One scorching summer day a few years ago, my friend and I decided to take a drive out to California via a long stretch of desert highway fit for an iconic movie road trip scene. There’s something about the highway that always lets me detach from the daily grind and think about problems and solutions in a different way that normal. I find moving through a moving landscape activates some part of my brain. It wasn’t long before we started to notice one broken down car on the side of the road, and then another, and another, and another. It seemed somewhat strange that all it took was a 20 degree temperature increase to cause these vehicles to stop in their tracks-in mostly similar ways-hood popped steam coming out, flat tires, etc.). I thought, “If these people had just done the following 3 things; 80% of them would still be on the road right now. It’s basic summer car maintenance!” as I drove on smugly down the road laughing pretentiously, adjusting my monocle and top hat and speaking with an amazing British accent. Well fear not, here is my simplified list of the 3 most common tips to avoid a summer car breakdown.
In almost any climate, overheating can be a problem, even cold ones. There are a few reasons why this can happen but the most common is, fortunately for us, also the simplest. People simple never check the coolant level. See, your engine circulates fluid to cool off the heat created by combustion. Over time, your car loses a small amount of the cooling fluid, called “coolant”, especially when it’s hot out. All you need to do is simply add some coolant for your car to the reservoir before you go. It’s fairly straight forward and I’ve linked to this youtube video as an overview. Just remember to make sure that a) The engine is cool, and b) you’re using the right coolant for your car. How can you tell? It will typically say right on the bottle if it’s safe for your car or truck. Most modern coolants will say something like “safe for all models”.
2) Dead Battery.
Heat turns solids to liquids, metals to t-1000’s, rocks into lava, and tires into unicorn tears. It also makes everything just a little bit weaker. Your battery is no different. It works great within a certain temperature range but once the air outside gets too hot or too cold, it starts to wear out faster than normal.
You might not like this next part, but if your battery is starting to get old, you can either choose to replace it now, at a time and location of your choosing, or if your more the type of person who doesn’t like making these types of decisions, your battery will go ahead and take care of it for you. The only difference is that your battery will probably pick the time and location for you, like say I don’t know, when you’ve just gone into the gas station and are in a rush to get to an important meeting, or a wedding. So choose wisely.
I always buy the 5 year gold batteries and replace them after 2-3 years with a new one. Unless you’re in an ideal climate where it’s not too hot or too cold, chances are good you won’t get the full 5 years out of a battery. Sometimes I can even sell the old one to offset the cost of this cheap breakdown insurance (about $120 every 3 years or $40 per year). Short of this, the next best thing you can do is simply clean and seal the terminals. Here’s a video of the process. One small word of caution: It’s easy to touch a wrench, screw driver, etc. between to the terminals-avoid this at all costs as it will use your battery’s power to melt whatever metal item touches both terminals. I’ve done it and it’s not pretty.
3) Flat tires.
One of my best friends owns a tire shop. During the cooler months, business ticks along at a fairly predictable pace, but once the temperatures start to get above 90 degrees, it’s like someone went around exploding tires left and right. You can even see it on the freeways. Driving on a fairly cool weekend in my city of 4.19 million people(Yeah, I had to look that up), there are one or two cars broken down on the side of the road. On a hot weekend, it’s more like 6 or 7 (I actually counted 7 in one 10 mile commute. ) and every single one of them had a visible flat tire. The hot weather makes the small cracks in aged rubber start to split even more causing leaks. Combine this with under inflated tires and it’s a matter of time before you get a visit from the flat fairy. She had a terrible bedside manner as well; kinda like a mother in law you really don’t like, but I digress.
Here are 5 things to check to keep tire drama to a minimum:
Check for splits
Check for proper inflation
Air up your spare every couple of months
Keep gloves in the trunk in case you have to change a tire.
Make sure you have a good working jack.
The most ideal situation is to replace tires, at a time of your choosing(Just like batteries), when you start to see cracks and splits or uneven wear. If that’s not a financial option, try just replacing the worst 1 or 2 offenders. I’ve even bought some pretty decent used tires in a pinch that were in great shape and about 1/3rd the price. Other than this, being prepared for a flat tire can make all the difference in the world. If you have the spare aired up, gloves, and a good jack, you can be back on the road in 15 minutes. It doesn’t have to ruin your trip.
For even more wizard-level tips on keeping your car running like a champ without paying the GDP of a 3rd world country, see my article title How to never break down again. Now go out and get some summer car maintenance done before it’s too hot.