The lure of the open road gets stronger when the kids get out of school. Having just celebrated the 4th of July and with warm weather and time off from work here for the next two months, it's time to pack up the family car and head out for parts unknown. Here are some simple and inexpensive things you can do to help make the miles filled with smiles.
Examine Your Tires: Even though many cars these days have tire pressure monitors and all new BMWs have run-flat tires, your tires can suffer road hazards and leave you stranded on the side of the road. Nails, screws, staples, even stray pieces of scrap metal can puncture today's steel belted radials. If the nail in your tire is small enough, the loss of pressure will be slow - maybe not detectable until you are miles from home and your local tire expert. The easiest thing to do is get down on all fours and look at your tires. I like to run my hand around the surface of my tires, feeling for anything stuck in the tread. If you can get help from a friend or family, have your assistant SLOWLY roll the car forward or backward while you look CAREFULLY at the tread for nails or other bad things. If you see something, don't pull it out because the tire could go flat immediately. Best to drive to a good tire store and have the tech pull the thing out and repair the leak.
If you don't see any potential problems, check your pressures with a good tire gauge (best to do in the morning before driving so the tires are cold). Inside the driver side door you'll find a sticker that gives the manufacturer's recommended tire pressures. Don't go too much over those numbers but if you have to err, being a few pounds higher won't hurt.
If your tires are a few years old, look for sidewall damage and cracks in the rubber - this manifests itself as bulges or even worse - a bubble. Sidewall damage is unrepairable - PERIOD. Replace the tire because if a sidewall bubble bursts, you will experience a sudden and catastrophic loss of air pressure. At highway speeds, that could result in a serious accident. No kidding - this is a serious issue and needs to be taken care of by replacing the tire.
If it's been a while since you had your tires rotated, chances are that the front tires will be more worn than the rears since that's where the weight of the engine lives. Throw in that the front tires do all of the steering and most of the braking and you can see why the front tires need special attention. If there is sufficient tread depth (usually 4/32nd of an inch is the minimum for NJ motor vehicle inspection) consider having the tires rotated. Once again, your owner's manual will show you the best rotation pattern for the type of tires on your vehicle. If the tire's tread is below that 4/32nd of an inch limit, see a tire dealer for the best replacement options before heading out for a long summer trip.
Oil and Water: Your engine lives on clean, fresh oil and keeps cool with fresh, uncontaminated anti-freeze. While most of us know that oil is our engine's life blood, just having enough isn't enough. New motor oil lubes best so if your car's engine is within a few hundred miles of needing an oil change, why not avoid potential wear problems by having it changed with the proper viscosity as recommended by your car's manufacturer. I prefer synthetic oils because of their greater level of protection and resistant to breakdown at summer's higher temperatures. Your owner's manual will tell you the right viscosity (e.g., 5W-30, 0W-40) and what the oil change intervals are. Be aware, the manufacturer's recommended oil is what you should consider "gospel" but the recommended change intervals can vary depending on how you drive your car. Something called "severe" driving isn't flying around the track like a NASCAR racer. Daily stop and go commuting, lots of idling in traffic, hours of miles with the air-conditioning on and towing a camper or boat all stress your motor oil. An oil change is cheap insurance and I always do one just before going out on a long vacation drive. ALWAYS...
Another place you have oil is in your transmission. Although, in an automatic transmission it's called ATF - automatic transmission fluid - it's still a petroleum product and needs regular maintenance. Pull the transmission dip stick and look at your car's ATF fluid - check the level and color (usually this is done with the engine running). It should be cherry red in color. Brown fluid means it bad and needs replacing. There is a transmission filter in there too and it should be changed as well when the fluid is changed. NOTE: If the level is high enough, you can do one more simple test to double check it - you can sniff the dip stick. (Not a typo.) If it smells burned, it's bad. Get it changed ASAP since transmissions can fail from lack of maintenance. That's an expensive fix.
Also, when you are under the hood you should check your radiator fluid level. Note I didn't say water level. You never want to put pure water in a modern radiator unless it's to deal with a roadside emergency. The metals in a radiator and engine block are alloys of aluminum and magnesium. These are highly reactive elements and suffer corrosion when they come in contact with pure water. To prevent that corrosion, manufacturers require that the cooling system be kept filled with a 50/50 mix of anti-freeze that contains anti-corrosion chemicals. This mixture of anti-freeze protects against freezing, internal corrosion and boil over. If you recall basic chemistry, adding an impurity to a pure liquid depresses the freezing point (anti-freeze) and, at the same time, raises the boiling point. IMPORTANT: Be sure to check the fluid level when the engine is over-night cold! Another way manufacturers prevent boil over is to keep the cooling system under pressure (also basic chemistry - boiling is when vapor pressure equals atmospheric pressure). If you open the radiator cap when the system is hot, you could be scalded by expanding, VERY hot liquid. That's a serious concern and should be heeded by all car owners.
Keeping Cool: The air conditioning system in your car runs on a chemical called Freon. This chemical is circulated under pressure by an air-conditioner pump and flows through a condenser and various other components and hoses. These components can, over time, leak leaving the system low on Freon and you stuck in a hot car. Before heading out on a long trip, I recommend having your car's system checked by an automotive air conditioning expert. There is a maintenance service these techs can do that checks for sufficient Freon and looks for potential problems by checking for leaks. Also, fresh Freon usually contains a chemical that helps treat the system's seals thereby preventing leaks and also, new Freon doesn't have any trapped water that can corrode vital components.
Filters: We all know that changing the oil filter is a normal part of an oil change. I doubt that anyone does an oil change these days without replacing the filter but there are two other filters - air and fuel - that should get routine attention. An air filter is an owner-servicaable component and it's cheap insurance to go to a local auto parts store, buy and install one before your summer vacation. Fuel filters require less frequent changing but it's worth looking into your owner's manual to see when this needs doing and I recommend asking your dealer or local mechanic to make the swap if it's due. Note to diesel engine owners - many diesel fuel filters require more frequent changing than gasoline filters. Read your manual to be sure.
Belts, Blades and Hoses: Finally, most of the under-hood engine systems run on belts. Your alternator, power steering pump, water pump and air conditioning compressor are run off the power of the engine, This power is transmitted to these components by pulleys and one big belt or, in some cases, by several smaller belts. If a belt fails, your car could overheat, you could lose all electrical energy and, of course, your power steering could fail, making your vehicle hard to steer. Have a good mechanic look over your car's belts and replace any that are cracked, glazed or are squealing (a squealing belt can get glazed if there is a problem with the component or the tension is incorrect). Remember, a squealing under hood belt needs to be attended to before taking a long trip!
A quick look at the radiator's connections by a qualified mechanic will usually be enough to ensure that you won't suffer a burst hose when your'e on the road. If yours are over 5 years old, getting them inspected is cheap insurance.
To ensure that you can see in rain, I recommend changing your wiper blades with new, fresh blades before setting off and I also recommend you fill your washer reservoir with a fluid designed to wash off splattered bugs. One caveat - don't leave this "bug wash" fluid in there when the weather gets cold. These fluids freeze in winter weather - that would be bad.
That's my simple checklist for trouble-free summer vacation driving.