Road salt, electric vehicles, drugs, smartphones can all be affected by really cold temps

By Allison Finch,

Scenes from the season's snow and ice

Rainfall and warmer weather brings a low fog to a snowy Central Park near the Bethesda Fountain and Terrace in New York City on February 3, 2022. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

Jan. 24 -- As the calendar gets deeper in January and eventually February, forecasters warn that winter isn't going anywhere anytime soon. A large portion of the United States is going into an extended deep freeze, potentially sending temperatures to the lowest levels they have been in years.


But how low does the temperature have to be for certain things like your smartphone or road salt to stop working?

Road salt is a staple for most winter maintenance deicing programs, but at a specific temperature, it becomes ineffective. Road salt works best when the sun is shining and temperatures are "high," relative to the season.

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At night, when there is no sunlight and temperatures usually drop, road salt becomes ineffective in some situations. If temperatures are in the 15- to 25-degree range, road salt may "work pretty well," but after temperatures fall below 15 degrees Fahrenheit, it becomes "nearly ineffective," WBND-TV reported.


The chemical composition of plain road salt won't melt snow or ice once the temperature drops below that 15-degree mark, which is one of the many reasons that other chemicals are added in combination with road salt to melt the ice or snow after temperatures drop past that point.

Some municipalities have started using more expensive alternatives like brines and beet juice to keep the roads safe and ice-free even when temperatures drop below 15. Roads in cities and towns that do not use this more effective alternative have a higher likelihood of refreezing, and ice forming on the pavement is possible.

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Cold weather doesn't just affect how the roads are treated, but also how a car runs. While typical internal combustion engine vehicles can see gas milage drop by about 20 in cold weather, the extreme cold tends to have a more pronounced effect on electric vehicles.

A study conducted by AAA found that an electric car's operating range will drop by an average of 41 when the temperature drops below 20 and the heater is in use. This means that for every 100 miles of combined urban and highway driven, the range at 20 would be reduced to a whopping 59 miles.


"As long as drivers understand that there are limitations when operating electric vehicles in more extreme climates, they are less likely to be caught off guard by an unexpected drop in driving range," Greg Brannon, AAA's director of Automotive Engineering and Industry Relations, said.

File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI

Cold weather can make the oil thicker in a car's engine, which will ultimately put an additional strain on the vehicle's battery, which is already weakened in the cold weather. The frigid weather can also result in lower tire pressure which can adversely impact traction, handling, tire durability and gas mileage.

Just like the battery life in an electric vehicle, the battery life in your smartphone is also affected in cold weather. The temperature, high or low, can affect our smartphone's performance and specifically how your phone's battery performs.

Apple suggests keeping devices between 32 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure that the battery life won't be shortened or turned off. Most smartphones and tablets use Lithium-Ion batteries, which can be affected in a frigid environment. But, the effects on a phone that the cold weather may have are usually only temporary.

"Battery life will return to normal when you bring your device back to higher ambient temperatures," Apple's support page noted, adding that it is best to store your device at temperatures between 4 degrees below zero and 113 degrees.


Just as cold weather can wreak havoc on roads and bridges, it can create multiple problems and challenges for railroads. Extreme cold weather can cause steel rails to contract, which directly affects railroad operations.

"Once the temperature gets down below 20 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, carbon steel can being to fracture under tension," AccuWeather Meteorologist Adam Sadvary said.

File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI

Key personnel at transit systems are designated to monitor all rail networks and weather forecasts to ensure that conditions on the track are safe for trains to travel.

"For the U.S. northern states and Canada [rail] steel is treated for much colder temperatures," AccuWeather Senior Storm Warning Meteorologist Eddie Walker explained. "If it warms up from crazy low temps to moderately warm temps in a short period, or vice versa, there can be significant track damage from general ground swelling and that can delay mass shipping of items across the country."

Properly storing your medication is vital during periods of cold weather. Keeping your medication at the wrong temperature, or exposing it to extremely cold temperatures, can potentially lead to loss of potency or even reduce the effectiveness of the medication, according to Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Each medication is different, but most should be stored between 59 and 77 degrees at room temperature.


Insulin is a common medication that temperature can quickly impact. Insulin, much like water, will freeze at around 32 degrees. The protein in frozen insulin becomes compromised when frozen and won't work as designed, according to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

If you are heading outside in the winter, make sure to keep diabetes equipment with you in an inside pocket or close to your body. Storing insulin in a thermos, more relaxed, or specially-designed pack to make sure it stays above 40 degrees will ensure that it won't freeze, especially when it can't be kept near the body.

Last but certainly not least, extremely cold weather can cause damage to musical instruments and can cause them to go out of tune quicker. String instruments, such as guitars and violins made primarily from wood, can become warped in cold weather, as the drop in temperature causes the wood fibers to contract. This damage could ruin the sound of your instrument.

Cold weather can alter the sound in metal instruments, such as woodwinds or brass. The materials in the instruments can shrink, making the sound become too sharp or too flat.

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