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Long-term car storage tips

Cars are meant to be driven. Leaving a vehicle unattended for a long period of time can cause something akin to automotive atrophy – a slow deterioration of the vehicle that can create problems when you try to drive it again. Rust and corrosion can form on the body or inside critical components; gum and varnish can clog the fuel system; sludge and acids can form in the engine oil; mildew can grow in the interior; and constant sunlight can slowly fade the paint and deteriorate vinyl, leather and rubber parts. That's why if you need to store your vehicle – whether it’s for the winter or because it can't be driven for an indefinite period of time – there are certain precautions you should take before you put it into mothballs.

Man preparing car for storage and putting on a car cover

Get it covered

The best place to store a car is out of the weather, preferably inside a building that's cool, dark and dry. If you don't have a garage, look into renting one. If this isn't possible, a reasonable alternative is to store it inside a portable enclosure, such as a car bag or portable garage. If the vehicle will be completely sealed from outside air, place a couple bags of desiccant inside the enclosure with it to absorb trapped moisture. However, if the vehicle needs to be stored outside without an enclosure, at least cover it with a quality car cover made of thick, multilayer fabric.

Prior to putting the vehicle into storage, a few precautions will help keep it in good shape. The fuel system, for instance, can be a prime source of problems. If the car is stored with an empty tank, moisture can condense inside the system and cause rust and corrosion. On the other hand, if the car is stored with fuel in the system, the gas can gradually break down, forming gum and varnish. To help keep gasoline from deteriorating, pour a fuel stabilizer into the tank. Be sure to drive the car for about 10 miles after adding the stabilizer to circulate it throughout the system. Normally, it's best to leave the tank full; however, if the vehicle will be stored in an enclosed location where gas fumes could be a problem, empty the tank about halfway.

Additional car storage tips

Consider these other preparations before storing a car:

  • Change the oil and filter. Used oil contains acids, moisture and other combustion byproducts that, over time, can cause corrosion inside the engine.
  • Fill the engine with fresh oil and then drive the vehicle for a few miles to make sure the new oil circulates thoroughly.
  • Pull the spark plugs and pour about a teaspoon of oil into each cylinder, then replace the plugs. This will help coat the cylinders to prevent rust.
  • Seal off engine openings with absorbent cotton to keep moisture out.
  • Remove the battery and clean its top with a mixture of baking soda and water. Ideally, a trickle charger should be used to keep the battery fully charged while the vehicle is in storage.
  • Top off all fluids, including transmission and rear axle. Also look at the color of the brake fluid. New brake fluid is clear. If the fluid in the car looks brown and dirty, the system needs to be flushed. Old brake fluid has a lot of moisture in it, which could cause rust in the system.
  • Drain the cooling system. If the engine's block and cylinder head(s) are cast iron, refill the cooling system with new coolant. If one or both engine components are made of aluminum, leave the system empty because coolant can react with the aluminum and cause corrosion.
  • Loosen drive belts to take the pressure off pulley bearings (unnecessary if the engine has an automatic drive belt tensioner).
  • If the car will be in storage for a year or more, support it on jack stands or blocks. This will take the weight off the wheel bearings and suspension components. Also, remove the wheels and tires, lower the tire pressure slightly and store them flat and out of sunlight.
  • If the wheels and tires will be left on the vehicle, add about 10 pounds of pressure to each tire. This will help prevent flat spots.
  • Wash and wax the finish. Also, go over vinyl, leather, tires and other rubber components with the proper type of protectant.
  • If you wash the carpet and upholstery, let the vehicle air out until the inside is thoroughly dry. Sealing up a wet interior is a sure formula for mildew.
  • Remove the wiper blades to keep them from fusing to the windshield. Wrap the wiper arms with a cloth to prevent scratches.
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