You’re preparing to go on a road-trip to San Diego or Las Vegas from Phoenix, you get moving along the highway, then between Yuma and Calexico, you blow a tire. Your vacation becomes a disaster very quickly. With proper maintenance and care for your vehicle, you can improve the performance and reliability of your car or truck so this won’t happen to you. Over the years, I’ve learned the value of proper vehicle maintenance.
At the outset, you should understand that Arizona is an extreme climate according to vehicle manufacturers. Meaning, they don’t engineer their cars to be driving in Arizona. The “scheduled maintenance” guides that are in owner’s manuals and suggested by dealers don’t account for extreme weather conditions, unless specifically noted. It should be no question why the Ford Proving Grounds are located just northwest of Phoenix near the AZ-303.
Routine maintenance is preventative by nature. There shouldn’t be “problem” that prompts you to do it. To gain an appreciation for preventative maintenance, you have to understand all that is happening between your foot on the gas pedal and the tires on your wheels. I’ll walk you through it:
- From an engine-on state in in gear, you step on the gas and that opens up your throttle plate, forcing air into the intake past the air filter.
- As the volume of air increases, your fuel injectors increase their pulsations causing more fuel to match with the air ratio, resulting in a stoichiometric balance of of 14.7:1 air to fuel mixture. The air and fuel is captured into the cylinder when the intake air valve opens.
- Then as the piston rises back up to maximum compression, your ignition system fires a spark causing a very powerful and contained explosion, pushing the piston down.
- As the piston goes to the bottom of its stroke, turning the crankshaft, which also is connected to the intake and exhaust valves of other cylinders.
- The crankshaft is then turned one revolution, the piston returns to the top, your exhaust valve opens, allowing the spent gasses to exit the chamber.
- The exhaust flows into a catalytic converter and one or more Oxygen sensors. The data captured by the sensors (voltage) tells the computer of the car to adjust the A/F mixture for reduced emissions and fuel efficiency.
- Then that kinetic energy is transferred to the torque converter (automatics) or clutch (sticks).
- (In automatics) The transmission builds pressure that determines the right gear the car should be in along with a host of electronics that monitor the current vehicle speed, engine load and braking systems. Then the transmission uses the proper gear that turns the driveshaft.
- Your driveshaft turns the axle that turns the hubs, which hold the rotors, brakes, wheels and tires.
- Finally, your potential energy (gas) is converted into kinetic energy (motion) and your car rolls forward.
Now, do that 2500 times per minute (RPM) and that is what your car is doing continuously. At full throttle, it could be doing that as much as 8,000 times per minute, or 133 times per second. So, what permits your vehicle to do this without turning into a glowing red puddle of molten steel? Lubrication.
All the adjoining parts in your engine and drivetrain are lubricated with various oils and greases that has a few basic functions: temperature dissipation, friction modifiers and filtering contaminants. This is why when you change your oil, it turns from honey-colored to black. Assuming your oil is a sealed system, the only possible inputs for dirt and contaminants is your air intake, unburned fuel deposits, erosion of your piston rings and cylinders. These contaminants work like sand that polishes and erodes more components of your engine. Changing your oil at regular intervals is critical to achieve long-life from your vehicle and to not have premature breakdowns at the most unwanted times.
So, with that new appreciation for what your vehicle does, here are my recommendations for surviving the summer in the Arizona desert, especially for road tips. (I originally shared these on Reddit a few months ago.)
FREQUENT OIL CHANGES
Recommendation: Change your oil every three months or 3000 miles.
Everyone says 3000 miles or three months, but they often ignore this advice. They ignore it more so for Synthetic. Given our extreme climate, more dust gets ingested into the intake, and deposited into the oil. Dirt in the oil breaks down its viscosity and eventually erodes seals and piston rings if unaddressed. My advice is to change your oil more often than what your manufacturer suggests. Even with synthetic, I change my oil at 4000 mi / three months, whichever is sooner.
I’ll address it now because it’s still debated, “But my Synthetic oil says it’s good for 6000 miles?!” True, in controlled laboratory conditions, they are assuring against thermal breakdown of the oil. There is no oil in the world that repels dirt from oil. “But what about the oil filter?” Yes, you need to change this, too. The oil filter can only hold so much dirt before it becomes ineffective. And it doesn’t take a lot of contaminants to harm your engine.
Recommendation: Inspect and/or change your air filter once every other oil change.
Related to oil changes, is the need to replace your air filter, or at a minimum, check it and shake the dirt free. As air filters become dirty, tiny particles of dust escape into the intake and make it into your engine. Arizona is very dusty and you’ll observe more rapid collection of dirt than other places. For those with aftermarket cold-air intakes (non replaceable filters), every 6 months, clean and treat it with K&N air filter cleaner and oil. This will keep the air filter functional and high performing. It’s also a good idea to visually inspect in front of your radiator for trapped debris, too. I once had a plastic bag stuck between my grill and radiator — effectively raising engine temperatures needlessly.
Recommendation: Inspect your tires every time you fill up for gas for proper inflation and wear. Replace at 3/32nds of tread remaining.
I prefer “summer” tires in Arizona. They perform better in steering response and at high speeds on highways. All-season tires are fine if you hit the mountains during the winter, so consider your own driving habits. Check your air pressure and/or visually inspect your tires at every fill up. The contact pad of the tire should be square and not bulging or too narrow. Inspect your tires’ wear to verify that they are wearing evenly. Uneven wear suggests poor alignment. The increased temperature (~160F) of the asphalt on the highways will increase the PSI by about 10psi, so be cautious of over-inflation. Invest in road hazard warranties … trust me. I cashed in on mine when I blew a $200 tire at the price of $40. So, I was able to receive a brand new tire and have it installed for $40. Well, well worth it.
Some might be wondering why there is so much tire debris on our highways? These tire scraps are from tires that exploded and the outer-layer of tire (often with steel belts attached!) lay on the highway. Hitting these scraps could puncture your own tires, so take care to avoid them either by straddling them between your tires or drive around them entirely. Be mindful that the shoulders have many more discarded tire scraps than the actual roadway, so assume the shoulders are just as dangerous when avoiding hitting these tire scraps. Leave plenty of room in front of you to make these evasive maneuvers and also be conscious of your blind spots in case you need to jump lanes.
Recommendation: Take your vehicle in for service if your AC is not functioning properly.
As we all know, air conditioners are not optional in Arizona. If you think you need to recharge, there’s a much deeper problem. AC systems are supposed to completely sealed, thus never leak. My dad’s AC was only recharged once in 220K miles, and with one can of R134a. Ignore those tempting offers to recharge your own AC from AutoZone, unless you want to over-pressurize your AC system and possibly destroy your compressor. Those AC recharge kits are intended for temporary use. If you have repeated AC issues, take it in to get professionally diagnosed and repaired.
BELTS & HOSES
Recommendation: Before long road trips and at every oil change, inspect hoses and belts for wear. Purchase a replacement as a precaution.
Check your belts and hoses for tears, cracks, blisters and mushiness. With increased heat and minimal humidity, these are known to fail quickly. Change them before you have failure. I change my radiator hoses about once every 3 years, assuming they are good. My belts, once every two years. They are cheap enough to act as insurance for demanding conditions. If you’re buying belts and hoses, for good measure, buy two and throw them in your trunk just in case they fail in the future. It much cheaper to buy a hose for $13 than to wait along the side of the road for a tow truck and their $50+ fee to transport you to an autoshop.
Recommendation: Replace wiper blades with inexpensive ones when rain storms are likely.
In the late summer here, we tend to have violent rain storms (monsoons). Wiper blades here are known to dry up and crack much more frequently than elsewhere. Plan to buy and replace new wiper blades in the summer. For kicks, look at AutoZone whenever the first storm hits, you’ll see hundreds of discarded wiper blades in their trash. Due to the replacement frequency, don’t waste your money on fancy RainX or Bosch blades … they aren’t engineered to withstand Arizona. Investing slightly cheaper brands like Duralast is recommended. Not sure what size to get? Look in the booklet in the wiper aisle that details what sizes you should get or simply ask an employee.
RADIATOR / COOLING SYSTEM
Recommendation: Monitor your engine temperatures and inspect for leaks. Purchase a gallon of coolant and water for long road trips.
Pay attention to it. Observe if the water level decreases, temperature of your gauges or strange odors. It isn’t uncommon for cars in Arizona to overheat. Most overheating issues relate to a broken thermostat. Don’t just keep filling it up with coolant. The thermostat is critical to cycling coolant through your engine block and the radiator. Chronic issues should be diagnosed immediately. While we’re on the topic, it’s okay to use more water than antifreeze. Temperatures are unlikely to go below freezing, and water is a better conductor of heat than other chemicals. It’s not a bad idea either to consider adding a bottle of WaterWetter to your radiator to keep your water pump clean and free of buildup.
If your coolant is colored pink, not green, you should top it off with pink coolant. Why is it pink? Manufacturers have switched to a DexCool blend of antifreeze coolant. This blend is not sweet-tasting to animals, so it minimizes harm to the environment. If your vehicle is under warranty, it’s probably a good idea to stick with it just so you avoid arguments later down the road. Following a radiator flush service, you can safely switch back to the cheaper green coolant. The theory is that long-term use of DexCool will erode gaskets and result in gunk in the water pump, requiring costly repairs including head gaskets. General Motors (GM) settled these claims in 2009, which validates that the claims are with some merit.
When traveling long-distance, it’s a good idea to have a gallon of coolant and water in your trunk. It’s a good measure to help you in the event disaster strikes.
AAA ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE
Recommendation: Consider purchasing AAA before you need roadside assistance.
For many years, I never thought I’d never need AAA, but at roughly $100 per year, you get nationwide coverage for towing, tire replacement and jump-starts. After doing any one of these on your own, you quickly realize the benefit of $100 per year. And if you are in the vehicle of another, that vehicle is eligible for AAA services. I’ve been pleased with my membership thus far. But if you have a floor jack, jack stand, tools, then by all means, do it on your own. Keep in mind that asphalt is a cool 160F on summer’s days.
With proper care for your vehicle, it will care for you. A little maintenance goes a long way to avoid costly repairs. The Arizona desert is an extreme condition for vehicles to contend with, but you can survive it with this advice. Safe travels to your summer getaways from the Arizona heat!
This post is a part of my 60 days of blogging. Read more about #60DOB.
photo credit: dkharvie