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Get Your Car Ready for Summer

A checklist for safe, trouble-free vacation driving

Car mechanic holding clipboard in a car garage

Westend61

Before planning your summer road trip, check your car for any maintenance needs — such as tires, windshield wipers and functioning brakes.

En español | Hot weather puts special strains on your car.

Whether you’re heading on a long road trip — and shudder at the thought of a breakdown in an unfamiliar area — or just want trouble-free local driving, you need to make sure your car or truck is ready. 

Our automotive summer to-do list isn’t extensive. Some things are do-it-yourself, and others require a stop in the shop. We talked with experienced mechanics to determine the most important items.

Air-conditioning: Turn it on full blast (“max A/C” is how many vehicles label it), which uses the coldest temperature setting and the fastest fan speed. (Don’t use the recirculation setting.)

Hold the back of your hand in front of a vent. “It’s more sensitive” than the palm, says Dean Svitko, who taught auto technicians for 33 years at Rosedale Technical College in Pittsburgh. “It should have a cool, crisp feel.”

Or stick a thermometer into the AC vent. If it reads 35 to 55 degrees, he says, that’s probably OK.

If the airflow seems weak, it could be a clogged passenger-compartment air filter and not the AC. 

Some cabin filters can be replaced in a few minutes, but other models’ filters are tucked away and can take a shop hours to reach and replace. 

Most manufacturers recommend a year between changes, says Jason Duvall, who teaches auto technicians at the University of Northwestern Ohio in Lima, Ohio. 

Check your owner’s manual to see if it’s a do-it-yourself job.

Tires: “People don’t check tire pressure often enough,” Duvall says. The correct pressure is listed on a sticker on the driver’s door jamb. 

If your vehicle has an electronic tire-pressure monitor that shows you on the dashboard the specific pressure in each tire (not the type that simply warns you a tire might be low), you’re lucky. “They’re darn close. It’s amazing how accurate those things can be,” according to Svitko.

Also make sure the tread’s not worn out. 

“As a technician you’re looking for 3/32 to 4/32 of an inch of tread. That’s when you’d say the tires are getting low on tread and you might want to replace them,” according to Duvall. 

The minimum permitted by law is 2/32 of an inch.

New tires have 9/32 to 11/32 of an inch of tread, he says. 

Auto parts stores sell tread-depth gauges for easy checking. 

Eyeball the tires — fronts, especially — to make sure the wear is even across the tread. If not, you might need an alignment. “If (the car) starts to drift, you can’t keep it going straight, that’s one indication” the alignment’s off, Svitko says. 

Fluids: Top up the windshield-washer fluid tank (usually a clear reservoir under the hood). Get the radiator coolant, the engine oil and filter and the transmission fluid checked and changed, if needed, Duvall and Svitko both say. 

Radiator coolant gets overlooked, Duvall says. “In the summertime the engine runs hotter, so the radiator has to work harder.”

Brake fluid should be eyeballed by your service shop. If the level is low, it could mean your brakes are worn and might need replacing. 

Removing the cover of the brake-fluid reservoir is tricky. It’s often surrounded by grime under the hood, and just a tiny bit of that dirt knocked into the brake fluid can contaminate it and require more extensive service, Duvall, Svitko and other experts caution. Moisture also can lead to contamination. 

Wipers: If you haven’t installed new rubber blades lately, do it now. Old rubber won’t clear the windshield well in a summer rainstorm, leaving you at least partly blind to hazards ahead.

“If they’re starting to streak on the glass so it’s not perfectly clear, they’re due,” Svitko says. Leave worn blades on too long, he says, and “the rubber comes off and scrapes the glass. Windshield replacements are not cheap.” 

Fuel filter: Out of sight, out of mind. “Most people don’t replace fuel filters because they’re under the car. You don’t see them,” Svitko says. 

A fuel filter clogged from neglect is “the main reason for a fuel pump to go bad,” he says. 

And because today’s fuel pumps usually are in the fuel tank, it can be costly to replace or repair the fuel pump — hardly a quickie fix on a family road trip, he notes. 

Battery: A car that won’t start isn’t much of a car at all, so give the battery a look. A lot of factors determine how long a car battery lasts, but typical life is three to five years. 

And there’s usually no warning that your battery is about to quit. It used to be that the starter would crank the engine more slowly as your battery weakened, but today, the experts say: It works on Tuesday, doesn’t on Wednesday. 

Extreme weather — very hot or very cold — is the hardest on batteries. If your battery is a few years old, it’s probably not a good idea to head into a hot summer without replacing it. 

In fact, some technicians preemptively replace batteries every three or four years.

Today’s batteries are sealed, so you don’t add water to the individual cells (as was the case years ago). But you should clean any corrosion from the terminals before it accumulates in order to keep the electrical connections tight. Turn the car off, disconnect the battery cables and use a toothbrush, water and baking soda to scrub the residue off of the terminals and the inside of the cable clamps.

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