Cars are meant to be driven. Leaving a vehicle unattended for a long period of time can cause something akin to automotive atrophy, a slow deterioration of the vehicle that can create problems when you try to drive it again. Rust and corrosion can form on the body or inside critical components, gum and varnish can clog the fuel system, sludge and acids can form in the engine oil, mildew can grow in the interior, and constant sunlight can slowly fade the paint and deteriorate vinyl, leather, and rubber parts.
That’s why if you need to store your vehicle—whether for the winter or because it can’t be driven for an indefinite period of time—certain precautions should be taken before you put it into mothballs.
Get It Covered
Leaving a vehicle unattended for a long period of time can cause something akin to automotive atrophy. The best place to store a car is out of the weather, preferably inside a building that’s cool, dark, and dry. If you don’t have a garage, look into renting one. If this isn’t possible, a reasonable alternative is to store it inside a portable enclosure, such as in a car bag or portable garage. If the vehicle will be completely sealed from outside air, place a couple bags of desiccant inside the enclosure with it to absorb trapped moisture. However, if the vehicle needs to be stored outside without an enclosure, at least cover it with a quality car cover that has thick, multi-layered fabric.
Prior to putting the vehicle into storage, a few precautions will help keep it in good shape. The fuel system, for instance, can be a prime source of problems. If the car is stored with an empty tank, moisture can condense inside the system and cause rust and corrosion. On the other hand, if the car is stored with fuel in the system, the gas can gradually break down, forming gum and varnish. To help keep gasoline from deteriorating, pour a fuel stabilizer into the tank. Be sure to drive the car for about 10 miles after adding the stabilizer to make sure it gets circulated throughout the system. Normally, it’s best to leave the tank full. However, if the vehicle will be stored in an enclosed location where gas fumes could be a problem, empty the tank about half way.
Other preparations that should be done before storing a vehicle:
> Change the oil and filter. Used oil contains acids, moisture, and other combustion byproducts that, over time, can cause corrosion inside the engine.
> Fill the engine with fresh oil and then drive the vehicle for a few miles to make sure the new oil gets thoroughly circulated.
> Pull the spark plugs and pour about a teaspoon of oil into each cylinder. Then replace the plugs. This will help coat the cylinders to prevent rust.
> Seal off engine openings with absorbent cotton to keep moisture out.
> Remove the battery and clean its top with a mixture of baking soda and water. Ideally, a trickle charger should be used to keep the battery fully charged while the vehicle is in storage.
> Top up all fluids, including transmission and rear axle. Also look at the color of the brake fluid. New brake fluid is clear. If the fluid in the car looks brown and dirty, the system needs to be flushed. Old brake fluid has a lot of moisture in it, which could cause rust in the system.
> Drain the cooling system. If the engine’s block and cylinder head(s) are cast-iron, refill the cooling system with new coolant. If one or both engine components are made of aluminum, leave the system empty—coolant can react with the aluminum, forming corrosion.
> Loosen the drivebelts to take the pressure off of the pulley bearings (unnecessary if the engine has an automatic drivebelt tensioner.)
> If the car will be in storage for a year or more, support it on jackstands or blocks. This will take the weight off of the wheel bearings and suspension components. Also, remove the wheels and tires, lower the tire pressure slightly, and store them flat and out of sunlight.
> If the wheels and tires will be left on the vehicle, add about 10 pounds of pressure to each tire. This will help prevent flat spots.
> Wash and wax the finish. Also, go over vinyl, leather, tires, and other rubber components with the proper type of protectant.
> If you wash the carpet and upholstery, let the vehicle air out until the inside is thoroughly dry. Sealing up a wet interior is a sure formula for mildew.
> Remove the wipers to keep them from taking a set. Also, wrap the wiper arms with a cloth so they don’t scratch the windshield.
> To help prevent mice or other rodents from taking up residence in the car, seal the tailpipe and any other openings.
> Write down everything that you’ve done to prepare the vehicle for storage. This will make sure that you don’t forget anything when getting it ready to go back on the road.