7 Car Maintenance Tips for Safe Summer Travel


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Don't be the sad sack on the side of the highway. These basics will prevent most car troubles and save you the heartache of emergencies.

Plan to go somewhere this summer? If so, you are not alone. In fact, AAA projects 38 million Americans will travel on Memorial Day weekend, the second-highest Memorial Day travel volume on record, and the most since 2005.

According to Marshall Doney, AAA president and CEO:

Americans are eagerly awaiting the start of summer and are ready to travel in numbers not seen in more than a decade. The great American road trip is officially back thanks to low gas prices, and millions of people from coast to coast are ready to kick off summer with a Memorial Day getaway.”

If you are planning to travel by car this summer season, take steps to avoid ending up on the side of the road. Make sure your car is in good shape so it won’t break down.

A properly maintained car gets you where you want to go, and saves you money getting there. Here’s what you need to check:

1. Radiator

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Overheating is the No. 1 cause of summer breakdowns, says the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE). Make sure your radiator is adequately filled with coolant at the right concentration — usually a 50/50 mix of water and antifreeze, but check your car’s specifications.

The radiator should be flushed every two years. If it hasn’t been serviced, do so before you hit the road. If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, make sure the engine has cooled before you open the radiator cap to avoid being scalded by boiling coolant.

Check your dashboard temperature gauge while driving. If it moves into the red, you’re going to have to turn your motor off or risk damage. If your engine temperature starts creeping up, try turning your air conditioning off and your heater on — all the way up. You may get hot, but you might save your engine while you look to get help.

2. Hoses

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Your coolant is only as good as the hoses it flows through. Look for leaks, cracks, peeling or separation. While the engine is still warm, squeeze along the hose’s length — it should feel firm, but not hard. If the hose is spongy or soft in even one section, consider replacing it before it fails and causes bigger problems.

Carry duct tape, which may serve as a very short-term fix for a blown hose while you seek help. However, remember that duct tape can’t stand too much heat.

3. Oil

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The hotter the weather gets, the more important oil becomes. Oil helps prevent overheating by lubricating many moving parts. However, oil additives break down over time.

Oil change recommendations are as frequent as every 3,000 miles, but makers of many modern cars say to wait until a maintenance-reminder light brightens your dashboard.

According to the Car Care Council:

Though having to only change your oil every 7,500 miles is something we would all prefer, 3,000 to 5,000 miles are numbers more representative of actual driving conditions. By erring on the side of caution, you’ll help to extend the life of your car.

Check your oil between changes and add a quart or two of your car manufacturer’s recommended grade, if needed.

4. Battery

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Hot weather can strain a battery. Test the battery if it’s more than 3 years old or if you see one of these telltale signs of a failing battery:

  • Lights dim at starting
  • Power drain when turning on the air conditioning
  • Slow cranking when you start the car

Many auto parts stores offer free battery testing. Check your battery to make sure the posts and connections are free of corrosion, a white powdery residue. If it’s not a maintenance-free battery, make sure its cells have plenty of water.

5. Air conditioning

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A marginally operating air-conditioning system may fail in hot weather, says the ASE. Put a thermometer in your car’s vent while the air conditioner is running and see how cool the air is getting.

If it’s not cooling properly, you may try replacing cabin air filters that clean the air entering the heating and air-conditioning system in newer cars. Check your owner’s manual for location and how often they should be replaced.

However, if your air-conditioning system is suffering from a bigger problem — like a leak or loss of refrigerant — it’s likely time for a mechanic.

6. Tires

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Your four tires offer a critical connection to the road, says the Car Care Council. Check them at least monthly. Low tire pressure adds rolling resistance, making it harder for the engine to move your car.

Proper tire pressure, which should be posted on your car door, improves gas mileage by 3.3 percent, or about 10 cents a gallon, the council says.

Underinflation stresses a tire’s internal fabric and steel cord so they flex beyond designed limits and lose their bond to the rubber. The result can be a blowout.

Don’t wait for your car’s tire pressure monitoring system to light up, as it may be too late to save the tire. Instead, check air pressure when the tires are cool — summer weather and friction can cause the pressure inside to rise, giving you a false sense of security.

Also, check the tire tread by inserting a penny: If you can see all of Abraham Lincoln’s head, it’s time for new tires. If the tires look unevenly worn, have your wheel balance and alignment checked.

7. Other

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Here are a few more tips to get your car road-ready for summer:

  • Consider a tuneup. Fouled spark plugs cause the engine to lose power or misfire, wasting fuel and lowering gas mileage. However, check your owner’s manual before scheduling a tuneup. Many newer cars don’t require a tuneup for more than 100,000 miles.
  • Check the brakes. If you notice pulsations, grabbing, noises or longer stopping distances when braking, it’s time for repairs.
  • Change the wipers. Windshield wipers deteriorate faster in sunny weather. If you get caught in a summer shower, you want to be able to see where you’re going. Many auto parts stores offer free installation when you buy new wiper blades.
  • Wash and wax. Sunlight, UV radiation, acid rain, salt, dirt and air pollution can damage your car’s exterior. Protect the paint and finish by washing and waxing your car regularly.
  • Keep a safety kit. In case your car does break down, be prepared with supplies, including water for yourself and the radiator, jumper cables, a flashlight and batteries, and a first-aid kit.

Do you have other summer car maintenance tips? Share them in our Forums. It’s a place where you can swap questions and answers on money-related matters, life hacks and ingenious ways to save.

Stacy Johnson

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