How To Get Your Car Ready for Summer: Summerize Your Ride

Categories: Seasonal
A silver Ford Mustang Convertible rolls through the American Southwest
A silver Ford Mustang Convertible rolls through the American Southwest

The days are getting longer, the snow is pulling back: it’s the perfect time to get your car ready for summer on the open road. Here are 6 steps to get your car in tip-top shape for the summer heat —get ready to check your car over and flush it clean of the constant barrage of salt and winter muck that’s been building up over the last few months.

Step 1: Check Your Tire Pressure

If you’re one of those gearheads who keep separate sets of snow tires and summer tires in the garage, well, obviously you don’t need me to tell you it’s time to swap them. But, if you’re like most people using all-season tires year-round instead of dedicated winter tires, you want to check your tire air pressure.

Why? Cold weather temps make rubber less pliable and actually shrink the metal of your car’s wheels, while simultaneously constricting the air filling them. This can easily lead to something called a “rim leak” where air escapes from areas of weak adhesion between the rim and tire even without a puncture. As hot weather returns, the air in your tires will expand and increase pressure again, often sealing the leak. But the escaped air is already gone and will need to be replaced to prevent uneven wear and keep your tires in good condition.

Can I trust my tire pressure sensors (TPS)?

Short answer: no. If your car is newer than 2007 (2012 in Europe), it has mandatory tire pressure sensors (TPS), but don’t trust them.

Why? Most TPS systems are calibrated only to trip when the inflation pressure has substantially dropped to potentially hazardous levels, usually around 25 psi. This can leave you ten or more pounds under ideal pressure, which drags down both fuel economy and tire life. So, make it part of your routine. Go buy a tire gauge and leave it in your glove box. Check it monthly, or at every fill-up, whichever comes around more often. There are plenty of choices out there from old-fashioned analog gauges to modern digital readers. Personally, I’ve been using the same old slide gauges in my car and bike for years. Buy once, never need to worry about a weak battery. But it’s entirely up to your personal preference and none of the options will break the bank.

What do I put in my tires? What’s wrong with regular air?

If possible, it’s a good idea to use pure nitrogen whenever adding pressure to your tires.

Why? Unlike regular-old atmosphere which is 21% oxygen, nitrogen doesn’t expand or contract to nearly the same degree based on ambient temperature. Nor does it retain as much moisture which can corrode the inside surface of your steel or aluminum wheels, and reduce the life of your pressure sensors.

Here’s How… Your average gas station doesn’t have pure nitrogen on tap, but most dealerships these days will. Just call the service department and ask.

Don’t forget the spare tire!

And don’t forget to check the spare tire sitting in your trunk. Seriously, when was the last time you even remembered it was there? There’s nothing worse than getting a flat only to be stuck on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere because your spare isn’t getting you anywhere. And don’t worry about filling it while it’s off the car vs bolted onto the hub. The pressure difference is negligible and it’s not like you’re using it on long trips anyway.

Want to know more about keeping your tires rolling for many years? Read our How-To Guide here.

Step 2: Replace Your Windshield Wipers and Fluid

Windshield wiper and fluid replacement are key to ensuring your car is ready for summer. Here’s what you need to know…

Install summer wiper blades

The cold, salt, and road grit of winter plays hell on the rubber of wiper blades. You’re probably already seeing some streaking.

Why? Truth is, winter blades are not optimized for spring and summer temperatures and won’t wipe away rain nearly as effectively. Summer blades are designed for rain and water, are lighter weight, and won’t put as much strain on the electric motor that drives them. You can find good summer wipers at any auto part store. They’ll have books to look up the right lengths for you make, model, and year of car and most of them will install them for you for free if you’re not comfortable doing it yourself.

Check wiper fluid and replace with a summer formula

Likewise, wiper fluid formulas differ between winter and summer, because they do radically different jobs. Melting off snow and ice is chemically very different from trying to remove insect carcasses.

If there’s a little bit of winter formula left, don’t worry about it. You’re not going to hurt anything by mixing them, and you’ll get immediate performance improvement. Personally, I like Rain-X Bug Remover because it really dissolves stubborn bug guts, but there are plenty of good options out there.

Step 3: Wash Your Car. Really Wash It.

When it comes to cars, salt is good for one thing and one thing only, clearing snow and ice from the road so your tires have something to grip. In every other way, road salt is the enemy of longevity, reliability, and resale value.

Why? Salt accelerates the corrosion of steel and aluminum, wears down clearcoat and paint, and can short out electronic components and sensors. Here’s how… Once there’s been a good rain to rinse any remaining salt off the roads, find a carwash that gives a thorough undercarriage blasting to get all the salt build-up off your car’s suspension components, brakes, fuel tank, etc. Ideally, you’ve been doing this at least every couple weeks during the winter as well, but it’s never too late to start.

A man uses a spray hose to wash the winter off the top of a white sedan.
A man uses a spray hose to wash the winter off the top of a white sedan.

What about cleaning my car’s interior?

The same goes for the insides. The salt and grit tracked in on your shoes wears down carpets and rusts interior components like the mechanicals of your powered seats. Floor mats can trap most of this and are easy to clean.

Here’s How… Just pull out your floor mats, scrub with a brush and the same soap you use to clean the outside, then rinse them hard with a garden hose and leave out to dry. I like Meguire’s carwash soaps, personally. And if you’re looking for some new or replacement floormats that are really easy to clean, you can’t beat the fit and durability of WeatherTech.

Yep, you need to clean those carpets too.

Interior auto carpets are harder to clean. Just vacuuming will pull out sand and grit, but not the accumulated salt which has dissolved from melted snow and soaked in deep where it can start to rust out your floorboards if it’s not removed.

Here’s How… You’ll need to get a mix of water and carpet cleaner together in a bucket and scrub, scrub, scrub, then pull it all out with a wet/dry shop vacuum. I vastly prefer corded vacuums for this. They just have more power. Most cordless car vacuums are designed for pulling up dust and dirt, not wastewater, and will probably short out.

Step 4: Yep, You Should Clean Your Engine Bay, Too

If you haven’t popped the hood all winter, I don’t blame you. It’s probably a disaster. All that snow slurry and salt your wipers spent months clearing off your windshield have also been building up in your engine bay, passing through your radiator, and getting kicked up from underneath by the road itself.

You can’t afford to ignore that dirty engine.

Closeup of a dirty BMW engine

Why? Modern engine bays are absolutely packed with sensitive electronics, sensors, and CPUs—plus miles of electrical cable and hundreds of connections. Salt is trying to get into all of them, corroding leads, causing shorts, and throwing error codes. It’s gotta go.

Don’t just grab a hose and go to town. The same electronics you’re trying to defend from salt are also not enormous fans of water for obvious reasons. The safest way to clean an engine bay is through dry ice blasting. Think sand blasting except the medium is frozen carbon dioxide instead of sand. It will clean everything. Most major cities have detailing services which can do this, but it doesn’t come cheap. Most car owners will want to do it ourselves.

Here’s How… For the do-it-yourselfer in a garage or driveway, there are other options to clean dirt from your winter car engine.

  • First, pick a warm, sunny day to do the job and start early in the morning.
  • Second, and this is really important, disconnect your battery. Pull the negative lead, hell, pull them both. If there’s no electricity flowing through the system, you can’t short anything out.
  • Third, pre-soak everything with a de-greasing agent like Simple Green or equivalent. This stuff is awesome. It’ll strip the enamel off your teeth. I once saw Simple Green slosh out of a bucket and chase down a ground squirrel. It was horrifying.
  • Fourth, again, don’t just use a garden hose. Use any spray nozzle that creates high-pressure water and decreases the water volume. I know this sounds counterintuitive but think of it like a shower. High-pressure, low flow is best. Ideally, use a portable pressure washer, the sort you’d use to clean sidewalks or fences. Avoid spraying directly on sensitive areas like fuse boxes, sensors, cable connections, or coil-on-plug systems.
  • Once you’ve thoroughly washed and rinsed everything, towel down any standing water, then just walk away. Let the sun and breeze do the job of evaporating off anything you can’t see.
  • Give it the rest of the day with the hood open before reconnecting the battery and firing it up.

For an even more in-depth How-To on cleaning your engine bay, check out our simple guide here.

Step 5: Protect Your Car’s Interior

Summer travel season means sandals and beaches, but while all that warm weather and sun is great for your vitamin D levels and mental health, it’s rough on the plastics, vinyl, and leather that makes up the interior of your car.

Why? Materials science has made big advances in the last couple decades, but heat and light will still cause interior components to fade, dry out, and even crack given enough exposure. And it’s not just (or even primarily) the heat causing the damage, but UV radiation from the sun slowly breaking down the chemical structure of the materials themselves, making them more brittle over time.

You need to protect your car’s interior from all that summer damage.

Look into window tint and, at minimum, a good sunshade

Here’s How… Counter it with a good round of tint of your windows, whatever level is legal in your state/municipality. Here’s a handy guide. Plus, purchase a sunshade for your windshield. I like these puppies because unlike accordion-style sun visors, they collapse down and tuck away under a seat. This will not only keep the interior of your car as much as twenty degrees cooler when you come back to it, but a good sunshade will keep your interior looking showroom fresh for years.

What about plastic or even leather seats?

A monthly application of plastic or leather conditioner will keep your interior supple. Most all of these interior conditioners also include UV blockers, which is like sunscreen for your interior. I prefer Armor All, but that’s just personal taste and there are dozens of high-quality products out there.

Same goes for all plastic trim on your exterior, which gets hit even harder by the sun and fades quickly if not cared for. I like Mother’s Back-to-Black for this job, but again there are any number of excellent products out there so feel free to experiment. The trick to any of them is to let it soak in for a bit before wiping off the excess.

Step 6: One Thing NOT To Do When You Get Your Car Ready for Summer

Last thing, it was once standard practice during the summer months to switch to a heavier weight oil, usually 10W40 for passenger cars and light trucks.

Some mechanics and dealerships still push this advice either out of habit or to pad the bottom line. But modern motor oil formulations and engine manufacturing tolerances have made the practice of winter-to-summer oil and oil filter replacement all but obsolete. If your car was built after we invaded Iraq the second time, you don’t have to worry about it. Just check your engine oil level and stick to your manufacturer’s recommended oil change schedule, whatever mileage marker that might be.

That about covers it. Follow these 6 simple steps each spring to get your car ready for summer. Your car will be looking car-show ready for many summers to come.

Have a great time on your summer road trip!