Having a car that is rarely driven can be inconvenient at times, but also rewarding if you manage to keep it in good condition. When a car sits unused for long periods of time, a number of problems can occur that require maintenance and care. With some basic upkeep and diligence, you can keep your rarely driven vehicle running smoothly for years to come.
Should you start the engine regularly?
One of the most important things you can do for a rarely driven car is to start it up and let it run every couple of weeks. This helps circulate the oil and prevent corrosion in the engine and exhaust system. Idling the engine for 15-20 minutes is usually sufficient. This regular engine running gives the battery a small charge and lubricates components to prevent seizing.
Steps for starting the engine
- Check oil and fluid levels under the hood and fill if needed
- Insert key and start ignition – listen for any odd sounds
- Let engine idle for 15-20 minutes in park or neutral
- Take a brief drive if possible to circulate transmission fluid
- Ensure engine returns to normal idling before turning off
You should avoid revving the engine high during this process. The goal is to circulate and lubricate, not put extra wear on engine components.
Should you drive the car occasionally?
In addition to periodic engine starts, it’s a good idea to drive the car every couple of months, if possible. This puts all systems through their paces and identifies any potential problems. A 15-20 minute drive helps circulate fluids, charges the battery further, and ensures the brakes, transmission, and tires function properly.
Tips for occasional driving
- Watch for brake dust accumulation – apply brakes firmly to clean
- Shift through all gears to circulate transmission fluid
- Listen for new vibrations or sounds that may indicate issues
- Test functions like lights, signals, wipers, AC/heat
- Get up to highway speeds for 10-15 minutes if possible
Avoid aggressive acceleration and braking during these drives. The goal is just general component exercise and observation. Immediately address any new problems you notice.
What about fuel system maintenance?
One complication of rarely driving a car is fuel degradation over time. Gasoline has stabilizing additives, but these dissipate after 1-2 months in the tank. Stale fuel can gum up injectors and cause poor performance.
To maintain fuel system health you have a few options:
- Add fuel stabilizer each time you fill up
- Keep the tank full to minimize air exposure
- Drain old gas and add fresh if sitting more than 2 months
- Run an injector cleaner additive periodically
Letting the tank run very low opens up more air space for fuel degradation. Topping off helps, but isn’t always practical. Fuel stabilizers are inexpensive and do a decent job of slowing fuel breakdown over longer periods.
Signs of fuel system problems
- Hard starting or long cranking before starting
- Rough idle, stalling, or misfires
- Hesitation, loss of power under acceleration
- Increased exhaust emissions or fuel odor
If you experience these symptoms after periods of non-use, try adding fresh gas and a fuel system cleaner. Severe issues may require injector cleaning or replacement.
What maintenance is needed for the battery?
The battery is critical for starting and powering all the electronics in your vehicle. When a car sits unused, the battery slowly discharges over time and can end up drained completely.
To maintain a rarely used battery:
- Start the car weekly and let it idle to charge
- Use a trickle charger to maintain charge level
- Disconnect the negative battery cable when storing
- Check voltage monthly and recharge as needed
- Replace battery every 3-5 years if maintaining charge is difficult
It’s convenient to have a smart charger that monitor voltage and provides a maintenance charge when needed. Otherwise, a voltmeter check and manual recharging may be required.
Signs of a weak battery
- Dim lights or slow cranking
- Electrical issues like warning lights
- Battery tester shows low charge level
- Corrosion or damage on the battery terminals
Recharge the battery if voltage drops below 12.4 volts. Repeated recharging often indicates it’s time for a new battery.
What tires precautions should you take?
Parking a vehicle in one spot for extended periods can cause tire flat spots and cracking. The weight of the car compresses the rubber, deforming the tire tread and sidewalls. Cracks allow air leakage that will eventually result in a flat.
To maintain tire health:
- Keep tires properly inflated when parking
- Move the vehicle periodically to rotate tires
- Place blocks under tires to reduce weight
- Cover tires to protect from sun damage
- Check tread depth and sidewalls monthly
Tires that sit with low inflation are most prone to flat-spotting. Keeping them inflated to specification will extend their life. Placing wood blocks under the tires reduces the weight on them while parked.
Signs of tire damage
- Visible flat spots or deformations
- Cracking in rubber of sidewalls
- Tread depth less than 2/32 inches
- Tire pressure significantly lower than spec
- Tire doesn’t hold air when filling
Replace any tire with significant cracking or cuts that expose cord. Rotating tires can distribute some minor flat spotting. Tires over 5 years old should be replaced regardless of wear.
What about preventing rodent damage?
Rodents like mice are attracted to the warm, dry environment of parked vehicles. They can cause considerable damage by chewing on insulation, wires, hoses, and other components.
To deter rodents:
- Seal any exterior holes or openings with wire mesh
- Clean interior to remove any food sources
- Place traps or poison bait stations in compartments
- Use mothballs or cotton balls with peppermint oil as repellents
- Inspect for new damage or signs of activity monthly
Parking the car in a garage is the most secure option if available. Traps or poison bait can remove existing rodents, but don’t prevent new ones from entering. Mothballs and peppermint oil help deter them from nesting.
Signs of rodent infestation
- Droppings present in compartments
- Chewing damage on wires, hoses, insulation
- Shredded materials for nest building
- Odd odors from urine or dead rodents
Address any infestation quickly before extensive damage occurs. Wipe away droppings and disinfect areas. Look for possible entry points and seal them.
How can you prevent brake sticking?
Brake components can seize up from lack of use, especially the caliper slides. The sliding pins get stiff, causing the pads to stick and uneven wear. This will be noticeable when you resume driving the car.
To prevent stuck brakes:
- Lubricate caliper slider pins periodically
- Exercise brakes regularly by driving
- Loosen lug nuts before parking long-term
- Chock wheels if storing more than 1 month
- Check for sticking slider pins when testing brakes
The slider pins can be lubricated with brake caliper grease during an inspection. This ensures they continue to move freely. Driving the vehicle and using the brakes helps prevent seizing.
Signs of sticking brakes
- Uneven rotor discoloration or grooving
- Excessive dust on one wheel
- Brake squeal or grinding noise
- Pulling to one side under braking
- Overheating smell from one caliper
Address stuck brakes quickly to prevent uneven pad and rotor wear. Lubricate slider pins, inspect calipers, and examine pads. Worn components may need replacement.
How do you prevent electrical problems?
Electrical systems can act up after periods of no use. Corrosion on connections, moisture buildup, and rodent damage can all contribute to gremlins.
Steps to prevent electrical issues:
- Spray key connections with corrosion inhibitor
- Seal any exterior holes that allow water intrusion
- Install mesh guards to prevent rodent damage
- Disconnect battery when storing more than 1 month
- Inspect wiring harnesses for damage or moisture
Corrosion inhibitors and dielectric grease help protect connections from oxidation and moisture. Look for harness damage from rodents and dry any wet wiring before reconnecting battery.
Signs of electrical problems
- Battery draining prematurely
- Warning lights illuminating
- Electrical components like wipers or locks not working
- Odd smells from burning insulation
- Visible corrosion on battery terminals or fuses
Address any electrical issues promptly before damage spreads. Drying wet wiring and cleaning connections may resolve minor problems. Extensive damage requires wiring repair or replacement.
How do you protect the exterior?
A car that sits stationary outside suffers exterior damage from sun, dirt, pollution, and pests. Dull paint, clouding headlights, and mildew are common issues.
To protect the exterior:
- Wash and wax paint regularly
- Cover vehicle with a breathable car cover
- Clean headlights and apply protective film
- Seal any openings that allow pest entry
- Inspect monthly and address new problems quickly
Wax helps protect the clearcoat finish from sun damage. Covering the vehicle blocks some dirt and pollution. Sealing openings prevents insects and rodents from getting inside.
Signs of exterior deterioration
- Dull, chalky paint
- Yellowed or cloudy headlights
- Bird droppings, tree sap, or dirt accumulation
- Mildew or mold on leather trim
- Spider webs or insect nests in crevices
Addressing problems early makes correction easier. Washing, claying, and waxing can often restore dull paint. Mildew removers and leather cleaners fix interior mold. Avoid using harsh chemicals.
How should fluids be maintained?
Fluids are the lifeblood of any vehicle, and stationary cars need periodic fluid checks and changes. Oil, transmission fluid, coolant, brake fluid, and power steering fluid all degrade over time.
To maintain fluids:
- Check all fluid levels monthly during engine starts
- Change engine oil every 6-12 months if driving infrequently
- Change brake fluid every 2 years
- Change transmission fluid every 2-3 years
- Change coolant every 3-5 years
Let the engine warm up before checking oil and transmission fluid levels for accuracy. Top off any low fluids. Change degraded fluids based on severe or regular service intervals.
Signs of fluid problems
- Low fluid levels
- Dirty, sludgy, or fouled fluid
- leaks under the vehicle
- Burning smells from drips on hot components
Identify any leaks and determine the cause – a hose, gasket, or seal may need replacement. Repair leaks promptly to prevent damage or safety issues.
What about preventive maintenance?
Even if your car doesn’t accumulate mileage, periodic maintenance is still needed to keep things in good operating condition.
Recommended preventive maintenance:
- Change engine air filter every 1-2 years
- Change engine oil every 6-12 months
- Check oxygen sensors and emission control system
- Inspect brakes, hoses, belts every 6-12 months
- Check suspension, ball joints, tie rods for looseness
Follow your owner’s manual maintenance schedule for severe and normal service items. Check components for cracks, leaks, and binding during under hood inspections.
Benefits of preventive maintenance
- Extends life of engine, transmission, drivetrain
- Prevents breakdowns and expensive repairs
- Ensures safety by catching issues early
- Maintains vehicle reliability and resale value
- Provides peace of mind knowing car won’t be “bricked”
Investing in preventive service goes a long way towards keeping your rarely driven car happy and healthy for the long run. Don’t cut corners that may cost you bigger dollars down the road.
Keeping a vehicle that is driven infrequently requires some additional maintenance and care. With diligence and preventive upkeep, you can keep your car running smoothly for years during periods of low usage. The small investments of time and money are worthwhile to extend the life of your vehicle and prevent breakdowns or safety issues when you need to drive it. Follow these guidelines and your rarely driven car will provide reliable transportation when called upon.