Does Cold Weather Affect Engine Oil? It Can, and Here’s What to Do About It

A man clearing snow off of his car after a blizzard.

From thunder snow to sun dogs, a lot can happen as the temperature falls below freezing. Similar to natural phenomena, your vehicle isn’t immune to the changes in weather. The question “does cold weather affect engine oil?” comes up a lot as winter sets in, and it’s no surprise since oil is an essential component of overall engine health.

We’ll explore the effects of cold weather on engine oil, how to combat freezing temperatures, and provide 5 car care tips to keep you in top shape when the weather is cold.

Why Does Cold Weather Affect Engine Oil?

Significant spikes in temperature affect oil viscosity — a fancy term for its “thickness.” On exceptionally hot days, your oil will become less viscous, or thinner. On extremely cold days, engine oil can become thicker.

People who live in really cold climates may have to use thinner oil to avoid an increase in viscosity, though it’s best to consult your vehicle’s manufacturer’s guide to know exactly what type of oil you should be using. All in all, cold weather does affect engine oil — but it usually isn’t too serious of a matter.

Can Cold Weather Cause Low Oil Pressure?

Can cold weather affect oil pressure? Yes, it actually increases oil pressure. However, if you’re using a thicker oil, the churning oil in the engine may create air bubbles, and that thicker oil can hold onto those air bubbles longer. This can cause the oil pressure gauge to read a lower value than the amount you actually have.

In most cases, cold weather won’t cause any significant decrease in oil pressure. If your vehicle is constantly battling low oil pressure, it may be the result of another issue. Be sure to drop your vehicle off for routine maintenance to ensure a low oil pressure reading doesn’t turn into something more serious.

A speedometer displaying a "change engine oil soon" notification.

Can Cold Weather Make Your Oil Light Come On?

Due to the change in your engine oil’s viscosity, it’s possible your oil light can come on during cold weather. Typically, this is unlikely. If your vehicle’s oil light does come on, you should check your oil to see if it’s low or exceptionally thick (causing an incorrect reading on the oil gauge). If not, consider dropping your vehicle off for a quick check-up.

Does Motor Oil Freeze?

Vehicle engine oil does freeze, but only in extremely (and we mean extremely) low temperatures. The exact temperature that engine oil “freezes” at depends on the type of motor oil, its viscosity, and the additives used. 

It’s more likely for the oil to become sludgy, but temperatures have to drop to about -20°F. For the average vehicle owner in the United States, you shouldn’t have to worry about too many engine oil issues related to cold weather. Just be sure you keep up with regular oil changes to make sure your vehicle functions as well as possible in the winter months.

Does Cold Weather Affect Car Engines?

Nowadays, cold weather shouldn’t have too much of an effect on your vehicle’s engine. However, in vehicles manufactured prior to the 1980s —that relied on carburetors to run— frigid weather was a threat to overall engine performance. 

Since gasoline is less likely to evaporate in colder temperatures, it often led to failing carburetors since they weren’t getting the right mix of air and fuel into the engine. This improper mixture could cause vehicles to stall out, something that likely led to the idea of “warming up” your vehicle before driving it.

For vehicles manufactured in the past few decades, you don’t need to worry about the cold weather affecting your vehicle’s engine, or heating up your car before making your daily commute. 

Vehicles driving on a snowy highway.

Car Care Tips for Combatting Cold Weather

We’ve answered the question “does cold weather affect engine oil?” And even though cold weather isn’t going to wreak havoc on your vehicle, it’s still important to treat your vehicle well by keeping the weather and temperature in mind. We’ll explore 5 helpful car care tips below to keep your vehicle in optimum condition it’s freezing outside.

#1 Keep Your Vehicle Moving

We’re known for debunking unhelpful vehicle myths, including the famous “warming up your car before driving” one that we put to rest in this blog. However, that doesn’t mean that letting your vehicle sit in the driveway all winter is the best thing for it.

The best way to warm up your engine is by gently driving it. It’s just like hitting the gym. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. Casual drives are actually good for your vehicle, as they warm up the engine’s parts and ensure your vehicle runs as efficiently as possible.

#2 Avoid Idling for Too Long

One of the major reasons warming up your vehicle can damage the engine is that idling does more harm to the engine than starting and stopping. Studies show that running an engine at low speed (idling) can cause twice the amount of wear and tear on internal parts compared to driving at regular speeds. Excessive idling can also cause a buildup of carbon to reside in a vehicle’s engine.

#3 Keep Up with Antifreeze

Typically, a ratio between 50/50 and 70/30 of antifreeze to water is recommended. For exact guidance, find a trusted mechanic and ask them the appropriate coolant-to-water ratio to prevent corrosion and potential freezing.

#4 Use the Right Type of Oil

Like we mentioned above, using the right type of oil for your vehicle is always important. While the weather is unlikely to get cold enough to really affect your oil, the wrong oil can reduce lubrication between engine parts and shorten engine life.

If your manual says use synthetic oil, then do that. If it doesn’t, then regular oil should do just fine. Contrary to what some say, adding synthetic oil to regular oil does not harm the engine (but it also doesn’t provide much of a benefit).

#5 Get Routine Maintenance

The most important part of cold weather vehicle care is routine maintenance. At the start of every winter season, it’s a good idea to drop your vehicle off and make sure it’s outfitted for the drop in temperature and topped off with oil and other fluids. You may even consider getting winter tires on your vehicle if you do a lot of driving during the winter.

K&W Tire employee inspecting an SUV in the shop.

Protecting your vehicle in any temperature shouldn’t be a mystery, and it’s not overly complex. If you take the steps to keep up with routine maintenance and address any issues early on, you can drive confidently knowing you’re getting the most you can out of your vehicle.

At K&W, we aim to take the anxiety out of auto service. Come to a store near you for all of your routine maintenance and seasonal check-ups, and we’ll be sure to help you drive safely.