Here in Northern Climes, this is the time of year when car enthusiasts have to face up to the inevitable, and get ready to put their beloved summer cars into hibernation.
There often are lively debates among car fans regarding whether it is better to start a car periodically during the winter. Unless you are really going to warm it up by driving it 10-20 km each time you start it, I prefer to just store it correctly and let it sleep. Cars come to little, if any harm just sitting when they have been properly prepared.
As my example, I will be using my 1979 2CV6. Some people will find my method overly fussy. And yes, of course, we all know stories about 2CVs that were left forgotten in a barn somewhere in France, and after 20, 30, 40 years needed nothing more than a fresh battery and a couple of litres of Shell Super Unleaded to emerge seemingly-unscathed from the ordeal. Those cases never talk about how many years of engine life were lost in the process. Personally, I am just trying to give my car its best chance to wake up next Spring without a hangover. Missing or skipping any (or even all) of my recommendations will not likely lead to any dire consequences.
Having stored cars myself every year for as long as I can remember, I’d like to share with you my current views about how to go about things. I will also explain the thinking behind each of my decisions, knowing full well that there will be hundreds of contrary views.
Here is an overview of my process. I will address each step in detail below:
- Fill the gas tank
- Pump the tires up to around 30 psi
- Add fuel stabilizer
- Run the engine to warm it up
- Change the oil and filter
- Restart the engine briefly, then allow to cool
- Remove the spark plugs
- Spray Storage Treatment into each cylinder
- Turn the engine briefly with the hand crank
- Reinstall spark plugs
- Remove battery
OK, let’s look at each step:
Fill the gas tank It is best to store a car with the fuel tank either completely full, or completely empty. If it is only partly full, condensation can form in the tank when the temperature changes This can lead to rust in the fuel system or water in the gas lines. Completely filling the tank is a lot easier than trying to empty it, and makes things simpler in the Spring.
Pump up the tires This accomplishes two things. First, harder tires will be less likely to “take a set” (some people say “get square on the bottom”). Secondly, if you start with more air in the Fall, there is a better chance that there will still be some left in the Spring. It is a bummer to come back to a car sitting on a flat tire, especially if it is on the side that is tucked away against the garage wall.
Add fuel stabilizer Follow the directions on the bottle, and add the required amount of stabilizer directly into the gas tank. The best time is when you are doing your last fill up before storage. That way, the product mixes well. Fuel stabilizers are products that slow the loss of volatile components from gasoline (think of it as reducing evaporation of the fuel). Using it means that your gas will still be fresh in the Spring. It also reduces the formation of varnish in the carburetor. Before I started using these products, I always noticed that my car ran better after the first fill up in the Spring. Now I don’t see any difference because my Winter storage gas stays fresher. It also helps on that first start up in the Spring.
Run the engine to warm it up Logical, since you are getting ready to change the oil, and warm oil drains much more easily. This step also ensures that your stabilized gasoline reaches the carburetor. Of course this step is not needed if you just drove home from the gas station!
Change the oil and filter (On a 2CV6, this means removing the right-side fender, to get at the oil filter. Trust me on this one. I have told myself several times that it should be possible to get that filter off without removing the fender, but the inevitable result has been a mess on the driveway. Just take the darned fender off!)
Now, there are people who will say that they change their oil in the Spring, after storage. I disagree, and here is why: When an engine sits over winter, oil is held against the bearing surfaces of all the rotating parts. Used oil contains at least some acids that are a byproduct of combustion. Being stationary makes it possible for those acids get a good start at eating away at the bearing surfaces, unlike when they are regularly flushed away in normal operation. It is much better for the stationary bearing surfaces to have a coating of fresh, uncontaminated oil.
Restart the engine This is just to circulate the fresh oil throughout the engine, and of course to allow you to check for leaks after the oil change. Don’t run it too long, since that just starts the oil contamination process all over again. Now allow the engine to cool (30 minutes or more).
Remove the spark plugs That is why we allowed the engine to cool. The aluminum cylinder heads of our 2CVs are more easily damaged if plugs are removed or reinstalled when they are hot. This also is a good opportunity to check the plugs for condition and correct gap.
Spray Storage Treatment This product coats the cylinder walls, valves, and rings to prevent rust formation. I have seen engines where the piston rings get stuck in their grooves in the piston due to rust during long-term storage. The result is poor compression until the rust is freed. Spray the product down the spark plug holes directly into the cylinder. Then turn the engine over a couple of turns (a good excuse to use the hand crank) to distribute the storage treatment evenly around and up and down.
(The can of storage treatment describes another way to use it, which involves spraying it directly into the carburetor throat of the idling engine until the engine stalls. That method saves you removing the spark plugs. It’s your choice.)
Reinstall the spark plugs Either properly tightened (ready to run) or hand-tight, if you plan to remove them again in Spring (in which case, put a note on the steering wheel to remind yourself that you did it that way). The reason you might want to remove them in Spring is to allow you to crank the engine more easily to build oil pressure before you actually restart the engine.
Remove the battery (and put it somewhere warm) Batteries that sit can lose their charge, and a discharged battery can freeze much more easily that a fully-charged one. Another option is to put the battery on a special slow charger called a Battery Maintainer. If you go this route, at least disconnect the battery cable on the car. That will preclude any chance of a short circuit during storage (you never know what the mice might get up to).
Speaking of mice, I sometimes leave a few mothballs in an open plastic container somewhere inside the car to discourage visits. Don’t put the mothballs directly in contact with the floor, unless you want your car to smell like your Grandma’s house forever.
Finally, it is not a bad idea to throw a car cover or at least a sheet over the car, since there is some kind of Evil Garage Goop that collects on stored cars, even in the cleanest of garages. However, do NOT make the mistake of using a poly tarp. They don’t breathe, and may trap moisture that will damage your paint.
So, there you have it, Bob’s Overly-Obsessive-but-Mechanically-Sympathetic Storage Method. Even if parts of it seem like “belt and suspenders”, it does give you a good excuse to bond with your beloved Citroën one last time before the cruel weather separates the two of you for the cold dark months to come.