February 11, 2012 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
Unless you live in a handful of California regions — generally over 4,000 feet elevation — there is something which your car certainly should have for safe winter driving, but which is currently almost impossible to purchase in other areas of the state.
It’s winter windshield washer solution, the type that does not freeze, and which until recently, could legally be sold anywhere.
“You and the Law” has heard from a number of readers-and concerned law enforcement officers and emergency personnel — all asking the same questions: “Why can’t we find the winter solution? How many accidents will result in winter driving because drivers are unable to clear windshields of snow or ice?”
You can thank California’s Air Resources Board (ARB) for regulations which have effectively made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to buy winter solution in most of California, the justification being air quality.
Our first interview with ARB took place in early January, and it is important to state that everyone we spoke with was upfront, helpful and polite. But we concluded that interview feeling that a few people in management needed to see a psychiatrist, as we will explain:
“It’s an ozone problem as relatively high concentrations (25 percent) of alcohol, such as methanol, found in winter solutions, lead to more ozone and contributes to air pollution,” ARB’s expert Carla Takemoto told us.
“These products are appropriate for what we call ‘Type A’ regions, where it often does get below freezing in winter. But in the warmer parts of California, there is no need to use winter products, and drivers there should not be able to buy them for air pollution reasons. That’s why only summer products containing no more than 1 percent methanol can be sold, pre-mixed,” she added.
“But what about people who live in those warm areas, and drive into other parts of the state — or, say, over the Grapevine, or through Lake Tahoe to Nevada — where it is freezing in winter, and only have summer solution? This could be dangerous? What should they do?”
Takemoto replied, “It is legal to buy a concentrated solution anywhere in California, which you can mix to obtain fluid appropriate for Type-A winter areas or greatly diluted for the warm areas of the state.”
“Really?” we replied, “Are you saying that to avoid air pollution, unless you live in Type-A areas, you can’t legally buy pre-mixed winter products because they aren’t needed and add to pollution.
But anywhere in the state, anyone can legally purchase a concentrate, and mix it to become the same thing as the winter solution?
“Isn’t this like saying, you can’t buy heroin, but can plant poppy seeds and harvest your own opium?”
We then began to wonder if the mental elevator at ARB rises to the top floor.
Retailers afraid of fines and only speak in confidence
During our first interview, ARB personnel found it odd that we were unable to find concentrated solutions at any of the dozens of stores we phoned all over “Non-A” California.
Management at the major auto supply companies — on the condition of not revealing their identity — repeatedly told how afraid they were of upsetting ARB and getting hit with a fine — “a really big fine” — if they found a violation of the regulations.
“Look at their website, and you will see that we could face a daily fine of $50,000! And what happens if a warm-area customer buys concentrate, mixes it to the really strong, mountain-area percentage of methanol, and ARB discovers this? Would they sue us?
ARB updates its website
Within a few days of that interview, ARB made significant clarifications to its website. Just Google ARB Winter Windshield Washer Solution.
In our second interview on Jan. 26, Takemoto outlined their “new outreach program to better educate retailers about the regulations and to underscore that sellers are not liable if a customer buys concentrate and does not respect the correct percentages.”
Legal to make your own
It is legal to make your own solution, but we strongly suggest Googling “How to Make Your Own Winter Windshield Washer Solution” before doing anything.
Methanol is used in commercially available products — about one quart per gallon — but is highly toxic and can be difficult to find. Denatured alcohol is available wherever paint is sold and can be used instead. One gallon costs about $15.
Retired Alaska Highway Patrol officer “Nan,” who resides in snow and ice-free San Luis Obispo, gave us this formula:
“For protection down to minus 20 degrees, just add one quart of denatured alcohol to three quarts of any good summer solution. In a pinch, you can also use cheap vodka or Everclear, but don’t sample your creation before driving off!”
We’ll drink to that. Cheers!
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.