Saturday, February 26, 2022

Ultra-Low-Mileage Cars

Any piece of machinery works best when it is used regularly.

A reader writes that their neighbor has a nine-year-old Subaru with only 3,000 miles on the odometer.  They never drive it, and claim they are "saving the planet" by not doing so.  I am not so sure about that - the energy costs and resources used just in the construction of the vehicle outweigh the energy cost of regular usage.  If they really want to save the planet, they should just not own a car - and rent one or take a taxi when needed.  Of course, if they really, really wanted to "save the planet" they would kill themselves, because the big problem with humanity is too much of it.  But I don't think that is a workable solution.  Besides, a few more pandemics, wars, and an occasional asteroid impact, and it will all even out.  Wait for it.

The neighbor has had to call AAA repeatedly to jump-start the car.  "The battery is nearly new!" they say.  The AAA man says it might be defective.  He may be right about that.  But it illustrates the folly of keeping a car - or any piece of machinery - and not using it.  You are not "saving" it for later, just wasting it.

It reminds me of the house about seven doors down from us that has been abandoned for 20 years.  The owner lives in Florida and she is "saving" the house for her daughter, she says.  Well, there isn't much left to save at this point - there are plants growing inside the house and the power has been off for two decades.  It is full of mildew and rot.  It is a teardown at this point.  But I digress - or did I?  Houses are machines for living, and like any expensive machine, they turn to rot when left unused over time.  An occupied and used house lasts longer than an unoccupied and abandoned one.

Same is true for cars.  A car not driven falls apart, and collectors of old cars know this and take steps to stop the decay.  What sort of things am I talking about?

1. Battery:  Modern cars have a lot of computer systems that are "on" all the time, such as the remote keyless entry and alarm system.  Our old 1997 BMW would drain its battery in 30-45 days when we left it at the airport in Ft Lauderdale. So long as we traveled to Florida more often than that, we had no problem.  The reason why this lady's battery is going dead is probably because of simple lack of use.

Worse yet, if you let a conventional car battery go dead more than a few times, it kills the battery.  So a "brand new" car battery, drained flat three or four times, may not hold much of a change anymore.  So another new battery is in order.

Car collectors know this and put a "maintenance charger" on the car, which trickle-charges the battery over time.  Some plug into the cigarette lighter, but lately many cars have the cigarette lighter go dead when the ignition is off, so the maintenance charger has to be connected to the battery with cable clamps.

They also sell solar trickle chargers that roll out on your dashboard - handy for people who store a car outside or at long-term parking.  Again, most plug into the cigarette lighter, and if the car is wired so this isn't "hot" when the key is out, well, it won't work unless you run a wire to the battery.

2. Fuel: Gasoline does weird things as it ages, particularly in hot weather.  It will form varnish and clog fuel filters and engine components.  I had a friend who had a house in Key West - they went there in the winter months only.  He left a Jeep there to tool around in, and every year, he had to have it towed to the shop, the tank dropped, and the fuel filter replaced.  I turned him on to fuel stabilizer (such as STA-BIL) and gave him a quart of it (a lifetime supply!) and no more problems.  Without fuel stabilizer, gasoline goes stale, forms varnish, and clogs things up.  It gets expensive to fix and can leave you stranded on the highway.

Diesel is no better - and often worse.  Algae will actually form in diesel fuel tanks, as any mariner will tell you.  They make diesel fuel stabilizers, too. But like any other engine, diesels don't like to sit.

3.  Oil: Oil degrades over time. Granted, it degrades faster when the car is being used.  But a car run regularly - fully warmed up and run for an hour or more - will heat the oil and boil off any water or other volatiles (e.g., gasoline) which may contaminate it.  Some folks with intermittedly used cars (or boats, or airplanes, or whatever) will start them and run them to "charge the battery" - but unless they let the engine really warm up and run hard, it doesn't get rid of the moisture and other containants and in fact, may make the situation worse.

Granted, the closed-loop crankcase ventilation of modern cars has eliminated much of this problem - but not all.  For example, my BMW X5 had an oil separator in the PCV (Positive Crankcase Ventilation) system, to extract oil vapors and condense them and return them to the crankcase.  All very well and fine, but BMW discovered that in cold climates, the separator (a cyclone separator like in a Dyson vacuum) would fill with water (from water vapor) which would then freeze and crack the plastic housing.  They recalled the cars to install an insulated housing.  Yes, there is a lot of water vapor in your crankcase, which leads to corrosion (more about that below) of things like camshafts and other assemblies.

Most oil companies recommend changing your oil every so many miles or so many months - often 6 months to a year.  I change the oil annually in the hamster, which gets about 5,000 miles a year.  I use synthetic, which costs more, but ages better.  This lady with the Subaru probably has the "factory oil" in it, and it is not providing very much lubrication at this point.

So oil changes are still required for a car that sits.  But even then, if not driven regularly, the interior of the engine can still rust.

4.  Coolant:  Modern coolants last a long time - some manufacturers claim 100,000 miles or more, with normal use.  But over time, coolant ages and corrosion forms in the cooling system. Engines which have a combination of aluminum and cast-iron parts are particularly susceptible due to electrolytic action - which is why it pays to use the correct coolant and sometimes even a "water wetter" additive per manufacturer's specifications.  Just because you don't drive the car doesn't mean that the coolant is still good or that corrosion isn't happening.  Just another expense - if you want to keep the car running and reliable.

5.  Tires:  Tires will dry-rot in as little as five years. They also take a "set" or have "flat spots" when sitting for months or years on end.  Usually, the flat spots will go away after you drive a few miles, but as the tires age, they harden and flat spots may persist, making the car vibrate and the steering wheel shake and affect the ride.  Dry-rot is a lot more dangerous - dry-rotted tires can blow out at a moment's notice.  Note also that all tires lose pressure over time.  In as little as a few months, they can lose enough air to be unsafe (which is why you check your tire pressures regularly, right?).  The intermittent car user might drive off on dangerously low pressure and in combination with dry-rot, experience a blowout.  Tires may need to be replaced after five years or so, even if there is a lot of tread on them.  This is an expensive way to travel, if you drive only 3,000 miles in nine years!

6. Cylinders:  When any IC piston engine shuts down, there is always at least one cylinder whose intake or exhaust valve is left open and the piston is in a down position.  This means the interior of the cylinder - the piston, head, and cylinder walls - are open to the environment.  In damp environments, this means corrosion, over time.  With iron-block engines this is a particular problem but even aluminum corrodes over time.  When the car is started, it can mean stuck piston rings (which if they break, necessitate an engine rebuild) or just excessive wear in that one cylinder, as the rust (iron or aluminium oxide) is a great abrasive (what do you think they make sandpaper out of?).

Again, this is a well-known problem with car collectors and many a "collector car" is burning oil as a result of this problem.  People who buy "barn find" cars often remove the spark plugs and squirt oil in the cylinders and then crank the engine by hand to help alleviate the rust situation and break rusted rings free.  Of course, you have to make sure all that oil is gone before you try to start it - otherwise you have hydrolock and you bend a connecting rod - new engine time.

Because of this cylinder wall issue (as well as other issues like stuck valves) cars that are allowed to sit for months or years on end often end up having an engine rebuild long before they accumulate any significant mileage.

7. Appearance:  My reader tells me the car is left outside and the garage is full of old boxes of junk.  This is sad.  Cars left outside degrade quickly.  The sun and rain erode the paint job and leave it chalky and faded. Clear-coat will oxidize and turn brown and peel off. Headlights get cloudy and look like your Dad's old toenail. Dashboards fade, get brittle, and crack. Upholstery fades from UV light.  And if there is even one tiny leak, water gets in and starts a mildew festival.  Garage your car if you have a garage - and throw out those boxes of junk!

Of course, crazy people like that claim they don't care about appearances, but it degrades the value of the vehicle, and paintjobs and upholstery are staggeringly expensive these days.  Dashboards are so hard to replace that few people ever do so.  A car left outside can easily degrade into nothing in a decade.

This is not an exhaustive list, of course.  Many other components don't like to "sit" and others need to be replaced based on age, not mileage.  Oxygen sensors, for example, can go bad due to age, even if they are not near their scheduled mileage replacement.  Bear in mind that when a manufacturer says "replace every 50,000 miles" they are assuming you drive 12,000-15,000 miles a year like most "normal" people do.

Taking care of a car is costly.  And many of these costs are fixed, no matter how much or how little you drive.  In fact, given the nature of these fixed costs, the cost of driving a car - per mile - goes up sometimes, the less you drive. Driving  car only 3,000 miles in nine years isn't "smart" - it is dumb as hell.  Imagine how much money this lady has spent on insurance, registration fees, and taxes alone - probably a few dollars a mile at this point.  And let's not even talk about depreciation. If this car cost $25,000 nine years ago, it is likely worth only about $7,000 today, given that cars depreciate 50% every five years (taking aside, today's crazy car market). That's six dollars a mile in depreciation alone!  As I learned the hard way with five hobby cars, low miles doesn't add much to resale value.  High mileage can ruin it, but low mileage doesn't add much!  Why?  Because (in a normal market) there are new cars with 0 miles on them for sale.  You can't expect your decade-old car to be worth what it was new, just because it has only 3,000 miles on it.  And no, a Subaru is not a "collector car".

What is sad to me is that not only is this lady not "saving the planet" she is not saving her pocketbook. Given all of the above, she could have hired a limousine to take her those 3,000 miles and it would have cost far less than letting a car "sit" in her driveway - and the "environmental impact" would have been less as well.  And hell, riding in a limo beats driving in an unreliable ratted-out old Subie, any day!

As it is, she now has an old car, not worth much, that she paid a lot for and used little.  Anyone buying it would be smart to change all the fluids, put on new tires, and replace the battery.  And likely the brakes might need attention as well, as I am sure the parking brake cable is rusted and one or more calipers might be frozen too.

I said long ago that this blog wasn't about saving pocket lint to knit as a sweater.  I get calls all the time from "reality" show producers who want people like that Subaru lady - people who are so frugal that they actually end up costing themselves more money.  Not driving your car can save money- up to a point.  But 3,000 miles in nine years?  That's just stupid.

And we don't play stupid, here!  Living better on less, is the key - not squandering money to make a "point" or for no reason whatsoever.

Act rationally in an irrational world.