Before you hit the road to parts unknown in the family sedan, SUV, or motor home, there are a few things that need to be considered. Sure, you checked the oil, filled the windshield washer reservoir with blue water, and you have the Little Debbie oatmeal crème pies and bottled water in the cooler, but have you given enough thought to your vehicle? Inspecting just a few items prior to loading up the wife, kids, and rover may keep you from turning what could be memorable vacation into a trip from Hell that you never want to remember again.
Here is a basic and simple pre-trip check list of key items. It is by no means an exhaustive list, so if you think of anything else along the way, be sure and check that too.
Tires and Wheels
Just because they are shiny don’t mean they are road worthy. Always check the inflation and condition of your tires before taking a road trip. Tire tread should be greater than a quarter-of-an-inch across the entire tread. If it is at a half-inch on one side and a negative thirty-second-of-an-inch on the other side, then you need to see the tire guy about some new skins and an alignment. That brings us to the air pressure. Unknown to most consumers is the fact that the correct air pressure for any given tire is stamped into its sidewall. If you look at the area where the tire bead contacts the wheel, you will find a small conglomeration of numbers and words. They deal with maximum load capacities, load ratings, and so on but they also contain the maximum air pressure rating for your tire. The figure varies from one tire manufacturer and tire type to the next but typically ranges from 32 psi to 44 psi for cars and 55 psi to 80 psi for light to medium duty trucks and motor homes. Always try to keep your tires inflated to the maximum amount stamped into the sidewall. Obviously, if your tire pressure is found to be excessively low, you should investigate for the cause of a leak. If a leak is found, have the tire repaired or replaced as necessary.
Inspect your wheels for salt and/or mud deposits which have been left behind from winter. These deposits will generally be on the inboard side of the wheel (unless you totally lack observation skills). They can play havoc with proper wheel balance and result in everything from a loss of fuel efficiency to unusual vibration, and even a wobbly steering wheel. Simply clean these deposits off with a water hose or pressure washer.
Checking your vehicle’s vital fluids prior to a trip can literally save your life. If you hit the highway with low engine oil, transmission fluid, or even power steering fluid, under the wrong circumstances it could lead to a motor vehicle accident. Develop a system of checking the fluids on your vehicle. Some fluids should be checked cold and others must be checked when hot. Engine oil must be checked with the engine off, while automatic transmission fluid should normally be checked with the engine idling. These things are good to know in order to maintain the correct fluid level and type in your vehicle systems.
Here are a few tips for checking your vital fluids:
- Engine Oil – always check with the engine off. Allow time for the oil to return to the crank case after shutting down the engine. An oil change just prior to trip departure can save you money with increased fuel efficiency.
- Engine Coolant- this fluid can be hazardous to your health if handled improperly. It is frequently hot and under high pressure. Allow the engine to cool before attempting to remove the radiator cap (this includes pressurized reservoirs). Regular engine coolant maintenance should involve an annual coolant replacement, at minimum. Don’t forget to refill the coolant overflow reservoir, if it is remotely located.
- Transmission Fluid- should be checked with the engine at idle and the shifter in “park” or “neutral.” The correct fluid type is usually stamped into the transmission dipstick tube. If it is not, then consult the owner’s manual or your friendly parts professional. Never overfill the transmission.
- Brake Fluid- most cars have a translucent brake fluid master cylinder that allows you to determine th fluid level without removal of the cap. If the cap must be removed to add fluid, make sure that all dirt and debris is cleaned off before hand. If the fluid in the master cylinder is black, then it should be replaced by a qualified auto tech at you earliest convenience. Check the fluid in the clutch master cylinder in a similar manner.
- Power Steering Fluid-This should be carefully checked with the engine running. Add fluid in small increments and use caution not to overfill the reservoir.
- Differential Lubricant- front and rear differentials are designed as sealed components but leaks are a definite possibility. Differential fluid should be inspected as part of every oil change to determine fluid level and condition. Check you owner’s manual for the correct service interval. If the fluid is low in your front or rear differential, then refill it with the correct fluid and check for the source of a leak. Repair as necessary.
I hope that this helps you to have a more fun and refreshing vacation in the short term, with greater vehicle longevity in the long term.