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What Happens if Your Car Sits Too Long?

In today’s more isolated landscape, many people are juggling work and family commitments in their own homes. More of us are becoming comfortable working from home and buying online.

As such, many are staying home more and driving less. Highway traffic is down—research conducted by consultant KPMG International finds there are up to 14 million fewer vehicles on U.S. roads since 2019.

Why should motorists be mindful of this trend? It’s because cars are meant to be driven. When driven, the moving parts move, and the fluids lubricate and cool like they’re supposed to. So what happens when you leave your vehicle sitting for too long? While this can be a big money-saver when it comes to gas, over time, an undriven car is vulnerable to a number of maintenance issues that affect drivability, resale value and your budget.

Here are six practical reasons to take your car out for a quick drive at least every two weeks.

1. Your car battery could die.
A battery left connected to an undriven car still uses power, and will slowly begin to drain. In as little as one week, you may have a battery that is too weak to start your car. No driving in just two or three months means a totally dead battery. Letting your car idle in the driveway won’t help—you’ll just end up wasting gas and producing unnecessary CO2 emissions.

The solution is to drive the car for a few miles (and on the highway) at least once a week if possible, to start the alternator and maintain the battery’s charge before it drops too low. If you know you won’t be using your car at all for a long period of time, disconnect the battery to prevent corrosion.

Another solution that mechanics recommend is keeping the battery connected to a trickle charger—a small device that plugs into a wall outlet, and then connects to the terminals of the battery to help maintain its charge and restore it to full working order.

Electric vehicles have lithium-ion battery packs, similar to the batteries used in laptops or phones. In long term storage, they should be kept neither fully charged nor fully discharged. Ideal is recommended at 40% charge.

In the end, no matter what type of vehicle you own, not letting the battery sit dormant and unmonitored will ensure it works when needed most.

2. The fuel might break down.
Gasoline does not age well. Old gasoline is one of the more obvious concerns with letting your car sit for too long. Gas usually lasts for at least a month without any issues, but over time it can oxidize and leave carbon deposits in your fuel system. This can have serious implications for your engine’s fuel efficiency, performance and health.

If your car is sitting with half a tank, fill it up with fresh gasoline when you start driving again. If it will be immobile for a longer period, add an enzyme fuel stabilizer to your tank to prevent gas from going stale.

3. Your tires can go flat.
Tires can develop flat spots after about a month of sitting parked. Once these spots begin, they are made worse by low tire pressures—losing about one to two PSI per month. Examine your tires for any signs of visible flattening. Use a tire pressure gauge to check the pressure before you drive it again. Also take note of any areas of the tread that look bald. If not addressed, the damage can be permanent, requiring a new set of rubber.

Tires are also susceptible to dry rot, the tiny spider web cracks along the sidewalls caused by environmental conditions. The best way to prevent rot is to drive your car on a regular basis, and keep the tires properly inflated according to manufacturer’s recommendation.

Vehicles parked outside or exposed to sunlight may also benefit from a car cover—a great investment that can also help preserve your tires and the rest of your vehicle.

4. The fluids and oils can go stale.
Over time, a car’s fluids, coolants and oils get stale and can pool in certain areas. They will deteriorate due to temperature changes and accumulation of contaminants, as the fluids are not being pumped through any filter. Gaskets and hoses that aren’t kept lubricated can dry out and become brittle. As a result, the internal components of the motor can become corroded and stuck—with annual corrosion repairs averaging $117 per vehicle.

Maintaining proper fluid levels is an essential and easy car maintenance task. Take the initiative to start your car up every few days, even if you don’t actually go anywhere. Doing so will keep fluids cycling through your engine and keep everything lubricated. It will also prevent liquids from pooling up and preserve a fresh battery.

It can be easy to dismiss car maintenance if your car is not getting used as often. But don’t brush off scheduled oil changes. Failing to get your oil changed regularly can cause extreme engine damage and could be very expensive down the road.

5. Paint, body and interior damage could occur.
Whether you park underneath a tree or not, tree sap can creatively find its way onto your truck, car, SUV or motorcycle—staining or wearing down the clear coat that protects the paint. This can lead to paint spotting, fading or even require repainting. And the same could occur by leaving your vehicle in the sunlight day after day, as harmful UV rays can oxidize the paint.

Extended exposure to the sun can also eat away at the rubber stripping along the windows, allowing water to seep into the car.

Rust is another after-effect of oxidation—and damp conditions could exacerbate the damage to the exposed metals on your car. Surface rust can appear in as little as a week. Don’t let rust take over your vehicle.

While rust can be avoided just by storing your car in your garage or undercover, it’s still beneficial to start your car up and take it for a spin. If rust occurs, the best time to treat your vehicle is when you have small surface rust spots. Follow these instructions from CARFAX to initiate rust repair.

6. Your car can become infested.
That McDonald’s french fry or old candy wrapper that somehow found its way under your car seat can make your car prone to the company of ants, other insects or pests. In some more dire circumstances, larger rodents have been known to cause car havoc.

To rid bugs from your car, start by cleaning it from top to bottom. Use a handheld vacuum cleaner to get underneath the seats and to clean all the cracks. Add an air freshener to keep odors from attracting bugs. For smaller pests, you can use traps to kill ants.

If you cannot drive your car frequently, cover up any easy access points into the car like the exhaust pipe and air intake to keep critters from crawling in. Keeping your car clean and food-free can help to prevent pests from getting into your car again in the future.

You still need car insurance
With your car spending so much time in the driveway, you might be wondering how your car insurance will be affected, or even if you should drop some of your coverage in order to save on your premiums. Nevertheless, even if you’re not driving your car very much or not at all, removing your auto insurance can leave your car vulnerable in the event of a fire, theft or other damage that would be covered by comprehensive insurance.

Additionally, any lapse in coverage may make insurance more expensive when you decide to insure the vehicle again.

Resources: TrueCar®, KPMG International, Reader’s Digest, Erie Insurance, CorrosionCost.com, Quanz Auto Care, Boston 25 News