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Monday, April 12, 2010

Letter Re: G.O.O.D. Vehicle Preparation and Maintenance--Is Your Vehicle Up to the Task?, by Barry B.

In a "Schumer hits the fan” (SHTF) scenario where you need to get out of Dodge (G.O.O.D.), will your vehicle be up to the task? Is your cooling system robust enough to handle unusual demands? Are your fancy new wheels hurky enough to withstand off-road conditions? Is your vehicle ready to tow a trailer over rough terrain and for long distances? Is the trailer ready? We don't get to pick when the SHTF, so keep your vehicle ready! Here are some of my suggestions based on over twenty-five years in the automotive maintenance and repair business.
Catastrophic failures often begin as seemingly small problems, which lead to increasingly large problems, and ultimately to failure. On something as critical as your G.O.O.D. vehicle, it is important to trap “error chains” and address seemingly small problems right away, or better yet, prevent them from happening in the first place. I will begin by addressing the most critical systems, where failure would be most likely, and which would bring you instantly to your automotive knees.
Engine Cooling System
Face it, if your car your car overheats, you’re not going anywhere. To ensure this doesn’t happen to you, I recommend you flush your coolant every two years (three years max), or 50,000 miles. The new "eco-friendly" long-life coolant (which is reddish) tends to be harder on engines than the old, pre-1990s (green) coolant. When the new coolant came out, we started seeing water pumps and seals leaking far more often than we used to. I have switched all my family’s cars back to the old green coolant. Beware, however, if your vehicle is still under warranty, you may void your warranty if you don’t use what the manufacturer recommends.
If you do switch coolant types, you cannot mix one type with the other. This is bad. The mixture will turn to sludge and sludge doesn't cool well. If you need to top-off, use water. If you switch coolants, be sure to completely flush the system (two times at least) using water, then refill with the old-style green coolant.
Don’t wait until belts and hoses fail before replacing them. If your vehicle is over five years old and/or has over 100,000 miles on it, replace all your belts and hoses. Consider it cheap insurance and prevent the first link of a catastrophic error chain.
Check your cooling system regularly and if you have coolant leaks, get them fixed!
Tires and Wheels
When was the last time you really inspected your tire pressure, tread, sidewalls (inside and out), and wheels (including the spare)? Do you carry a tire repair kit in your vehicle? Generally it is better to plug a tire and re-inflate it than fill the tire with a can of Fix-A-Flat. The kits for plugging leaking tires are in expensive and small and plugging is a stronger fix and won’t throw your tire out of balance. But you should still carry a can of magic tire juice for when you have to fix a flat in a hurry. Get a good quality 12-volt air compressor so you can re-inflate a tire. Small compressors have many other uses as well. Carry one.
You may need to tackle rough terrain, loose dirt, mud, or even cross rivers and streams. Traction in loose terrain can be improved if tire pressure is lowered to around 20 lbs.

When driving on under-inflated tires, keep your speed below 20 mph, or risk the tires getting hot and failing prematurely (most likely the sidewall will fail). Once you are back on solid ground, you can use your 12-volt compressor to re-inflate your tires.
Be sure you have a reliable jack and wrench to remove lug nuts. Instead of a cheapo universal lug wrench, I carry a breaker bar with the proper sized sockets for my lug nuts. Don’t leave this wrench in the garage—carry it with you.

A G.O.O.D. vehicle shouldn’t sport over-sized “bling” wheels, locking wheel nuts, or fancy aftermarket hubcaps. Over-sized wheels require low-profile tires. (“Profile” is the distance from the edge of the wheel to the tire tread.) I’ve seen low profile tires with less than three inches of sidewall on otherwise “manly” trucks! The problem is, if you have to go off-road or over obstructions or debris, low profile tires will not absorb the impact, and you will damage your wheels. Sell the sissy bling and put some money and testosterone into tires and wheels that are up to the task—or buy more ammo—but dump the bling!
Avoid locking lug nuts. Should you have to change a wheel in a hurry (assuming you can even find the wheel key) locking nuts will make the job more complex and time consuming. The odds of someone stealing your wheels--even in a SHTF situation--are slim.

Once you get your sturdy tires, have the vehicle aligned. Have it aligned every 15-to-20,000 miles. [JWR Adds: Or do so even more frequently, if you do a lot of true off-road driving, or if any drivers in your family have a tendency to bang their front wheels into curbs, when parking. Watch for signs of misalignment, such as uneven tire tread wear, or the advent of a tendency for the vehicle to "pull" to one side when driving on straight and level highways.] ] Rotate your tires about every 5-to-6,000 miles, and since the wheels are off, use this time to check the brakes and wheel bearings. If your wheel bearings are worn, replace them. If you have “packable” wheel bearings, pack them with clean, fresh grease and replace the seals.
Brake fluid should be flushed at least every two years. Brake fluid is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs water. When it does, braking efficiency decreases and you will experience brake fading on long stops. This can get quite exciting, especially if you’re towing a trailer! If you find that your brake fluid is low, and don’t have brake fluid to fill the system, do not add oil, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, or any other petroleum based fluids to the system. You can use water in an emergency. If you mix petroleum-based fluids into your brake system, the seals in your brake system will swell, rendering your brakes useless.

Make sure your brake pads have at least 50% pad life left, and if you need to replace them, don’t buy cheap pads. The little bit extra that a reputable brand will cost is worth every penny.
Ensure the technician checks that your brake rotors are true, smooth, and not too thin. Check the brake lines for leaks. If your G.O.O.D. vehicle is over ten years old, play it safe and replace all the brake lines. If you have drum brakes, ensure the brake cylinders are in good condition. If they are over ten years old, replace them.
My wife and I have a rule. We fill-up whenever the tank reaches half. This does two things—it lessens the chance of getting moisture in the fuel from condensation, and it ensures if there ever is a sudden emergency, we have at least half a tank to drive with.
If your “service engine” light is on, get it checked right away—it is on for a reason! It may be something as simple as a loose or worn gas cap. Replace the gas cap if you have doubts. Getting water in your fuel will put a real “damper” on things. If you have a miss-fire it can lead to other problems, such as failure of your catalytic converter. If your catalytic converter fails, it can plug your exhaust (just like a potato) and leave you stranded. This has happened to me—the converter, not the potato.
If your G.O.O.D. vehicle is driven infrequently keep the tank full and consider adding a fuel stabilizer.

Lubricating Fluids
Changing your oil and oil filter every three months/3,000 miles is a good rule of thumb (every six months/5,000 miles if you use synthetic oil). Many new cars have “oil life” indicators that monitor the condition of the oil, but not the oil level. Make sure you check the oil level at least every 1,000 miles, and if you think you may need to G.O.O.D. soon, change your oil—you may not have a chance to change it again for a long time.
Flush the transmission fluid every 30-50,000 miles. If your vehicle has a transmission fluid filter, change it at least every 100,000 miles. More often if you tow. Fix any leaks. If your transmission goes down, so do you.
If your vehicle is all-wheel drive, rear wheel drive, or a 4x4 change the fluids in the differential and transfer case roughly every 50,000 miles (or approximately every 25,000 miles if you tow). If your car is front wheel drive, the differential is part of the transmission, and serviced as part of a transmission service. Some vehicles require synthetic fluids, which are expensive, so brace yourself for the cost.
Gasoline engines should have their fuel filters replaced every 30,000 miles (15,000 miles for diesels). Some vehicles have permanent filters attached to the fuel pump (in the tank) which I don't like, but nobody asked me.
            Air filters should be replaced every 15-30,000 miles, depending on conditions.

Spark Plugs and Electrical
Most plugs now have platinum tips and don’t need replacing until around 100,000 miles, which for most vehicles is fine, but I replace mine at 80,000 miles—just because.
Make sure all your lights work (not only for safety but to avoid tickets and law enforcement stops). Be sure your lighter and other outlets work—you may need them to run your compressor or a spotlight.
Spares and Tools
Spares and tools should always be of high quality. If the thing cost $1 at a sale table, it’s probably not very high quality. In a serious G.O.O.D. truck, I advise carrying the following:
  • A set of both metric and standard box end wrenches, and sockets (Unlike the old days, many vehicles now use both standard and metric sized parts!)
  • An assortment of screwdrivers (Larger screwdrivers can double as a pry bars.)
  • Locking-type (push-button adjustable) channel lock pliers
  • Vise grips
  • Regular and needle nose pliers, and a set of hemostats
  • Ball peen and claw hammers
  • Spare fuses, several feet of wire, solder, and a butane powered torch/soldering iron (It is nice to have a propane torch as well.)
  • Extra fluids and lubes
  • Radiator “Stop-Leak” (In a jam you can use the white of a raw egg! Make sure the coolant is hot enough to cook the egg. As the white cooks and hardens, it will get stuck in the low pressure area created by the leak!)
  • Air, fuel, and oil filters
  • A spare belt or two
  • Extra hoses
  • Self-fusing silicone tape such as Rescue Tape. It bonds to itself permanently, withstands 500°F, and has 950 p.s.i. tensile strength.
  • Duct tape (man’s other best friend)
  • Super glue [Also known as Crazy Glue, Cyanoacrylate glue, or just CA glue]
  • Stainless and mechanic’s wire
  • A 6-foot+ length of ½” hose (for siphoning)
  • Roll of parachute cord
  • Spare keys, well-hidden
I hope you found these ideas thought-provoking and that this article motivates you to keep your G.O.O.D. vehicle maintained and ready, so you can indeed G.O.O.D. if you need to.ar care