It’s common knowledge that summer is best spent outdoors. Despite the popular myth that the American school calendar is based on past agrarian times when children were expected to help with the harvest, it was actually urban schools that created the modern American summer break. These early nineteenth century urban families knew then what we know now: summer heat that feels oppressive in city streets is the perfect opportunity for an escape to the beach or a long walk in the woods.
The same summer heatwaves that get you tan and boost your mood can unfortunately wreak havoc on your car’s internal operating systems. Even if the weather is idyllic at your destination, you must occasionally drive long distances through deserts or over mountains in order to get there. A road trip is a fun and important entree into an outdoor trip, and a breakdown can put a damper on the experience.
A key part of “owning the adventure” is being prepared for it — a properly maintained car and a solid knowledge base about what to do in case of an emergency can help you stay in control of your travel experience. Here are some steps that you can take as a car owner or traveler to prevent breakdowns and adventure safely.
Replenish your fluids
It seems appropriate to begin with the most obvious way to keep your car cool: coolant!
In addition to physically cooling the engine, coolant has additives which protect other internal engine components and the radiator from corrosion. You can check that coolant is filled to the appropriate level by checking the overflow reservoir. If you believe your car may overheat and you know you won’t be able to replace the coolant any time soon, you may add up to a 50/50 mix of coolant and water to the coolant reservoir — which you should add when the engine is already cooled down.
If the situation is urgent enough to warrant adding water while the engine is still a bit warm, it should be poured in very slowly while the engine is running in Neutral or Park. Equally important for keeping your car functioning in the heat are motor oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid, power-steering fluid, and windshield wiper fluid. The first four of these fluids can actually also act as coolants by helping to distribute the heat among the whole engine rather than just a few critical points prone to overheating.
Secure your battery
Your car’s battery is just as vulnerable to extreme heat as it is to extreme cold. Many summer breakdowns are caused by a combination of excessive heat and battery vibration. Make sure that your battery is stable and properly mounted in order to cut down on this damaging vibration. It’s also important in summer to clean corrosion from the terminals and clamps, and make sure that your battery is replaced before it gets too old; most car batteries last four to five years.
Fine-tune your tire pressure
It’s very important not to over — or under — inflate your tires in the summer, as both mistakes can put you in danger on the road. Driving with low air pressure causes friction and heat, which could lead to a tear. Excessive air pressure can cause tires to burst when the air warms and expands. Tires should be inflated to the vehicle manufacturer’s recommendations, usually printed on the vehicle door placard or owner’s manual. For an accurate read, tire pressure should be measured when the car is in a garage or in the early morning when the weather is cooler.
Know when to use your air conditioning
In most cases, air conditioning makes driving comfortable and keeps you sharp and able to focus on the road. It’s always good to make sure your air conditioning system is functioning.
However, the work your car puts into cooling its interior can contribute to strain and overheating of an already stressed engine. Air conditioning should be preventatively turned off and windows opened when driving up steep grades and in stretches of the most extreme heat.
If your car is about to overheat
If all of these preventative measures are not enough to prevent a breakdown and you are receiving signs from the car that overheating is imminent, make sure to pull over and turn off the engine. You may carefully open the hood, but never open the radiator cap while the engine is still hot.
If you absolutely can’t pull over right away, avoid over-using your brakes. In stop-and-go traffic, you should slowly crawl forward rather than speeding up and slowing down along with surrounding traffic. Air conditioning should be turned off immediately.
If you’re completely stopped in traffic and you can see the temperature rising, you may shift into neutral or park and rev the engine a little to increase the circulation of engine fluids. Turn on the heater and fan on full blast to release heat away from the engine into the main cabin of the car (this is obviously not going to be comfortable for your passengers, but it may save your engine in an emergency!).