Windshield Wipers: Everything There Is to Know
Information that will help you pick out the best wiper replacements.
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Windshield wipers are such a simple little thing on the front of your windshield, that it can be easy to underestimate their importance—that is until you get stuck in a rainstorm. In bad weather conditions, the only thing that may keep your view of the road clear is the thin rubber strips that scrape away the moisture. That’s why it’s important to know a thing or two about the wipers that can make the difference between staying on the road or losing sight of it. Here’s everything you need to know to appreciate, use, and maintain wiper blades.
What are windshield wipers?
We’ve all seen and used windshield wipers. If you’ve ever been stuck in a major rain or snowstorm that quickly takes over the windshield, you’ve seen how important a windshield wiper actually is. Just like headlights, taillights, seat belts, and other safety devices, windshield wipers keep the car safely on the road when the weather isn’t cooperative.
Windshield wipers are nothing more than a long metal frame with a rubber edge that makes contact with the glass. Several people are credited with inventing the concept, but American inventor Mary Anderson holds the credit for introducing the first working wiper in 1903. The wipers we know and use today, however, came about in 1923 with the invention of the intermittent wipers by Raymond Anderson. This allowed the wipers to move back and forth across the windshield at different speeds, depending on the weather conditions and needs of the driver.
These days, there are a number of different windshield wiper designs and sizes. Most of them have the same basic shape and form, but companies come out with different materials each year. Many wipers are also designed to work in slightly different conditions since it takes different designs to deal with ice vs. rain vs. snow vs. debris. The vast majority of wipers, however, tend to be general use.
General wipers work for all seasons, but if you live in an area that has consistently bad snow of some type, specialized wipers are better. Specialized wipers have unique design features like larger rubber edges, unique material formulas to survive cold temperatures, and more. The right specialized wiper may take some trial and error to find or may just become a personal preference after you have seen what works and doesn’t work for your needs.
How do they work?
Back in the day, windshield wipers were manually moved with a lever. While your arm would get a great workout with this design, the results wouldn’t quite be what you are used to with today’s electric wipers. With either method, however, the results are relatively the same: The wiper scrapes away water and debris on the glass so the view becomes clear again.
Windshield wipers work through force alone. The wiper edge makes contact with the glass, creating a barrier to block things from escaping without damaging the glass underneath. The design of the edge generally works best in a single direction. The edge will catch the moisture or debris as it wipes towards the outer edge of the windshield. This moves or flings everything off so the view remains as clear as possible.
The actual effectiveness of the windshield wipers depends on the quality of the blade (especially the rubber edge) and the wiping speed. For speed, this is where the invention of intermittent or variable-speed blades increased the effectiveness of the blades overall. There isn’t a single speed that is perfect for all weather conditions. In fact, the speed and amount of rain alone would challenge wipers if they didn’t have some way to adjust their own speed.
Each time a wiper blade wipes, the glass is theoretically clear from water and debris. Until the next wipe, however, more water and debris will likely start to collect on the glass again. The faster a wiper moves, the more it can wipe in a given moment. In heavy rains, for example, a higher speed is required to keep the glass as clear as possible.
What Makes the Wipers Move?
You generally don’t need to worry about how windshield wipers work since you can just take for granted that they will move when you activate them. Knowing the mechanics, however, can help you diagnose potential issues and perhaps even make a fix if you have the skills, tools, and experience with working on your own vehicles. At the very least, you will have some greater insight for finding replacement parts or bringing a mechanic up to speed in less time, thus saving you money.
Since hand cranks aren’t used anymore, that means everything is done electrically to move the wipers. A lot of force is required to get both pairs moving together, especially at high speeds. This is why a combination of an electric motor, gearing, and some linkages make everything work without you even noticing as you drive the car.
The force is generated from a small electric motor. The motor attaches to some gearing, which attaches to a cam, which attaches to some rods, which attach to the wipers themselves. Despite the complexity of the setup, an average car’s wiper system is actually fairly straightforward, especially when you compare it to computer-controlled systems that rely on a number of specialized auto parts. This means parts are usually easy to fix or replace.
The gearing and cam are where everything comes together with the wiper system. The assembly can multiply the force, or torque, of the motor and slow its speed to generate the actual movement of the wiper blades. Within the electric motor, a simple electric circuit controls the power applied to the wiper blades. When power is sent to the blades, they move. Without power, they will sit in some resting position along the arc of their travel path—usually at the bottom of the windshield. Some connecting rods and links keep the two wipers moving together, so everything is controlled from a central part.
Most modern windshield wipers move in tandem with one another. The tandem system creates some overlap between the two arms, making it easier to clear water and debris from the middle of the windshield. Other movement patterns are also common with older vehicles. Opposed systems, for example, have the pivot points at the corners of the windshield and move in opposite directions. A few vehicle types—and most rear wiper blades for the rear window—use a single-arm positioned in the center below the glass.
Important Parts of The Wipers
Almost all wiper blades have the same basic design: a metal frame with a rubber edge and a pivot point. Different manufacturers use different materials, sizes, shapes within this design, so it can be helpful to know how each part functions within the greater design and how different shapes or materials can impact the effectiveness of the wiper.
The main part of a wiper blade is the frame. The frame attached to the arm and often has a pivot point for angling the blade against the windshield as it moves. Aluminum is the most traditional frame material since the metal is durable yet lightweight and doesn’t rust. A layer of paint, however, is common just for added protection and to fit in with the look of the vehicle. Sizewise, you will find frames between 10 and 30 inches in length, with 20 to 22 inches being standard for most vehicles.
The important part of a wiper blade is the rubber edge. The edge makes contact with the surface of the glass, forming a light barrier between the frame and surface to push things aside. The rubber material tends to vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and type to type. Composite rubbers, for example, can be made with more flex and give. Harder and natural rubbers are also common.
The blade’s edge connects with the frame via several points called pressure points. These small arms not only hold the edge in place but also keep the pressure on the rubber to preserve contact between the rubber and the glass. Many blades also include a metal strip called the blade frame that has slots and holes to hold replacement blades if necessary.
Beyond the blade itself, there are several smaller parts made of galvanized steel (for rust protection) and other types of rubber to keep everything waterproof. The electric motor that drives the blades tends to be secured in a metal housing with electrical wires and a wiring harness to connect the system to the controls in the interior of the vehicle. There is also a washer pump and tubing for the wiper fluid.
Despite all of the different parts that make up a windshield wiping system, the blades themselves tend to be fairly reliable through their lifespan. With regular use, you can expect the blades to last about two or three years; heavier or more frequent use inconsistently bad weather conditions can wear them out more quickly. When they finally expire, it will be time for a pair of replacements.
Extend the Life of Windshield Wipers
All windshield wipers have a certain lifespan of two to three years or 1.5 million wipes on average, but there are a few steps you can take to potentially prolong that lifespan, especially if you don’t use the wipers consistently. In general, the less they are used, the longer they will stay in good condition. With that said, you should always use the wipers when necessary since replacement blades are much less expensive than repairing impact damage.
The “little use, no wear” rule to windshield wipers does have its limits. In theory, the only wear a wiper blade experiences come from the friction created between the glass, the air, and the moving parts when it actually wipes. In reality, however, just being outside will slowly wear them down, especially when it gets hot outside. So, while you can prolong life, they won’t last forever. Always inspect the windshield wipers for wear and tear when you haven’t used them for several months.
With all that said, here are a few tips and tricks you can use to extend the life of your windshield wipers.
- Keep up on the upkeep. Windshield wipers are relatively maintenance-free, but good cleaning never hurts. Wipers that sit for long periods of time will accumulate dust and debris, particularly in the summer and fall months when things like pollen and leaves are in the air. To keep them clear, gently wipe down the windshield wipers with a cloth and some water. Make sure to get the rubber edges to really keep the wiping surface clean as well.
- Wash your windshield periodically. Don’t make the assumption that you can clean your windshield with the wipers and the windshield washer fluid. These can do a good temporary job of restoring your view out of the window, but a deep clean is necessary for getting it almost spot-free. Wiping the windshield down with a cloth and glass cleaner will remove the streaking, stains, and debris that can overwork the wiper motor. The less the motor has to work, the better its longevity should be.
- Scrape off snow and ice manually. Windshield wipers can have a hard time with tough ice and snow in the winter months. While there are some wipers and washer fluid meant for frigid conditions, the extra resistance and mass can overwork the motor. Instead, a simple ice scraper is often enough to get the windshield clean.
- Protect the blades and windshield from bad weather. You shouldn’t worry about bad weather conditions just while you are driving. If you leave your car parked outside, there are a few steps you can take to protect the windshield and wipers (and the rest of the car) from the elements as well. An exterior window cover, for example, can protect the wipers and interior from harmful UV rays and ice buildup in the winter. At the very least, you should keep the blades up when it’s cold so the rubber doesn’t stick and potentially peel onto the glass. If you plan on keeping your car parked outside for a long period of time, invest in a good car cover to protect the entire exterior.
Common Windshield Wiper Issues and Fixes
It’s not uncommon to experience some performance issues with windshield wipers, even if they aren’t close to their expiration date. In many cases, these issues can be due to improper installation, manufacturing defects, or buying the wrong wiper blades for your vehicle in the first place. Some of these issues may require a replacement blade, but there is generally a lot you can do to fix the most common problems without spending more money on new blades.
Just like anything else that moves continuously for long periods of time, windshield wipers have some parts, particularly fasteners, that need to be tight in order to work properly. Loose fasteners can decrease the effectiveness of the blade and even present a danger when driving at high speeds.
The most common fastener that comes loose is the pivot nut that holds the arm to the wiper transmission. When this gets too loose, the arm will simply fail to move with the transmission when the system is on. In other words, the wipers won’t wipe. Sometimes, you may even notice one wiper blade moving while the other just rock up and down in sync.
- Tighten the nut. The good news is that the fix for this issue is relatively simple and straightforward: tighten the nut. You will need the right socket or adjustable wrench, but the nut should be easily accessible right from the front of the vehicle. When you are cranking down onto the nut, be sure to take it easy so you don’t apply too much force. Otherwise, you may strip the threads of the nut.
Having the wipers squeak as they move over the windshield is one of the most common—and most fixable—issues windshield wipers experience. While this can be a sign that the rubber edge is wearing down and that it’s time for a replacement, wiper squeaking is also caused by other issues like stiff or loose materials or poor contact with the windshield.
If the wiper blades are fairly new—within two or three years of age—it’s worth trying a few things before reaching for the replacements:
- Clean the wiper blades to remove dirt and debris. The buildup may just be preventing the rubber from touching the whole surface of the glass. A wet cloth or paper towel ought to be enough to get the job done.
- Clean the windshield by hand. If the wiper blades aren’t dirty, you may have a buildup of grime on the windshield itself. Some glass cleaner and a microfiber towel will remove obstructions on the windshield.
- Refill the wiper fluid. Wiper blades need a wet surface on the glass to avoid squeaking. If there isn’t enough moisture, you may need to refill the wiper fluid if you are running low.
- Gently twist the rubber. If the rubber edge is too stiff, it won’t trail behind the wiper arm while in motion. A gentle twist can loosen it up just enough for a proper fit again.
Newer blades should respond well to some of these steps. If not, or if the blades are just nearing the expiration date, you should consider replacing them.
Chattering and Other Odd Noises
Abnormal noises like clicks, clanks, and chattering are a sign that the rubber edge isn’t making contact with the glass. Unlike squeaking, chattering can mean the frame itself is the main issue if it’s bent, twisted, or too loose on the pivot to maintain the pressure needed against the glass. This issue can be a bit tougher to fix, but it still doesn’t immediately require a replacement:
- Clean the arms and blades. While it’s not as common for the buildup to cause major noises other than squeaking, severe dirt and grime can be an issue. Give both the blades and windshield a good cleaning to rule out this cause.
- Bend the blade frame. Inspect the frame first. The blade should be parallel with the glass. If it doesn’t match the plane of the windshield, you can try to gently bend it back into shape with your hands or some pliers.
If nothing helps, it’s time to replace your blades.
Water smearing is a sign that your blades are either old or defective. When water simply gets pushed around instead of removed, it is generally because the soft rubber isn’t maintaining the contact and pressure needed to work properly. At this point, something needs to be done since the wipers won’t actually work in bad driving conditions.
- Inspect the blade edge. You can try cleaning the blades and windshield to rule out buildup, but it’s best to look at the blades first. Thin layers of rubber scrape away with each wipe, so signs of wear will be noticeable after a while.
- Clean the blades and glass.
- Replace the rubber edge. Some blades allow you to detach the edge and replace it. If you have such a blade, try replacing just the edge to see if things improve.
This is a harder issue to fix and is one where it may be easier just to start over with a replacement, especially if you can’t replace the edge itself.
Lingering Water Droplets
Doesn’t look like the wipers are actually doing anything to your windshield when it’s raining? Water can be stubborn when the windshield is dirty since the extra grime prevents the moisture from running off of the glass. Rural areas and locations with high pollution are particularly susceptible to this issue, which can make driving particularly dangerous since the wipers are essentially useless.
The good news is the wipers themselves probably aren’t to blame. Instead, you have to deal with the friction the dirt creates:
- Remove the dirt and grime on the windshield. A heavy-duty glass cleaner may be required. Double-check the wiper edges are also clean.
- Add a water-repellent treatment to the windshield. The specialized solution will make it more difficult for water to cling to the glass. This treatment can also help keep more dust and dirt from collecting for a while.
This problem is rarely a sign that you need to replace your wiper blades. Generally, old or blade blades will still smear and move water around, even if they don’t completely remove the moisture from the window.
Losing Wiper Control
Unless you have an old-fashioned lever-controlled wiper system, your windshield wipers are susceptible to electrical issues. Loss of control can prevent the wipers from turning on or make it difficult for you to turn them off. On the electrical side of the wiper system, there are a few things that can break or wear out. When this happens, you will likely need to fix or replace the source of the problem:
- Test the controls. If you think the windshield wipers actually work but can’t control them, it’s helpful to try other systems tied into the same controls. For example, you can test out the turn signals or headlights. If those don’t work, the controls have failed and will need to be addressed by a mechanic.
- Replace the fuse. A system that doesn’t start up can be due to a blown fuse. This happens when the motor is overloaded, causing the fuse to blow in order to protect the rest of the circuit. Check for obstructions that can force the wiper motor to overload. You can replace the fuse yourself or get a mechanic to do it.
- Replace the motor. In a worst-case scenario, you may find the motor itself is struggling or has died. A completely dead motor won’t make any noises and won’t respond to any of the controls. A worn or damaged motor, on the other hand, may still work but can sound like it’s struggling to work. In either case, having a professional replace the motor is the best course of action to get the wiper system working again.
Common Wiper Repair Costs
While windshield wiper blades are fairly simple to maintain and even repair when minor issues arise, the entire system is complicated enough that you may need to call in a professional to get things repaired or replaced properly. The good news is repair costs tend to be smaller than other major components of a vehicle, but the costs do vary depending on the actual wiper system part and the individual mechanic or auto shop.
If you need a mechanic to repair or replace a wiper component for your vehicle, your actual cost will depend on a few different factors:
- Part type and function. The type and function of the part will determine how complicated it is to repair or replace. The mechanical components like the arms and blade edges tend to be relatively affordable to repair or replace. Electrical components like the motor and wiring harness, however, are generally more complicated to fix.
- Part cost. If a part needs to be replaced, you can factor in the price of the replacement part into the overall price of the repairs. Different parts have different price tags—which are also dependent on the quality of the part. Motors and linkages tend to be more expensive to replace than the wiper blades themselves.
- Labor costs. The cost of the mechanic’s time will largely depend on the hourly rate and how much time he or she spends to complete the work. Electrical components can take more time to work on but generally require professional help to get repaired correctly. If you have a DIY attitude, you can save money on labor costs by replacing simple parts like the wiper blades yourself.
To give you a ballpark idea of some of the most common repair costs for different components of the windshield wiper system, here are a few estimates:
Buying New Windshield Wipers
If you start to suspect that it’s time to replace your windshield wipers, or you can’t fix an issue with the existing ones, you’ll need to start finding replacements. The most important part of this task is finding wipers that are actually compatible with your vehicle in terms of size and attachment point. In order to get wiper blades that actually clear water and debris away, they need the proper fit.
Types of Wipers
In order to have compatible windshield wipers, you need the right type. For most vehicle types, thankfully, there is a single conventional design that uses the standard wiper blade arm and rubber edge. The arm fits into a spring-tension assembly that forces the rubber edge down onto the glass to create a good barrier.
Generally, this conventional type is meant to be replaced as a whole unit. Some older models do exist where the rubber edge itself can be replaced, but these are becoming less and less common. Thankfully, the cost of replacing the entire arm is small compared to other automotive parts. The average cost of wiper blades is around $26 to $54.
There aren’t too many different types of wiper blades to choose from, but some cars can use alternative designs to the universal design. The most common type is the beam blade, which is a wiper blade that doesn’t have a wiping blade. Instead of the external frame, the rubber edge has a steel spring inside the rubber itself. This allows it to create more uniform pressure against the glass. These are becoming more popular due to the increased performance.
Windshield wipers come in a variety of different sizes to accommodate the different windshield sizes. Larger sizes are more common for larger vehicles like trucks and SUVs. Beyond the different length, however, there usually isn’t any major differences in design or performance. As a result, it’s just important you get the right size for your vehicle.
All vehicles have a single size you will need to find to get the right windshield wipers. This information can often be found in the owner’s manual or on the manufacturer’s website. If you can’t find this information, online size finders also make it easy if you can fill in the make, model, and year of your vehicle.
Beyond the size, the most important thing about wiper compatibility is the attachment type. The way the wiper blade attaches to the pivot depends on the vehicle since different manufacturers use different attachment designs. With that said, there are three common types of attachment points you are likely to find:
- Hook-Slot: These have a hook on the end that wraps around a small tab and into place. This tends to be the most common attachment type.
- Pin Arm: These have a small pin sticking out of the base. To attach it, you just have to push the pin into the slot.
- Straight End: These have a flat end that slides into place. A screwdriver is usually necessary to remove the old blade.
The good news with the attachment end is that different designs aren’t compatible with others. As a result, it’s difficult to go wrong as long as you are familiar with the shape of the end.
Inspecting and Installing New Windshield Wipers
Replacing your windshield wipers is one of the easiest maintenance tasks you can perform on your vehicle. Even though wiper blades tend to last a few years, it’s a good idea to get in the habit of checking the blades and replacing them if you notice any major degradation in performance. When it comes time to replace the blades, it’s also a good idea to inspect the new ones just to make sure they are in new condition.
How to Inspect Old and New Blades
Whether your wipers are attached to the car or just coming out of the box, the inspection process is largely the same. You will want to check the arm and rubber edges for any signs of wear, particularly cracks and tears that will prevent the arm from maintaining proper pressure on the glass. A quick visual inspection is usually enough, so here’s a quick checklist of the things to test:
- Look the arm over. Check for any unnatural bends or twists.
- Check the rubber edge. Look for any wear and tear like cracks.
- Test the wipers periodically. For old wipers, use some wiper fluid to wet the windshield and listen for any squeaks or awkward noises as the wipers move.
Anything that looks or sounds abnormal may be a sign that the wiper blade is not working correctly. For older blades, you can try fixing the issue if it’s small or just replace the wiper itself. For new blades, don’t attach them to the car. If possible, get a new pair and return the defective ones.
Installing New Blades
Most wiper blades just slide and lock into place onto the wiper arms on the vehicle. Different manufacturers and wiper types have different attachment designs—largely for different vehicles—so the exact installation process may be different. For the specifics of attaching and detaching the wiper blades, consult the user manual.
For any wiper, however, here are the basic steps to getting the wipers replaced:
- Remove the old wiper. There should be some kind of tab or slide near the base of the arm that you can unlock. Once it’s open, just slide the wiper blade out of the attachment and set it aside.
- Attach the new wiper. Take the new blade arm and slide it into the attachment housing. You may need to move the arm around if there is a hook on the end. At a certain point, you should hear a click. If not, try putting the lock back into position manually.
- Test the new wiper. It’s important to see if the wiper is tight and works. Just run the wipers with the wiping fluid a couple of times, once again listening for any noises or other signs of issues.
The arms should be tight in the attachment, applying pressure onto the glass throughout the entire stroke. If everything looks and sounds okay, you have successfully replaced the wipers.
Q. How often should I replace my windshield wipers?
A. Since the average lifespan of windshield wipers is two to three years, you can use this as the maximum amount of time you should wait before changing them out. Replacing them sooner can be good if you live in an area with frequent weather that requires the use of wipers since continuous use will wear them more quickly. In these areas, we recommend inspecting the wipers every three or six months—at least before the start of the spring and summer reasons—to see if they need to be replaced.
Q. How long does it take to replace a windshield wiper?
A. Not long at all. Most windshield wipers are designed to come on and off of the vehicle quickly, although this will depend on the attachment design. There is also a short learning curve if you haven’t used a specific attachment design, so be ready for a little trial and error before you are quick with the swapping.
Q. Can my car use conventional blades?
A. Most cars are designed to use conventional blades by default. Since this is the most common type of windshield wiper blade, you are likely already driving a vehicle that uses the style. If you drive a vehicle that has beam blades, however, you probably can’t switch over to beam blades because the attachment style is different.
Q. Can my car use beam wiper blades?
A. If your car was designed to use an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) conventional blade, you most likely can use beam blades as well if you want. Some people find beam blades to be better in terms of performance, but this is more of a subjective thing than a clear advantage. Since they are more expensive, we recommend sticking with conventional wiper blades due to the reliability and cost savings.
Q. Can I clean my window just with the windshield wiper blades?
A. We don’t recommend doing this. Wiper blades can’t reach the entire surface area of the windshield, even though they do clear the main area you look through while driving. More importantly, they aren’t as effective as proper cleaning tools and products like a microfiber cloth, squeegee, and some glass cleaner.
Q. Is it bad to leave my windshield wipers up?
A. While your vehicle is parked, there is no harm to keeping your windshield wipers up. Unless it’s cold outside, however, there isn’t much reason to do so. In cold weather, keeping them up is smart to prevent the motor from overloading and the rubber from getting damaged. In other weather conditions, however, there isn’t much difference whether they are left up or down on the vehicle.
Q. What is the best windshield wiper brand?
A. There are many great wiper blade brands like Rain-X, Bosch, Trico, Acdelco, Anco, and more. There isn’t one best brand since each one offers something a bit different than the others, so it pays to do some research. Choose the brand with the products that fit your needs the best.