It’s freakin’ hot outside.
Across the country, and especially in central and Midwestern states, people are suffering temperatures not seen in a century. Weather.com calls the number of record-breaking temperatures in the past few weeks “staggering” – more than 4,500 records tied or beaten.
That’s bad news for everybody, but it’s a particular risk to children, the elderly, pets, and a category you probably haven’t thought of: our cars. Like us, vehicles aren’t designed for extreme temperatures, and you should take special care when planning a summer road trip.
The whole point of a radiator is to keep your engine running cool. So make sure it’s running 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, seriously burning your face or arms.
As Stacy said, coolant’s not doing much 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, consider replacing it before it fails and causes bigger problems.
Oil lubricates lots of moving parts and helps prevent overheating, and without it you’ll blow up your engine and your budget. It’s easy to check, and you should do so regularly.
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 needs a change, milky needs a mechanic) and 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.
Battery problems are often associated with winter, but AAA says summer is actually worse: “Heat and vibration are a battery’s two worst enemies leading to internal breakdown and eventual failure.”
As Stacy mentioned, many auto places will check your battery free, 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 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 and serious injury.
For obvious reasons, you want your air conditioning at its best in the summer. An easy way to check is to stick a thermometer through the vent to see how cool the air is getting compared to what temperature the car says it is. If it’s not as cool as you’d like, the first thing to try is checking and replacing your car’s cabin air filter, because it’s a $10 job you can handle yourself that should be done every 20,000 miles.
If that doesn’t help, you may need more refrigerant, have leaks, or suffer from bigger problems. Time to see a mechanic.
Keep an eye on your temperature gauge and make sure it stays away from that red line.
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, one trick you can try is the one Stacy mentioned: turn the AC 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. Just roll the windows down and get somewhere safe.
Don’t keep driving while your temp gauge is in the red. Pull over, give it some time to cool down, and call for help – driving an overheated car can result in repairs that can run into the thousands.
Heat affects tire pressure, and under-inflation or over-inflation are risky in extreme weather. Use a hand pressure gauge to make sure your tires match the owner’s manual or the specs listed on the side of your tire, and fill them up at the gas station. Check tire tread with a penny: if you can see all of Abe’s head, you don’t have enough. Which means you need to break out a lot of pennies and replace them.
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.
Sometimes even a reasonably well-maintained car will break down. It’s best to be prepared with some supplies, including water for the radiator (and maybe yourself), jumper cables, a flashlight and batteries, and a first aid kit.
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