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 than normal. I find that cruising through a moving landscape activates some part of my brain.
It wasn’t long before we noticed a 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, as I drove on, smugly, down the road, laughing pretentiously, adjusting my monocle and top hat, and speaking with an amazing British accent, “If these people had just done three simple things; 80% of them would still be on the road right now. It’s basic summer car maintenance!”
Well, fear not, here is my simplified list of the three most common ways to avoid a summer car breakdown.
In almost any climate, overheating can be a problem, even cold climates. 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 to the reservoir before you go. It’s fairly straight-forward as you can see in this YouTube video. 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 should probably choose to replace it now, at a time and location of your choosing. If you’re more the type of person who doesn’t like making these decisions, you can just wait for it to die. 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 five-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 five years out of a battery. Sometimes I can even sell the old one to offset the cost of this cheap breakdown insurance, which is only 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 only a matter of time before you get a visit from the flat fairy. She has a terrible bedside manner as well – kinda like a mother-in-law you really don’t like. But I digress.
Here are five things to do 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 one or two offenders. I’ve even bought some pretty decent used tires in a pinch that were in great shape and about one-third 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.
Now, go out and get some summer car maintenance done before it’s too hot.