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How to Maintain & Store a Car You Don’t Drive Often

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Maintaining and Storing Your Low-Mileage Vehicle

If you have a vehicle that you know you’re not going to drive much, you can’t just leave it parked at the curb and expect it to be ready to roll when you need it.

When a vehicle won’t be driven for an extended period, there are several steps you should take to make sure it will be road-ready when you want to fire it up again. The longer you will be away, the more steps you’ll need to take.

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Maintaining a Car You Don’t Drive Often

With millions of Americans stuck at home during the pandemic with no place to go, cars that used to get daily exercise now sit idle most of the time, sometimes for a week or longer.

Driving less, even a lot less, doesn’t mean a vehicle no longer needs maintenance, though. The maintenance intervals that manufacturers provide for their vehicles generally follow mileage/time guidelines with a “whichever comes first” caveat.

For example, if the maintenance schedule calls for the engine coolant to be replaced every five years or 60,000 miles, go by the time limit, not the mileage.

If you’re driving 5,000 miles per year or less, even though the odometer isn’t changing much, the clock is still ticking on your car’s maintenance schedule.

Time and mileage recommendations vary by manufacturer, but here are some service items that should be performed or at least checked regardless of the number of miles you’re driving:

  • Oil changes: Change the oil at least once a year, even if it’s synthetic oil that the manufacturer says is good for 10,000 miles. Look at the maintenance schedule; it will probably say “or once a year.” Oil deteriorates over time from oxidation, heat and moisture. It can’t lubricate and protect an engine as well as fresh oil.
  • Tire rotation: It’s a good idea to have the tires rotated (move the ones in front to the back, and vice-versa) at the same time you get your oil changed. It may seem like overkill if you’re only driving 4,000 miles per year, but most vehicles today have front-wheel drive. That means a higher percentage of the car’s weight is resting on the front tires than on a rear-drive vehicle, and if a car sits most of the time, that can lead to flat spots on the front tires.
  • Tire air pressure: Tires gradually lose pressure over time. Check their levels at least once a month to insure they won’t develop flat spots. It’s important: under-inflated tires have reduced load-carrying capacity and wear faster.
  • Engine coolant and transmission fluid: Some manufacturers say these fluids don’t need to be changed for 10 years or 100,000 miles or more, and others say they never need to be changed. Check the maintenance schedule for your vehicle to be sure and see whether the intervals are shorter for “severe driving,” which describes driving in some major urban areas. Coolant deteriorates over time and becomes less effective at cooling the engine and preventing freezing. Old coolant can also allow rust to form in the cooling system. Transmission fluid lubricates and cools moving parts and provides the hydraulic power for gear shifts in automatic transmissions. Heat wears out the fluid over time, especially in high stress driving such as trailer towing. These fluids should be inspected at the time/mileage intervals specified by the manufacturer.
  • Brake fluid: This can absorb moisture and be less effective in hard stops and allow corrosion in the brake lines. It’s a good idea to have your brake fluid checked periodically, even if it isn’t in the maintenance schedule.
  • Belts, hoses and tires: If a car isn’t used often, rubber and vinyl components still deteriorate as the years roll by, especially in dry climates, where dry rot can set in. This includes serpentine belts that drive components such as the air conditioning compressor and alternator, and timing belts, which connect the crankshaft to the camshaft(s) so the valves open and close at the right times. Serpentine belts are relatively easy to inspect and replace because they are mounted on the outside of the engine. On the other hand, timing belts are out of sight and expensive to replace (they can run to more than $1,000). If your vehicle is seven years or older, it’s time to have a serious discussion with a mechanic about whether the timing belt should be replaced. If it breaks, your car won’t start.
  • Air filters: This is one area where you can probably stretch the time limits. If you drive less, the engine air filter and cabin air filter shouldn’t be collecting much dirt and debris, so it’s likely you won’t need to change them as often as when you were driving 12,000 miles per year.

Car Storage Basics

If the vehicle is going to be parked for weeks at a time, here’s what you need to do:

  • First, if you can, arrange to park the vehicle in a garage or other indoor location so it isn’t exposed to hail, tree sap, bird droppings, or air pollutants. Even just exposure to the sun can fade the paint. A dry garage or storage unit is preferable; letting a vehicle sit in a damp environment can breed rust.
  • If a garage isn’t available and you must use outdoor storage, buy a car cover that won’t scratch the car’s Ideally, it would be the “breathable” type that allows moisture and condensation to evaporate. Some car covers that are labeled as weatherproof may trap moisture underneath the cover.

Here are further steps to take based on the period of time you plan of storing your car:

Short-Term Car Storage (Up to a Month or So)

If your car is going to sit just for a few weeks:

  • Wash the car to remove dirt, salt, bird droppings, and other crud that can damage paint and cause rust.
  • Thoroughly vacuum the interior; you don’t want any food scraps that will attract small animals looking for an indoor dining experience.
  • Fill the gas tank to prevent moisture and rust in the fuel system.
  • Inflate the tires slightly above the recommended pressure levels (you can find those levels on the driver’s door jamb, or in the owner’s manual). The tires are likely to lose air while they sit, so pump in a little extra so you don’t return to tires that have flat spots from the weight of the vehicle.

Medium-Term Car Storage (Up to 3 Months)

Do all of the above, plus:

  • Wax the car to remove oxidation and provide a protective coating on the paint.
  • Change the oil before you store the car. Dirty, contaminated, or old oil can cause sludge and damage internal engine parts.
  • If temperatures are going to dip below freezing while you’re gone, check the engine coolant to make sure there’s enough
  • Release the parking brake. Corrosion could lock it in place if you leave it engaged for several weeks.
  • Remove the battery and place it on a wood or heavy cardboard surface instead of on damp concrete. Connecting it to a trickle charger with an automatic shut-off will keep it fully charged until you return.
  • Put the vehicle on jack stands to remove the weight from the tires. It’s worth the effort. Leaving the tires stationary for several weeks while bearing the full weight of the vehicle can result in permanent flat spots, and you will need to buy new tires.

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Long-Term Car Storage (More Than 3 Months)

Do all the above, plus:

  • Add stabilizer to the gas tank to absorb moisture and prevent gum and varnish from forming and degrading the gas. Then fill the tank with gas and drive the vehicle several miles to mix in the stabilizer.
  • Try to keep squirrels, mice and other creatures from setting up housekeeping inside the vehicle, the engine bay, or even the exhaust system. These critters like to munch on wires that have organic coverings, and that damage can be costly to repair. Spread moth balls or anti-static dryer sheets around and under the vehicle.
  • Stuff aluminum foil or steel wool into the exhaust pipe and the engine air intake. (Don’t forget to remove them before starting the vehicle when you return!) Cloth can work, but rodents like to use cloth to make nests.
  • Pull the windshield wiper arms away from the glass so they don’t stick or leave marks.
  • Treat leather and vinyl upholstery with conditioner to prevent drying and cracking.

Drive Your Car at Least Once a Week, If You Can

Most of these measures won’t be necessary if someone is available to drive your car every week for at least several miles to get all the fluids flowing at their normal operating temperatures and to give the engine, transmission, brakes, and other components some exercise.

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