Late-Summer Car Care

Most people think that winter is the toughest season for your car. But they underestimate the rigors that summer weather puts your car through. Prolonged heat spurred on by high summer ambient temperatures isn't just tough on your car's cooling system; it can also be murder on your tires and battery. And if one of your tires or battery is a no-go, then you'll be a no-go, too.

Here are some car maintenance items to think about as we cruise into summer's dog days:

  • Tires: Your Connection to the Road

    Do you give your tires the care they deserve? If you don't the consequences could be serious. And because today's tires are so good, most people tend to ignore them. According to a recent AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety-Roper survey, millions of motorists are taking the increased reliability of vehicles and tires for granted. That leaves them vulnerable to tire failures or stranding due to a flat. Now, no one wants to be stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire. Just the inconvenience is a colossal pain in the lower back. But while many may see a flat tire as an inconvenience, it can actually be a matter of life and death.

    According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, six hundred pedestrians are killed on the interstate highway system each year, and almost one-third of those pedestrians were motorists who were working on their vehicle, walking on the shoulder, or exchanging information after an existing crash. So not only is a flat tire an irritant; some might call it a serious health problem.

    Fortunately, most flat tires these days can be prevented. But unfortunately, many members of the driving public are too lazy or uninvolved in the maintenance of their cars to take the simple steps necessary to avoid a big hassle or worse. Most flats aren't caused by road hazards or faulty tire construction. They aren't caused by running over a bottle or banging into a pothole. Instead, simple underinflation is the leading cause of tire failure.

    Sadly, the Roper survey found that more than one-half of all motorists don't check their tire pressure often enough. And what is even more frightening, when motorists do check tire pressure, 48% don't know how to determine their vehicle's recommended pressure correctly.

    To make sure you are not part of this dizzying statistic, go to an auto parts or discount store and invest in a simple tire pressure gauge. It shouldn't cost you more than $5. Then read the very easy-to-understand instructions that accompany it and practice using it on your own car's tires. Check the pressure in each of your tires at least once a month. Doing it while you're pumping gas is a convenient time, because you'll be close to a ready source of compressed air if you need to give your tires a boost. And don't forget the spare in the trunk. If you do have a flat and spare with air is a must-have item.

  • Don't Let Your Battery Fry

    People are used to having tough starts and battery failures in the extreme cold of winter. What they don't realize is that extreme heat is more brutal on a car battery than extreme cold. Cold weather can limit a battery's ability to put out starting voltage and that situation can be complicated by other issues, like cold, thickened engine oil that makes cranking difficult, but high heat can almost literally "fry" a battery.

    Why is heat so tough on batteries? Because heat speeds up all chemical reactions, and a car battery works by producing a chemical reaction that produces electricity. Extreme heat can make the chemical reaction go too fast, burning out the battery and preventing it from producing current.

    How can you avoid a problem? A good first step is to be sure your car battery is fully charged. Start by having a load check on the battery, a test that can be performed quickly by most automotive service centers. This check will tell you how much potential your battery has to retain a charge, because batteries lose some of their ability to produce electricity over time. If the power potential is marginal, be on the safe side and get a new battery. At the same time have the auto center check the charging system to make certain the alternator is working properly and producing enough current to charge the battery during normal operating conditions.

    When buying a battery, power is the principal consideration. Automotive batteries are ranked by two factors, starting power, called "cold cranking amps" (CCAs), which indicate the power available to start the engine, and reserve capacity (RC), the number of minutes the battery will operate the essential accessories if the alternator fails.

    If the car will be exposed to extreme weather, either heat or cold, the best guarantee against failure is a battery with a high level of cold cranking amps. Experts recommend at least 550, depending on the vehicle's engine type.

    With a good battery and a charging system that's working well, you're halfway home, but you still need to keep an eye on a few other items. For example, watch for corrosion on the battery terminals and make sure the battery cable connections are tight. Also check the ground wire to make certain it is tight, because if it is not making a good connection, you'll be stranded.

  • Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning

    A long, hot summer can give your air conditioning system a workout. If your air conditioner is making you hot instead of keeping you cool, having your system checked by a trained air conditioning specialist is a good idea. If your system fails the professional’s test or even if it’s just blowing hot air, retrofitting may be the answer.

    Most often, a quick fix for weak air conditioning performance is a charge of Freon. But if you plan to keep your car for an extended length of time you should seriously think about updating your vehicle's A/C system to use the new environmentally friendly refrigerant, R-134a.

    More than half the cars now on the road use Freon, an environmentally harmful and expensive refrigerant that’s also known as R-12. The production of R-12 was discontinued in 1995 as a result of the 1990 Clean Air Act, and R-134a was developed as an environmentally safe alternative. However, all automobiles made prior to 1992 and most made from 1992-1994 use R-12.

    For a professional, it is relatively easy to convert an R-12 system to use R-134a. Generally, A/C retrofits of an undamaged system cost around $200. And, while that may seem expensive, it can help you save money in the long run. It can take as much as three pounds of refrigerant to recharge an air conditioning system, and Freon currently costs about $30 a pound while the new R-134a costs about one-fifth of that. In addition, because Freon isn’t being manufactured any more, the supply is limited and costs will certainly go up, so retrofitting can make economic sense in the long run.

  • Staying on Top

    By staying on top of various out-of-sight, out-of-mind maintenance items like tires, batteries and air conditioning systems, you can be certain they won’t let you down. And now, in the last days of summer, it is a good time to make certain all these important items are in tip-top shape before the winter winds begin to howl.

    R.J. Himmell is a professional mechanic who resides in Burr Ridge, Illinois.