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July 30, 2010 12:00 AM

Summer car care: 5 maintenance tips to make it through long, hot trips



Winter driving, with its icy roads and salt buildup, can be tough on cars. But summer has its hazards, too. The heat stresses the engine, wears down the tires and makes the car work harder to keep everything cool.

Here are five steps to help your car make it through any late-summer road trips.

1. Be kind to your engine.
Car engines can get hot very quickly in the summer. You can save a lot of trouble -- and expense -- by doing some routine checks to make sure your engine stays lubricated and cooled. Check the oil level and make sure the oil looks clean. If it doesn't, get an oil change. Also look for cracks in the hoses, which pump coolant from the radiator to the engine block.

2. Replace your fluids.
Many drivers don't think about fluids beyond their motor oil. But your car also has coolant for the engine in the radiator, and fluids for the transmission and brakes.
These fluids are critical for keeping parts lubricated and preventing your engine from overheating. Over time, all of them lose their effectiveness and get dirty, with little metal parts floating in the liquid.

"Coolant starts to eat everything. It becomes like an acid," says Hisham Ebrahim, a mechanic in Ann Arbor, Mich. Both low fluid levels and old fluid can damage the parts in your car.
If you follow your car's maintenance schedule, you shouldn't have to worry about fluid levels, which are often checked and replaced around 60,000 miles.

Ebrahim says it costs about $200-$300 to flush out and replace all the fluids. That can be far less expensive than the alternative: an overheated engine or blown transmission.

3. Replace your windshield wipers
Don't wait until you're caught in a summer downpour to find out your wipers aren't working well. Winter can take a toll on wipers, and it's a $25 fix to replace them. Or you can get wiper refills -- which replace only the worn rubber -- for about half the cost of new blades.


Check tire pressure before heading out and inflate to the recommended level. (Thinkstock)

4. Switch out your tires and check the tread
If you have winter tires, change them. The compounds used in winter tires are softer, which helps them grip better in ice and snow. But they also wear down more quickly in summer heat. You need plenty of tread in the summer, when sudden showers can create slippery roads.

The Rubber Manufacturers Association suggests several ways to check the tread. Tires have built-in "wear bars," or narrow strips of rubber across the tires that appear when the tread is worn down to one-sixteenth of an inch. If you can see wear bars, your tires need to be replaced.
You can also use the old penny trick: Stick a penny in the tread. If you can see all of Lincoln's head, it's time to replace the tire.

Consider a tire rotation in the summer to make sure all your tires are getting equal wear. Tires should be rotated every 5,000-10,000 miles, according to vehicle information site Edmunds.com. That can cost around $50, but prices vary widely.

5. Check your tire pressure
Overinflated tires have less traction on rainy streets, while underinflated tires can bulge out, putting pressure on the sidewalls and making the tires more vulnerable to blowouts on hot roads.

Check your tire pressure before you start driving, and make sure you're meeting the manufacturer's recommended level. You can buy a tire gauge for $5 or less, or a digital tire-pressure gauge for $25, and keep it in the glove compartment.