Automobile Maintenance for the Desert


Car Care in the desert

Help Your Car Survive the Arizona Summer Heat

The extreme high temperatures in Arizona take a toll on your vehicle, making automobile maintenance a high priority if you want it to last. We’ll take a look at the most important things to check up on to keep you in the driver’s seat during the hot summer.

Car battery maintenance in the desertBattery

Hot summertime temperatures in Phoenix can wreak havoc on your car-battery. Heat shortens battery life faster than cold temperatures. The most common reasons for battery failure are usually due to excessive heat or over-charging, leading to car-starting failure. Heat causes the fluid inside the battery to evaporate and causes damage from the inside.

Before checking the battery, take a look to see if it’s a service-free battery. What that means is there is no access to the internal battery fluid, so don’t try to pry off the caps. If you have a serviceable battery, there are usually two caps on the top of it. Wear eye protection and gloves because the fluid is very acidic. You can pry off the two caps with a flat head screwdriver. Once it’s open, shine a light inside and look for water. If you can’t see water, the battery is running dry. You can put tap water inside the battery, filling it to the top of the hole. Once filled, replace the caps.

While you’re looking in the battery, it’s a good time to check for corrosion on the battery posts. The battery posts is where the car is physically connected to the battery. Household baking soda works at dissolving the corrosive material, but you can also check with your local auto shop for products that help get rid of and deter corrosion.

Maintain your car air filter in the desertAir Filter

If you’ve spent any time in Arizona, you probably noticed there is a LOT of sand in the air and on the roadways. The soil is so dry here that it has the same consistency of talcum powder – literally! One small kick of dirt can cause a mini-dust storm, and you will be surprised how much dust flies in the air just from walking on it. When the wind blows, the dust flies into the air and it is sucked into your air filter.

An air filter is an important part of a car’s intake system, because it is through the air filter that the engine “breathes.” An engine needs an exact mixture of fuel and air in order to run, and all of the air enters the system first through the air filter.

The air filter does just what the name implies: It filters out dirt and particles in the air, to prevent those particles from entering the engine. Air filters are normally made of paper. If the air filter goes too long without being changed, it will get clogged and not allow the engine to suck in enough air to run properly. The end result of a clogged air filter is lost power and poor gas mileage.

Check your owner’s manual for how often you should change your air filter, but keep in mind that they should probably be changed more often than recommended due to higher temperatures and sand in the air.

Oil

Choosing the right oil is vital for operating your vehicle in desert temperatures. Oil is the lifeblood of your car’s engine, so always have it changed every 3 months or 3000 miles, whichever comes first. The higher the oil viscosity, the better it lubricates your engine. Choose the right viscosity for your vehicle, and the person behind the counter at the auto parts shop can give you advice. You can also refer to this website to learn about the different levels of oil viscosity.

Choose the right oil viscosity for your climate

Air Conditioning

AC is a modern convenience, but a necessity when driving in the desert. On a 110 degree day, the temperature inside a vehicle can easily be 20 degrees higher, even when driving with the windows down. It is an unwritten rule in Arizona that a driver without AC has the right of way, so get out of their way so they can seek air conditioning!

Air conditioning service is important and I recommend having a professional do this for you. They will perform a pressure test on the cooling system, and examine belts and hoses for wear or deterioration. They will also check air volume and the air temperature coming out of the vents. Your AC should be checked annually, and right now in May is the best time to get it done.

Coolant

In the “normal” parts of the country, they refer to this as anti-freeze. In central Arizona down to the Mexican desert, there is no such thing as freezing temperatures. Thus, it is only referred to as coolant in Arizona, although the products sold are usually dual purpose (anti-freeze and coolant).

This is an easy check you can do yourself. Most vehicles these days have a plastic reservoir with a fill line. Some may have “hot fill” and “cold fill” lines. When I refer to a cold engine, that means it is an engine that has not been running for a while and is cool to the touch. A hot engine is an engine that is still emitting heat. When the engine is hot, refer to the “hot fill” line and vice-versa.

If your coolant level is low and the engine is hot, wait about an hour or so for the engine to cool. When the engine is cool, remove the radiator cap and fill to the “cold fill” line…because your engine should be cool at this point. Do NOT open it while it’s hot unless you want a melted face!

Coolant is usually sold in gallon jugs. It is recommended to dilute the coolant with water, because there IS a such thing as too much coolant. Some manufactures sell it already diluted, but most are the plain coolant.

Keep an eye on your water temperature. Some vehicles do not have water temperature gauges, only lights. However, if you notice the water temperature running high, you may have a leaky hose or a bad thermostat. The worst-case scenario with an overheating car is a broken water pump or cracked engine block. Worst-case = most expensive, so perform your preventative maintenance so you don’t get to that point.

Low tire pressure can lead to tire failureTire Pressure

The tires are arguably the most important parts of your vehicle. Most all other parts are metal, while these are rubber and they keep you on the road. It is very important to monitor your tire pressure as the seasons change. it is estimated the PSI (pounds per square inch) of a tire will increase 1 pound for every 10 degree variance. For example, during the summer it’s 110 degrees and you’re running at 40 PSI. When the temperature drops to the 90’s as the season changes, your tires could go down to 38 PSI, losing 2 pounds of pressure.

Two pounds of pressure doesn’t sound like much, but tires lose air naturally through a process called permeation. Changes in the outside temperature can affect the rate at which your tires lose air. On the average, a tire will lose one or two pounds of air per month in cool weather, and more during the hot months.

Taking proper care of your tires can prolong tread life by as much as 50 percent! Just by taking just a few minutes a week to check the inflation levels and check for unusual wear patterns will add thousands of miles to the tread life and help increase fuel economy. We’ve all had to buy tires before, and it’s very painful to the wallet, so make your tires last!

Desert rain, check your windshield wipersWindshield Wiper Blades

You might be wondering, why would I need wiper blades in the desert? Well, I was surprised after I moved here to find I purchased more wiper blades than I did in a rainy climate! The reason is because the dry air deteriorates the wiper blades faster! The auto parts store sell wipes to condition your wiper blades to make them last longer, but I always forget to do that.

Arizona has a “monsoon season”. Where I’m from, it’s called rain. Anyway, after your wiper blades have been wrung dry by the hot desert sun, they will work VERY poorly during rain. It can rain pretty hard during the monsoon season. It’s important to have a clear view out of your windshield so you can watch out for Arizona drivers trying to drive in the rain. When / if it eventually rains, try not to laugh at other people driving as if they were driving on a sheet of ice!

Car exterior paint damaged by the hot sunExterior Paint

The Arizona sun is VERY hard on your vehicle’s paint. It is very easy to spot cars where the owners did not properly prepare for the desert heat. A well-maintained finish on your vehicle really helps with the resale value.

The best way to prevent faded paint on your vehicle is to limit your car’s exposure to the sun. In the desert, it’s easier said than done. People will literally park in the back of a parking lot if there is shade from a tree. If you have a garage, park in the garage.

Wash your car frequently. The sun is always out, so get out there and do some car care and keep yourself cool at the same time! Washing it will remove pollen, dust and bird droppings that can deteriorate your exterior finish if left on the surface to bake in the hot Arizona sun.

Just In Case

I like to carry “just in case” items with me, especially if I’m driving long distance through the desert. It’s a good idea to carry extra drinking water, basic tools, a blanket, sunscreen, a first aid kit, car coolant and extra oil. It is a helpless feeling breaking down on the side of the road, but that feeling is magnified when you’re broken down in the middle of the desert. I wouldn’t count on the kindness of strangers in Arizona.

Not Mechanically Inclined?

If all of this seems like gibberish to you, seek the assistance of a professional. I’m not going to recommend any particular mechanics because I perform most of my maintenance. There are also great resources online for seeking advice about your particular vehicle. Always check your manufacturer’s recommendations, especially if your vehicle is under a warranty. You can easily void that warranty simply by using the wrong oil. Read your warranty carefully!

Proper maintenance will help your vehicle last in the brutally hot desert sun.

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3 thoughts on “Automobile Maintenance for the Desert

  1. antonita says:

    Hello!
    Thank you for Sharing the tips for Automobile maintenance in Deserts.. It is really very important to take care of our car when we are traveling to other places. It’s really very Informative..Good!

  2. Cassandra says:

    Thank you so much for this website. I am actually from Arizona and think of it as a horrible boomerang that I always seem to end up back here against my will. Right now I am planning my own escape to live in San Diego rather than drive 6 hours every time I want to not be in a miserable, desolate, un-cultured, grid system of strip malls and beige and taupe cookie cutter homes. I wish you the best in your own escape to a better, happier land than this miserable desert.

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