Summertime is travel time. Even with gasoline prices at an all-time high, Americans can't resist the lure of sunny skies and the open road. According to a survey by AAA, 31.7 million Americans planned to travel by car over Memorial Day weekend 2008, despite gas prices that are an average of $.60 more per gallon over the previous year [source: The Los Angeles Times].
Before hitting the road this summer, you can take several simple precautions to keep your family safe and save money at the pump. Extreme heat and long drives can be tough on cars. Cracked hoses, leaky radiators, underinflated tires and dirty filters can significantly lower your fuel efficiency, or worse, lead to a total breakdown.
Check Your Tires
Tires are one of the most overlooked parts of a car. According the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA), only one out of 10 drivers checks his or her tire pressure correctly, compared with almost seven out of 10 who wash their cars regularly [source: RMA]. But the truth is that an under-inflated, over-inflated, worn down or misaligned tire can be extremely dangerous, particularly in hot summer weather.
Tire pressure changes with the rising temperatures -- approximately one to two PSI (pounds per square inch) for every 10-degree increase in outside air temperature [source: RMA]. Consult your owner's manual or the sidewall of your tire to see what your tire pressure should be and check it with a hand pressure gauge or just let the guys at the service shop do it for you.
An under-inflated tire bulges outward and puts undo pressure on the sidewalls of the tire. With enough heat and pressure, that tire eventually will blow. An over-inflated tire, on the other hand, makes less contact with the road and can lead to hydroplaning in wet conditions.
Use the penny trick to see if you still have enough tread on your tires. Stick a penny in the tread, and if Lincoln's head disappears, you're good [source: CBS News]. Your local service shop or specialty tire store can also check your tires for proper alignment and balance.
And don't forget about your spare! There's no point in having a spare tire if your spare is in worse condition than the rest. Make sure the spare is properly inflated and has ample tread depth.
Maybe by now the summer heat is making you thirsty. Your car could use a drink, too. Find out more on the next page.
Change Oil and Oil Filter
Oil is the lifeblood of your car. It keeps hardworking engine parts running clean, smooth and cool. Most owner's manuals suggest that you change your oil and oil filter every 7,500 miles (12,070 kilometers). Oil change specialists suggest every 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers) or three months. The fact is, most of us do a lot of heavy driving during the summer when an engine is more likely to overheat. So at least check your oil before you head out on that road trip with the family.
To check your oil, let your car run for a few minutes, then park it on a level surface and shut off the engine. Open the hood and locate the oil dipstick. You're looking for two things here: the level of oil and how the oil looks [source: CBS News]. If you're low on oil, you can either add another quart or simply change the oil completely. The oil should look brownish yellow and clean on the stick. If the oil is a dark color or there's a lot of dirt and grime in it, then you definitely need an oil change and oil filter replacement.
Wait, didn't you do a lot of these things when you got your car ready for colder weather? As a matter of fact, yes. On the next page, we'll look at some winter maintenance you should undo for summer.
De-Winterize Your Car
If you loyally followed our Top 10 Car Winterizing Tips, then there are several things you need to do to "un-winterize" your car for the summer weather. First of all, get rid of those snow tires. Snow tires are heavy and will lower your fuel economy.
If you haven't driven your car very much during the winter, or if you've had it in storage, then you need to check all of the fluid levels -- coolant, transmission, differential, power steering and brake fluid -- to make sure there weren't any leaks. You'll also want to change the oil, since oil gets thick and collects condensation if it sits in the engine all winter. If you haven't used your battery in a while, you might need a recharge or a replacement.
It's also important to really clean the undercarriage of the car after a long winter, especially if you live in a snowy climate. The salt that's used to melt snow and ice on roads can get caked on the underside of your car and begin to eat away at the metal. Lots of caked-on gunk will also make your engine and transmission run hotter, because heat has a harder time escaping through the bottom of the car.
You can clean the undercarriage yourself using a plain water hose or high-pressure cleaning system. Many professional car washes and detailing services can also perform a high-pressure steam clean for really nasty build-up.
On the next page, we'll look at some other parts of your engine you might've overlooked -- hoses and belts.
Check Hoses and Belts
The key to summer driving is keeping the engine cool. We're going to talk about the radiator and coolant soon, but first you need to check the hoses and belts. The hoses connected to the radiator help pump coolant to and from the engine block, and the belts run the fan that helps cool the system further [source: CBS News]. If the hoses crack or the belts snap, the radiator will quickly overheat, leaving you stranded.
Check hoses for cracks, leaks and loose connections. Hoses should be firm, never soft and malleable. Hoses suffer from a slow deterioration process called electrochemical degradation (ECD) that eats away at rubber hose material from the inside [source: Consumer Reports]. The most vulnerable parts of the hose are those nearest to clamps where the hose connects to the radiator or the engine.
Belts can also be visually checked for cracks and damage. Take note if the belt looks excessively slick or smooth. Remove the belt to make sure that the material hasn't started separating into different layers. Experts say the risk of belt failure rises dramatically after 36,000 miles (57,936 kilometers) [source: Consumer Reports].
Do you really need to replace your air filter every year? Keep reading to find out.
Change the Air Filter
Over the winter, your car's air filter can get clogged with salt and other thick debris. A clogged air filter can really lower your fuel efficiency. Replacing a dirty or clogged air filter can improve gas mileage by as much as 10 percent [source: Pep Boys].
But how do you know when to change your air filter? The recommended interval is every 12,000 miles (19,312 kilometers), but that can be affected by the particular road and air conditions in which you drive. If you do a lot of driving on dirt or gravel roads, then your air filter is going to clog up much faster than an air filter in a vehicle that's used strictly for highway driving. The only real way to know if you need to replace your air filter is take it out and give it a quick inspection.
Interestingly, a slightly dirty air filter works better than a totally clean one [source: Yahoo! Autos]. This is because the debris in the filter becomes part of the filtering process, trapping smaller particles that might have otherwise slipped past.
There's no real science to knowing when it's time to replace the filter. If it's really filthy, then it obviously needs to be changed. Otherwise, go with your gut. If you're preparing for a long summer of hard driving, then you might as well replace it. Air filters are relatively inexpensive.
Are you ready to drive in summer showers? Find out on the next page.
Replace Your Windshield Wipers
The summertime is notorious for sudden, violent thunderstorms. When buckets of water are beating against your windshield, you need wipers that really work. Even more so at night, when a rain storm can decrease visibility to 15 or 20 feet in front of your vehicle.
Winter can be tough on windshield wipers. Ice, snow, salt and extreme temperatures make cracks and tears in the rubber that lower the effectiveness of the wipers. If your wipers are leaving visible streaks or take several passes to clear away light rain, they need to be replaced.
When replacing a wiper blade, it's better to replace the whole blade, not just the rubber part [source: NAPA Online]. Go to an auto parts store and they'll be able to give you the right blades for your make, model and year. If you've never replaced wiper blades before, it can be a little tricky. Just take your time, read the instructions carefully and everything should work out. It's also a good idea to observe the way your original wiper blades were attached. This may prove more valuable than anything printed on the new wiper blade box.
Don't stop now. Learn about your brakes on the next page.
Check Your Brakes
Your brakes are the single most important safety feature on your car. Don't put yourself or your family at risk this summer by riding around on worn down or faulty brakes.
Brakes need to be replaced when the lining on your brake pad or brake shoe is worn down past the minimum thickness specified by the car manufacturer or state law [source: Yahoo! Autos]. You can have your brake linings checked at any normal service shop or at a brake specialist.
Here are some signs that your brakes need to be checked:
- Your brake pedal becomes very soft and mushy
- Your brake pedal is very hard and resistant
- Your brake pedal rests too low or too high
- Indication or warning lights on the dashboard
- Loud and constant scraping and grinding sounds coming from the brakes
Interestingly, squealing brakes are not necessarily a sign of a problem. Brakes squeal and squeak for a wide variety of reasons, including moisture on the brake pads, discs, shoes and drums. You should only become concerned if the squealing becomes a scraping or grinding noise. This is a sign of metal-to-metal contact, which can permanently damage brake parts.
If you notice a brake problem, it pays to have it inspected or repaired as soon as possible. The cost of a brake repair can increase dramatically if even minor problems aren't fixed in a timely manner.
Your car won't run if the engine overheats. Find out how to keep it cool on the next page.
Check the Coolant and Radiator
Cars are designed to run hot, but there's a limit to how hot they should run. A combustion engine is most efficient at around 200 degrees Fahrenheit (93 degrees Celsius). But if an engine is allowed to get too hot, moving metal parts can actually start to melt and fuse together, causing a variety of internal problems for your engine -- and, you guessed it, a hefty repair bill.
Luckily, all modern cars have an ingenious cooling system that uses a chemical coolant, called antifreeze, and a series of pumps, hoses, thermostats and fans to keep the car at its optimal running temperature. But any problems with this system -- low coolant levels, cracked hoses, loose or broken belts, a leak in the radiator or even a loose or missing radiator cap can cause your car to overheat and break down.
The summertime is tough on cooling systems. Sitting in traffic on a hot day is one of the quickest ways to overheat your car. This is because there's no air flowing across the engine to help keep it cool. A well-tuned cooling system can take long idles in hot weather, but if you have low coolant levels or a busted fan belt, your engine temperature is going to go up -- and fast.
Check under the hood and make sure that your coolant levels are fine. The general rule is to flush your radiator and add new coolant at least every two years. Flushing the radiator is done with a special chemical that cleans debris and build-up on the inside of the radiator. For summer driving, coolant should be added as a 50/50 mixture of antifreeze and water. You can even buy premixed coolant so you don't have to bother with the measurements.
If you see a small puddle of coolant under your car when it's been parked for a while, then you have a coolant leak. Take it to the service station as soon as you can to get your system checked out.
On the next page, we'll talk about something shocking -- your car's battery.
Clean Your Battery
Wintertime is notorious for dead batteries and early morning jumpstarts. But the truth is that hot weather is even tougher on your battery.
Summer heat can speed up the chemical reaction inside a battery, causing the battery to be overcharged [source: CBS News]. This can dramatically shorten the lifespan of your battery. Heat can also damage the battery by evaporating internal battery fluid [source: Car Care Council].
The best way to keep your battery running smoothly is to keep it clean. Regularly detach the battery cables and wipe off the terminals. Make sure the battery is strapped down tightly and that all connections are secure.
If you suspect that your battery is being overcharged or isn't holding a charge well, take it to a service shop where they can run a quick battery inspection. And if you need to replace the battery, make sure that it's the right battery type for your specific make and model of car.
What's our number one car summer maintenance tip? Keep reading to find out.
Maintain Your Air Conditioning
If you've ever lost your air conditioning on a hot summer day, then you know what a big difference a little cool air makes. The best way to tell if your air conditioner has a problem is if it can't generate or maintain air temperatures that are 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) below the ambient outside air temperature.
The most common cause of a malfunctioning air conditioning unit is a low level of refrigerant. This could be caused buy a leak somewhere in the system. Since modern air conditioning systems are complicated creatures, it's best to have a professional check out the problem.
The air conditioning maintenance industry has changed a lot since 1994, when the Federal government outlawed the use of a refrigerant called R-12, known by its brand name Freon. In the past, if your air conditioner wasn't blowing cool air, you'd head down to the service shop, they'd top your car off with a little Freon and you'd be on your way.
The problem is that Freon, a chlorofluorocarbon, is extremely destructive to the ozone layer. Most people needed Freon refills because they had leaks. By simply refilling the leaky air conditioning units, millions of pounds of Freon were entering the atmosphere every year.
If your car was built before 1994, then you need to have your refrigerant checked out by a licensed professional who knows how to dispose of or recycle the material. In some states, it's illegal to refill a leaky system with R-12. However, even older cars can be easily retrofitted to use the newer, safer type of refrigerant called R-134a.
For even more car maintenance and service tips, check out the links on the next page.
HowStuffWorks talks with some scientists to find out whether to drive around until you find a close parking spot or take the first thing you see.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- "Be Tire Smart. Play Your Part." National Rubber Manufacturers Association. 2008. http://www.rma.org/tire_safety/tire_maintenance_and_safety/national_tire_safety_week/partner_kit_2008/Downloadables/TIRESA~1/RMABrochure_2007.pdf
- "Brakes: What to Watch For." Midas. http://www.midas.com/AutoEducation/Brakes/WhattoWatchFor/tabid/91/Default.aspx
- Bumbeck, Mike. "Undercarriage Wash." AutoMedia.com. http://www.automedia.com/Undercarriage_Wash/ccr20050501uw/1
- "Drive Your Way to Better Fuel Economy This Summer with Pep Boys." The Auto Channel. June 29, 2007. http://www.theautochannel.com/news/2007/06/29/053777.html
- "Hot Weather the True Culprit of Car Battery Trouble." Car Care Council. BusinessWeek.. Dec. 30, 2005. http://www.businessweek.com/autos/content/dec2005/bw20051230_520984.htm
- "How do I know when my car really needs a brake job?" Yahoo! Autos. http://autos.yahoo.com/maintain/repairqa/brakes/ques005_1.html
- "How often should I replace my air filter?" Yahoo! Autos. http://autos.yahoo.com/maintain/repairqa/air_filters_oil/ques126_0.html
- "How to Fight High Gas Prices." PartsAmerica.com. http://www.partsamerica.com/Maintenance/MaintenanceFuelEconomy.aspx
- "How to Inspect Belts and Hoses." Consumer Reports. http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/cars/tires-auto-parts/car-maintenance/ how-to-inspect-belts-and-hoses-1205/overview/
- "How to Stay Cool?" PartsAmerica.com. http://www.partsamerica.com/Maintenance/MaintenanceClimate.aspx
- Martin, Hugo. "Memorial Weekend driving plans still on." The Los Angeles Times. May 16, 2008. http://www.latimes.com/business/printedition/la-fi-travel16-2008may16,0,7374679.story
- "My brakes are squealing. Does that mean I need a brake job?" Yahoo! Autos. http://autos.yahoo.com/maintain/repairqa/brakes/ques001_3.html
- "My mechanic says I have to have a refrigerant leak fixed before he can legally recharge my air conditioner. Is that true?" Yahoo! Autos. http://autos.yahoo.com/maintain/repairqa/fluids_heat_air_conditioning/ques025_0.html
- "NAPA Know How: Wiper Blades." National Automotive Parts Association. http://www.napaonline.com/NapaKnowHow/NapaKnowHow.aspx?sect=w
- Nerad, Jack. "Help Your Car Cruise into Summer." CBS Early Show. May 28, 2002. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/05/27/earlyshow/living/home/main510253.shtml
- "Springtime Maintenance." PartsAmerica.com. http://www.partsamerica.com/Maintenance/MaintenanceSpringtime.aspx