Storm Track Auto Emergency Guide

By Tim Vasquez

Storm Track Online original

Storm chasing brings endless hours on the road, and odds are that you will be affected with a breakdown at some point. "Later" is not the time to get familiar with basic maintenance on your car! If you have a blowout on some abandoned farm-to-market road near Wheeler and find that your spare tire is flat, it is time to rethink your chasing priorities.

I strongly urge you to go to your auto parts store and buy a copy of a good repair manual for your car (such as Chilton's). This will help you through simple procedures and illustrate where certain parts are on your engine.

With that in mind, here are some basic but common solutions for solving most problems you're likely to encounter. If this doesn't help, open up the hood and look for any signs of damage or leaks. Always check your auto manual and follow all preventative maintenance procedures, particularly changing the oil and oil filter regularly!


Car will not start, engine does not even turn over

1. Dead battery. Check your headlamps or blow your horn. Does anything work? If so, skip ahead. If not, it's more than likely you have a dead battery. Here's where you'll discover just how friendly the folks are out in west Texas. Ask someone to help jump-start your car (this is when you WANT to have jumper cables with you). Read your auto manual for the full procedures on how to do this. Allow the engine to run at least an hour before turning it off.
2. Corrosion on the starter electrical connector. This is very common on older cars, and is where a lot of people get ripped off by repair shops. If you know your car has battery power, this is what your problem might be. Disconnect the negative terminal of the battery to prevent arcing. Remove the electrical connector from the starter and sand it down thoroughly with a wire brush. Then sand down the terminal post (where the connector goes). Odds are that your car will turn over now.


Car will not start, but engine turns over

1. Water droplets in the distributor cap. All you need is a couple of them in there to keep the car from starting. They can leak in by driving through large puddles or can condense when driving from humid to cold air. You will need to remove the distributor cap, dab the inside thoroughly with a dry paper towel, and reassemble it.
2. You may have a bad fuel pump, fuel filter, or fuel line. This may require the services of a garage to properly troubleshoot.


The engine doesn't run anymore

Refer the section "Car doesn't start; engine turns over".


Vehicle gradually loses drive power, but engine runs fine

1. You may be leaking transmission fluid, due to a blown seal or some other problem in the transmission. You will need to stop before damage gets worse and add more fluid. Don't drive without doing this.


Alternator light comes on while driving

Your battery and alternator do virtually the same job, but the alternator is what produces power when the engine is on, and it recharges your battery for you. When the alternator light comes on, the cause is usually one of two things -- your belt or your alternator is broke. It also indicates that the battery is being tasked with supplying all power for your car, something it is not meant to do.
1. Turn off the heater/air conditioner and anything else that is guzzling battery power.
2. Stop within the next few minutes to check your belts.
3. If the alternator belt is gone or loose, replace or adjust it. This belt often drives the water pump, so if you keep driving without a belt you risk overheating your engine.
4. If the alternator belt is intact, you may have a bad alternator. This is especially true if you've been hearing faint whirring noises coming from the engine. As long as the belt is intact, you can keep driving your vehicle for several hours as long as you are not running your headlamps or air conditioner/heater. Immediately figure out where you need to go to get a new alternator.


Oil light comes on while driving

1. You will cause irreparable damage to your engine if you keep driving! STOP AND SHUT OFF THE ENGINE!
2. You will need to fill your engine with the proper amount of oil.
3. Remember to monitor oil levels in the future.


Your engine overheats while driving

1. Immediately turn off your air conditioner.
2. Stop -- if you're sure it's safe, just put the car in neutral and gradually coast to a stop. This lets you use airflow to cool the engine off more quickly.
3. Once stopped, you will need to find out in advance whether your auto manual suggests turning off the engine. Some cars have cooling fans which might help get the engine back to normal.
4. Inspect your belts and make sure they are properly tightened once the car has cooled down. If one is broke, replace it.


Flat tire or blowout

1. If you have only a minor flat, use your can of fix-a-flat. This will inflate your tire, seal it, and get you on your way. When possible, stop and have the tire inspected; you may have to get a nail or some other object removed to prevent further damage.
2. If you have a blowout or no flax-a-flat, you will have to use your spare tire and find the nearest tire repair shop (usually at a garage or an older gas station in town). Never, ever drive long distances or at high speeds on your spare! Its only purpose in life is to get you to the nearest repair shop.



MUST-HAVE ITEMS!

I strongly suggest you carry one or more of the following items in your trunk. Out in the middle of west Texas you may be very thankful you had one of them!

  • Properly-inflated spare tire
  • Jack
  • Tools -- simple screwdrivers, wrenches, and vise grips
  • A few quarts of oil
  • Duct tape
  • Jumper cables
  • Dry paper towels or Kleenexes
  • Spare belts (and hoses if possible)
  • A can of fix-a-flat (it's already saved several chasers)
  • Hand cleaner and a rag
  • A repair manual for your car. You're going to buy one, right?


CAUTIONS

  • Do not smoke under your hood and always unplug the battery before working on electrical cables. This is because hydrogen fumes from your battery may cause an explosion. It's happened to me while starting my car in 110 degree weather in Las Vegas.
  • Never attempt to remove the radiator cap while the engine is still warm. That is, unless you prefer having facials done with scalding hot fluids.
  • Don't turn your car off when in a critical part of the storm. Chances are this is when you'll have trouble starting the engine!

This is the trunk of my 1986 Nissan Sentra. On the left is a bin containing oil, an emergency light, coolant, spare belts, and more. On the right is my toolbox, and in the back are my auto repair guides and jumper cables. Sure, my trunk isn't clean, but I'm prepared for those forgotten back roads.


Always check hoses and look for tears, bulges, or signs of fraying at connection points. If you're not sure, it probably needs to be replaced. This coolant hose is in good shape.


Corrosion on electrical connections is a major cause of mysterious problems. The wire brush at right comes in handy for cleaning most rust-covered connections. My battery posts here have a red tinge -- they are covered with a special compound that keeps scaly battery fume deposits from forming.


Check the "play" on your belts. They should strongly resist being deflected further than the width of your finger, but not immobile. Always do this with the engine off, unless you want to make a guest appearance on "Rescue 911", and if anyone's in the car, make sure they know not to turn the ignition.


Seek every opportunity to check oil levels. Here, the dipstick shows that I'll need to add another quart. Oil consumption rates help show the health of the engine. Oil on the dipstick should be syrupy and translucent, as shown here. When it becomes dark and tarry, you're overdue for an oil change.


Gapping the spark plugs is a handy skill to have and is quite easy. It will increase your mileage and help your engine run smoother. See your auto manual for details on how to do this. Remember not to overtighten spark plugs, and if they don't screw in all the way, never force them -- reinstall them and tighten again.