Cool Car Care Tips

The weather’s warm and getting warmer. Forecasters are predicting a hotter-than-usual summer for most of the United States, including the northern states. You’re probably already thinking about how to keep your home cool. But have you considered that your car, too, needs protection from the heat? Most vehicles aren’t designed for extreme temperatures. They need special care when the mercury rises, particularly during summer road trips.

Overheating causes costly damage.

Driving an overheated vehicle can cause expensive damage. Cars and trucks that can limp around town for short runs in the cooler months are prone to breakdowns when it’s hot. But even well-cared-for vehicles can be laid low, if you don’t heed warning signs and stay on top of hot-weather maintenance. Running too hot can degrade engine oil, ruin gasket seals and even melt the vehicle’s engine block.

Have a carefree summer by keeping your coolant system topped off when it’s hot. Pull off the road if the vehicle’s temperature gauge gives you a warning. And follow these tips for keeping your vehicle running cool.

1. Radiator

The point of a radiator is to keep your engine running cool. So make sure it’s functioning at its best. Check the coolant level at least every oil change, and have the system flushed every 24,000 miles or two years. Radiator fluid can come in several colors — most commonly orange or green — but should not look milky or rusty. If it does, have the system flushed and inspected by a mechanic. Never remove the radiator cap when the engine is hot — the coolant could be boiling under pressure and gush out, burning your face or arms.

2. Hoses

Your coolant’s not doing much good if it’s not properly circulating through the hoses, and extreme heat can damage a worn hose. Hoses are usually good for at least four years, but not always. Check them visually for leaks, cracks and peeling. While the engine’s still warm, squeeze along the hose’s length — it should feel firm, but not hard. If the hose is spongy or soft in even one section, replace it before it fails and causes bigger problems.

3. Oil

Oil lubricates lots of moving parts and helps prevent overheating. Without it you’ll blow up your engine and your budget. It’s easy to check, so make a regular habit of it. Here’s how:

After the car’s been running for a few minutes, shut off the engine, pop the hood, pull the labeled dipstick out, and wipe it off completely with a paper towel so you can get a clear reading. Slide it all the way back in, then remove it again. Near the bottom, you’ll see two marked lines, pinholes, crosshatching or “min/max” labels. As long as the oil is a yellowish brown (dark oil “needs a change,” milky oil “needs a mechanic”) and stays between those two lines, you’re OK. If it’s low, add a quart or two of the grade your owner’s manual recommends, through the oil cap. Oil should be changed roughly every 5,000 to 7,500 miles, depending on your driving and your owner’s manual.

4. Battery

“Many auto places will check your battery free of charge, and they’ll recommend you replace it every three years. If you want to check it yourself, start by seeing if your battery has removable caps on top — if so, peek inside and see if the water level looks low. Add distilled water to every cell that needs it. With the engine off, check for frayed wires and corrosion (a powdery buildup) around the terminals, where the cables are clamped to the battery posts. Make sure the clamps are firm, too. If there is corrosion, don’t clean it with your bare hands — it’s acid. You can scrub it off with a disposable toothbrush and a mixture of baking soda and water.

If you have to disconnect the cables, always disconnect the negative (-) wire first and reconnect it last to reduce the chances of a short circuit.

5. Temperature gauge

Keep an eye on your temperature gauge and make sure it registers cool.

High speeds, idling in traffic, running the AC or pulling a heavy load will cause your car to heat up faster. If you’re worried you may be close to overheating, here is a trick to try: Turn the air conditioning completely off and put the heater on max. This will vent some of the engine heat — right in your face, but it’s better than the alternative. Roll the windows down and pull over to a safe place. Don’t keep driving while your temperature gauge is in the red zone. Give the vehicle time to cool down, and phone for help. Driving your overheated car can result in repairs that can cost in the thousands.

6. Tires

Heat affects tire pressure, so under-inflation or over-inflation are risky in extreme weather. Use a hand pressure gauge to make sure your tires’ pressure matches what the owner’s manual or the specs listed on the side of your tire say it should be. Fill up with air at the gas station. Check tire tread with a penny: if you can see all of Abe’s head, you don’t have enough tread. That means it’s time to replace those tires to stay safe on the road.

You can get your mechanic to check all this, too, as well as alignment and balance. You can also usually get your tires rotated for free along with any other service.

7. Emergency kit

Sometimes even a reasonably well-maintained car will break down. Be sure you’re prepared for an emergency, with some basic supplies, including water for the radiator and yourself, jumper cables, a flashlight and batteries and a first aid kit.

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