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If you are planning to travel by car this summer, take steps to help avoid ending up on the side of the road. Make sure your car is in good shape so it won’t break down.

A properly maintained car gets you where you want to go, and saves you money getting there. Here’s what you need to check.

1. Radiator

Overheating is the number one cause of summer breakdowns, according to the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE). Make sure your radiator is adequately filled with coolant at the right concentration — usually a 50/50 mix of water and antifreeze, but check your car’s specifications.

The radiator should be flushed every two years. If it hasn’t been serviced, do so before you hit the road. If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, make sure the engine has cooled before you open the radiator cap to avoid being scalded by boiling coolant.

Check your dashboard temperature gauge while driving. If it moves into the red, you’re going to have to turn your motor off or risk damage. If your engine temperature starts creeping up, try turning your air conditioning off and your heater on — all the way up. You may get hot, but you might save your engine while on your way to get a professional’s help.

2. Hoses

Your coolant is only as good as the hoses it flows through. Look for leaks, cracks, peeling or separation. While the engine is still warm, squeeze along the hose’s length — it should feel firm, but not hard. If the hose is spongy or soft, even in one section, consider replacing it before it fails and causes bigger problems.

3. Oil

The hotter the weather gets, the more important oil becomes. Oil helps prevent overheating by lubricating many moving parts. However, oil additives break down over time.

Oil change recommendations are as frequent as every 3,000 miles, but makers of many modern cars say to wait until a maintenance-reminder light brightens your dashboard.

According to the Car Care Council, “Though having to only change your oil every 7,500 miles is something we would all prefer, 3,000 to 5,000 miles are numbers more representative of actual driving conditions. By erring on the side of caution, you’ll help to extend the life of your car.”

Check your oil between changes and add a quart or two of your car manufacturer’s recommended grade, if needed.

4. Battery

Hot weather can strain a battery. Test the battery if it’s older than 3-years or if you see one of these telltale signs of a failing battery:

  • Lights dim at starting
  • Power drain when turning on the air conditioning
  • Slow cranking when you start the car

Many auto parts stores offer free battery testing. Check your battery to make sure the posts and connections are free of corrosion, a white powdery residue. If it’s not a maintenance-free battery, make sure its cells have plenty of water.

5. Air Conditioning

A marginally operating air-conditioning system may fail in hot weather, according to the ASE. Put a thermometer in your car’s vent while the air conditioner is running and see how cool the air is getting.

If it’s not cooling properly, you may try replacing cabin air filters that clean the air entering the heating and air-conditioning system in newer cars. Check your owner’s manual for location and how often they should be replaced.

However, if your air-conditioning system is suffering from a bigger problem — like a leak or loss of refrigerant — it’s likely time for a mechanic.

6. Tires

Your four tires offer a critical connection to the road, according to the Car Care Council. Check them at least monthly. Low tire pressure adds rolling resistance, making it harder for the engine to move your car.

Proper tire pressure, which should be posted on your car door, improves gas mileage by 3.3%, or about 10 cents a gallon, the council says.

Underinflation stresses a tire’s internal fabric and steel cord so they flex beyond designed limits and lose their bond to the rubber. The result can be a blowout.

Don’t wait for your car’s tire pressure monitoring system to light up, as it may be too late to save the tire. Instead, check air pressure when the tires are cool — summer weather and friction can cause the pressure inside to rise, giving you a false sense of security.

Also, check the tire tread by inserting a penny: If you can see all of Abraham Lincoln’s head, it’s time for new tires. If the tires look unevenly worn, have your wheel balance and alignment checked.

7. Other

Here are a few more tips to get your car road-ready for summer.

  • Consider a tuneup. Fouled spark plugs cause the engine to lose power or misfire, wasting fuel and lowering gas mileage. However, check your owner’s manual before scheduling a tuneup. Many newer cars don’t require a tuneup for more than 100,000 miles.
  • Check the brakes. If you notice pulsations, grabbing, noises or longer stopping distances when braking, it may be time for repairs.
  • Change the wipers. Windshield wipers deteriorate faster in sunny weather. If you get caught in a summer shower, you’ll want to be able to see where you’re going. Many auto parts stores offer free installation when you buy new wiper blades.
  • Wash and wax. Sunlight, UV radiation, acid rain, salt, dirt and air pollution can damage your car’s exterior. Help protect the paint and finish by washing and waxing your car regularly.
  • Keep a safety kit. In case your car does break down, be prepared with supplies, including water for yourself and the radiator, jumper cables, a flashlight and batteries, and a first-aid kit.

And if you car is beyond repair, remember to check your credit before you go shopping for a new vehicle. A good credit score generally qualifies you for the best terms and conditions on an auto loan and can save you a lot of money on interest. You can see where you credit currently stands by viewing your credit scores for free each month on Credit.com.

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Image: Jacob Ammentorp Lund

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