Consumers have many worries right now during the coronavirus pandemic. Somewhere on the list for some is keeping their car dependable, especially for those who work at “essential” businesses and need to commute.
There are many basic car care tasks, such as checking fluids and inspecting tires, that can be performed in your driveway. And in an ideal world, you would have been ahead of all routine services and repairs, such as an oil change, before social distancing.
People in many parts of the country have been advised to stay home, and everyone should follow that advice and practice social distancing as much as possible. But if you have repairs or maintenance that cannot be postponed, the suggestions and tips below can help you keep your car running and yourself safe.
Tires: Tire stores and dealerships are open in most areas and able to provide replacement tires or a more significant repair. Check our tire ratings and buying guide.
Roadside: AAA told CR that it will continue to provide roadside assistance to members across the country, and its service providers have protocols in place to protect their safety and yours.
Below, we offer more car care tips to help you through this challenging period.
Cars Don’t Like to Sit Idle
Cars are meant to be driven. A car parked for extended periods risks the battery losing charge, tires gaining flat spots, rubber components such as belts and wipers drying out, and critters taking residence in your engine compartment.
Drive the car at least once a week for 20 minutes or longer to ensure that the battery is charged. If you park outside, this will also provide a chance to wear the rust off the brake discs and keep the calipers from seizing by using them. Driving is a good solo activity, and frankly, many people probably need to shake off some cabin fever.
While in the car, check for any food, snacks, beverages, or disinfectant wipes that were left behind. Even better: Also vacuum the carpet. These steps can reduce the risks of mildew and unpleasant odors from developing.
For people who will have limited need to drive, stretching out service intervals makes sense. A few hundred extra miles between service visits won’t compromise an otherwise well-maintained car, says John Ibbotson, Consumer Reports’ chief mechanic. “Clearly, if you have a true mechanical problem and/or your check-engine light is on, you should make an appointment with a local shop,” he says. “When you call, ask about their coronavirus procedures.”
In this unusual time, you may have a second vehicle at home to use while your primary car goes in for repairs. If possible, arrange to drop off the car to be worked on, without entering the facility, and pick it up three or more days later. The World Health Organization says that the virus “may persist on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days,” depending on the surface and conditions.
When you pick it up, wipe down all key areas (including the outside door handle), remembering that someone drove the car and may have had to make adjustments, such as to the seat or steering wheel, that you wouldn’t normally touch. (Learn how to kill the coronavirus in your car without damaging interior surfaces.)
There are some basic inspections and car care that can be done at home.
Check and Change the Oil
Check your oil levels, per the instructions in your owner’s manual. Typically this means when the car is parked on level ground and the engine is cold. If oil is low, you can top it off yourself. Oil can be found at many convenience stores and service centers, which are likely to be operating, even in states where only essential businesses are open. Be sure to follow the automaker’s guidance in choosing the oil, and be careful not to overfill. Better to put some in and check it again another day than to put in too much.
Oil change intervals can be drawn out. If you’re largely self-quarantined, you may be able to postpone this chore for weeks.
Changing the oil yourself is easy if you have the experience, tools, and equipment. Short of that, we recommend resisting the temptation, because there can be safety concerns and the oil needs to be properly recycled. Your best bet if you must change the oil is to find a local shop.
Choose a local service center that allows you to stay in the car. We experienced this ourselves at a couple of Valvoline Instant Oil Change locations. The work was done quickly, with an emphasis on maintaining social distancing.
Likewise, Jiffy Lube has more than 2,000 locations nationwide that can perform this service while customers remain in the vehicle. A spokeswoman told CR that most locations remain open, and Jiffy Lube shops have made adjustments to their procedures to address virus concerns.
Wherever you choose to go, call ahead to make sure the business is open and responsive to social distancing guidelines.
Another option is to use a mobile mechanic, such as those you can find through the large Wrench network, who can come to you to perform basic work.
Check the Tires
A basic tire inspection is easy to do, and we recommend doing it as part of your monthly car care regimen.
Look over the tires for uneven wear and damage that could warrant their replacement.
Check the inflation when the tires are cold (before driving), referencing the sticker in the driver’s doorjamb for the recommended air pressure. Check the spare tire while you’re at it. (Learn about cordless tire inflators that make it easy to fill tires at home.)
Measure tread depth with a quarter. If the top of George Washington’s head is just visible when placed in a tread groove, the tread has about a 4⁄32-inch depth. That’s enough to offer some all-weather grip, but it’s time to start thinking about replacement.
Tires truly need to be replaced by 2⁄32 inch, as measured using a penny and Abraham Lincoln’s head. By 2⁄32 inch, tires have significantly reduced wet traction and resistance to hydroplaning—skimming on water. If your tread is low, avoid driving in heavy rain and be particularly attentive to braking distances. Hydroplaning is very much dependent on speed, so slow down in the rain with worn tires. Simple rule: Obey the speed limit.
Replacement tires are available, advises Tire Rack, a large national tire retailer. Like many industries, tire makers are closing factories. This will disrupt supply, but major tire retailers say demand is dropping and there’s enough inventory. Discount Tire said that most of its more than 1,000 stores are open for business and focused on essential services.
Tire Rack points out that mobile installation, when the tires are replaced at your home or business, is an especially attractive option now. Tire Rack’s website lists such services among its independent recommended installers.
If you must shop for tires, CR advises that you do the research at home using our extensive ratings and tire fitment guide. Find several good matches for your vehicle, prioritizing the factors that matter most to you, such as wet traction, rolling resistance, and tread life. Your first choice might not be readily available. Call ahead to make sure the shop has the tires you want. “Assuming the dealer has or can get the tires, make an appointment to have them installed at your convenience to shorten wait time and don’t be embarrassed to haggle the price based on what you might have learned at an online retailer,” says Gene Petersen, CR’s tire program manager. As with repair work, if possible, leave the vehicle and pick it up another day.
Check and Replace the Air Filters
Air filters are easy to check and replace. Look at both the underhood intake air filter and the cabin air filter, which tends to have long service intervals, as indicated in the owner’s manual. If these are dirty and need to be replaced, order new ones from an online auto parts store. (Amazon is prioritizing essential food and health items during the coronavirus pandemic and might not be the most efficient source for automotive supplies.)
Changing these yourself, especially the cabin air filter, can be an easy way to save money in general. Refer to your owner’s manual for instructions. Some cabin air filters are trickier than others to access. If it isn’t obvious how to remove the cabin filter, look for DIY YouTube videos to make sure it is a job you can tackle yourself before ordering.
Assess the Wipers
Windshield wipers tend to last about six months before needing to be replaced, with harsh winter conditions being especially tough on them. If they are less than 6 months old, you may get more service by simply wiping them down with a paper towel moistened with glass cleaner. In our past tests, we found this trick to be quite effective.
These are typically easy to replace, and new blades can be ordered from an online parts store. If you buy locally from an auto parts store, many will install them free.
While you’re at it, check the level of the windshield fluid in the underhood reservoir. Local convenience, auto-parts, and grocery stores have fluid.
Wash Your Car
Maintaining a clean exterior is a good way to protect the paint. This can readily be done at a drive-thru car wash; just be sure to use hand sanitizer or wash your hands after using the keypad.
If you haven’t washed the car since winter, spring for an undercarriage spray to remove salt and road grime. We recommend doing this once a season.
Touchless car washes are safer on the finish, but they often don’t clean as well. Experts advise that modern paint can withstand scrub brushes, but be wary of brushes or cloths that are dirty. (Find out whether car-wash extras are worth it.)
Hand-washing the car is the safest choice, using a dedicated car wash soap and sponge or mitt. Wash the car in the shade, one section at a time, starting with the top surfaces and working down. Be sure to use a separate sponge for the wheels and tires to avoid transferring sand, brake dust, and other debris that can mar the car’s finish. (Learn more about how to wash your car.)
You should consider cleaning and also disinfecting the interior. Generally, automotive-specific cleansers are recommended. Isopropyl alcohol is an effective way to kill the virus. However, do not use bleach or hydrogen peroxide, because those chemicals can damage the interior. And do not use ammonia-based cleaners on car touch screens, because they can damage their anti-glare and anti-fingerprint coatings. Remember: Vigorous washing with soap and water can destroy the coronavirus. (Find out how to kill the coronavirus in your car without damaging interior surfaces.)