By Kristen Finley
What is it we typically do when we think about getting ready for a road trip? The first few things that come to mind are things like, not forgetting a toothbrush, phone charger, forms of entertainment and a variety of snacks. What doesn’t usually come to the forefront of the preparation ritual tends to be preparing your vehicle for time away from home, which leans more towards irony when considering the fact that most depend entirely on their car to get them to their highly anticipated location.
While adding more things to the mile-long list of things to check off before leaving might seem daunting, taking the time to make sure everything is in good condition beforehand can save a lot of precious time and money. The two most important things to take a gander at are the fluids and tires. If either or both of those things aren’t where they should be, disaster could be right around the corner.
Before asking a lot of your engine, the best way to keep delays at bay is to make sure the motor oil, coolant, brake fluid, and transmission fluids are at the optimal levels and clean. Motor oil and transmission fluid (or gear oil if your car is a manual) can be checked via a dipstick. Brake fluid is confined within the master cylinder against the fire wall, and coolant levels can be inspected within the radiator itself. When checking coolant levels, do not check the level if the engine is hot. The coolant will boil over once pressure is released – geysering liquid from 180-200 degrees in temperature. Third-degree burns become very likely.
With all fluids (but especially motor oil and transmission fluid/gear oil), these levels should be at the full line before departing. If levels are lower than they should be, moving parts aren’t as effectively lubricated – which can cause the engine and transmission to wear faster than normal. If fluid levels are very low, temperatures can get too high, which will cause expensive and untimely damage.
Brake fluid is important to check since it keeps your brakes from getting too hot. When the brakes are too hot, they become less capable of stopping efficiently and effectively, making a serious accident more likely. Thankfully, brake fluid levels are easy to check on level ground. There’s a cold temperature level and a warm one, so be sure that you’re checking the right level before making the call to add more fluid.
For coolant, removing the radiator cap while the engine is cool and taking a peek inside is the method of inspection. Looking inside, you should be able to see coolant just under the neck of the radiator (the piece the cap threads onto). If all that’s visible is metal, coolant (preferably a premixed/diluted solution) should be added. While you’re at it, inspect the coolant reservoir as well. Since they’re directly attached to the radiator, they’ll always be close by. A reservoir is there as a way to store coolant that gets sloshed around as temperatures and pressures change inside the radiator. A full radiator and reservoir makes for a happy, cool engine.
Tires are arguably the most important aspect of a functioning car. Without good tires, the car (even with a functioning engine and transmission) are essentially useless. With that in mind, they should be taken very seriously. The condition of the tires themselves, tread, and the pressure should be evaluated.
When checking condition, tires shouldn’t have any sorts of bubbles or cups. Bubbles or cups are defined by imperfections in the tire that are thankfully easy to spot. When looking at a tire, if there aren’t any raised sections of the tire and it’s perfectly round, you’re good to go. Another way people stumble upon them is the unusually bumpy and uncomfortable tremor they feel in the car when driving at semi-high speeds.
Thankfully, tread doesn’t typically demand attention until a few years of use. Tread can be checked by using a simple method: a penny. Here, America’s most useless coin has an important purpose. In the middle of the tire, place the penny in between two sections of tread. If the top of the tread is at the middle of the penny or above, the tread is in good shape. If the reading is around a quarter of the penny or below, it’s time to place yourself in the market for new tires. Another aspect of tread that’s important is how it’s wearing. Feathering, or if one spot of the tire looks like it’s wearing quicker than any other part of the tire should be professionally assessed as soon as possible. This could mean trouble with the alignment or the tire itself.
Optimal tire pressures are typically around 35-40 pounds per square inch (psi), but the exact number depends on what the manufacturer suggests. Due to the importance of keeping pressure precise, all tires will display the maximum psi along the side wall. If a tire pressure gauge isn’t handy, most gas stations have devoted pumps and gauges ready to use at the affordable price of $0.25. Pressure in all four tires should be inspected before a long trip.