How to Maintain a Car That You Seldom Drive
Maybe you're on a vacation abroad or your spouse or child who owns the car had to work or study somewhere far. Or maybe you've simply bought a new vehicle with a car loan and you prefer driving it over your old one.
No matter the reason, you still need to maintain the vehicle you seldom use. When a car sits for more than a couple of weeks without getting some TLC, it begins to break down systematically.
- The car’s batteries gradually lose their charge, which happens faster in cold weather. Doing this will give you issues later when starting your vehicle, as well as problems with remote central locking and alarms. Your alarm battery could also die in the middle of the night.
- Tyres can deteriorate and develop flat spots. The parts of the tyres that are kissing the ground will flatten, which can make it difficult to steer your car and may lead to tyre failure and accidents.
- The gas tank can rust and break. If you left your vehicle with a gas tank filled partway or near-empty, it would eventually collect moisture that will lead to corrosion.
- Rodents and pests may take up residence. These unwanted critters that live under the hood and in the exhaust outlets can chew on your car’s wiring.
For these reasons, it’s a no-no to leave your car sitting idle for an extended period without doing some maintenance work.
Keep it in good condition and ready for the future grind with these tips.
Get regular oil changes
Car fluids break down over time because of temperature fluctuations even if the car is left sitting idle in your garage for a long period. The sludgy oil can also cause resistance in the engine parts and create additional friction that wears away the cylinder wall and bearing surfaces, which reduces oil pressure.
Hence, it is essential to get that scheduled oil changes. Typically, this is done every six months or after accumulating 10,000 kms for new vehicles and three months or 5,000 kms for old cars. Every car is different, however, so it is best to refer to the car owner's manual for specific guidelines.
You may need to switch from a mileage-based oil-change interval to a time-based one if you’re not planning to use the car on a regular basis anytime soon. Also, if you’re starting the car after a long time of being idle, it is best to change the oil first to remove any water condensation from the oil tank.
Just because your car is parked doesn’t mean it should be left without fuel. On the contrary, you need to get a full tank of gas to avoid the tank from getting rusted. Whatever space inside the tank that’s not filled by gas is filled with air, which contains water vapour that can condense on the sides and create rust. Weather fluctuations can also cause condensation inside the tank.
- Before leaving your car idle for an extended time, fill it up with your fuel of choice.
A full tank of gasoline should last about six months while a diesel fuel can last six months to a year. Flex fuel, or fuel with high-level ethanol-gasoline blends, usually lasts less than six months especially if it has a higher alcohol content.
- If you’re storing your car for some two to four months, use a storage fuel stabiliser like STA-BIL to deal with the moisture problem. Don’t forget to seal the tank properly as well.
A full tank of fuel will not only keep your gas tank from rusting, but it will also make your car ready for any spontaneous driving activity.
- If the vehicle will be stored some two or more years, however, it may be smart to drain the tank altogether since the fuel will eventually be unusable and could only damage fuel components.
Check your tyres regularly
Even while parked, temperature changes can affect the air pressure in your car’s tyres. Over time, they also lose the air. These slow tyre leaks usually develop around the valve.
- If the slow leaks trouble you that much, you may want to use nitrogen-filled tyres for your seldom-used vehicle as they leak less than oxygen-filled ones.
The parts of the tyres that have been kissing the ground for a long period can also develop flat spots. This can happen slowly or fast depending on the tyre compound and construction.
- To avoid flat spots, take some weight off the wheels using a jack stand or other appropriate devices. You should also find the time to roll the vehicle slightly fore or aft to resituate the tyres.
To keep your car’s tyres in tip-top shape, always check them regularly and make sure that they have plenty of air and filled up according to your manual’s suggested pressure. Also, ensure that the valve caps are properly tightened.
If the car is old, be keener to check for “signs of aging”, like cracks, flakes, bulging, and discolouration of the rubber tyres. You would have to replace the tyres if you see these flaws.
- If the parked car is exposed to the sun, cover the tyres to prevent UV damage. (Yes, the sun’s UV rays can damage your car’s tyres as much as it can damage your skin!)
Should you decide to drive the car after a month or more of being idle, also check the tyres before taking them back on the road.
Check for fluid leaks
Car leaks should always be a cause for concern as they mean that something is wrong about your vehicle. If it leaks oil or other fluids that leave a puddle on the floor even while sitting idle, get it fixed by a mechanic ASAP before storing.
- To track fluid loss, lay down a cardboard box under your car. This trick will help you catch drips, especially coolant and transmission fluids that are hard to see on the garage floor and locate where those drips are coming from.
You can also use an oil drip pan with kitty litter or other specialized products to check for car leaks.
Do not use the parking brake
Some parking brakes can "freeze" over time and due to humidity changes. Stuck parking brakes are more common in old, seldom used vehicles where the brakes are used only occasionally.
- It is best to not use the parking brake if you won't be using your car for a month or so. To keep the car from rolling, use wheel chocks or anything that ensures that it is held securely and safely in place.
Keep your car clean and critter-free
Everything that’s left unused for a long time collects dust and should be cleaned regularly, including your vehicle. No matter how secure your car is in the garage, it still needs to be cleaned and dusted from time to time.
- Before storing, make sure that there are no food leftovers or anything that could attract bugs and leave a foul smell inside your vehicle.
- While on storage, regularly check for pests, critters, weeds, and any unwanted object that find their way into your vehicle. This is especially important if your car is parked in an open space.
Rodents, in particular, love to build a home under your dormant car’s hood. Aside from squatting your property, they can also chew on the wires and tear up any accessible cloth-like materials to build their nest. Additionally, they can bring in food and other garbage into your vehicle, which could become a fire hazard.
- To keep critters away from your vehicle, use deterrents like mothballs or peppermint oil. Do not put them on the base of the windshield, however, as they could leave a strong and unpleasant smell in your car.
To keep your car extra protected, use a car cover. This helps you avoid scrapes on the car’s paint, abrasive dust, and UV damage to the car’s interior and tyres. If you’re storing your car in a closed space, you can go with a soft, lighter cover that's usually affordable. However, if you don’t have any choice but to leave your car parked in the yard or driveway, invest in a weatherproof and UV-resistant car cover.
Keep your car’s engine alive
Even if you have a new vehicle that you love to drive around town, always find the time to drive your old vehicle once in a while or have someone drive it if you’re unable to do so. This will recharge its battery, keep its engine running more smoothly, and prevent any build-up under the hood.
Those few miles on the highway or quick trips to the grocery store may not mean anything to you but they mean a lot to your old car. They're like workouts that keep your car' in good condition!
If you’re taking out an idle car for a ride, don’t forget to get it first warmed up in the same way you’re doing stretches after waking up. You need to start the car and let the transmission and engine warm up a minute or so before putting it in gear or under load. This will allow the engine oil and transmission fluid to circulate and lubricate the moving parts.
Ideally, you should drive your car at least once every two weeks. Take the car out to at least 50 mph to give it a good workout.
Even if you are not using your car often, you can help it stay good as new with regular maintenance. Doing so will keep any tiny car issues from escalating into major problems that only a professional mechanic can resolve.
If performing regular car maintenance for your old vehicle is impossible, have a trusted person do it for you.