How to Prep Your Car for Your Summer Road Trip

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Two people in the car on a road trip/Image Credit: Tobi

Contributing Author: Craig Fitzgerald

Yes, gas is expensive, but it’s not going to keep many of us at home this summer.

AutoPacific – a consulting firm that monitors the automotive industry – recently surveyed Americans on the impact of gas prices on drivers’ summer road trip plans. Out of 644 people polled, 49 percent said gas prices would not impact their decision to travel this summer. 39 percent said their plans hadn’t changed, even though they weren’t happy about it. Just TWO percent of those polled said they were canceling a trip solely because the cost of getting to their destination had risen.

That – coupled with the traffic we’ve already witnessed on weekends headed to beach destinations in New England – is pretty strong evidence that we’re still driving places this summer. The question is, how can you do it with as little expense as possible? We’ve written before about the best ways to save money on fuel. Now we’re going to focus on the maintenance ahead of a trip as a means of saving fuel, and big dough on breakdowns while you’re away.

Cooling System

Refilling engine coolant/Image Credit: Shutterstock

The weakest link on any road trip – winter or summer – is your cooling system. Outside of the obvious fuel savings, it’s one of a number of advantages to an electric vehicle: It doesn’t have a cooling system, in the way that a conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) does.

The “combustion” part of an internal combustion engine develops tremendous heat. Temperatures inside the combustion chambers can reach up to 4,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Air cooling used to be a thing, but since we’ve become more conscious of emissions, every single ICE has been cooled by a mixture of water and some kind of liquid that simultaneously raises the boiling point and lowers the freezing point of water.

In the old days, every car used ethylene glycol, but that type of coolant is being phased out for specialized coolants with Organic Additive Technology, which isn’t as harmful to the environment or animals. Your best bet is to check with the manufacturer to figure out which coolant you require, and if it’s low in the overflow bottle, add to the correct line.

But there’s a lot more to the cooling system than coolant: there’s a radiator, a thermostat, a water pump, hoses that route hot coolant away from the engine, and cooler liquid back to it, along with heater hoses that route hot water to the passenger cabin, a heater core, and any belts that may be required to turn the water pump.

Any of those items can fail, and they WILL fail when you’re stuck in two hours of traffic waiting to get to your vacation destination.

Before you head out on your trip, have your cooling system pressure tested, and if necessary, flushed. From there, check components like the water pump, thermostat, belts, and hoses to be sure they’re up to the task.

Tires

Check your tires/Image Credit: Shutterstock

The next big thing to check is the health of your tires. Even the healthiest tires can pick up a screw and go flat, but you want to avoid heading out on a four-hour trip with tires that look like baloney skins.

“The most obvious thing to check is if the tires are getting close to the wear bars,” says Jay Condrick at Boston Mobile TIre. “These bars are within the tread of the tire. If the tread has worn down to the point that they’re level with the wear bars, it’s past time to replace them.” That tread depth is 2/32-inches. Condrick points out Tire Rack’s testing on tread depth in wet conditions. “They ran cars up to 70 mph and found out that cars with 2/32-inches of tread depth took 100 feet longer – about six car lengths – to come to a stop than those with 4/32-inches of tread,” he says. Six car lengths can be the difference between spilling your mochaccino and taking a ride in an ambulance.

If your tires aren’t worn, a summer road trip is a good excuse to have the tires inflated properly and rotated according to the manufacturer’s specifications. Condrick says that proper tire inflation is nearly free, and even if you have to pay a few bucks to use a gas station’s pump, it’ll save fuel in the long run. “Be sure to inflate the tire to the recommended pressure on the decal inside the driver’s door, and not the maximum pressure shown on the tire sidewall,” he says.

Finally, take a look at how old your tires are. Tires made after 2000 have a date code at the end of a string of letters and numbers beginning with DOT on the sidewall (NOTE: the date code is only required on one sidewall of the tire, so it may be facing inboard).

The last four digits in that number indicate the week and the year the tires were manufactured. The number “5120” indicates that the tire was manufactured the next-to-last week in 2020. If your tires are beyond seven or eight years old, it’s time to consider replacing them.

If your tires have a three-digit date code or no date code at all, they’re from before 2000 and are now old enough to consume alcohol in all 50 states. Time for them to go.

Finally, Condrick urges drivers to check the air in their spare tire and know where the tire-changing tools are.

Charging System

Person performing a battery test/Image Credit: Shutterstock

The other most frequent breakdown issue is related to your car’s electrical system. Most people think that their battery is there to power the lights and the radio, but it’s way more than that. Your engine relies on a healthy 12-volt electrical system to provide the energy for the spark plugs to ignite. Without a constant 12 volts, your car is within 30 miles of dying beside the highway.

The battery is the most obvious component of the electrical system, but there are also the positive and negative cables attached to the battery’s poles, the alternator that spins to charge the battery, the belt that spins the alternator, and the starter that spins the engine over when you turn the key or push the start button.

Most of the time, an electrical failure can be traced to a dead battery, a bad battery cable, or a bad alternator.

The good news is that you can have all these things inspected by either your auto dealer’s service department, an independent garage, or even an auto parts store. They’ll connect a digital electrical system analyzer to your battery, and it will allow them to see how strong your battery is, and whether the alternator is putting out the required 14.3 volts to keep the battery charged and keep the spark plugs firing. Any weakness in the system will be identified, and you can avoid the issue before you head out for your trip.

Your best bet in setting your car up for a safe, reliable, fuel-efficient road trip this summer is to have the oil changed before you head out, and ask your service advisor to take a look at the cooling system, the electrical system, and the tires before your journey. It’ll provide some peace of mind before you and your family hit the road.

Craig Fitzgerald began his automotive writing career in 1996, at AutoSite.com, one of the first online resources for car buyers. Over the years, he’s written for the Boston Globe, Forbes, and Hagerty. For seven years, he was the editor at Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car, and today, he’s the automotive editor at Drive magazine. He’s dad to a son and daughter, and plays rude guitar in a garage band in Worcester, Massachusetts.

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