The Side of the Road Is Not Just for Emergencies, by B.A.

I see many people on the side of the road. Many times it is as simple as a flat. Other times it is something that the driver cannot fix. What many people do not know is that your car is designed to shut down automatically should certain things go out of tolerance. This is to prevent damage to your engine or vehicle. Many of us are pre-programmed, too, to think that the car is a special device for which only a select few of us can open the hood and work our magic.

That is not the truth. Sure, if you decide to fill your oil reservoir with water you will void your warranty. What most people never do is read the owner’s manual. It has a list of all the proper fluids for your car and tells you whether to put Dextron II or III in your transmission or if 15W30 or 15W20 is for your crankcase. The different brands of oil will not hurt; that is your choice, but the weights of the oils make a big difference. Do not use non-specified oils in your vehicule. For example, should you use motor oil in your brake reservoir, it will expand the seals and you will not come to any kind of stop except painful. Lucky for us, the dipsticks on the vehicle generally have the proper oil marked on them.

Sometimes you just need to check the levels and top them up. Of course, before you do that or start your engine, you should check to see if there is a puddle underneath your engine. If it looks like you have just oiled the ground, leave it for a shop. But a lot of the time, it is neglect that has let your levels go down. I have seen this day in and day out, where smart people bring their cars into the shop complaining. Then, when I check the levels they are very far down and thousands of miles past the last oil change. There is a reason you change your oil and filters every so often. Once the oil filter is plugged, it just bypasses and the crud sits in the oil and starts to burn ever so slightly. As the time passes, more and more oil burns off till the crankcase gets low. This happens with new engines too, so keep up your maintenance.

More often than not your brakes or clutch will never need topping up or touching at all. You can do more damage than not, if you have no idea what you are doing. If you do, pump the peddles several times to get the fluids back pushing in the lines.

For checking oil levels, all you need is a clean rag and a long reach funnel. Your transmission will require specific oil and specific steps to check it, as most vehicles have their own methods. Only do this if you know your steps, as overfilling can damage it. The same is true for your power steering. If you let your car warm up when it is cold for a few minutes, you will have less problems with your power steering. The biggest problems with the power steering comes from the people who just start their cars and take off. The cold fluid creates too much back pressure on the lines and they leak. Warming up your car is a good idea any time, but give it an extra few minutes in the cold.

Your radiator is a special thing. You can severely burn yourself if you open a rad cap too fast and it is hot. So open it slowly. Most newer vehicles have separate reservoirs; however, even if it looks empty, the pressure inside could be very high and when you pop it you can get splashed, and that is a burn you do not need. Again, try to match the fluid you put in there to the recommended type. Universal works fine though and in an emergency water will work well. I once had to put a case of beer into my radiator when I broke down on a remote road and repaired a line that split and had nothing else to put in. It got me home. I have also used bars leaks in the bottle to plug pin holes or ground black pepper to do the same. Just do not run your heater, as it will plug up your heater core badly. When the cooling fins were split or punctured, I used my vise grips to fold them over and stop the free flow of coolant, this will ruin it and you will not get a core exchange, but I am talking emergency field repairs not shop proper.

In my emergency stuff, I keep tie wire and duct tape. It works for many things.

Next I am going to tell you something I was told years ago and had to do it myself. I had a main line split of my radiator, and being away from a shop I wiped everything down so it was dry as I could make it. Then I wrapped it heavily in duct tape six inches past the split. Then I wrapped it in tie wire up and down past the break. Then I wrapped it in duct tape again. I filled the radiator to see if it would hold. Then, when it did, I went home. What could be worse; I was already broken down?

You have a spare tire and check the air levels, right? Those cheap little donuts are not made to go long distances and need very high pressures. What do you do? I keep a little 12-volt compressor that will go up to 80 lbs. It may take awhile, but having one can mean the difference. You should know where your jack is and how to use it and where your spare is and how to get it out. Many times the low air alarms on new cars just mean low air, so keep your tires up on pressure. I do not have any aluminum rims on anything I own. Steel rims tend to not buckle or split the same. Yes, they rust and look uncool. However, while the rust is outside, it tends to not go inside. Aluminum rims oxidize along the edge, and it goes all the way through inside and lets air out.

Should you get a nail or something in your tire and you do not run it off the rim, a simple $10 patch kit that you can put in your pocket can get you back on the road. Pull the nail, ream the hole, plug the hole, and then trim the plug. Fill your tire and check for a leak. Just spit on it. If new bubbles form, try again. I managed to talk a non-technical person through this kind of tire repair over the phone.

A wise accounting teacher once told me, “When your sled don’t start, it’s usually fuel or fire.” That also goes for your car. Many times you will have corrosion on battery posts or even loose clamps. You can pull them off and scrape them clean or sandpaper to get a better contact. Better contact means better voltage and also better charging when your car is running. I have found many problems that are traced back to loose cables on starters and battery clamps, even on new vehicles.

In older vehicles, the distributor can become a problem. Sometimes it’s moisture sometimes it’s corrosion. With moisture, you can spray WD-40 inside then dry it out or use brake cleaner. Wipe it clean and let it dry, as you do not want anything flammable in there. With the corrosion, you can scrape the contact points with your knife or sand paper. They should be shiny. Just like the points on your spark plugs. If you do not know, leave these alone.

While we are talking electrical, I should mention lights. Many people like to add after-market lights. Don’t. The electrical system in your car or truck was made with a certain amount of load in mind. When you cut into wires, you are making potential shorts in the lines. As well, unless you are sealing the joints, you are leaving things open to new corrosion that can cause problems as well. Leave that stuff to people who know what they are doing.

Regarding fan belts, unless you find those adjustable emergency ones, you are better off finding a real spare at an auto parts store. Usually it does not take a rocket scientist to change one. Again, it pays to read your manual for how to weave it. However, your vehicule should have a diagram on the frame under the hood. I like to check mine for cracks or shiny spots. If you have strings hanging from your belt, change it before you loose it. Your engine will not stay running without one. I do know a woman who used her nylons tied tight to jimmy rig a fix till she got into town.

I worked in a major retailer auto shop for a while, and it was a very enlightening experience along with a lifelong habit of trying to fix my own. I do not say that all of this is what you should do. I do think that you should be ready to help yourself, because not always does help come. If you have to help yourself you should be ready to do the minimum.

Things I keep in my car:

There are many things you can add. These are not get out of dodge stuff but things I keep as my car’s emergency kit. What you add to take care of yourself is up to you, but I think that you should be prepared to take care of your car, as it is an important part of many people’s bug out plans. As a member of your team, don’t let it let you down.