by Jim Kerr

Holiday travel season is upon us again and thousands of people are planning trips to visit new places and events. Many will fire up the family car and head out on the highway without a second thought about how their vehicle will fair on their travels. Car problems at home can be inconvenient and costly, but they are nothing compared to the difficulties encountered in trying to get a vehicle repaired while travelling. Here are a few tips to help you travel better this summer.

Buy a tire pressure gauge and use it often. Checking tires once every two weeks is often enough when near home, but if you are driving long distances, check them every couple days. A tire suddenly lower on pressure may have been damaged or picked up a nail. Often you can detect a problem before the tire goes flat. Then you can drive slowly to a local repair shop rather than changing the tire on the side of the road.

Keeping your tires at the recommended pressures will increase tread life and decrease rolling resistance of the tire. Lower rolling resistance pays off in better fuel economy. The tire pressures recommended for your vehicle should be listed on a decal usually found in the glove compartment or on the driver’s door post and in the vehicle owner’s manual. If you can’t find the information, call your dealer and they will help you. Don’t forget to check the spare when you test the other tires. A flat spare tire is worthless!

While you are down looking at the tires, inspect the tire tread. The tires should be worn evenly across the tread surface but the outside edges of the front tires tend to wear faster due to cornering forces put on them. This is especially true of front wheel drive vehicles. Uneven tire wear indicates the need for a wheel alignment. If you see bands of solid rubber going across the tread of the tire, then the tires are due for replacement. All passenger vehicle tires have this tread wear indicator feature moulded into the tread and it will show when the tire has approximately 2 millimetres of tread remaining.

The next items to check are the fluid levels. If there is coolant showing in the radiator overflow tank, then the radiator should be full. Never remove a radiator cap while an engine is hot because the coolant may boil when the pressure is released causing serious burns to anybody nearby. While you are looking at the cooling system, inspect the radiator hoses and heater hoses. Look for any spots that may have been rubbing and wearing against another part. This could cause the hose to burst suddenly when you are in the middle of nowhere! Then look near the ends of all hoses. This is where the most strain is put on the hoses as they move slightly during normal operation. If there are cracks or soft spots near the hose ends, have the hoses replaced before you leave. Many of the vehicles that have problems on the road are due to overheating or loss of engine coolant.

Check the engine oil every day when travelling, and preferably every fuel stop. Internal engine problems such as worn, sticking, or broken piston rings may not cause the engine to use much oil when driving around town, but can cause oil to be used quickly when driving on the highway. If you are unfortunate enough to find yourself driving a vehicle that uses oil quickly, check for leaks beneath the vehicle and have serious ones repaired. If the engine leaks one drop of oil every kilometre, the engine would run out of oil on a trip from Saskatoon to Regina! Avoid internal engine repairs while travelling unless absolutely necessary. Even an engine that uses a lot of oil can be pampered enough to get you home. Slow down, check the oil every hundred kilometres, and carry extra oil with you. The cost of the oil used will be far less than the money you can save on repairs when you have the time to shop around at home.

Check the automatic transmission oil after driving the vehicle for at least 15 kilometres or letting the engine idle for 15 minutes. The oil should be hot enough to burn when touched; then the level can be checked. On some vehicles, the oil level will be high when cold. On other vehicles, the oil level will be low when cold; so only check it hot. Many of the transmission oils produced now will discolour and have a burnt odour after being used for a few thousand kilometres. This is normal. If there is sludge, metallic particles, or white foam on the dipstick, then the oil should be changed and the transmission pan inspected for wear particles. A transmission specialist can often diagnose future transmission problems by checking any material found in the transmission pan.

Don’t forget other fluid levels such as the power steering, windshield washer, and brake fluid in the master cylinder. Low brake fluid levels can indicate a leak or worn brake pads. Don’t take a chance on your brakes. Some shops will do a free inspection. Any problems they find could save your life!

One of the more common brake problems showing up this spring is cracked front brake hoses. These hoses flex and twist as the vehicle’s front wheels go up and down and turn. This combined with last winter’s cold weather has put extra stress on the hoses. A cracked brake hose can fail at any time but will most likely fail when you need it the most: an emergency stop! Turning the front wheels as far as they will go each way will enable you to look behind the tire and inspect the brake hoses. Use a flashlight, and if you find any cracks do everyone a favour and have the faulty hoses changed.

Engine drive belts are often hidden behind mounts and covers, but often you can see enough of the belts to inspect them without having to remove anything. Replace any V belts that have cracks on their inside edges. Multi-ribbed serpentine belts used on many newer vehicles will usually have small cracks on the ribbed side of the belt. Don’t worry about them, but if small chunks of the belt are missing, then the belt requires replacement.

Finally, check the battery mounts, and cable connections. Clean any corroded battery connections, being sure to remove the negative cable first and install it last. This prevents sparks if your wrench happens to touch the car body while working on the positive battery cable. If you have a newer vehicle with a security code lock on your radio, the correct code is required to start the radio working after battery power has been removed. Find the security code before removing the battery cables for cleaning or you may be without any radio operation until the dealer can unlock it for you. Some radios even have to be removed and sent out to be made operational again, so be sure you have your code!

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