Here's Why You Shouldn't Let Your Car Sit During the Coronavirus Lockdown

Like the creatures that make them, cars need to stretch out and get their juices flowing every once in a while.

James Gilboy

If you're trapped at home and looking for ways to pass the time but can't justify dropping $100 on a big Lego set, there's something productive you should try: Going for a drive. It won't cost you much now that gas prices are at their lowest in years, and you might thank yourself down the road.

Often one of the first things to fail on neglected cars is the battery, which naturally discharges on their own, but is kept topped-up by the alternator when the engine is running. Lead-acid batteries—the kind most used in cars—particularly dislike being run low, and bouncing between empty and full will make them die more quickly. How long your vehicle can sit without draining its battery depends on the condition of the latter, its original cold-cranking amps rating, and whether your vehicle has a mechanical issue like a parasitic draw, so it's impossible to say how often a car needs to be started to stop its battery from failing. Several minutes of driving a day should do it, but you may want to extend your drive for another reason: Your oil.

Engine oil (and gas too) can collect condensation that causes accelerated degradation, both in the oil itself and, over a longer period, the engine. Fortunately, engines are designed to boil water out of their oil via the positive crankcase ventilation system but to do this, they have to reach operating temperature and stay there for a few minutes. Bring things up to temp by driving, not idling, as this will get other greases and fluids throughout your car moving, and keep the gaskets and seals lubricated. This will also slow the cracking of rubber belts and help keep the biggest, most expensive pieces of rubber on your vehicle in good shape.

Tires too need movement to prevent the development of flat spots, which in mild cases can work themselves out after a period of uncomfortable vibration. More serious flat spots can cause vibrations so serious that they can shake the steering wheel violently, making a vehicle uncontrollable, and accelerating wear on steering and suspension components. Though an extreme example, the video below shows the kind of damage a serious flat spot can do to a vehicle.

This all goes without mentioning how much it'd sting in this economy for some people to spend hundreds on new tires, let alone a major service, which you may face if critters take up residence in your vehicle. Wasps can build a nest in unseen spots; rodents can eat organic wiring insulation and cause costly electrical problems or fill your engine bay with walnuts; and if you're really unlucky, a stray cat may call your engine bay home.

All the reasons above are also why the supposed gems of low-mile cars you see sold at auctions are often nightmares in disguise; they typically have some if not all the above problems. So, if you don't want to be spending your stimulus check at the mechanic when the first world starts to wake up again, go out for a drive. You know it'll feel good to get out of the house. And when you're done, give your car a wash as well—paint needs maintenance too, and it's a social distancing-compliant activity.

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