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BUCKS COUNTY TRAVELERS

Preparing Your Car for Summer

By Mark Devlin
Sirius Communications LLC
Richboro, PA

Turn on the air conditioner!

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 don’t often see such vehicular reminders that summertime’s here. The engineering that’s gone into your entire vehicle is world’s beyond cars made just ten or twenty years ago. Even with more plastic components, today’s 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 design—sometimes 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 there’s nothing to worry about? Hardly.

Reliability

   The first and foremost thing to remember—especially in summer driving—is to watch your coolant temperature gauge. Even if it’s 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 car’s cooling fans have activated and are pulling Overheating?more air through the cooling system’s radiator. This is a good thing. If you notice that the car’s 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 won’t endanger you or other motorists. Get off the road and turn the engine off—failing 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 you’re 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 you’re 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.

 
Automotive Cooling and Heating System Components

A) Heater Hose   B) Heater Control Valve   C) Thermostat
D) Radiator Hose   E) Overflow Reservoir   F) Heater Core
G) Engine   H) Coolant Pump   I) Fan   J) Radiator

   With your engine COOL (after it’s been sitting overnight is the best time to do this):

  • Visually inspect your car’s 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 you’ll 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 today’s 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, that’s 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, that’s antifreeze/coolant—and you’ve 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 cracks—no matter how small—the 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 moment’s 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 car’s cooling system works overtime. Why? When you flip on the a/c, the system’s 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 it’s mounted very close to your engine’s 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 engine’s 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, it’s likely that coolant flow will be sufficient. If your car’s 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 becomes—cooling 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 won’t do much good—if any at all—to clear radiator tubes and, worse, coolant/antifreeze is a toxic substance regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. No matter what you do—from draining it in your driveway to washing it into the street or pouring it down a drain in your house—the 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 system’s clean, the environment’s happy, the EPA doesn’t come knocking at your door with a warrant, and your spouse’s pet Bluto doesn’t end up paws-to-the-sky on your lawn.

Comfort

   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 Freon’s 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 car’s 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 fins—moving towards the bent ones—the "cob" will guide the bent fins apart and position them properly for better airflow through the condenser.

Protection

   Now’s the best time of year to not only wash your vehicle, but protect it from summer’s 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 soap—NOT DISHWASHING LIQUID—to 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 car’s 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™. You’ll never know it’s 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 protectants—and 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 car’s interior is protected as completely as possible.

   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 you’re heading to the shore—the lubricant will help protect your suspension components from salty, corrosive air. If you’re having an extended stay at the shore, have the lubrication done upon your return as well—doing 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; it’s sometimes even tougher for your car’s thousands of components to beat the heat. Besides your engine’s cooling system and air conditioning, always remember your automatic transmission. Automatic transmission fluid temperatures always run hot when the transmission’s at normal operating temperature. Transmissions can overheat just like engines. Unfortunately, there’s no indication to the driver that this could be happening while you’re 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 owner’s manual or shop manual for fluid capacities.)

   Most technicians will recommend ignoring the manufacturer’s recommended automatic transmission fluid change intervals—and they’re right. Most first-class techs recommend automatic transmission fluid (and filter) changes every 15,000-20,000 miles tops … half that if you’re towing a trailer, even with an auxiliary transmission cooler. And if you’re towing without an auxiliary cooler (factory-installed or otherwise), you’re 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 you’re 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 vehicle—no matter what type of vehicle—does not have an auxiliary trans cooler and you’ll 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.

Economy (Tires/Pressures)

   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 tire’s design elements to channel water out of the tread. When the water can’t be channeled out of the tread, a layer of water forms between the tire and the road surface—this is what’s 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 it’s possible to do so.

   Even if your tires are in good shape, you’re not off the hook! Folks working at tire stores can’t say this enough: CHECK YOUR TIRE PRESSURES OFTEN. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations regarding inflation pressures, especially if you’re towing a trailer. Check your owner’s manual, or the "latch face" of the driver’s 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.

Traveling

   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 or—worse yet—have 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, don’t forget to take your car charger or AC charging adapter on your trip. Always make sure you have your vehicle owner’s card and up-to-date insurance card with you. Hopefully, you won’t need it. If you do, though, you’ll 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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