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Frozen Car...What do I do? What do I NOT do?

Hey everyone, I live in Muncie, Indiana which in the last 3 days has seen probably the coldest weather its had in 10-15 years or more. It hit a wind chill low of about -20/-25 during the last 30 hours. About 15 hours ago, I started my car up (was making sure it warmed up a bit at least once every few hours), but then let it sit overnight. It hit a ridiculous low last night, and when I went to start the car this morning, it didn’t turn over. It would churn a bit, but no real action. I tried to start it for about 20 minutes w/ 3-5 minute intervals to let the battery charge up again. Nothing. I got a jump from a neighbor, but it still wouldn’t go. I am starting to think that the fluids are just frozen.

My question is this. I saw on a few other forums that people were saying to move your car to a heated garage, or rent a portable space heater to try to thaw out the fluids. Is there a way to do that without hiring a tow truck and renting space in a local mechanics shop? I have a space heater in my apt, but I wouldnt even really know where to place it for highest efficiency. I mean, its not a powerful heater, and its still about -20 degrees outside. Would it even put a dent in the task at hand?

Also, I read a couple notes about cautionary steps to prevent freeze plugs (?) from blowing, cracking the block, or sending shards of frozen fluids through your radiator and hoses. What should I know when trying to thaw this thing out, so I can avoid costly repairs once I get it running?

Thanks so much for your insight,


“Turn over” means that the starter is able to rotate the engine crankshaft at normal starting speed. “Start” means that the engine starts and runs.
Now, please be clear about the problem you are having.
You say that it didn’t turn over. Did you really mean that it turns over but won’t start?
What does “churn a bit” mean?

How old is this car? Make, model and year would help. When you say it “churned a bit” do you mean it went, “RRR, RRR, RRR” or what? If it did go, “RRR, RRR, RRR” then it is turning over just not firing up. Starter fluid might get it going, but I hesitate to recommend it because it’s easy to over use it and screw things up worse.

You could put a space heater into the engine compartment and try to warm it up, but most space heaters don’t have the capacity to really heat up all that cold metal. Also, I’d be very careful about doing that. You don’t want to start a fire, so unless you know where the fuel line is and how to position the heater away from it you probably should not try it. You really need a block heater to do this right.

Your space heater will not make any difference, as you say, it won’t even make a dent. It can’t generate enough heat to overcome the severe cold, and you can’t contain the little heat it would generate. The wind would just blow it away.

It sounds like your battery is not up to this weather. You will probably need a new one. This is when you find out how good your battery really is, and yours is (was) marginal.

If the car did’t start even with a jump the fuel lines may be frozen. The only cure for this is warmer temperatures. This is where the heated garage comes in, but since you don’t have one you will have to wait for the temperature to go above freezing, which it will, someday. When it does, and the car is running, pour a bottle of gas line antifreeze in the fuel tank. Buy this product at an auto parts store, or perhaps even at the grocery store. They’ll probably be out of it for a while, since everyone will be buying it.

In the meantime I suggest you find another way to get around and leave the car alone. When the temperature goes above freezing try another jump start. The battery is too low now to even mess with, and trying to start the car will just make it worse.

If you have the correct antifreeze mixture in the engine you shouldn’t have to worry about the freeze plugs.

When you get the car running, DO NOT start it every few hours to keep it running. This is not good. Make sure the battery is good, make sure the antifreeze is good, and don’t start the car until you need to drive it.

Here is what I would do. If this doesn’t work, then waiting out the cold weather is certainly a good option. I did this in Jan 77 (oddly enough in Indianapolis) when -25 degree weather came and stayed a while.

  1. First I would bring my battery inside and charge it completely with a battery trickle charge.
  2. Get the battery load tested to determine if it is still OK.
  3. I would check and make sure I don’t have slush in my radiator. If your car has the proper antifreeze for -25 or below, then you don’t have a problem, but I would verify that. This would eliminate/allay concerns about freeze plugs.
  4. Reinstall battery and try to start it on the warmest part of the day this weekend, and see what happens.

In my case in Indiana, even though the weather stayed very cold for a week or more, I only had a bad experience with my battery that one time. Some other folks were taking their battery inside every night; I can’t say if that works well or not, but ensuring the battery in this extreme cold weather is up to par is certainly worth the effort.

If you keep up maintenance on your car, then the issues of “frozen, thick” fluids are minimized. Only you know how well you have done that in the past.

First cars don't do windchill.  You can ignore that as part of the calculation.  

 Temperatures down to -20? F should not cause a problem for a car with a good battery, good charge and good maintenance (like the oil specified for your car and climate.  

 I don't buy that.

About 15 hours ago, I started my car up (was making sure it warmed up a bit at least once every few hours),

That could have actually caused more problems if the batter was not getting more of a charge than it was taking to start the car each time.  That car sitting out there for a few hours is going to be cooled down to the air temperature or close to it, so you are just starting and restarting a car and warming it up time and time again, which is rather hard on a car.  Getting cold and staying cold is easy on a car.

read a couple notes about cautionary steps to prevent freeze plugs (?) from blowing, cracking the block, or sending shards of frozen fluids through your radiator and hoses.

Only a problem when someone does not have the proper coolant in the radiator.

A good charge on the battery and or a replacement battery should take care of the problem.

Good Luck

How would a car react if one has a heated garage that’s heated to say, 70F, then it comes outside to -20F in a matter of seconds?

Warmer weather is heading your way soon. I agree with the others. Your fluids aren’t frozen just very thick except of course unless you don’t have the proper anti-freeze in the radiator. I think what you did was to drain the battery down by repeated starting without driving it. Or you could have a marginal battery. I’d get a battery charger and make sure the battery is fully charged and/or have it load tested as suggested to make sure it is OK. A fresh battery will make a big difference in starting. You could also get one of those magnetic block heaters and put it on the oil pan and plug it in to warm the oil. That will help. The thing to worry about is if you flooded it with repeated attempts to start. In that case the plugs may need to come out to dry them off. If you can get it in a warm garage, trouble over. Don’t worry about going from a warm garage to the cold. I use to have inside parking at work for many years and never had a problem.

If you are getting the dreaded “rrrr RRRR rrrrr” like I get with my car this time of year, start pumping the gas pedal while turning it over, especially if its an older car like mine is. Wait between trys to let the battery recharge itself to give you the kick you need to get it started. I would even pump the gas pedal some while waiting between trys on those real cold mornings. Good luck with it:)