Driving Less? Make Sure Your Car Hasn’t Deteriorated During Lockdown

You may have put off going to the doctor, the dentist, getting hair cuts, abandoned your commute and reduced your driving to essential errands during the pandemic. Staying put has most likely made you safer, but you weren’t doing any favors for your car, especially if you were also putting off maintenance.

Cars need regular use and upkeep to stay in shape, even if you are barely driving them.

Make that: Especially if you’re barely driving them.

That said, there is some car maintenance you can delay and some you cannot. The “can” list is shorter, so let’s start with that.

Consider miles driven, not time.

Maintenance obligations can be loosely divided into two categories: those based on miles driven and those based on time since the last service. One of the chores based on miles is tire rotation, and a car that has barely been used can relax the routine that’s intended to even out the wear on all four tires. Usually, after about 5,000 miles you would move the positions of the tires, like putting the right front tire on the right rear, though the pattern to follow can differ from car to car.

Also, while tires deteriorate over time, the past year of diminished use won’t have much affect on that deterioration.

You can also relax about the engine coolant and the air and cabin filters, which are all tied to usage. John Ibbotson, the shop supervisor for the auto fleet of Consumer Reports, said that some automakers don’t call for the system to be flushed and new coolant installed until 100,000 miles, or 10 years. He also said the filters should typically be “looked at every 15,000 miles and changed at 30,000.”

The general maintenance guidance he relies on is the owner’s manual, but he cautions that the patterns of life in the pandemic have complicated matters. With people driving only short local trips, the typical family car has shifted from normal service to what automakers regard as severe duty. In other words, making those quick hops to the Starbucks may be functionally the equivalent of towing a trailer or pounding down dusty farm roads, as far as your engine’s oil is concerned.

Short trips do not bring the engine up to operating temperature, which is necessary to rid the oil of moisture that accumulates in normal use. Nor does the engine coolant circulate and deliver anti-corrosion additives to vital spots. Longer drives also help make sure that vital components like gears and bearings maintain a coating of lubricant.

The most important task: changing the oil.

If you are not taking longer drives, then you really don’t want to delay changing your oil. It’s the most familiar maintenance task and perhaps the one that is most important to your car’s good health.

On an older car, following the owner’s manual mileage recommendation for severe conditions will help to keep the lubricant and its blend of protective additives fresh (if you no longer have the manual, they are often available online and from the automaker). The systems built into many new cars that remind you of required service, like oil changes, take into account the length of trips and will recommend changes based on actual driving.

Changing the oil is also the ideal time to look in on other maintenance tasks, including checks of all belts and hoses; while both suffer the effects of engine heat under the hood, they can also develop cracks while the car just sits.

Add car batteries to the time list. They have a limited life that’s not based on miles driven. They often start to decline after three years and give up altogether after five to seven.

Jill Trotta, a certified technician and vice president for marketing at RepairPal, a website that provides cost estimates and connects car owners with qualified mechanic shops, knows how to properly care for a car. Yet even she let a battery run down past the point where it could be revived with a charge, which is exactly what happened to her 2014 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid when it sat in the driveway for months without being driven during the pandemic.

The solution: a low-power battery maintainer, which keeps the charge topped up between drives. Basic ones start at about $25. Keep in mind, too, that while battery replacement is an entirely straightforward swap on most cars, some electronics-intensive models make it more painful. BMWs going back nearly two decades require a registration and programming process, which means added expense and a possible visit to a dealer. It’s worth preventing a dead battery in the first place.

Another maintenance task that should not be deferred is replacing the timing belt in engines that use them. The belt turns the camshafts that open the engine’s valves and can cause major engine damage if it fails. Typically good for 80,000 to 100,000 miles of service, the belt can degrade even while sitting, so stick to the automaker’s recommendation on years between renewal.

Don’t forget the brakes.

A telling sign of a car not being driven is a layer of rust on the brake discs. A light coating is no problem, though it may be noisy for a few blocks; it will be polished off by the first few presses of the brake pedal on a careful drive around the neighborhood.

More critical are brake parts you can’t see. The hydraulic fluid that makes the system work absorbs water from the air, potentially reducing stopping power. The fluid can be tested for water, but if it’s visibly dirty have the system flushed and refilled with fluid that meets the specifications in the owner’s manual.

Also look for corrosion that can keep the brake calipers, which squeeze the discs to stop the car, from working correctly. If your car doesn’t roll freely at low speeds when driven for the first time in awhile, have the brakes checked immediately — and ideally nearby.

One downside to dormancy that doesn’t fall under normal maintenance routines: rodent occupation. Lift the hood to see whether mice or squirrels have taken up residence, a problem that may be more common than you’d think. Clear out any nesting materials or droppings before starting the engine, especially from areas near an exhaust system that will get hot.

At the same time, knock off accumulations of dirt, leaves and bird droppings, which can damage the paint. Ms. Trotta suggested a gentle pass with a yard blower; in any case, don’t rub accumulated dirt with a cloth or a brush because the abrasion will leave scratches. You can also rinse the surface with plain water to remove as much as possible. Pay attention to the tracks where a sunroof or the power windows slide, clearing debris that could jam the glass.

The yearlong hiatus in regular car use calls for a bit of special attention to the car’s mechanical and cosmetic needs, but for the most part it is not disastrous for every aspect of a car’s well-being. As Covid restrictions loosen around the country and with warmer weather, drivers will be putting their vehicles back into regular service, and there may be a crush at the local shop or dealership. Taking care of deferred maintenance soon may be a smart plan to avoid a wait for service.

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