For many practicing self-isolation, the monthly gas bill represents one of the few positives that can be gleaned from this pandemic.
That four-door, fully-loaded fuel guzzler collecting pollen in your driveway now gets 20 days to the gallon instead of 20 miles. Due to stay-at-home directives, your tires haven’t touched interstate pavement in weeks; in lieu of gradual wear and tear, they’re enjoying extensive R&R.
Presumably, that’s a good thing ― until it becomes a catastrophic one. Turns out, letting your vehicle go unused for weeks or even months can be just as damaging as lengthy daily commutes.
“Cars are made to be driven,” said Chris Hinson, a master certified technician the last 27 years at Tampa’s Bill Currie Ford. “A car just sitting is usually the death of the car.”
We reached out to a handful of veteran automobile technicians, and on that point they all agree: A vehicle barely driven during the coronavirus crisis can produce some pricey collateral damage.
“You would be clearly surprised at what could happen,” said Joe Cancialosi, instructor in the automotive service technology program at Pinellas Technical College, and a certified mechanic for more than three decades.
Here are the five things most likely to occur with an under-utilized vehicle, according to the experts.
1. Dead battery
A word of caution to those who let their car sit in the garage for two or three weeks at a time: Better know where your jumper cables are located. This is especially true for newer models with higher electrical loads and demands.
“So things even kind of run when the car’s not actually running, to keep computers alive and stuff like that,” Hinson said. “Sometimes if a car sits for a few weeks, it can easily kill a battery.”
2. Tire damage
A car or truck remaining stationary for an extended period can develop flat spots on the portion of the tire touching the ground.
“So they are no longer perfectly round,” Cancialosi said, “and will take some driving to get those flat spots back out.”
How much driving? Perhaps up to 100 or 200 miles. Until then, “you could have vibrations that you didn’t have before,” Hinson said. “And people come in the shop and say, ‘My tires are vibrating.’”
3. Oil not circulating
Though probably not as glaring a concern as the tires or battery, experts nonetheless agree that oil in an engine that hasn’t been engaged for a couple of months ultimately will bleed back into the oil pan. And that could create problems.
“A lot of the rubber components in the engine, seals and things like that, if you let the car sit for an extended period of time, the oil that’s inside the engine will end up leaving the seals,” said Mario Mirabal, lead instructor in the automotive service technology program at Hillsborough Community College.
“And the rubber could be exposed to dry rot, causing an oil leak in the future.”
4. Brake damage
In a humid environment such as ours, brakes can rust extremely quickly, Cancialosi said.
“And when your brakes are rotating, when your car is rolling, it is actually cleaning the rust off those friction surfaces,” he added. “When the cars sit, the brake pads will actually rust to the rotor, and you’ll have serious brake shake after a while of sitting.”
5. Wear on belts and hoses
Generally, vehicles tend to last a lot longer in Florida than in colder climates, meaning belts and hoses remain attached much longer.
“When they’re used to moving every day, and fluids circulating through them every day, they tend to develop a pattern,” Cancialosi said. “And when they sit, they dry-rot a lot quicker.”
Same goes for windshield wipers, or those internal rubber components mentioned by Mirabal, that go unused for extended periods.
So what’s the solution?
Experts agree the problems outlined can be easily avoided by taking your vehicle for a moderate drive ― if only for a couple of laps around the block ― at least once a week. Driving for a longer period, perhaps 30-45 minutes, will ensure the battery remains charged.
“If they’re driving it once a week, the car will probably be better off,” Mirabal said. “However, if they let it sit idle for a month or two, that’s probably something they don’t want to do.”
Cancialosi suggests letting the engine run a few minutes in advance. While driving, he suggests stepping on the brake a few times ― aggressively but not recklessly ― to shake off any rust.
Most important, he says, is to completely disinfect the vehicle before taking it to a mechanic. Shift handles, steering wheels, door handles, center consoles ― all should be wiped down thoroughly.
“I actually contracted the flu for working in a customer’s car before I moved down here (from Chicago),” Cancialosi said.
“And the customer admitted to me when he picked up the car, ’Honestly, I’ve got the flu.’ And I said, ‘I have been in your car all day.’ Well guess what, in two days I had the flu.
"Believe me when I tell you, there is contact everywhere in a vehicle.”
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