In snow and freezing rain, wiper blades in poor condition become apparent quickly. If the rubber is rigid or chipped, it's time for new wipers. Streaking, smearing and chattering (noisy blades) are also an indication to replace.
More important, those are signs that visibility is compromised, causing a safety concern. Car owners used to go years without replacing wiper blades, but Consumer Reports recommends every six to nine months.
Cheapskates might balk at paying $20 to $40 a year for replacement, but not if they've ever driven on a busy, wet road with poor wipers that clean only part of the windshield. Combine that with an empty reservoir of washer fluid and suddenly preventive maintenance is a tiny price to pay to avoid a serious accident.
Wiper replacements are one of the cheapest investments you can make for safe winter driving, said Ross Johnson of R&R Auto Repair in Minneapolis. Even though there are silicone models with a lifetime warranty, wipers that vibrate to dislodge debris and heated blades, the expensive versions don't last any longer or work better than the cheapies, according to Consumer Reports' findings.
The magazine found that most standard wipers, priced from $7 to $24 each, performed well for six to nine months. In a test of 13 blades, the magazine liked the Valeo 600 series for $11 to $15 (sold at Sam's Club under the Smart Blade name), the Rain-X Latitude for $17 to $21 (sold at Auto Zone, Wal-Mart, Target), the Anco 31 Series for $7 to $10 (sold in auto parts stores and auto repair shops) and the Michelin RainForce ($12).
Only the Rain-X model maintained its "very good" performance for the full six months, according to Consumer Reports. Readers at Popular Mechanics also rated Rain-X wipers as a favorite.
If you're buying wiper replacements yourself, call a dealer to determine the proper size. Most vehicles now use a longer size on the driver's side than the passenger's side. Also try Rain-X's online blade finder (www.startribune.com/a81) to determine sizes for your vehicle.
If only one blade is bad, replace both of them anyway.
"If one is worn out, its mate will surely die soon," Consumer Reports says.
Raise your wipers. Put your wipers in the raised position, away from the windshield, if you park outside and snow or freezing rain is predicted.
Turn off your wipers before turning off the engine. If the blades are stuck with ice or snow when you restart the car, the wiper arm mechanism can burn out, costing several hundred dollars to replace. After clearing away snow and ice, make sure the blades are not stuck to the windshield. If the wipers are stuck, use the defroster, clear away snow and ice, and use washer fluid with antifreeze to loosen them.
Clean the blades monthly. Use a clean rag and windshield wiper fluid or denatured alcohol. Some recommend smoothing the edge with eight to 12 strokes of fine sandpaper (or a matchbook striking surface) when the blades become worn.
Ask for free installation. Many mechanics will install wipers at no charge -- even if you bring your own -- if you're a regular customer. Some auto parts stores will also do free installations. It only takes a few minutes but can be tricky.
Shop around. Check Amazon and other sources for cheaper prices. Also, Target occasionally discounts wipers.
Try Rain-X Original Glass Treatment. Some users think the spray-on liquid creates a greasy film on the windshield, but the product has many fans. The beading action after application allows for less frequent use of wipers. The manufacturer says Rain-X works in rain, snow and sleet, but it must be applied in temperatures above 40 degrees. Use the defroster or a hair dryer to warm the windshield. Rain-X also just released its newest blade, called Repel, that incorporates its water beading technology onto the blade for enhanced visibility and reduced chatter (noise), but reviews are mixed on Amazon.
(Contact John Ewoldt at jewoldt(at)startribune.com. For more stories visit scrippsnews.com)