Compared to previous years, gas prices are down and driving is up. In the last month, we have seen an increase in people preparing their car for short vacations and for the summer. This is a great idea. Cars that have done just fine commuting from Carpinteria to Santa Barbara may have latent problems that will shut you down on a long trip. We’ve also seen an increase in tourists driving in or towed in with unexpected car problems. Learn from their examples.
Cooling system problems are the most frequent causes of problems we see. Long trips mean the car works harder and longer, and the cooling system must have the endurance to sustain it. Compounding that, as you head inland this time of year, the temperature rises fast, and our cars aren’t used to that heat. Your pre-travel check with your mechanic should include making sure your coolant is fresh and full — this is basic. Other parts of the system are a little trickier to judge.
We see a lot of cars with radiator hoses that have become hard and brittle, or soft and swelling, or starting to collapse. In most cases, these hoses are older than recommended. Are they currently causing a problem? No. Have the owners beaten the odds by not replacing the hoses? Most definitely. But here’s the thing. They will fail eventually. In a lot of cars, replacing the hoses is not a big job, and what you’re risking is the car overheating and stranding you.
A cracked radiator will also strand you, but the radiator may not give any clue that it is about to fail. In fact, you may never have to replace a radiator — even today’s plastic radiators. Sometimes a mechanic will be able to spot subtle changes in the plastic that means it’s breaking down, but sometimes there is no warning. Replacing a radiator is an expensive job, and we recommend waiting until you have a reason to do it, even if that means doing it on vacation. Think of it like an organ transplant. Your kidney may fail at some point in your life, but you’re not going to do a preemptive kidney transplant just because it might fail.
The water pump is buried deep in many cars, so it’s not on the usual oil change check list. Even if it were, it doesn’t always let you know it’s about to fail. The most common way a water pump fails is when its seals start leaking from the weep hole. Sometimes a professional can spot a leak before it’s bad enough to stop the car, but not always. We recommend replacing the water pump when it fails or with the timing belt on those cars where the two are together.
Take care of your car, and it will give you happy vacation memories.
Jan and Carl Douma are the owners of the Meineke total car care center on upper State Street in Santa Barbara. If you’d like to have a question answered, contact Jan Douma at (805) 687-0281 or CarCare@independent.com.