moisture Magnet

Since salt attracts moisture, this can lead to a damp undercarriage, which sustains the rusting process even without additional salt exposure. Drying your car thoroughly after washes and avoiding parking on wet surfaces can help prevent this lingering dampness.

Electrical Threats

Modern vehicles rely heavily on electronics; salt-induced corrosion of electrical components can result in costly repairs. Using dielectric grease to protect connectors and ensuring seals are intact can help guard against this eventuality.

Rust Reinforcement

The key to fighting rust is to prevent its start. Once rust begins, salt speeds its spread. Treating any visible rust spots immediately and maintaining the integrity of paint and coatings is essential in prolonging vehicle parts' life.

The Economic Cost of Salt Damage to Cars

While essential for winter road safety, road salt brings significant economic costs. Applied to de-ice roads, the corrosive nature of road salt results in vehicle damage requiring repair and maintenance, costing over $800 per ton, a stark contrast to its initial cost of $20-$30 per ton.

It's estimated that rust from road salt alone inflicts an annual cost of around $3 billion on American drivers. Historical data shows that in 1975, de-icing salts were causing about $200 in damage per car each year, which would be equivalent to $854 in 2017 dollars, highlighting the lasting financial impact.

How to Protect Your Car from Road Salt Damage

Road salt, while essential for safe winter driving, can cause substantial damage to vehicles. However, with the right strategies, car owners can protect their vehicles from this menace.

One of the first steps towards protection is waxing your car's exterior before winter sets in. Wax acts like an invisible shield, safeguarding the paint surface from the corrosive effects of road salt. A strong coat of wax can provide protection for about 6-8 weeks. Alternatively, you can use synthetic paint sealants.

Another crucial step is to keep your tires clean. Salt can corrode rims and hubcaps, leading to expensive repairs. Regularly washing your tires can help prevent this damage.

To keep the threat of road salt at bay, establishing a habit of washing your car weekly during snowy months is key. These washes are crucial for preventing the build-up of salt, which can eat into your car's metal. Pay extra attention to your vehicle's undercarriage—an area often hit hardest by salt—and take advantage of specialized services at car washes that focus on this vulnerable zone.

Avoiding puddles and snow piles, which can contain a high salt concentration, can also help reduce exposure to road salt.

An unconventional yet effective method is to spray used or new motor oil on the bottom of your car. Although not the most environmentally friendly option, it can provide a protective layer against salt.

After giving your car a good wash, an immediate dry-off with a microfiber towel is a smart move. This quick and easy action can significantly decrease drying time and also prevent the possibility of ice crystals forming from residual water in frigid conditions.

While road salt is a necessary evil during the winter months, its damaging effects on vehicles can be mitigated. Taking preventative measures such as waxing, washing, and avoiding areas of high salt concentration can protect vehicles and save car owners money on potential repairs.

Car Affected by Road Salt? Here's What You Should Do

If road salt has already affected your car, here are some steps to mitigate the damage:

  • Immediate Washing: As soon as possible, wash your vehicle thoroughly to remove any accumulated road salt, focusing on the undercarriage and wheel wells. Use a car wash that includes an under-spray to reach those hard-to-see areas.
  • Damage Assessment: A fresh wash is the perfect time to give your vehicle a thorough check-up. Keep an eye out for any budding rust or corrosion, especially in parts where the paint no longer provides coverage.
  • Rust Treatment: A rust-arresting solution might be sufficient for small rust spots. Apply according to product instructions and consider sealing with a paint touch-up.
  • Professional Evaluation: If extensive rust is present, seek a professional assessment from a reputable automotive body shop.
  • Part Replacement: Heavily corroded parts, especially those critical for safety, like brake lines, should be replaced immediately. Do not compromise on safety.
  • Follow-Up Maintenance: Establish a schedule for regular maintenance checks post-repair to monitor any new signs of rust or damage.

Remember, prompt action and regular maintenance can help mitigate the effects of road salt and keep your car in good condition.

Say No to Salt Damage!

Winter roads may be treacherous without salt, but it's vital to recognize the silent damage it can inflict on vehicles. Regular cleaning and the use of protective treatments can go a long way in keeping your car in tip-top shape throughout the winter months. So next time you hit the road in winter, spare a thought for the hidden toll that road salt may be taking on your vehicle.



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