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How to tackle windshield wiper problems

Reportedly 20 percent of all accidents result from impaired vision caused by a dirty or damp windshield. At any given time, industry estimates conclude that 50 percent of the windshield wiper blades on operational vehicles are beyond their functional lifespan. And many folks don’t know how often to replace wiper blades.

In general, wiper blades should be inspected every six months and replaced as soon as they diminish windshield visibility. Vehicle manufacturers typically recommend replacing blades every 12-18 months. Fresh blades are such vital safety components that many European countries have laws that require drivers to replace wiper blades every 12 months. 

Wiper blade on windshield during downpour

Why are your windshield wipers not working?
Fortunately, this isn’t too hard to figure out. Regularly inspecting the operation of your wiper blades can help identify problems. Use the car's squirter/mister (if equipped) and look for these effects and their causes:

  • Noise: friction between the blade and glass, or the rubber has torn and slaps the windshield
  • Vibration: blade rubber worn or wiper improperly mounted to the arm
  • Banding in wipe pattern: cracked or hardened blade rubber
  • Fishtails in wipe pattern: slop where the blade connects to the arm
  • Lace-curtain wipe pattern: blade rubber bends too far
  • Filmy haze following the wipe stroke: blade rubber contaminated with oil or other road grime

Man inspecting wiper blades

Knowing when to replace wiper blades
It’s important to know when your wiper blades have had enough. Here are a few visual clues to worn wipers:

  • Cracked or torn rubber: splits, gouges or flappers on the blade
  • Hard rubber: blade that's discolored and deteriorating
  • Ragged edges: the blade is no longer "sharp"
  • Bent frame: plastic or metal skeleton is damaged, affecting wiping pattern

Car driving down a remote snow covered road in winter

Sorting through wiper blade styles
Some people are inclined to think that a wiper blade is a wiper blade. Of course, you can always just buy the cheapest or go with whatever the service station recommends/stocks. However, technological advances even extend to wiper blades, and there are more options to consider. Blades are now designed for specific driving conditions and take advantage of breakthroughs in modern chemistry.

Standard blades
Also known as "all season" or "all weather," they prioritize cost-effectiveness.

Aerodynamic blades
Because highway speeds can cause blades to lift off the glass, certain models have frames that are designed to channel air, keeping the rubber flush against the glass. These are characterized by blade frames that have fins or "spoilers," and some models come in designer colors and have multiple blades.

High-tech blades
Additives blended into the rubber give better performance and increase life by reducing friction and resisting ozone, UV rays and other contaminants. One company now uses Teflon to reduce friction for a smoother wipe and less wear and tear. Another brand has a built-in wear indicator; the blade progressively changes from black to yellow as the rubber deteriorates.

Winter blades
These typically have stronger frames inside a protective rubber sheath to help keep snow and ice from clogging the blade. One company even offers heated blades that can be plugged into the cigarette light or hard-wired.

Opting for wiper blade refills
You have two choices: replace the entire blade structure or just the rubber wiping part with a refill. Depending on style, entire blade assemblies can be affordable, and they're a lot easier for the do-it-yourselfer to replace than refills. Blade units also prevent against inadvertently installing the wrong-sized refill.

Most blades are sold individually, but it's advisable to replace both at the same time unless one becomes damaged before its useful lifespan is over. For most passenger cars, blade length is between 16 and 21 inches. Sometimes newer vehicles have different-length blades on each side, so you should bring the old blades to the auto parts store to ensure proper replacement sizes. You can also consult the application book at the store while you’re there, or ask the cashier for assistance. If you're lucky, an employee might even install the new blades in the parking lot for you. It only takes a few seconds.

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