With summer right around the corner, 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.
Driving an overheated vehicle can cause expensive damage. Older cars and trucks that limp around town for short runs in the cooler months are prone to breakdowns when it’s hot. Even newer 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 pay attention to these eight things:
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 a mechanic flush and inspect the system.
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.
Your coolant isn’t 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.
Oil lubricates a lot of moving parts and helps prevent overheating. If you’re low on oil — or the oil hasn’t been changed recently — you’ll put more pressure on your engine and your budget.
It’s easy to check, so make a regular habit of it. 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.
As long as the oil is a yellowish-brown — dark oil “needs a change,” milky oil “needs a mechanic” — and rises to the proper level indicated on your dipstick, you’re OK. If it’s low, add a quart or two of the grade your owner’s manual recommends. Oil should be changed roughly every 5,000 to 7,500 miles, depending on your driving and the instructions in your owner’s manual.
To make sure you don’t spend money on unnecessary car maintenance, check out “How to Save $1,000 a Year on Car Maintenance.”
Battery problems are often associated with winter, but summer heat also can be tough — even fatal — for your battery.
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 must 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
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. 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. It 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
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: Turn the air conditioning completely off and instead put the heater on high. This will vent some of the engine heat — right into 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 thousands of dollars.
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 is in the owner’s manual or the specs listed on the side of the tires. 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. He or she also can check the 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.
8. Emergency kit
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, jumper cables, a flashlight and batteries, and a first-aid kit. Make sure you have an external charger for your cellphone as well, just in case you get stranded long enough that you can no longer charge the phone 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.