Hot weather isn’t much better for your car than it is for you. It can destroy tires, drain batteries, damage upholstery, and even kill your engine. With climate change bringing more (and worse) heat waves, it’s smart for car owners to know how to protect their vehicles from the heat.
Here, we’ll be looking first at the many ways heat can damage a vehicle. Then, we’ll look into how to prevent or lessen these effects. While this article is focused on vehicles, we wouldn’t feel right without offering some details on how to keep yourself safe, too.
So, we should start by saying…
Worry about You before Your car!
If it’s hot enough to damage your car, it’s hot enough to damage you. A car can be repaired or replaced. Human life can’t. Heat can kill or injure you faster than you’d expect. But, note that we aren’t doctors. We’re car experts. So, take anything we have to say about your health with a grain of salt.
Above all, though: if the choice is between you and your car, save yourself. Don’t take risks just to keep your car safe.
Next, know the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. The former almost always comes before the latter, and if any symptoms show, get hydrated and find some shade. Mayo Clinic has some good tips on preventing and managing heat-related illnesses. In general, avoid strenuous activity, get out of the sun, find a way to cool your body, and stay hydrated.
Heat can hurt you in indirect ways, too. The summer sun can leave door handles and steering wheels hot enough to burn. In some places, like Arizona, you may need a cloth to touch these things safely.
Finally: have water available to you at all times. Never go out without your bottle. For long trips, it might be good to have something bigger.
So long as you’re safe, we can move to worrying about your car.
The Many Pains of a Hot Car
Hot weather can damage just about every aspect of your vehicle. Some of the problems are minor and cosmetic. Others can brick your car.
Cosmetic Damage and Irritating Inconvenience
We’ve already mentioned the ways heat can render parts of your car untouchable. The thing is, your car can’t handle that kind of heat without damage.
Upholstery and interiors are the first things to go. The oven-like qualities of a vehicle can make the inside roughly 43 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the outside world. If you live somewhere like Arizona, where it’s already 115, then the inside of your car is hot enough to cook food. Leather and plastic upholstery and dashboards will start to crack, and fabric will rip. Any plastic or rubber things left in the car may melt to the seats.
That same heat plays merry hell with the exterior, too. The paint will start to fade and crack and, in extreme heat, dents might appear in the chassis.
Those irritating cosmetic dings are nothing compared to what can happen to the rest of your vehicle. Of particular concern are your tires, battery, oil, and engine.
The wear and tear everyday driving puts on tires makes them especially susceptible to outside forces, and the physics aren’t helping. See, heat causes gases to expand, usually at a faster rate than solids. The inside of a tire can overinflate, pressing the limits of the rest of the tire. Asphalt, meanwhile, can be 40–60 degrees hotter than the surrounding environment, softening and cracking the tire exterior.
The result is that, in hot weather, tires are much more prone to blowing out while you’re driving.
Batteries are very delicate. Heat interferes with the chemical processes that help them hold a charge, and can evaporate the fluid that prevents exposure of the lead plates inside. If that happens, they can drain fast. Meanwhile, heat loosens the metal around the battery, causing it to rattle and vibrate, damaging the battery and surrounding connectors. If your battery goes dead in the summer, don’t be surprised.
As we’ve now mentioned several times: heat causes things to expand. For liquids, this often means they “thin out.” Take a nice, thick drink and put it over heat. It flows much better, doesn’t it? For oil, this is a bad thing. It needs that viscosity to protect the crucial parts inside your engine. If it thins out, it can’t do its job, creating grinding and wear on your engine. This can lead to, perhaps, the most important issue…
In many ways, heat is the greatest enemy of an engine. They already run at very high temperatures, and many systems in place are designed specifically to keep them cool. Why? Because once they overheat, a lot of bad things happen: parts come loose, chemical processes break down, belts crack and snap, and, at worst, metal parts start to melt and seal together, just as they would without oil.
Where other forms of damage can be fixed, engine failure can completely kill your car.
The heat can often cause breakdowns of the systems meant to prevent this, usually by cracking rubber coolant hoses or evaporating or thinning necessary fluids.
Keeping Your Car Safe
Cosmetic and Convenience Protection
Let’s start with the easy stuff: protecting the cosmetic aspects of your car and avoiding burns. The easiest way to deal with these is to keep your car somewhere shaded. In a garage, under an awning or a tree…whatever you can find. It might be worth the longer walk to and from your vehicle to find one. Second, crack your windows. This provides a way for the heat to escape your car, preventing ratcheting up the temperatures inside.
For your tires, the first step is to let a bit of air out. Have them sit at the lower end of their inflation range, and possibly a bit under. It might be a good idea to put heavy gloves on and check the pressure after your daily commute to see how much it increased. If your tires already have cracks or wear it might be time to replace them. But most importantly: pay attention while you’re driving. Blowouts can happen at any time, and if you stay calm, you can keep yourself and other drivers safe.
First off, make sure your battery is locked firmly in place to keep it from rattling around. Aside from that, try to get it checked by a mechanic (or yourself) every summer and winter, to see if it’s degrading. If it is, replace it. Depending upon where you live, you may even be able to get weather-resistant batteries.
The news here isn’t as good. For starters, you can expect to change your oil much more frequently in summer, and heat-resistant options are limited. But, one of the best things you can do is check your oil regularly, and get it changed right as summer starts.
Saving Your Engine
Awareness is the first big key here. Always keep an eye on your temperature gauge and the sounds and smells inside your car. Smell unusual burning, hear clunking, or see that thermometer ratcheting up? Pull over immediately!
Maintenance is the next step. Never run your car in summer without coolant. Check that coolant regularly. If it’s decreasing, you might have a leak that needs attention. Keeping your car full up on oil is important, too, as that helps keep your engine safe during the heat. It may be worth your money to go to a mechanic and have them check your cooling systems.
The final step is changing your driving habits. It might be wise to avoid long-haul drives or steep inclines during summer, especially if your car is old or heavy. Likewise, while you shouldn’t be speeding anyway, it’s especially dangerous in summer for your engine and your tires. If you live somewhere especially hot, avoid driving during the worst of the day’s heat.
What Else Can I Do?
With the information above, you should be able to keep your car in working order. But, climate change is a serious issue, and it’s making life too hot for most of us. That’s not only going to affect our health, it’s going to damage our infrastructure. If you want to help, reach out to your local politicians and join environmental organizations that can help reduce the impact of climate change.
With that aside… stay safe, and do what you can to keep cool.