With so many people working from home and physically distancing themselves—until May, as ordered by the Fed, and probably longer than that—your poor car has probably been sitting outside on the street or stuck in your garage. And that’s especially true if you’ve been trying to get all your groceries and other essentials delivered instead of going out.
While I’m not saying now is a great time for a road trip—it definitely is not—you’re still going to want to set a calendar reminder to take your car for a quick trip. If you don’t, and you let it just sit there, unused, you could be in for a surprise the next time you need to go somewhere.
Here’s the fun gamble, though: You can let your car sit for months without driving it and it might be fine. You can let it sit for a week without driving it, and it might have a serious issue (or something annoying, like a dead battery) the next time you try to go to the store. There’s really no way to predict this in advance, but don’t let that make you lazy.
As Rick Popely wrote for Cars.com back in 2016:
…you’re better off driving it a couple of times each month and for at least 10 miles (15 kilometres), with some speeds over 50 mph (80 km/h) if possible. You not only want your engine to get fully warmed up but for the entire car to get some exercise as well.
Letting a car idle for 10 minutes will get the engine up to normal operating temperature but accomplish little else. Driving the car for several miles wakes up the transmission, brakes, suspension, power steering, climate system (including the air conditioner) and all the fluids, seals and gaskets for those components that have been on a long snooze.
While I couldn’t disagree more with suggesting that your car needs “exercise,” it’s also important to let your car move around a bit to reduce wear on the part of your tires that are resting on the ground—especially if the weather is colder and your tires are losing a little more air than they normally do.
In a more recent article, Cars.com senior editor Mike Hanley noted that the chief issue you’ll likely face by leaving your car out to pasture is an unhappy battery. That’s thanks to all the various components that are slowly but surely using your battery’s energy—and by not driving your car, your battery isn’t able to recharge.
To avoid a dead battery, you can start your car once a week and let it run for about 5-10 minutes. (If your car is parked in a garage, be sure to do this with the garage door open to ensure proper ventilation for exhaust fumes.) Alternatively, a battery tender will help maintain your battery at its proper voltage — just be sure to disconnect it before you drive anywhere. And if you do go out to your car and it won’t start, AAA and other auto insurance companies are still offering roadside assistance.
I always figured I could jump-start my car in times like these, but for the last many years, I’ve packed one of these beasts in my trunk. Not only has it saved my bacon with jump-starts when nobody else is around, but it’s also incredibly useful if you need to give your tires some quick air. And, yes, you should be checking that, too, even if you aren’t driving your car much nowadays. Get a tire pressure gauge and make sure you’re still at your factory-preferred PSI, at minimum, before you take your quarantined vehicle out for a little sun.
Don’t forget to wash your car too, if you can. Not only is it therapeutic, it helps keep crap off your car that can damage the clearcoat if left on for too long. I’m mainly thinking about birds that love to poop on my car when it’s parked for longer than two hours at any one time. Bird poop is the enemy, and even the slightest hint of it should be a great reminder that, hey, maybe it’s time to give [your car’s clever name here] a bath.
Rather than put dedicated time on your calendar for car washing, I prefer the simpler advice that Dennis Taljan from paint company PPG told Consumer Reports in 2018: “When you see stuff on it, wash it.”