Nobody is driving now. Yes we get it – we should stay home until the CDC deems that the COVID emergency is past. So gas prices drop and independent shops struggle.
To be sure, service stations are considered “essential services” so they are open for business, but there just isn’t much business. Many drivers leave their cars in the driveway except for the once-a-week or twice-a-month run to the grocery store. Some even skip those drives by having food delivered.
Depending on how long the emergency stay-at-home order lasts, we are looking at a variety of automotive problems that you’ll be expected to deal with when the economy restarts. Think about electrical malfunctions due to dead batteries, fuel contamination due to stale gasoline in tanks, rusty brakes, rodent damage to wiring. And more mishaps and unforeseen issues as cars sit unused for months.
The typical modern lead-acid battery can maintain its charge for roughly a month – if it is in good condition, there are no parasitic drains in the vehicle and ambient temperatures are moderate.
If the battery is over two years old and is allowed to drain completely, it most likely will not come back reliably to life. So unless your customer keeps his or her battery charged during the period of statis, they are very likely to need a new battery as soon as they want to start driving again. After replacing the battery be sure to check the vehicle for parasitic draw problems.
An unused vehicle is a perfect place for rodents to crawl in and begin to nest. Or they might just like the taste of wiring insulation – remember when European manufacturers were using soy-based insulation on their wiring? “Yum-yum” go the varmints. If your customer parks on a lawn or other dirt surface, rodent infestation of the vehicle after a few days or a week of idleness becomes more likely. If a vehicle is towed in with mysterious electrical problems, don’t neglect to search electrical harnesses carefully for chew marks, particularly in the engine compartment. And if the climate control system puts out nasty smells, be prepared to dive into the air ducts underneath the dashboard in search of decomposing carcasses.
Gasoline evaporates and ages badly. Some of the additives, such as the ethanol that is now often 10% of the fuel in the tank, separate out. Diesel fuel can separate out and wax up.
After several months of lack of use, it is not usual to find internal combustion systems struggling due to contaminated or stale fuel problems.
If all else fails, be prepared to drain the fuel tank and refill with fresh fuel.
Brake discs and drums are simple and sturdy objects, but being made of iron, they rust. When you brake, the rust usually rubs off with no adverse effect. But without regular periodic use, the rust can build up and cause serious braking problems. In a moist climate it is even possible for the brakes to seize up solid: Rust builds up between the brake pads or shoes and the metal drum or rotor; the wheel cannot turn. This effect can be really bad if a vehicle is parked for a long time with the parking brake engaged. Sometimes, even towing a vehicle with seized, rusted brakes is difficult – you have to break the rusted brakes free before you can move the vehicle. In the case of very light rust on brake parts, some driving often cleans the rust off, but with deeply embedded rust there is no choice but to replace the rotors or drums.
Road trip preparation
Another set of issues relates to preparation for vacation and long-distance driving. Most drivers were just commuting to work and back before the COVID curfews shut everything down. Once the restrictions loosen, it’s possible that some people will want to drive long-distance for a vacation. So now, in addition to getting the vehicle up and going for daily use after its long dormant period, you’ll have to inspect the car in preparation for a long trip.
Safety and emissions
During the period when folks are not driving, annual safety and emission inspection deadlines may come and go.
Or a vehicle could develop drivability problems, causing the malfunction indicator light (MIL) to illuminate. Or your customer may be looking to buy another set of wheels when the curfew is lifted.
Be prepared for a flurry of vehicle safety and emissions inspections which were skipped during the curfew, as well as new (used) car pre-purchase inspections.
Mid-summer or fall or even next spring – whenever the curfew is lifted there could be a lot of pent-up demand for automotive service. Get organized!