Preparing Your Car for Summer
By Mark Devlin
Sirius Communications LLC
Volumes have been written about car maintenance and related tasks whose relevance reaches critical mass in the hot summer months. Regulation and rapidly complicating technologies have taken many tasks out of the hands of the do-it-yourselfer. Nonetheless, there’s still some good information for you in this month's feature article. Whether you’re a shade tree mechanic or know absolutely nothing about cars, here are some ways to get you and your ride reliably through the grueling heat of the summer ahead.
Remember the old days? If you were ever stuck in a 60s or 70s summer traffic jam, you probably witnessed or even had one of the countless cars steaming from beneath raised hoods. Today, we dont often see such vehicular reminders that summertimes here.
The engineering thats gone into your entire vehicle is worlds beyond cars made just ten or twenty years ago. Even with more plastic components, todays cooling systems handle extremely tough cooling loads exaggerated by high underhood temperatures. Most cars accessory belts are now of higher technology materials in a more reliable serpentine designsometimes lasting up to 60,000 miles before replacement. Electronically controlled fans on many models kick-in full-tilt to cool things off when
the going gets rough, and materials for such items as radiator and heater hoses have also advanced dramatically. Does that mean theres nothing to worry about? Hardly.
The first and foremost thing to rememberespecially in summer drivingis
to watch your coolant temperature gauge. Even if its not marked numerically, it will indicate cold, safe, and hot. You probably have a general idea of where the needle "settles" under normal driving conditions. If it heads up towards hot, especially in stop-and-go traffic, watch to see if it stops, then gradually drops. This means that your cars cooling fans have activated and are pulling more air through the cooling systems radiator. This is a good thing. If you notice that the cars running hotter than usual, have the cooling system checked by a professional. If it lands solidly in the red or HOT area, your engine is overheating. Start looking for a safe place to pull over that wont endanger you or other motorists. Get off the road and turn the engine offfailing to do so could cause severe engine damage. Wait at least a half hour before restarting the engine. When you do, make sure that the temperature gauge is now within the normal operating area of the gauge. If youre close to home, take the car home and call the service facility you normally deal with, explain the problem, and let them handle it from there. If youre not close to home, call the number for your road service plan and have the vehicle taken to the nearest service facility. DO NOT DRIVE THE CAR IF IT IS OVERHEATING.
Here are a few preventive measures you can take before disaster strikes. Refer to the accompanying general cooling system diagram, courtesy of www.prestone.com.
Heater Control Valve
Automotive Cooling and Heating System Components
With your engine COOL (after its been sitting overnight is the best time to do this):
- Visually inspect your cars radiator hoses. (What does a radiator hose look like?) No other underhood components should be touching them. Anything contacting the radiator hoses could potentially wear a hole through the radiator hose at the point of contact. Result? Coolant loss and overheating. In some cases, other underhood items are allowed to contact the radiator hoses, but in these cases youll usually see a factory-designed clamp of some sort to securely hold the connected items. The idea is to stop any potential rubbing abrasion between radiator hoses and anything else in todays tightly cramped engine compartments.
- Visually check the ends of the radiator hoses and heater hoses. If you notice any whitish or greenish residue where a hose connects, thats a slow coolant leak. Try snugging the hose clamp a little tighter. REMEMBER THAT OVERTIGHTENING HOSE CLAMPS CAN DAMAGE RADIATOR AND HEATER HOSES. If you see exposed green liquid, thats antifreeze/coolantand youve got a more severe leak. Replace the hose and clamps if you have the experience to do so. If not, get the car to a shop to be fixed as soon as possible. Look for any tiny cracks or other indications that the rubber of the hose is failing. If you notice any cracksno matter how smallthe hose must be replaced.
- Squeeze the radiator hoses. They should feel firm, and outer surfaces should be uniform in their bends and straight areas. Any strangely-located "bubble" or other non-uniform rise in the hose usually indicates internal hose failure. In these cases, the hose must be replaced before the bubble bursts, which could strand you without a moments notice. If the hose feels "soggy," not firm, age has taken its toll and the hose must be replaced.
- With the cold engine off and your ignition keys in your pocket for safety, check the accessory drive or serpentine belts for potential problems. A couple of these problems include:
Glazing (underside of belt is polished to a shiny luster, causing slippage)
Oil contamination (from a leaky power steering pump, for example), which will also cause the belt to slip
Age. If you notice any form of cracking, the belt should be replaced.
- Check your coolant overflow tank. It should be clearly marked "Coolant" or "Coolant Overflow." The fluid level in it should be equal to the "Full/Cold" line. Add coolant if necessary, and do not exceed the "Full/Cold" indicator line. Coolant needs the extra room in the overflow tank for expansion. Excess added coolant will eliminate this extra room for expansion, forcing coolant out when the car is hot.
Before You Turn On the Air Conditioning
When the air conditioning is on, your cars cooling system works overtime. Why? When you flip on the a/c, the systems condenser (positioned in front of the radiator in a/c-equipped cars) goes beyond warm to downright hot. In basic terms, the condenser is the part that throws the heat from your interior back into the atmosphere. Since its mounted very close to your engines cooling system radiator, the condenser drives radiator temperature skyward.
The key to keeping these critical elements in a safe, reliable operating temperature range is good coolant flow. In time, your engines coolant picks up contaminants from within your engine itself, as well as from deteriorating components and surfaces of cooling system components. These contaminants build up in hundreds of small passages, or "tubes" within the radiator. As long as these tubes are clear, its likely that coolant flow will be sufficient. If your cars accumulated more than about 40,000 miles, chances are good that these tubes are beginning to clog. As time passes, the openings in these tubes gradually shut off coolant flow. The more tubes become clogged, the more critical the situation becomescooling system effectiveness drops dangerously once the tubes start clogging.
You need to maintain your cooling system by using either additives in the early stages (which breakdown contaminants and lubricate moving parts of the cooling system), or taking the car to a shop that can completely "flush" your cooling system. DO NOT drain the coolant in your driveway and stick a hose in the radiator filler neck. Garden hose water pressures wont do much goodif any at allto clear radiator tubes and, worse, coolant/antifreeze is a toxic substance regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. No matter what you dofrom draining it in your driveway to washing it into the street or pouring it down a drain in your housethe toxic coolant will end up damaging the environment. Plus, ethylene-glycol coolant has a sweet taste
that attracts animals including house pets. Traditional coolant/antifreeze will kill animals that have ingested even small amounts, though more expensive, pet-safe coolant formulations are available.
While it may break the heart of a do-it-yourselfer, the best thing to do is have your cooling system professionally flushed and chemically treated. Shops that offer complete, pressurized cooling system flush services also replace your coolant, use additives to keep the system clear longer and extend its life, and recycle the old liquid. So, your cooling systems clean, the environments happy, the EPA doesnt come knocking at your door with a warrant, and your spouses pet Bluto doesnt end up paws-to-the-sky on your lawn.
Since Freon refrigerant is no longer available to the general public, this is going to be a very short section. (Freon has become regulated and is only available to certified technicians and repair shops, because of potential damage to the ozone layer. Not only do professional technicians have the training and experience to dramatically lessen or eliminate Freons release into the atmosphere, shops now have equipment to recycle Freon.)
Even with the general unavailability of Freon, there are still a few things you can do to help your a/c system. Make sure your cars grillwork is free of any blockages (leaves, road trash, etc.). If you have access to the a/c condenser (it looks like a radiator and is mounted in front of the radiator), make sure the front of it is also clear of any debris. Anything blocking airflow through the condenser and radiator can reduce air conditioning and engine cooling system efficiency. Use a garden hose with a spray nozzle aimed at the condenser and wash it clean of debris, bugs, anything that may have accumulated on it.
The hundreds of fins of the a/c condenser must not only be clear, but not bent into one another. If they are, the bent fins will block airflow. While you could carefully straighten the fins with a small screwdriver and a lot of patience, an easier solution is to get a fin "comb" designed just for this purpose, available at a local auto parts store. As you run the comb through properly-spaced and straightened finsmoving towards the bent onesthe "cob" will guide the bent fins apart and position them properly for better airflow through the condenser.
Nows the best time of year to not only wash your vehicle, but protect it from summers ravaging rays and corrosive salt air at Jersey shore points. After you wash your car, use a high-quality cleaner-wax to remove deep-seated dirt and surface contaminants, then top it off with at least one (two is better) coats of a high-quality finish wax. To keep that protection lasting, use car washing soapNOT
DISHWASHING LIQUIDto wash the car. Soaps formulated specifically for car washing should not remove previously applied waxes, but always check the label. Dishwashing liquid gradually strips your freshly applied wax from the cars finish.
Also clean and protect your interior. If you have a cloth interior, whisk or vacuum it clean, and consider coating the seating surfaces with ScotchGuard. Youll never know its there until Junior spills a water ice on your beige cloth seats
and you can clean it up without staining. If you have a vinyl or leather interior, acquire the vinyl- or leather-specific cleaners and protectantsand take the time to apply them as directed, especially if you have a convertible. Top-down driving in the blazing sun wreaks havoc with all types of interior materials, even leather. Make sure your cars interior is protected as completely as
This time of the year is a good time to catch up on preventive maintenance. An engine oil and filter change, suspension lubrication, and fuel filter replacement will go a long way to keeping your car more reliable for those hot and sometimes lengthy summertime trips. Suspension lubrication is especially critical if youre heading to the shorethe lubricant will help protect your suspension components from salty, corrosive air. If youre having an extended stay at the shore, have the lubrication done upon your return as welldoing so will "flush"
abrasive sand and other contaminants from the suspension joints to help prevent damage.
Stifling summertime ambient (outside) temperatures can be difficult for humans to take; its sometimes even tougher for your cars thousands of components to beat the heat. Besides your engines cooling system and air conditioning, always remember
your automatic transmission. Automatic transmission fluid temperatures always run hot when the transmissions at normal operating temperature. Transmissions can overheat just like engines. Unfortunately, theres no indication to the driver that this could be happening while youre sitting in a traffic jam with 120- or 130-degree road surface temperatures. Do yourself a favor if you have an automatic with more than 20,000 miles: change the filter and fluid. (Without special equipment or an overhaul, you can never change all of the fluid. In most cases, you can get at least four fresh quarts of new, stronger fluid with better protective characteristics into your automatic. Check your owners manual or shop manual for fluid capacities.)
Most technicians will recommend ignoring the manufacturers recommended automatic transmission fluid change intervalsand theyre right. Most first-class techs recommend automatic transmission fluid (and filter) changes every 15,000-20,000 miles tops
half that if youre towing a trailer, even with an auxiliary transmission cooler. And if youre towing without an auxiliary cooler (factory-installed or otherwise), youre playing Russian Roulette with your automatic transmission. This applies whether you have a passenger car, pick-up truck, or sport utility vehicle. Many trucks and sport utilities will already have a towing package that includes an auxiliary transmission cooler. If youre not sure, check with your trusted technician or dealership to see if your vehicle has what you need for safe, trouble-free towing. If your vehicleno matter what type of vehicledoes not have an auxiliary trans cooler and youll be towing, install a properly sized cooler yourself if you have the
expertise, or have a professional do it for you. Check your dealership: in many cases, custom, ready-to-bolt-on auxiliary transmission oil coolers are available specifically for your vehicle.
Check your tires for a safe tread depth and even wear across the tread. Uneven wear at one side can indicate a front-end alignment problem, while wear near the middle or both outside sections of the tire can indicate over- or under-inflation conditions, respectively. What does tire tread have to do with summer safety? Summer rains and thunderstorms can be torrential. The less tread you have, the more difficult it is for the tires design elements to channel water out of the tread. When the water cant be channeled out of the tread, a layer of water forms between the tire and the road surfacethis is whats called "hydroplaning." When you have less than ¼ inch of tread depth, start driving a little slower on the highway in the rain. Even though a tire at that tread depth will pass Pennsylvania state inspection, its ability to shed water is compromised. Be careful, and replace the tire(s) as soon as its possible to do so.
Even if your tires are in good shape, youre not off the hook! Folks working at tire stores cant say this enough: CHECK YOUR TIRE PRESSURES OFTEN. Follow the manufacturers recommendations regarding inflation pressures, especially if youre towing a trailer. Check your owners manual, or the "latch face" of the drivers side door for a decal showing recommended tire inflation pressures for various conditions. If you can't find the tire pressure information elsewhere, check with a local tire dealer to find out what your inflation pressures should be.
The only thing worse than getting stuck on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere is the realization that you forgot to renew your auto club plan orworse yethave no access to a phone. Before you leave on your summer vacation trip, make sure your auto club membership is up to date, and that your cellular phone is working (if installed in the vehicle) or fully charged (portable). If you use a small cellular phone, dont forget to take your car charger or AC charging adapter on your trip. Always make sure you have your vehicle owners card and up-to-date insurance card with you. Hopefully, you wont need it. If you do, though, youll be glad you took the extra minutes to make sure you put it in a safe, accessible place for your trip.
Travel well, travel safely, and enjoy your summer!
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