For some of us, cars are more than just a means of transportation — they’re an integral part of our lives, just like family. We wash, maintain, and even modify them to ensure that they look their best and last a long time.
As much as we enthusiasts enjoy driving our cars, it’s not always possible. Maybe you’ve taken a work contract that has you in a new city and your car can’t join you.
Maybe you have a project car that you don’t have the funds to get it up and running yet, or maybe it’s a summer car that just sits in your garage for the better part of the year.
One day turns into a week, and the next thing you know, your car’s been parked for months.
Most of us know that it’s not good to keep a car sitting, but how long can you leave a car parked?
In this guide, we’ll discuss the potential damages that can occur and the precautions that you should take if you’re going to let your car sit for a while.
What Happens When a Car Sits Too Long?
It’s no surprise that issues such as gaskets drying out and batteries losing charge will occur. While you won’t have to worry about Any car parts that rely on regular use and lubrication to stay “supple” will perform poorly when you haven’t driven your car in a while.
Not to mention the fact that your car will gather dust and will be prone to corrosion as a result.
But what’s the worst that can happen if you leave your car stationary for too long? Let’s have a look.
Motor Oil and Fluids Deteriorate
The main purpose of motor oil is to keep your engine well lubricated — it reduces the friction between moving parts.
When engine oil sits unused for too long, it starts deteriorating and losing its viscosity which means it can no longer serve as a lubricant.
Issues with power steering can spring up due to lack of use too. Any time contaminants can get into fluids you’re bound to have trouble in the future.
Tires Lose Air Pressure and Deform
Cars are heavy — when you let them sit for too long, all of the weight rests on the tires, on one spot, for a prolonged period of time.
If your car has been parked for a long period, chances are that your tire sidewalls aren’t in the best shape.
On top of that, cold weather will deflate tires even faster. The other problem that you could run into is flat spots — when a tire develops a type of memory that prevents it from being wholly round.
You’ll see uneven wear unless you inflate your tires back to their original shape.
If you neglect your tires after letting your car sit for a while, it can cause permanent tire damage which cannot be corrected with wheel and tire balancing using weights. This can even lead to tire failure when out on the road.
Flat spots can also affect your steering and handling. It’s usually after a month of driving inactivity that your tires will begin to deform like this.
Batteries Lose Charge
Regular driving means your battery should last between three to five years. When your car has been sitting for too long, its battery loses charge. Trying to restart the engine can result in the battery draining even more.
If it’s cold where you live, don’t be surprised if your car won’t start even with just two months of inactivity.
Driving your car regularly enables the alternator to recharge the battery to replenish the power that you’re using.
If your battery loses too much power, you might need to jump-start or replace it.
Fuel Quality Deteriorates
The longer your fuel sits still, the more its quality degrades over time.
This all comes down to the simple fact that the gasoline or diesel in your tank isn’t stored in an airtight chamber and so, it constantly reacts with oxygen and loses efficiency.
It’s usually after 30 days that gasoline begins to degrade. After an extended period of time, such as three to six months, it can go bad.
Whether it’s rats, mice, ants, or other small animals, pests can nest, making your car their new home if you haven’t driven it in a while.
The worst part is that pests like rats and mice can bite into your car seats, wiring and other rubber components like seals when they get hungry.
The longer they’ve made your car their dwelling, the more damage they can do to it.
How Often Should You Start Your Car?
Don’t think that it’s enough to start your car every couple of days and not drive it — that’s a myth. Not only should you start your car every two weeks, but you should also drive it. Idling it from one spot also won’t do the trick, nor will taking short trips.
You need to drive your car for long enough for it to reach full operating temperature. If you only make short trips, you’ll find condensation in the exhaust system and oil that won’t be burned off.
If your car is a newer diesel, this can end up costing a huge amount of money, where your diesel particulate filter clogs up and needs replacing, often costing over $1,000.
As a rule of thumb, drive your car for at least 10 to 15 miles, preferably at over 50mph where permitted.
Preparing Your Car for Long-Term Storage
Sometimes, no matter how badly you want to get behind the wheel of your car, it’s not always possible. You obviously don’t want your car to deteriorate, so you’ll want to prepare it properly for storage.
In that case, there are a few key things you can do that will maximize the chances of retaining your car’s condition.
You don’t want your battery to completely drain out by being parked in one spot for a long period. The best way to avoid a dead battery is by disconnecting it from the car.
But you might still want to ensure that your alarm functions, or start it every once in a while. For this to happen, you’ll want a fully charged battery at all times.
Your best option is to use a trickle charger, or battery maintainer. If you have an electricity source close by, a battery tender can provide a long-term solution.
The main advantage of a trickle charger over a normal car battery charger is that it sends the lowest amount of electricity to ensure battery life doesn’t degrade.
To avoid tire damage due to lack of use, inflate the tires to the recommended pressure before storage. If you’re a perfectionist like myself, use a tire pressure gauge to get them to the perfect psi level.
They’ll still deflate during the subsequent weeks, so you’ll have to check on and inflate them when necessary.
Choosing a suitable storage location will help to prevent rust from forming on your car. A good option to avoid corrosion is to keep your car in a dry, well-ventilated area.
Before you store your car in that location, make sure to thoroughly wash, wax, and carry out a paintwork correction if necessary. It goes without saying that any road salt should be washed off before you turn your car off for the last time.
Avoid parking it on grass, which absorbs a lot of moisture. That will eventually erode your car’s metalwork.
It is also a good idea to protect it using a car cover, or at least a sheet of plastic to avoid dust from building up. This is especially important if it is a convertible.
Controlling Humidity and Condensation
You can avoid mold build-up and condensation by parking your car in a dry spot. Mold usually builds up when your car is in direct heat or exposed to very cold temperatures.
By keeping sunlight off the car, you’ll increase the chances of preventing paint damage. Similarly, keeping it protected from extreme temperatures by storing it in an insulated garage or barn can help to protect rubber components like door and window seals from drying out and becoming brittle.
Installing a dehumidifier in your garage also helps absorb moisture, while a under-car containment mat can sit underneath your tires and stop the transfer of moisture from your garage floor to the underside of your vehicle.
Best Fuel Practices
Condensation can also build up in the gas tank, which can weaken your gas. If you aren’t letting your car sit for long, instead of having a tank that has little or mid-level gas in it, you should fill it up completely.
If on the other hand, you know it will be more than 6 months until you drive your car again, it’s probably best to leave your fuel tank near-empty. Once you’re back home, take a quick whiff from your gas tank. If it smells like varnish, you should drain the tank and top it up with fresh gas.
If it’s been a while but doesn’t stink like varnish, it’s best to drive down to a gas station and fill it up to dilute the small amount left in the tank.
Another preventive measure is using products such as storage fuel stabilizers, which keep your gas fresh and your fuel system safe for up to two years.
It might sound illogical to change your fluid before storing it for a long period, but it’ll help your car avoid damage. It’s common for used fluids to carry contaminants, which can prove to be troublesome in the long run.
While conventional wisdom may tell you to drain fluids before letting your car sit, they’re wrong. To avoid corrosion while your car is sitting, you should in fact top off any oils.
Before you take it out for its first drive after it’s been sitting though, you can easily give your car some extra protection using some fresh fluids.
Flush your engine and transmission oil, and other fluids completely, then top it up with some of the fresh stuff. Running your car with old fluids is just asking for trouble.
If it’s been an especially long time, you might want to flush your differential oil as well. Different types of limited slip differentials demand especially high amounts of maintenance, and can be costly to replace especially if rare. Some new fluids can be cheap protection in this case.
By flushing your brake fluid, you’ll be able to remove any dirt, air and other impurities in your brake lines, and help to ensure your braking system works correctly.
Similarly, fresh coolant doesn’t cost a lot and will help to get rid of any acid buildup or contamination from rust or scaling.
Avoid Engaging the Parking Brake
Consider not engaging your e-brake. If you keep the car in storage for long periods, your brakes might rust. With the lever engaged, this can lead to the brakes fusing to the rotor.
If you leave the e-brake active, it can also stretch the cable. Instead, opt for placing bricks around the tires or buying wheel chocks.
Rubber parts such as belts can dry out or crack over time. But that wear and tear speeds up if you don’t drive your car regularly.
If you’ve kept your car in storage for longer than a year, watch out for leaks or cracks once you get back onto the road.
It’s a good practise to replace belts and hoses before you take it for a spin again. A replacement serpentine belt is a heck of a lot cheaper than bent valves!
Tips for Starting Your Car
Whether you had prepared your car in storage or left it to sleep and hoped for the best, you’ll eventually have to start it.
To ensure that you start your car without causing any damage, you need to do several important things:
- Clean your engine bay to make sure that there aren’t any leaks. Some leaks are minor and not easily detectable, so make sure to do a thorough inspection.
- Ensure that your fluid levels are topped up.
- Check your spark plugs and air filter, then ensure that no rodents have made your car their new home.
- After reconnecting your battery, you can give your car a crank. All going well, it will start.
Depending on how long it’s been sitting, expect some extra steam and possibly smoke as excess condensation evaporates, and any bad fuel is burnt off.
Final Thoughts About Not Driving Your Car
So how long can a car sit without being driven? If you’ve prepped your car well, following all the methods we’ve discussed, you can leave your car stored for at least half a year without having to worry about any significant damage. If you haven’t — then pushing it beyond two weeks is not recommended.
The tips and guidelines we’ve provided are simple yet go a long way. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Do you leave your car parked without using it for long periods? What precautions do you take to keep it safe? Let us know by leaving a comment below.