Troubleshooting Your Windshield Wipers: How to Fix 5 Common Problems

by Brett & Kate McKay on August 23, 2012 · 40 comments

in Cars, Manly Skills



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We typically give little thought to our vehicle’s windshield wipers until we actually need them and they don’t properly work. I’ve had a few experiences where I was essentially driving blind through the torrential rain of an Oklahoma thunderstorm because my wiper blades were shot and simply smeared the sheets of water across my windshield. Man, those were some scary drives. Even when I’ve had brand spanking new blades, I’ve experienced a few drives where it seemed like no matter what I did, my windshield was a blurry mess.

Today we take a look at the most common windshield wiper problems and offer some solutions that will give you a clear view of the road ahead in even the worst weather. It’s a good addendum to this week’s post on maintaining your car.

Smearing in Both Directions

If your wipers smear water in both directions, you may have one of the following problems:

  • worn blades
  • a dirty windshield and/or wiper blade
  • sub-par windshield wiper fluid

Try using new wiper fluid and cleaning the windshield and wiper blades before you replace the blades. To clean your wiper blades, simply wipe them with a clean rag dipped in hot, soapy water. After you clean off the soap, wipe the edge of the blade with rubbing alcohol. That can help with reducing streaks on your windshield.

Water Smearing in Only One Direction

Water smearing in only one direction is common in cold weather, so there’s not much you can do about that. If you notice the smearing in one direction even when it’s not cold, it means your wiper blades are either, 1) old and hard or 2) the wrong size. Either way, you’ll need to buy new wiper blades.

Water Beads That Won’t Wipe Away

Boy, is this annoying. Water beads are actually supposed to be easy to wipe away. In fact, many of the windshield treatments that help keep your windshield clear cause water to bead and run off. But in certain conditions, beads won’t wipe or run off your windshield. Instead they’ll remain stuck dancing hypnotically on the glass, obscuring your vision.

This problem usually occurs in areas with high pollution. The residue and grime that builds up on your windshield causes water beads to stick. Before you treat your windshield with a product that repels water, give it a thorough cleaning to remove any residue that may have built up. If using a strong glass cleaner doesn’t do the trick, you might consider using a wax remover on your windshield. Watch out for the paint, though!

Chattering

The sound of your wipers chattering away on your windshield isn’t just grating, it also means the water isn’t getting wiped away efficiently; you’ll often see streak marks in the path of a chattering blade. There are a few possible causes of this problem. It’s often the result of a buildup of wax, oil, or grease which prevents the blade from cleanly wiping the water away. Give your windshield a nice, thorough scrubbing. Give the blades a good cleaning too, for good measure.

If that doesn’t fix the chattering, the problem may be a bent wiper arm. To make this diagnosis, bring the wiper up to mid-stroke on the windshield and examine the blade assembly. The blades should be making full contact on the windshield and the blade arms should be parallel to the glass. If the arm is bent, use some pliers to carefully twist it until it is parallel with the glass again.

A final reason that a wiper blade might chatter over the glass is because it is frozen. Give it some time to warm up with the defroster and you should be back in business.

Ensure Crystal Clear Vision by Regularly Changing Your Wiper Blades & Treating Your Windshield with a Water Repellant

Most of the problems above can be prevented by doing two simple tasks: changing your wiper blades regularly and treating your windshield with a water repellent.

Replace wiper blades regularly. Don’t wait until you find yourself in a downpour to realize it’s time to replace your wiper blades. They should be in top condition before you need them. The recommended wiper replacement schedule is once a year. Even if you don’t use your blades all that often, it’s still a good idea to replace them at this frequency. The hot sun beating down on an unused wiper blade can cause just as much damage as regular use in the rain.

A good time to replace your blades is at the tail end of winter. They’ll likely have just finished their harshest tour of duty clearing away all that snow and ice. A fresh set of wiper blades in March will ensure that you’re ready for the coming spring rains.

Treat your windshield with water repellent. There are a few products out on the market that, when applied to your windshield, repel water and make it easier for your blades to wipe it away. You have to apply it when your windshield is dry; so don’t try waiting until it starts to rain. Treatments typically last a few months, so you’ll need to reapply it regularly.

Windshield Washer Fluid Troubleshooting

You’re cruising down the freeway at 75 MPH when you come upon a dump truck full of gravel and dirt spewing dust behind it. Your windshield becomes caked in dust and visibility is quickly diminishing. Your hand automatically reaches to your windshield wiper handle, turns to activate the washer fluid spray, and…. nothing happens. Ah, crap.

Windshield wiper fluid is one of those things you don’t use too often, but it’s pretty annoying (and sometimes unsafe) when you need it and the sprayers don’t deliver. Here’s a quick troubleshooting guide to help you figure out your windshield washer fluid woes so you can have clear driving no matter what you encounter along the road.

Check the washer fluid pump. Even if you have a full tank of fluid, if the pump doesn’t work, your windshield can’t get sprayed. To find out if a faulty pump is the problem, do the following:

Pop open the hood and find the washer fluid pump. It’s pretty easy to locate. Just follow the tubing from the washer sprayers until you run into the pump. Have a friend get in the driver’s seat and activate the washer fluid switch. If the pump is working, it should make some noise. If your pump is silent, you’ll need to replace it. I’ve never done this job before, but it’s supposedly not too difficult. If you’re comfortable with tinkering, have at it. If not, take it to a mechanic and have them replace it.

Check for leaks in the washer fluid tank and tubes. It doesn’t matter how much washer fluid you dump down the tank, if you have a leak somewhere in your system, you’ll always come up short on the blue stuff when you need it most. Check the washer fluid tank for cracks. If you find any, chuck it and replace it with a new one.

If there aren’t any cracks in the tank, check the tubes leading to the spray nozzles for splits. If none are visible, run your fingers along the line. If you feel something wet, you found your leak. Replace as needed.

Check for clogged spray nozzles. If all the above checks out and you’re still not getting any spray, you might have a clogged spray nozzle. Stick a pin or a toothpick in the nozzle and dislodge any gunk that may be clogging it.

Any other advice on solving common windshield wiper problems? Share it with us in the comments.  

{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Josh August 23, 2012 at 1:26 pm

Tip: Do NOT buy the cheapest wiper blades you can find. Those $3 blades absolutely suck, and you’ll be stuck with a smearing pair of blades until you buy new ones. Sure, you may get lucky, but probably won’t. Also, ridiculously expensive blades are overkill; they don’t provide any additional benefit. Find a blade priced somewhere in the middle, and both your wallet and your windshield will stay happy.

2 Boomer August 23, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Never ever put anything on your windshield. Water repellents (read: RainX) only cause a haze on the windshield when the wipers wipe across it. It can be deadly at night. Put the repellent on your side and rear window if you must. Leave the front clean. You know it’s clean when water sheets on it. Clean it till that happens.

3 JRThom August 23, 2012 at 3:01 pm

A vast majority of the time the problem is a dirty windshield. If the water does not bead into perfect hemispheres on your windshield then your windshield is dirty.

If it looks like picture 3 what has happened is rubber from the wiper blades rubbed onto the windshield which breaks the waters surface tension thus preventing it from beading. The most common cause of this is using your wipers when it isn’t raining or raining enough. You may or may not have to replace your wiper blades depending on how badly worn they are.

Picture 4 is cause by a plain old dirty windshield. The dirt on the windshield breaks the waters surface tension and thus its ability to bead.

4 lolwut August 23, 2012 at 3:53 pm

@Boomer I disagree. I’ve used RainX for years, and when applied properly there is no haze left behind at night or during the day. It’s kinda like car wax: the first pass leaves a haze, and you wipe clean on the second, maybe third pass.

It’s works well enough that at highway speeds, i often find it clearer to not even use the wipers.

5 ajax August 23, 2012 at 4:03 pm

If RainX causes a haze then you haven’t applied it correctly. I’ve been using it for almost 20 years and it’s better in the rain than any wiper brand or speed setting. I like to keep a few alcohol swabs (like the kind hospitals use) in my glove compartment to clean the blades of the wipers periodically. In a pinch, wiper fluid will work. Just take a paper towel, wet it with wiper fluid, and wipe the blade while pinching it with the towel. You’ll be amazed at how much crap you’ll get off the blade and how much it improves the sweep.

Another tip that the article missed was for winter drivers. If you’ve ever had to use your wipers after a frost or ice storm and one or both of them seem to have “broken” or stopped sweeeping because they were frozen to the windshield or blocked by a pile of snow (I know you’re out there), this is actually a very easy and simple fix. reset the wipers to the “rest” or off position. There is a cap on the bottom of the arm that should pop off with little more than a flat screwdriver blade. Re-tighten the bolt under that cap with the appropriate size wrench or ratchet socket (usually 1/2″ if memory serves) and replace the cap. Turn on the wipers and revel in the satisfaction of car repair.

6 Al August 23, 2012 at 8:28 pm

90% of all wiper problems can be solved by pouring rubbing alcohol on a paper towel and rubbing your wipers with it, hence, cleaning them off. It also treats them, preventing most of the issues above.

Rain X does not haze if applied per directions. It is a near perfect product, and can save your life is a truck splashes your windshield when you’re going 70 in heavy traffic.

7 Charlie August 24, 2012 at 3:10 am

One situation I have run into before is ice blocking the nozzles. Driving in frozen sleet is bad enough without having to deal with an obscured windshield. When ice keeps building up and freezing over the nozzles, keep a thermos/bottle/coffee cup of hot water in the car, then whenever the nozzles freeze over, pull over, hop out, and pour some hot water on the nozzles. Gets rid of the ice quickly and you risk damaging them like you would if you were to try to chip it off.

8 Jason reed August 24, 2012 at 10:50 pm

Man,I left law few years ao and had no direction, except. i ioved the law and was finishing school. Practiced until I could have no more of the crap. Your website is awesome. I read it everyday. Keep up the excellent work – jason

9 Native Son August 24, 2012 at 11:23 pm

Years ago, we used rubbing alocohol on a towel to clean wiper blades on the company vehicles. It still works to clean dirt, soot, wax, etc from wiper blades. It’s not a substitute for replacing worn out blades, but it will keep things working when dirty blades are the problem.

10 josh August 27, 2012 at 10:59 pm

i would highly recommend either rain x latitude or bosch icon wiperblades they are a one pressure point design blade and offer excellent contact on the window.

(UTI STUDENT)

11 Bob August 29, 2012 at 5:57 pm

If you have bad performing wipers, and
cannot replace them immediately try
this. Place a sheet of sandpaper on
a flat surface, then hold the blade
vertically on the sandpaper and make
3 or 4 back-forth strokes. This restores
the edge of the blade. Won’t work like
a new one but can help vision a lot.

12 GardenStater September 3, 2012 at 6:47 am

I agree with the others that Rain-X is great stuff. There’s also a product called Invisible Glass that you can get with a Rain-X type repellant. I’ve used both products for years, and never had an issue with hazing. But it’s important to follow the directions: Rain-X tells you not to spray the product on the windshield, but onto a soft cloth. Maybe that’s the problem. Anyway, It keeps my windshield spotless and safe.

13 PJB863 September 4, 2012 at 12:10 am

When I lived in FL, Rain-X was a necessity in the summer rainy season. It just rains way too hard for the wipers to even keep up.

14 Daniel Butler September 4, 2012 at 1:27 am

Related to Bob’s post above: My sister (of all people!) heard that you can use a lady’s emery board, one of those flexible nail files, instead of sandpaper. I have used my wife’s many times and have not had to replace wiper blades for a long time. And I do not have to remove the blades. I experimented on the back window wiper first (because I had little faith) and I was very pleased with the results.

15 david September 8, 2012 at 6:26 am

one thing not covered in article. over a period of years, windshields will develope a spotty, almost film like “stain ” that cant be cleaned off ,wiper fluid wont clear it and alcohol seems to fail too. it is most noticable when using low speed on wiper switch. this is caused by polution, be it automotive, or other modern items. auto makers have actually sent out service bulletins on this very problem,with a notation that it is not a warranty issue.
If you notice a “film” on glass ,even when using new blades, go to nearest auto parts store and buy a product called body clay, it is meant to remove micro swirl marks in clear coat and laquer finishes- with out removing massive amounts of the finish.
wet windshield with a light mist of windex, or plain water, gently rub the clay bar in small,circles until the clay drags on surface, then re-wet and do it again. continue over entire surface of windshield, repeat once per year. i have been doing this to my cars, my motorcycles, and customer cars for 15 years with never a complaint over the results. Once you have got the glass clean using the clay bar, wash it down with a genlte soap and water mix . one last note- dont wash your car with dish-soap -it will not rinse clean and will ruin paint,wax and glass surfaces.
ever wonder why soap companies sell “rinsing agents” for dishwashers?

16 Edohaus September 12, 2012 at 3:27 am

Wipers deteriorate due to one major factor, the sun. If you can park your car in the shade, do so.

Another thing is, if you get hit by an egg on your windscreen, don’t use your wipers to remove it. It’ll cause your windscreen be blurred.

17 John Borges September 12, 2012 at 5:11 am

For cleaning windshields, the best thing to use is a mild scouring powder like Bon Ami. It works like the body clay mentioned in the previous comment but it sound easier to work with.
Try this before you replace your blades and save some money.

18 Adam September 12, 2012 at 9:46 am

Any ideas about this? My wipers do not come in contact with a ~6″ diameter spot smack in the middle of the windshield. They wipe all around it, but not that particular spot. This is on a 2004 Accord and I’m using fairly decent ($20 each) wipers. Have tried several brands.

19 david September 12, 2012 at 8:40 pm

Adam,

I did a search of Honda tech bulletins for you, no information there. I have found, on some imports,( Honda ,Kia, and Hyundai )
that some windshields have a very slight indentation near center of the windshield that wipers just cant touch. Unfortunately, the only remedy is to replace the windshield.
Check with your insurance provider, you may be able to get it replaced for free with no deductable or penalties(we have that in South Carolina)

20 megan September 25, 2012 at 6:30 pm

I have a 2000 ford taurus. my windshield wipers dont work in te morning when I get ready to go to school, but when I come home in the afternoon work perfectly fine. Does anyone know what could cause this?

21 Rob October 15, 2012 at 1:47 am

My wipers work great except for when I try to use the wiper fluid. I make sure my wiper-fluid resevoir is not empty, but my passenger wiper jet does not spray the wiper fluid when I press the button, and the left wiper jet has recently started to not spray a decent stream. Is it due to a faulty pump, or bad jets? The wiper-fluid reseviour is on the driver side, and I have a feeling it is the pump, for it takes greater pressure to push the fluid all the way through the lines to make it to the passenger side, so it makes sence that that particular wiper-jet ceased to work first. Any idea how to fix it? It is a 2003 pontiac grand am. Thank you.

22 Danielle October 20, 2012 at 6:33 pm

MY husbands car, the windows dont work, the windshield wipers dont work and neither does the heat. We have check all fuses and relays and still nothing. a few people have checks the motors for them and they are fine, any ideas?

23 ricky February 20, 2013 at 8:54 am

My blade set upwards instead of resting down

24 Robert March 1, 2013 at 3:24 pm

I find that using an old guitar A string is good at clearing a clogged sprayer.
Just unclasp the hose from under the hood and feed the string through.

25 Will March 24, 2013 at 10:27 am

When you’re at the gas station cleaning the windows, flip the wiper blades over and clean the rubber with the foam/cloth part of the winshield cleaner- usually works great to get the wipers going well again.

Also if you live anywhere with regular snowfall where they put Mag-Chloride of salts on the road a haze will build up on the winshield and lights that’s a real PIA to deal with. There are fancy tablets and additives that cost as much as the wiper fluid- instead add 1/2 a pint of the cheapest rubbing alcohol (isopropanol) you can find. Does great at cutting through the scum, and also keeps the junk cleaned out of the jets.

Will have to try the sandpaper trick to refurb the edges of my older wipers.

26 bob April 16, 2013 at 2:28 pm

People think that cheap windsheild wiper blades are ok for there car . Now we know that cheap wiper blades and other product are not good for your windsheild

27 stephen June 14, 2013 at 11:07 pm

when i use my wipers they swing back and forth very hard, they will slam down on the hood of the truck and when they swing up they at times almost swing past the edge of the windshield, any suggestions?

28 Matt August 12, 2013 at 4:43 pm

Stephen,

I have the same issue. The driver’s side wiper hits the edge of the windshield on every stroke. I’m going to try bending it today but was hoping to find suggestions online of how to limit the travel of the wiper motor or something similar.

29 Ken October 10, 2013 at 3:59 pm

To remove wiper arm, bend back against spring pressure then pull up or remove nut from spindle. Lubricate the spindle with one or two drops of automatic transmission fluid, don’t use ordinary oil as this can affect rubber parts.

30 David November 4, 2013 at 8:52 am

Hello.

I have used Rainx on my car windscreen but still have the haze on it. How do I get rid of the haze.

David

31 channing December 5, 2013 at 11:52 am

i have a 1985 gmc sierra 1500 classic and the wiper blades that are on it will not come off no clips or anything to release over bar looks like a spring holding it with a little round bolt lock looking thing on top does that need to be remove to get them off

32 Miser Lee December 11, 2013 at 8:55 pm

Cheap fix for stripped wiper arm splines: cut a strip of beer can and use it for a shim between the spline and the wiper arm socket where the fluted sections meet. Tighten it down really well and you are good to go.

33 John December 21, 2013 at 9:13 am

For years I suffered with smeary hazy windscreens. I used every glass cleaner under the sun from Windowlene to Auto Glym. I tried isopropyl alcohol, wire wool, even vinegar but nothing would stop the smear until….I decided that perhaps it wasn’t grease or wax that was the problem but a build up of limescale. I live in a very hard-water area and limescale eventually leaves a trace on everything to do with water.

Even though I had tried vinegar previously, this time I soaked a towel in vinegar and left it on the windscreen for an hour or so. Then I gave the screen a vigorous rub with the vinegar-soaked towel and hey presto, I now have a crystal-clear windscreen and NO MORE smear.

34 Paul January 14, 2014 at 7:41 pm

if you have limescale or anything you want off your glass try using an acidic toilet cleaner. Be careful of paint and chrome, it will stain and damage the paint finish.

35 craig January 25, 2014 at 10:30 am

i have a rover 45. my windscreen wipers dont work. fuse ok. when i switch them on i can hear them clicking but wont move. can i fix them myself.

36 Chris.s January 27, 2014 at 6:30 pm

I drive a stupid 2005 Kia Spectra has almost 100,000miles and I’m pretty sure I have a crack in washer fluid pump or tube leading to the spray nozzle. washer fluid drains really fast. When I try to spray it make a noise like a buzzing but nothing comes out…and under the hood gets slightly wet. How much would something like replacing the pump or tubing coast?

37 Jonathan T. January 29, 2014 at 2:27 am

Chris s. Junk yard is the cheapest and not only that you can figure out how to remove and replace it in a junk yard without worry of breaking it, if you break it dont buy it.. it becomes junk, make sure its a you pull it, and rain x is the absolute best thing ever, I rarely use my windshield wipers esp at night I dont even see rain drops, and for windshields, I use actual rubbing compound and it removes anything stubborn within 5 minutes! Then just windex with non ammonia the residue off!

38 Meghan February 3, 2014 at 10:57 am

I replaced my windshield wipers because I was having a large smudge/smear in one direction on the drivers side of my windshield, regardless of hot or cold weather. I replaced my old rain-x latitudes with new ones and also thoroughly cleaned the windshield. I am still having the same problem with the brand new blades. Any suggestions?

39 Pier Luigi Long April 2, 2014 at 2:17 pm

One of the less-common reasons why a windscreen washer is not squirting fluid, is the fuse. Check your owner’s manual, and find the approapriate position, and if the fuse is blown, it will need to be replaced.

40 2000_Taurus April 11, 2014 at 9:52 pm

Windshield washer pump went inop. Took it apart, there was some blue stuff plugging the screen that covers the input port. Cleaned it out, reassembled, and it works fine. TIP: If w/w reservoir tank is full, remove it entirely and drain it before working on pump, unless you want to clean up BIG MESS like I did when tank flushed itself all over garage floor. D-OH! Or maybe suck out fluid using ShopVac or the like in wet mode.

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