Vacationing this summer in a car packed with luggage and kids? The last thing you need is to sit sweltering on the side of the road waiting for a tow truck. Follow these 10 simple tips before you leave the driveway. And don’t forget to turn off the stove.
1. Check Your Tires
Hot roads are tough on tires. Make sure your tires are inflated properly – it takes no more than five minutes and all you need is a tire gauge: buy one at any auto parts store for a couple of bucks. The sidewalls of your tires tell you exactly how much air pressure you should have; so does your owner’s manual and sometimes even the little door that covers your gas fill.
Properly inflated tires will last longer, give you better mileage and a safer ride. Don’t forget to check your spare, and don’t forget to make sure you have a jack and lug wrench!
If you’ve been on the same set of tires for a while, stick a penny in the tread. If any part of Lincoln’s head disappears, you’re good. If your car is shuddering at speed, you may need an alignment or a balance. Take it to a tire shop.
2. Change Your Oil
Oil is your car’s blood – As with humans, if there’s not enough, a horrible death could result. Unlike humans, however, your car needs it’s blood changed every 3,000 – 7,000 miles: check your owner’s manual.
Checking to see if you have enough oil takes less than a minute: park on a level surface, warm up the engine, shut it off, then open the hood and look for the dipstick – it’s sticking out, and often has an oil can symbol on it. Pull it out, wipe it off (you brought a paper towel, right?) and make sure you have enough – there are marks that tell you. And while you’re at it, see how dirty it looks. If it’s black, go to an oil change place. They’re everywhere, and they’re cheap.
If you’re ever driving down the road and your oil light comes on, stop your car. Not sometime soon; not at the next exit: now. Otherwise, plan on engine-shopping.
3. Check Hoses and Belts
Hoses carry your car’s coolant; belts make lots of important stuff work. They’re vital – and they’re easy to check out.
Just look at them: see any loose connections? See any cracks or leaks? Hoses shouldn’t be too soft, and belts shouldn’t be too loose. Neither should be brittle or look overly worn. If you’re in doubt, go to your local auto parts store for a second opinion or have a mechanic check them out. That probably won’t cost you a dime, but could save you a ton of money and aggravation down the road.
4. When did you last change your air filter?
Ever breath through a surgical mask? Not very comfortable. Your car breathes through something similar all the time, because it really doesn’t want to inhale any dirt. Air filters are cheap and checking them is easy – most air filters sit on top of the engine for easy access. Take a look at it – if it’s dirty, replace it. You might improve your mileage by as much as 10%.
5. Replace Your Windshield Wipers
Most people remember to change their windshield wipers when they’re caught in a sudden downpour. Here’s an idea: go to the auto parts store when it’s sunny outside and pick up some new windshield wipers. (You might even get super-industrious and pick up an extra set to store in your trunk.)
Most auto parts stores will not only sell you new wiper blades – they’re actually go out to the parking lot and put them on for you at no charge. It’s best to replace the entire wiper blade, not just the rubber part.
If you do end up replacing the wipers yourself, go slow. Pay attention to how they’re coming off; sometimes it’s simple, sometimes it’s a little tricky. If they fly off the car when you turn them on, you probably didn’t do it right.
6. Check Your Brakes
It should go without saying that the rest of your car doesn’t matter much if the brakes don’t work well. If you suspect there’s an issue, go to a brake repair shop and let them have a look.
Here are some signs to look for:
- Your brake pedal is soft and mushy or hard and resistant
- You see a warning light on your dash
- You hear scraping and grinding noises
Of those signs, scraping and grinding is the one to be most concerned about because that means your brake pads or shoes are about gone. Which means you’re about to ruin some other expensive brake parts, not to mention your day when your car doesn’t stop. Check it out immediately.
7. Check Your Battery
Summer heat is tough on batteries. Make sure your terminals (the posts that stick up) are clean. One way to clean them is to use a baking soda/water solution. Pour it on, watch it fizz, wipe it off. Make sure your battery is held down securely. Most batteries these days are maintenance-free, meaning you can’t add water to them. But if there are caps to allow it to be filled, check the water level and if it’s low, add distilled (not tap) water.
Happily, batteries are another thing your local auto parts store will check for you, usually free. If in doubt, seek one out.
8. Check the Coolant and Radiator
An engine that’s overheating is in the exact same category as one without enough oil – close to death. If your car is overheating, you need to stop sooner rather than later. As I said in the video above, one trick you can try is to turn the air conditioner off and the heater on full blast. That may help temporarily lower the temperature enough to get you to help. But the longer that gauge stays in the red, the closer you’re coming to a huge repair bill. Stop your car.
Checking your cooling system is pretty simple. When the car’s cool, check the radiator overflow (or the radiator itself) to make sure there’s plenty of water – which should look green or yellow because it should have anti-freeze (which is also anti-heat) in it.
The rule of thumb is to flush and fill your radiator every couple of years.
Two signs of cooling trouble: if there’s a colorful puddle under your car, you’re leaking coolant. And if the temperature goes up when you’re idling in traffic, you may have a low coolant level or other issues. Have it checked out.
9. Check your air conditioning
This one’s not rocket science, because there’s not much you can do to service your own air conditioner. But since your air conditioner is the only thing that separates your family vacation from a trip to hell, you want to make sure it’s working well. If it seems like it’s not blowing as cold as it should, have it checked out. The problem is probably a low refrigerant level, which is a fairly cheap fix. If there’s no cold air at all or the fan won’t come on, that could be an expensive one.
10. Put together a roadside emergency kit
Since all problems seem to be unexpected, the way to keep from having one is to plan for it. Put the following stuff in your trunk.
- Screwdrivers and wrenches of various sizes
- Jumper cables
- A quart of two of oil
- A can of “Fix-a-Flat”
- Water for the radiator and yourself
- Emergency flares and reflectors
- Rags and/or a roll of paper towels