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September 01, 2007

Don't Break Down on Labor Day Weekend: Things to Try Before Calling AAA

Ask Patty prez Jody DeVere recently did a podcast with Greg Grimer of Voices in Business. Greg mentioned he had some tips for the long weekend - and how to avoid hefty tow charges over Labor Day.

Car_battery by Greg Grimer
Flat Battery – Your car battery can become flat in several ways.  The charging mechanism, called an alternator, can become worn over time and stop charging the battery, (though normally a battery warning light on your dashboard will indicate this).  It is very rare for a battery to go flat while you are driving.  If the battery warning light does come on then you can usually drive for at least 1 hour on the charge in the battery provided you switch all unnecessary electrical items off.  I once drove from Northern Minnesota to Topeka, Kansas in a car with no alternator in the middle of winter.  But that story is for another article.

If you leave your sidelights, interior lights on or some other electrical device in the car that also drains the battery.   Very hot and cold weather can also have an effect on your battery so it is a good idea to have it checked by a service technician.

Carry an emergency battery booster for your car and/or a set of jumper cables.  Jumper cables come supplied as one red and one black.  Connect them according to the instructions in your car owner’s manual and check the manual to see whether they specifically prohibit jump starting as they do on a few modern cars.  Most cars can be jump started.  Here is a good explanation of what to do.

A car battery has positive and negative terminals and always has just two but sometimes the markings can be hard to see.  A good rule of thumb is that the positive terminal normally has a cover over it and the negative terminal has a lead connected to the metal of the car body. Always keep the metal teeth on the handles of the leads away from each other and any metal parts of the car.  Unlike the electric sockets in your house, you cannot get an electric shock from a car battery, since the voltage is not high enough, but anything metal touching both terminals at the same time will get very hot very quickly.

Emergency battery boosters can achieve the same job from inside the car.  You plug them into your cigarette lighter socket, turn the key to the accessory mode and they charge your cars battery enough to start the car, usually within 5 minutes.  There are plenty of models to choose from according to your budget.

Overheating due to cooling fan failure.  Get to know where the normal position of the temperature sensor on your car’s dashboard is for everyday driving.  Usually the needle sits half way between the hot and the cold positions and doesn’t move much.  If your engine starts to overheat when in traffic or when coming of the freeway or slowing down to 20 mph or below (i.e. traffic) this is most often due to a temperature controlled switch, called a thermostat, not working correctly.  Air rushing through the radiator grill at speeds of 40mph or more will keep the engine temperature normal, but as soon as you slow down the temperature of the coolant will rise if your electrical powered cooling fan is not kicking in.  Anywhere between the normal position (indicated by the yellow line below) of the temperature needle and half way to the hot “H” is usually OK. 

Once the needle approaches the red and certainly before it hits the red, you need to stop the car and do something to cool the engine down.  In the picture below the red line indicates the point at which you should stop the car and let it cool down.  Running the engine for more than a minute or two past this line is going to either cause your head gasket to blow or bust water pipe neither of which you want to happen.

The wire that goes to your thermostat switch is normally easy to access and located at the back of the radiator.  (Ask your repair shop to show you where it is and how to pull it off)  Pull the plug off the thermostat and connect the two pins together with a hair clip, paper clip or anything similar made of metal that will stay in place.  Tie the end of this cable securely with a twisty or cable-tie, (or some Duck Tape) to a nearby tube or wire in the engine bay that can support it. 

When you connect those pins either you’ll hear the fan start up straight away or when you start the engine (depending on how your car is wired up).  Most fans on modern cars are tucked between the radiator and the front of the car.  If your electric fan is on the back of the radiator make sure your clothing and fingers are well away from it when you connect the pins on the wire.  You’ll now notice that the temperature will drop to normal when you drive, it might even go a little below normal because the fan is constantly on.  That’s OK.  When you get to your destination make sure that when you turn your engine off the fan is no longer spinning.  If it is spinning open the hood and pull the wire out or you’ll flatten the battery.  Fixing the problem simply involves having your repair shop replace the thermostat in the radiator.

Overheating due to lack of water.  If you overheat due to a lack of engine coolant it is because there is a leak in your cooling system.  Water mixed with antifreeze is either escaping as a liquid or as steam. Sometimes you can see this, sometimes you cannot but you usually cannot affect a repair at the roadside.  However, water is generally easy to obtain and you should be carrying water with you in the car for emergencies anyway just in case you get stuck somewhere and need to drink it.  The problem is that in order to get the water into your cooling system you have to cool the system down first.  If you unscrew the radiator cap before cooling down it will come out as hot water and steam which is dangerous.

So there are two solutions. 
1.  Wait (usually around 25 mins) for it to cool down enough 
2.  Dribble water over the outside of the radiator, which then evaporates off as steam using up large amounts of excess heat in the process. 

Start the engine for 2 seconds and repeat.  Once liquid water can remaining on the outside of the radiator without evaporating or coming off as steam, then your coolant system has cooled down enough.  Open the filler cap, with care, using your half towel to soak up any water that does come out and then pour more clean water into the system until the reservoir tank is half full.  Now start the engine and if the water in the header tank goes down keep topping it up until it stabilises.  Screw the reservoir cap back on and drive on steadily and slowly, (50mph or slower). 

Keep an eye on that temperature gauge and repeat the process if necessary.  Ideally you want to use soft water in the coolant system but if you have to use hard water it is not a big problem as long as it is clean.  Let your service engineer know the next time you take it in.  He will flush the system and put back the correct mixture of water and antifreeze.

Flat_tire Flat Tire - The most important thing to remember about a flat tire is to catch it early.  A good indicator of a deflating tyre on the front is that the car will pull to the left or right rather than running straight. Get to know the shape of the bulge on your tires when they are at the correct pressure and if you notice that a tire looks lower (more bulge) then visit a gas station and check and inflate if necessary.

Driving on a very flat tire for more than half a mile or even less at speed is going to ruin the tire wall and if you are going fast enough or corner heavily the tire can come off the rim. Once the tire is off the rim the only solution is to change the wheel.  In most circumstances changing the wheel should really only be done by roadside assistance.  Not only is it a dirty job, but a complex and heavy one if you have an SUV or similar.  You should never attempt to change a tire yourself in a situation where you or the car could be hit be passing traffic.

Inspect the tire to see what has made it go flat.  If you see a nail in it do not pull it out.  If the tire is more than half worn out then inflate it with instant tire repair.  Drive home at ¾ of the speed you would usually.  If you have a new tyre on an SUV, then call the AAA.  They’ll change to your spare and the damaged tire can be repaired for a lot less than a new tire costs.  Instant tyre repair often means that the tire has to be thrown away rather than repaired, so weigh up the costs of a new tyre before using it.  Tires can cost as little as $50 and as much as $500.

Frozen Locks and Frozen Doors -
You get back to your car and find that the doors are frozen and you cannot get in.  Try the other doors.  Ideally spray some de-icer around the door rubbers since this is what is usually sticking. Otherwise your can lean on the car so that the heat from your body melts the ice between the rubber and the frame of the car.  After leaning on the car for two to three minutes most doors will open.  If your windshield wipers have frozen to the windscreen you can either start the engine and put the heater on full directed at the windscreen or pour on lukewarm water or spray them with de-icer.  Once they are unstuck and the windshield has warmed up use plenty of washer fluid to clean them and the screen.

Car Alarm Comes On and/or Car Won’t Start -  Sometimes car alarms and immobilisers can get their electronic knickers in a twist.  Get out of the car, lock it with the remote locking device or key, count to 10 and unlock it.  This often resets the system.

Ducttape_2 Broken or Stuck Window or a Sunroof Stuck Open or Leaking -
This most commonly happens because electric window switches get faulty.  When operating the switch try to twist it to the right or the left to see whether that makes the window or sunroof close.  Otherwise get out the sheet of clear plastic, trim it with the box cutter and stick it to your door or roof with duck tape.  It is always a good idea to tape it in place with the door OPEN so that you can still open and shut the door.

Have the sunroof or window repaired as soon as possible and remove the tape with care so as not to damage your paintwork.  If you need to tape to a wet car then simply dry the surface you are just about to stick with your towel before sticking down.  A good quality duck tape will cope with a little residual water on the plastic or the bodywork.

If all else fails, call the AAA and get a tow.

Greg Grimer is a British entrepreneur who has worked in investment banking technology for the last 18 years and now owns Voices in Business a new media firm specializing in sponsor-lead thought leadership productions. A car enthusiast he has organised several rallies across Europe and Australia where breaking down is half of the objective and fixing the car again is the other half.

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