Prep Your Car for Summer: A Road Trip Checklist

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AAA forecasts Americans will take to the roads in record numbers this weekend: about 35.5 million people will drive 50 miles or more from home during the five days ending July 5, up from 35.3 million last year and the most since at least 2000. In fact, drivers will account for 85 percent of travelers. With that in mind, there are several straightforward and easy precautions any driver can take to ensure their summer road trip doesn't turn into a driving nightmare.

  • Tire check. Remember to inflate, rotate and evaluate. The NHTSA says the number one cause of tire failure is tire under-inflation while tirerack.com notes that tires with only half their tread wear require a 50 percent greater stopping distance. Tire pressure, which changes approximately one to two PSI (pounds per square inch) for every 10-degree increase in outside air temperature, should be checked once a month (simply take the day of your birthday and do so each month). "It's important to remember air carries the load primarily," says Chris Welty, a tire education specialist with Bridgestone. "A couple of pounds can affect tire tread life, not to mention the amount of load your car can carry." Also: rotate tires every 5,000 miles.
  • Summer tires or all-season tires? A summer tire has its best grip when it's warm whereas an all-season uses a compound similar to a summer tire but it has more elements. All-season tires will give a smoother ride because of the added tread blocks. "Simply put: all-season tires are easier and you run them until they're worn out," says Bridgestone's Welty. But summer tire will stop shorter, corner better and accelerate better in most situations. "If you want the best and it's not an inconvenience to change your tires twice a year, then swapping winter for summer tires — and vice versa — is most optimal for your car," adds Welty.
  • Penny test. Tire tread is important anytime. As the tread wears, the grooves get smaller, dispelling less water. Bridgestone's Welty recommends using the penny test: "Turn the penny upside down where Lincoln's head is. If you can see any part of the hair on Lincoln's head, the tire is no longer usable."
  • Clean the undercarriage of your car after a long winter. The salt that's used to melt snow and ice can get caked on the underside of the car and cause corrosion to set in. Any added layers of grime will also make your engine and transmission run hotter, because heat has a harder time escaping through the bottom of the car.
  • Check the hoses and belts. The hoses connected to the radiator help pump coolant to and from the engine block, and the belts run the fan that helps cool the system further. Any cracks or loose connections should be addressed immediately. Experts say the risk of belt failure rises dramatically after 36,000 miles.
  • Oil check. The lifeblood of your car. It keeps hardworking engine parts running clean, smooth and cool. Most manuals suggest a change of oil and oil filter every 7,500 miles. The fact is, most of us do a lot of heavy driving during the summer when an engine is more likely to overheat. So at least check your oil before you head out on that road trip. The oil should look brownish yellow and clean on the stick.
  • Hot batteries. The summer heat can be worse on your battery than winter. Chemical reactions can speed up significantly inside a battery during hot months, causing the battery to be overcharged — thus shortening the lifespan of your battery. Keep your battery running smoothly by keeping it clean.
  • A clogged air filter can really lower fuel efficiency. Depending on how much you drive and the types of surfaces you drive on, most experts agree that you should change the air filter every 12,000 miles is fine. Note: A slightly dirty air filter works better than a completely clean one because the debris in the filter becomes part of the filtering process, trapping smaller particles that might have otherwise slipped past.
  • Carry an extra bottle of coolant. The summertime is tough on cooling systems. With little to no air flowing across the engine during summer months to help keep the engine cool, all it takes is a low coolant level or a busted fan belt to sidetrack your trip. The general rule is to flush your radiator and add new coolant at least every two years. For summer driving, coolant should be added as a 50/50 mixture of antifreeze and water.
  • To combat summer storms, make sure the windshield wipers aren't leaving visible streaks or taking several passes to clear away light rain. When replacing a wiper blade, it's better to replace the whole blade, not just the rubber part.
  • Brakes need to be replaced when the lining on your brake pad or brake shoe is worn down past the minimum thickness specified by the car manufacturer or state law. Squeaky brakes are not necessarily a sign of a problem. But if the brake pedal becomes very soft and mushy or very hard and resistant, it's time to change the brake pads.
  • The best way to tell if your air conditioner has a problem is if it can't generate or maintain air temperatures that are 50 degrees below the ambient outside air temperature. The most common cause of a malfunctioning air conditioning unit is a low level of refrigerant, which should be addressed by a professional.
  • Make a summer road trip kit. To be ready for road emergencies, make sure your car is stocked: a gallon of water, basic tools, a tarp to get under the car with, gloves, a tire pump, any necessary medication, and a Smartphone charging cable.