Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Vehicle check report

Photo: Mandy checks the tire pressures.

Yesterday was the biannual Unity College pre-vacation vehicle check day, the aim of which is to make sure that those students who plan to drive home for Thansgiving and/or Christmas have a safe-enough vehicle in which to make the trip. Five student volunteers and one faculty supervisor checked around 25-30 vehicles from 12 noon to 3pm. We checked lights, fluid levels, tire wear (crucial in Maine winters) and tire pressure. We also "pulled" check engine light "trouble codes" using a computer-based code-puller device, and dispensed advice as to what to do about them.

Thanks to Mandy, Dani, Alex, Jake and Ben for their services to the college and overall superior appreciation for the finer points of vehicle safety, and high regard for their classmates' lives and property.

The latter two gentlemen had done it before, and so acted as trainers for the others. Here's Jake in action, not however wearing his safety glasses. Bad man.

I didn't get shots of Ben and Dani, mostly because I was too busy myself. But here is Alex, with safety glasses, getting ready to check out a nice jeep, that had, however, bald tires (and an owner who was too busy talking on her cell phone to really absorb our concerns about said tires).

As I mentioned, we checked out probably between 25 and 30 vehicles. Normally I can give an exact count, since I provide a specified number of vehicle check forms, and so the number of forms left, subtracted from the number I started with, gives the count. This time, however, we were forced to use some older forms and copy some new ones.

Several more egregious safety concerns were noted that would have almost certainly related in a holiday travel "fail" and possibly a stranding, or worse, an accident:
  • Three vehicles were significantly low on oil, up to three quarts down. When you only have one or two quarts of oil remaining in your engine, the engine will begin to overheat because that little oil can't do such a great job of cooling and lubricating. You also might want to know why your oil is so low. Most likely you are leaking it or burning it. Either way, you must now monitor your oil level more carefully or you will cause a catastrophic engine failure, called a seizure. Essentially, your pistons will stick to your cylinder walls and/or your main bearings will stick to your crankshaft. Check the oil level every time you get gas. Write down how much you add, when you added it, and the odometer reading each time you check. Check the ground under where you park for signs of a leak. Monitor your oil pressure light or pressure gauge, check engine light, and temperature gauge. Hopefully, you'll figure out how much oil you're using and find the leak if there is one, then get it fixed.
  • One vehicle had a gas leak, which we were unable to locate, but could smell. Gas leaks are very dangerous since there is always a source of heat on a vehicle -- your exhaust system -- that is hot enough to ignite gasoline or gas vapor, causing a catastrophic vehicle fire. Really small gas leaks are often hard to find, though, because the gas evaporates before it drips to the ground. We recommended taking the vehicle into the shop.
  • Another vehicle had a cylinder head gasket leak. The coolant level was down a gallon or so, a very large amount and symptom of something being badly wrong. The vehicle was also spitting green coolant through the exhaust system on start-up. These are classic symptoms of a failed head gasket, which can lead to a seized engine. Except by an experienced mechanic, who must "baby" it constantly, this vehicle can no longer be safely driven, except to a shop, where a new head gasket or replacement engine is needed. Most likely, if an older vehicle, this is time for it to go to that great Parking Garage in the Sky. (Sorry, Ben! Tough luck.)
  • Many vehicles had tires that had only a millimeter or two of tread remaining. The Maine regulations require at least a millimeter all round, but this isn't enough for Maine winter driving conditions, especially in a rear-wheel drive vehicle. These students were advised to get new tires, preferably before winter really sets in.
  • Several vehicles had uneven tire wear. This is most often caused by poor wheel alignment, but can be caused by low tire pressure. The remedy is to get an alignment done at a reputable shop, and to check the tire pressure more frequently.
  • At least four vehicles had one or more tires with dangerously low tire pressure. When your tire pressure drops below 15 pounds per square inch or so, the wheel can no longer keep straight on the road and that corner of the vehicle will wobble dangerously on corners. The best that can happen is that you wear out a tire prematurely. The worst that can happen is that you get a nasty wobble at high speed on a corner or while passing on a highway. This can lead to loss of control, even a rollover accident. The remedy is to check your tire pressure more frequently. If the pressure in one or more tires is regularly down, you have a slow leak. Take it to a shop and get the leak fixed.
That concludes our biannual community vehicle safety report. If you didn't get chance to get your vehicle checked out yesterday and are worried about the drive home, stop me or one of our student volunteers and ask us about it, or take it to a shop for a check up before your drive home.

PS: Former reports are here and here

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