Throughout much of the country, it’s expected to be a hotter summer than usual. According to forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), only residents of the Great Plains are expected to have a cooler than normal or normal summer.
You’re probably already thinking about how to keep your home cool. But have you considered that your car also needs protection from the heat? Most vehicles aren’t designed for extreme temperatures. They need special care when the mercury rises, particularly during summer road trips.
Overheating causes costly damage
Driving an overheated vehicle can cause expensive damage. Cars and trucks that can limp around town for short runs in the cooler months are prone to breakdowns when it’s hot. But even well-cared-for vehicles can be laid low if you don’t heed warning signs and stay on top of hot-weather maintenance. Running too hot can degrade engine oil, ruin gasket seals and seriously damage the engine.
Have a carefree summer by keeping your coolant system topped off when it’s hot. Pull off the road if the vehicle’s temperature gauge gives you a warning. And follow these eight tips for keeping your vehicle running cool:
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The point of a radiator is to keep your engine running cool, so make sure it’s functioning at its best. Check the coolant level at least every oil change, and have the system flushed every 24,000 miles or two years. Radiator fluid can come in several colors — most commonly orange or green — but it should not look milky or rusty. If it does, have the system flushed and inspected by a mechanic.
Never remove the radiator cap when the engine is hot — the coolant could be boiling under pressure and gush out, burning your face or arms.
(Forgetting a pre-trip checkup is just one of the “5 Careless and Costly Summer Travel Mistakes” we reported on recently. Check the story out for more.)
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Your coolant’s not doing much good if it’s not properly circulating through the hoses, and extreme heat can damage a worn hose. Hoses are usually good for at least four years, but not always. Check them visually for leaks, cracks and peeling. While the engine’s 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, replace it before it fails and causes bigger problems.
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Oil lubricates lots of moving parts and helps prevent overheating. If you’re low on oil — or the oil hasn’t been changed recently enough — you’ll put more pressure on your engine and your budget. It’s easy to check, so make a regular habit of it.
Here’s how: After the car’s been running for a few minutes, shut off the engine, pop the hood, pull the labeled dipstick out, and wipe it off completely with a paper towel so you can get a clear reading. Slide it all the way back in, then remove it again. Near the bottom, you’ll see two marked lines, pinholes, crosshatching or “min/max” labels.
As long as the oil is a yellowish-brown — dark oil “needs a change,” milky oil “needs a mechanic” — and stays between those two lines, you’re OK. If it’s low, add a quart or two of the grade your owner’s manual recommends, through the oil cap. Oil should be changed roughly every 5,000 to 7,500 miles, depending on your driving and your owner’s manual.
By the way, to make sure you don’t spend money on unnecessary car maintenance, check out “How to Save $1,000 a Year on Car Maintenance.”
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Battery problems are often associated with winter, but AAA says summer can actually be worse. “Summer heat takes a toll on vehicles, causing overheating engines, tire blowouts and dead batteries,” said Cliff Ruud, managing director of AAA Automotive in a statement accompanying the latest release of the nonprofit federation’s 2017 roadside assistance data.
Some auto places will check your battery free of charge, and most recommend you replace it every three years. If you want to check it yourself, start by seeing if your battery has removable caps on top — if so, peek inside and see if the water level looks low. Add distilled water, not tap water, to every cell that needs it.
With the engine off, check for frayed wires and corrosion (a powdery buildup) around the terminals, where the cables are clamped to the battery posts. Make sure the clamps are firm, too. If there is corrosion, don’t clean it with your bare hands — it’s acid. You can scrub it off with a disposable toothbrush and a mixture of baking soda and water.
If you have to disconnect the cables, always disconnect the one on the negative (-) post first and reconnect it last to reduce the chances of a short-circuit and serious injury.
5. Air conditioning
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For obvious reasons, you want your air conditioning at its best in the summer. An easy way to check is to stick a thermometer through the vent to see how cool the air is getting compared with what temperature the car says it is. If it’s not as cool as you’d like, the first thing to try is checking and replacing your car’s cabin air filter — it’s a $10 job you can handle yourself that should be done every 20,000 miles.
If that doesn’t help, you may need more refrigerant, have leaks or suffer from bigger problems. Time to see a mechanic.
6. Temperature gauge
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Keep an eye on your temperature gauge and make sure it registers cool.
High speeds, idling in traffic, running the AC or pulling a heavy load will cause your car to heat up faster. If you’re worried you may be close to overheating, here is a trick to try: Turn the air conditioning completely off and instead put the heater on high. This will vent some of the engine heat — right in your face, but it’s better than the alternative.
Roll the windows down and pull over to a safe place. Don’t keep driving while your temperature gauge is in the red zone. Give the vehicle time to cool down, and phone for help. Driving your overheated car can result in repairs that can cost in the thousands.
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Heat affects tire pressure, so extreme weather introduces the risk of underinflation or overinflation. Use a hand pressure gauge to make sure your tires’ pressure matches what the owner’s manual or the specs listed on the side of your tire say it should be. Fill up with air at the gas station. Check your tire treads with a penny: If you can see all of Abe’s head when you insert the 1 cent coin, you don’t have enough tread. That means it’s time to shop for new tires to stay safe on the road.
You can get your mechanic to check all this, too, as well as your tires’ alignment and balance. You can also sometimes get your tires rotated for free (or at a minimal extra charge) if you are getting another service — such as brake repairs — that will have your car up on a hoist with the tires off anyway.
8. Emergency kit
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Sometimes even a reasonably well-maintained car will break down. Be sure you’re prepared for an emergency with some basic supplies, including water for the radiator and yourself, jumper cables, a flashlight and batteries and a first aid kit. It’s also probably a good idea to make sure that you have an external charger for your cellphone as well, just in case you get stranded long enough that you can no longer charge it from your car.
What’s your experience driving and maintaining your car in extreme heat or cold? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.
Geof Wheelwright contributed to this post.