The end of summer is in sight, but it’s not going anywhere just yet. If your vehicle is coughing its way through summer or the site of a traffic jam makes you sweat, either literally (because your A/C is on the fritz) or figuratively (because your engine is on the brink of overheating), it’s time to rethink your approach to summer driving.
Whether your vehicle is contributing to your problems or your driving behavior is putting you at risk, some knowledge and modifications can help ensure you make it to autumn safely.
1. Be Strategic with How You Run Your A/C
The A/C system transfers heat from the inside of the car to the front of the engine. Put simply,
running your air conditioner makes your engine hotter.
Your car’s A/C condenser can reach 400 degrees, and your radiator wants to be 200 degrees. Driving helps to naturally cool your engine due to the air moving through, but if you’re not moving and pushing air through the engine, or your car’s fans aren’t working properly or aren’t sufficient to cool the engine in a mid-summer traffic jam, your engine can get too hot.
Mechanic Clint Luers, owner of Signal Point Auto in Charleston, South Carolina, sees a huge increase in A/C and overheating related issues between June and September each year. This summer, the city experienced its hottest month on record—86.2 degrees in July. That’s a 24-hour average for 31 days! So how do you keep a car alive in those conditions?
“Don’t run your A/C at full blast when you’re sitting in traffic,” recommends Luers. “If you hit a traffic light or stop-and-go traffic, turn it down to ‘low.’ Turn it back up when you’re moving again.”
2. Roll the Windows Down
When it’s hot, do you immediately crank your A/C when you get in the car? That could actually be making your car work harder to cool the space.
Instead, when you turn the car on, roll all four windows down, turn on the A/C and drive. Relieve the surface heat out the windows while you move.
“If you crank the A/C with the windows up in a hot car, you’re just going to make your car work that much harder to remove the heat,” says Luers. “People immediately want to be frigid inside, but they’re doing themselves and their car a disservice by immediately turning up the A/C with their windows up.”
3. Tint and Shade Your Windows
A tint on your windows will help to deflect heat. It’s also very important to use a windshield shade.
“Without a tint and windshield shade, you’re likely opening all four doors and giving the car 45 seconds to cool before you reach in and painfully start the car,” says Luers. “And a car that’s too hot when you get in encourages immediately cranking the A/C.”
Furthermore, sun coming through the windshield and creating heat can destroy a dashboard. You’ll eventually have pieces of plastic falling apart. A windshield screen can protect your dashboard. Plus, your A/C vents are under the dashboard. You’re turning them into an oven if you don’t shade them.
4. Make Sure Your Cooling System Is Working Properly
Heat is your car’s enemy. With our country’s population increasingly weighted toward the southern heat belt, that’s a growing problem for car owners.
In a closed, pressurized cooling system, water boils at closer to 300 degrees, explains Luers, rather than the 212 degrees a pot of water on the stove boils at.
“If there is any type of leak in your hoses or radiator, all bets are off, and the water boils at 212,” says Luers. “So it’s boiling itself away. If that’s happening, and you’re running your A/C on top of that, you’re killing your car, and you won’t even know it until your engine’s head gasket blows. If there’s even a tiny little pinhole leak, you don’t have 100 percent pressure.”
Bottom line? Get your cooling system checked.
“Your fans are so important,” says Luers. “I see so many people who come in who don’t even realize that one of their fans is not working, and they’re wondering why their A/C doesn’t work. Without the fans, your car can’t properly relieve the heat.”
5. Pop the Hood if You’re Idling in Park
If your car is parked but you’ve left it running, like if you’re sitting in a parking lot or a school pickup line waiting on someone, get out and pop the hood. Let the heat escape from the engine. Otherwise, if your car is not moving, you’re heating an oven under the hood and relying completely on your fans to cool it.
6. The Color of Your Car Matters
Black cars absorb heat, and white cars deflect it. Police vehicles and FedEx and UPS trucks have white roofs for a reason. Government work trucks tend to be white F-150s. It’s because white cars stay cooler than dark cars.
Still skeptic? Get a digital thermometer and test the difference. Temperatures were taken at the same time, on a cloudy July day in South Carolina, of a white car’s roof and black car’s roof. 86 versus 107 degrees.
7. Hire a Professional to Recharge Your A/C
Do-it-yourself A/C recharge bottles have become prevalent at auto parts stores, but they can easily do more harm than good.
“People show up at my shop asking if I can use them, and I tell them to take them back,” says Luers. “They only work on the low pressure gauge of your system, so you can’t see the pressure on the high side. You need to know what both of them are. If you fill the low side up too much, you can blow the high side line off.”
Think you can make it through the last month of summer without an automobile meltdown? Making some small changes to your driving, idling and A/C habits can help get you there. Don’t get stuck on the side of the road with a smoking engine!
Stratton Lawrence is a travel writer and car enthusiast based in Folly Beach, South Carolina. He’s the proud owner of a 1972 Volkswagen Super Beetle that he’s driven cross country twice, completely off the interstate (although he’s grateful to now also own a vehicle with air conditioning). Stratton also provides auto advice, whether you’re hitting the road in a classic car or tuning up your favorite modern cruiser, as a writer for eBay Motors.