As the UK government extends the COVID-19 lockdown for another three weeks, those of us with cars parked outside need to think about how to look after our vehicles and to ensure they’re ready to go, if and when you need them. While MOTs have been extended for six months, your car must remain in a roadworthy state if you wish to drive it.
Remember that government advice is to stay at home and only venture out for specific, essential reasons. Unfortunately, especially for us who love to drive, that doesn’t allow for leisurely journeys simply to keep the car ticking over.
So here are some helpful tips on how to maintain a car if it is parked for a long period of time with very little use. You won’t have to do any complicated car maintenance but following these tips can help keep your car in good condition during the lockdown.
Petrol and diesel cars
If you leave your conventional car unused for a prolonged period of time, then it’s likely that the battery will lose its charge. Even when it’s parked, there are some components that require a little power to keep running, like alarm systems and on-board computers. Ordinarily, batteries are kept charged with an alternator directing power from the engine, but if you’re not driving and keeping the reaction going, the battery can lose its charge fairly quickly.
Cars with petrol and diesel engines need to be run for around 20 minutes to make sure the battery has enough power in it to start, so if you’re not driving anywhere, running the engine for at least that amount once a week is advised.
If your car is privately parked, you might want to invest in a trickle charger instead. These supply power to a battery at a low amperage, meaning that you don’t have to start the car to charge it. You can get trickle chargers that attach to the mains but solar-powered versions are also available which saves the need for cables. Some trickle chargers can be used for months without the need to remove them, while others can only be connected for a few days. Always read the manual to find out the specifications before using.
We spoke to the experts at Toyota and Lexus about hybrid maintenance and most hybrids follow a similar process to keep charge in the battery. Hybrids generally contain two batteries: a 12-volt battery (which powers systems such as the headlamps and audio) and a high-voltage hybrid system battery (which supplies the power to start the combustion engine and drives the electric motors).
The simplest way to maintain charge in both of these is to simply go through the normal start procedure: press the ‘Start’ button with your foot on the brake until the ‘Ready’ light is illuminated on the dashboard. Earlier hybrid models may have key ignitions to start the car.
Lexus recommends the car is put into ‘Ready’ mode for about 60 minutes (no need to keep your foot on the brake) before switching it off again and repeating the process every couple of weeks. Always adhere to the government’s advice regarding social distancing and please don’t leave your car unattended when it is switched on.
While the car is in ‘Ready’ mode, you may hear and feel the internal combustion engine kick in, which is a normal part of the self-charging process. You might be tempted to switch on the radio to pass the time, or turn on other systems, but these will consume small amounts of electrical power so it’s best to leave them off.
Ensure the parking brake is on; there’s no need to go for a drive, although we must stress that this procedure should take place in a well-ventilated area; something to consider especially if you park your vehicle in a garage.
You should leave your electric vehicle unplugged but with a good amount of charge – around 75% or above. It will slowly lose charge over time, so ideally you should leave it close to your charging point and top up occasionally to ensure that the battery remains in good condition. When it comes to brakes and tyres, as well as your 12-volt battery, follow the same advice as you would for a conventional car.
Check that your tyres are always fully inflated to the recommended level. Handily, most cars have a tyre pressure monitor so it’s worth checking as you run your engine. If not, you can check them at your local petrol station while you’re out on one of your essential trips or you can even buy a portable tyre pressure monitor. Be sure your tyres are fully inflated before driving for a sustained period as low tyre pressure can seriously impact how your car handles.
By law, car tyres are required to have a minimum tread depth of 1.6mm but it’s recommended that you should have a tread depth of at least 3mm. To check this, you can use a 20p coin. If you can’t see the outer rim on the coin when you insert it into the tread, then you have at least 3mm of tread and it is safe and legal to drive. If you can see the rim of the coin, then the tyres are getting low on tread and it’s worth getting them checked out as they could potentially be unsafe.
There is a risk that your brakes could seize if your car doesn’t move, so take it out for a short drive to minimise the risk if you can. If that’s not possible, you can roll your car backwards and forwards a few metres if it is safe to do so. This will also help stop your tyres from developing flat spots, which could make it unsafe to drive.
If it isn’t being driven regularly, your diesel car could experience DPF faults. You can initiate a regeneration (clearing and emptying the filter) by driving the car above 40mph and above 2500rpm consistently for between 10 and 20 minutes, but only do this if it is safe to do so.
Just like you need to stay hydrated, your car won’t work properly unless you keep up its fluid levels. While there are plenty of areas of the car that you shouldn’t try to top up unless you have expert knowledge, you can make sure that oil is properly topped up. The oil keeps the engine lubricated, and reduces friction between moving parts and therefore heat. You can check your oil levels using the dipstick located at the top of your oil tank. You should also make sure that your screen wash is topped up – it’s illegal to drive without sufficient washer fluid.
A car can fail its MOT if any of the lights emit less than 50% of their potential. So if any of your bulbs have failed, your car is not roadworthy. So before getting back on the road, make sure all your lights are working to their full potential and change those that you need to.
If you’re not going to drive your car at all for the foreseeable future, you might consider putting it into storage. Clean the car thoroughly inside and out and if you are storing it in a garage, make sure it is completely dry before you put it away.
If you do plan to store your car in a garage, make sure your chosen storage area offers plenty of ventilation. If the space is secure, you could consider opening one of the car’s windows a small way to ventilate the interior. If you do this, you might have to change your car alarm’s setting to stop it from setting off the intrusion sensor; best to consult your car’s manual for more information.
It can be beneficial to leave the vehicle with the parking brake disengaged to prevent the brakes from binding, but only do this if you are certain the car is on level ground and isn’t going to move. If you drive an automatic, ensure the transmission is set to ‘P’ for park and if you have a manual car put it into first gear, and place wedges or chocks under the wheels.
If you aren’t planning to drive your car for a long time, put your car keys away in a safe place and don’t carry them around with you in your pocket. If you have smart keys, this will prevent the car waking up unnecessarily should you happen to walk near it in your garage or driveway.
If the vehicle will be kept on private property (such as inside a garage or on your driveway) for the duration of its storage, you could consider applying for a Statutory Off Road Notification (SORN). This informs the DVLA that the car is off the road and you will receive a refund of any remaining full months of tax. However, you won’t be able to drive your car legally until you tax it again, so it’s only advisable if you are positive you won’t use your car for a long time.