Storing Your Car for the Long Term

Categories: Seasonal
Cars require special preparation before storing long term

So, you need to prepare your car for long-term storage. There are many reasons you might be doing this. Maybe you’re taking an exciting new job in a big city with effective public transportation but hostile to automobiles. Maybe you’re going on an overseas deployment and won’t be back on home turf for six months to a year. Or maybe you’ve bought a daily driver and can finally give your beloved classic car the rest it deserves while it slowly appreciates.

Regardless of why you’ve opted for long-term car storage, it’s not just a park-and-fly affair. These aren’t discount parking spots a shuttle ride away from the airport, and you’re not taking a long weekend in Cabo. There are steps you need to take from the very start to ensure your vehicle and all its delicate components and systems are still in proper working order when it comes time to fire it up again, be that many months or years from now. Let’s get started.

First question, where are you storing your car long-term? Obviously, the best storage option is an extra garage space or a self-storage unit with climate control and video surveillance. It’s by far the best option if you have the space or can afford the rent. Avoiding extremes of cold and heat, sun damage, wind, rain, and not to mention wildlife taking up residence in the engine bay are all huge advantages for the long-term preservation of your car.

Let’s assume you have such a space (if not, don’t worry, we’ll talk about outdoor storage later), there’s still quite a few things you need to check off the list before turning off the lights and locking the door behind you.

Building a Nest:

First of all, you need to prepare a nest for your car. Is it clean? Is it free of things that might tip over and dent the bodywork or scar the paint? What’s the floor like? If it’s bare, unsealed concrete, you’ll need to take an extra step. Concrete is very porous, trapping and releasing moisture easily with changes in atmospheric temperature, pressure, and humidity. This moisture can condense onto your car’s underbody, brakes, and electrical components, triggering corrosion.

If you’ve got a garage or storage facility floor treated with sealant, wonderful. You don’t have to do a thing. But if not, you can counter the corrosion with a vapor barrier. This is as simple as buying a plastic tarp to lay over the area. 3mm should be plenty thick.

Stabilize and Protect your Fuel System:

Before you even pull into the garage, you need to take a simple step and treat your gas. Untreated, gasoline interacts chemically with the air inside the fuel tank, namely the oxygen, which binds with it in a much slower and more boring process of oxidation which, nonetheless, ruins the gas over long enough time.

When it comes to storing a car, the gas tank really is an all or nothing affair. Many collectors prefer an empty tank so there’s no gas left to go bad. But others will tell you this is bad for the fuel system, the plastic and rubber components of which can dry out and start to crack or rot. Most of us aren’t going to drop the tank to drain it, so the other option is to fill it to the brim and leave as little air and surface area for it to interact chemically with the gas as possible.

To that end, go to the nearest gas station and do two things. First, buy a fuel stabilizer like Sta-Bil. This further inhibits the chemical reactions within stored fuel that causes degradation and can keep it fresh for as long as two years. Measure it out according to the size of your tank and pour it in. Then, fill the tank all the way to the top of the filler neck and drive off. The car needs to run for a good ten minutes after you’ve introduced the stabilizer, because you want the treated gas to work all the way through the fuel system, from the pump, to the lines, into the carburetor or injectors themselves, and back through the return lines.

Do I really need to tell you not to run the car for ten minutes in a closed garage? No, good. Moving on.

Remove the Battery:

Your car’s nest is made and gas treated. Time to park it. First thing to do is pop the hood and pull the car battery. Nope, yank that bugger. Car batteries don’t fare well just sitting idle for long periods. Any prolonged length of time without use means a dead battery, or even corrupted cells. Furthermore, there’s no reason to keep charge going through all your car’s electricals when they’ve got nothing to do. That’s how shorts and electrical fires happen when some enterprising squirrel bites into the wrong cable. So, take the battery home with you and stick it on a quality trickle charger until it’s called back into service.

Time to Get Jacked:

When it comes to wheels, they gotta roll. Tires left in the same position for an extended time will invariably develop flat spots on the contact patch with the ground. Usually, this isn’t a problem because your tires seldom end up sitting on exactly the same spot after going for a drive. But if you’re storing for the long run, this will become an issue.

To stop this, you’ll need four jack stands and, you know, a jack. Raise up first the front of the car and position the jack stands at the four furthest corners of the suspension you can. You don’t want to put them on the frame because you don’t want your suspension system resting uncompressed. It’s actually not ideal for your car’s shocks, struts, and springs. Repeat in the back. You don’t need the wheels to be very high, just so the tires are not touching the ground anymore. Some people recommend letting the air out of the tires but I’ve never personally seen a good argument for this. Besides, air will naturally leak out over time. When it’s time to get her back on the road you’ll need to check pressure and reinflate them anyway. Oh, and one other thing. It’s a good idea to engage the parking brake. Who knows what might happen during years of storage but if it should ever fall off the jack stands for some reason you don’t want it rolling around.

It’s a Dry Heat:

Just as humidity is a problem for the exterior of your vehicle, so too is it for the interior. Moisture can lead to all sorts of nasty things growing in your carpets and on your leather. Mold spores are everywhere and basically impossible to eradicate. It can discolor your upholstery and leave your car smelling musty.

To combat this, it’s a good idea to leave a container of desiccating agent like Damp-Rid on the floor. These chemicals literally pull moisture out of the air and bind with it. Also works great in your closets, by the way. And if you have a trunk, don’t forget to fold down your rear seats so the air will circulate through both. Depending on the ambient humidity and temperature where you are, you may need to change the container on occasion. Just check on it whenever you stop by for a visit, see if it’s filled up and replace as necessary.

Don’t Forget Your Wipers:

Being fairly thin rubber or silicon, wiper blades are prone to degradation over a long period of time. They can even deteriorate and start to stick to the windshield glass itself which is a real pain to clean off. Some people lift them off the surface of the windshield with small wedges. Personally, I just remove them altogether and thrown them in the trunk where they’ll be out of the weather and sun, then wrap the tips of the wiper arms in some paper towel so they won’t scratch the glass.

Watch Out for Wildlife:

Rodents and other wildlife can wreak havoc on an unprotected car

Probably the biggest threat to any car stored for a long time is also one of the biggest risks when it’s out driving: wildlife. Squirrels, mice, rats, chipmunks, basically any of the Disney rodents will be only too happy to make a home inside your interior or engine compartments if they can and start chewing through plastic, vinyl, leather, and wiring. That, and their waste can stain your interior and even cause electrical shorts. Detering them from turning your car into an Air B&B is paramount.

For my money, the best way to deal with pests is the UA 571-C Automated Sentry Gun. With thermal and motion sensing targeting, AI-assisted threat identification and prioritization, a max cyclic rate of 1,100 rounds per minute, and a 500rd drum magazine, it mows through dangerous critters like grass. The only drawbacks are the 10x28mm caseless ammunition is expensive and hard to source and, unfortunately, it’s the robot gun from Aliens Director’s Cut and doesn’t actually exist, and would be SUPER illegal if it did.

Instead, just get a box of mothballs and spread them out under the car and a few in the engine bay. The smell alone will dissuade most creatures from approaching. A couple of baited mousetraps and you should be in good shape, just don’t forget about them when it’s time to put it back into service.

Lot less fun than an automated sentry turret, though.

The Big Cover Up:

Whether in the weather or not, a car cover is the important final step for long term storage. If you’re inside, any old cover will suffice, as all it’s really doing is keeping dust from accumulating on the paint. But, if you’re storing outdoors, springing for a high-quality car cover can make all the difference. An outdoor cover will be waterproof against the rain and bird droppings, thick enough to resist tears and punctures, block out UV rays from the sun that can fade paint, and have ties and anchor points that will secure it tightly to the car and not get blown away in a strong wind.

Back on the Road:

Congratulations! Time has come back around to put your baby back on the asphalt. But don’t just slap everything back together and drive off into the sunset. If your car has been sitting for more than six months, you’ll need to give it an oil change. Just like gasoline and diesel, engine oil breaks down chemically over time. This will be made considerably easier as the car is already jacked up on stands, right? Once you’ve changed the old oil and filter, remember to check the tire pressure and bring it back up to spec. Also, once it’s back down on all fours, make sure to pump the brakes a couple time to guarantee that the system is at pressure and the brake pads are engaging the disks. You don’t want to roll out the driveway only to roll right into an accident. Other than that, if you’ve followed my instructions, your car should be looking and driving just like the day you put it away. So go hit the open road and reacquaint yourselves. Enjoy!