Wednesday, October 17, 2007

10 Rules for Preventing Automotive Performance Loss - Part 1

It's a well known fact that cars lose horsepower over time. The more miles and years your car accumulates, the slower it will go. Parts will wear out and after while, the magic is gone.

We've all been there. You obsess over a car. You ogle it in magazines. You save up the cash, and one day you take the leap and buy the darn thing.

Fast-forward five years. That same car is now an undesirable beater - the paint is shot, the check engine light is on, and as Jeremy Clarksen from TopGear likes to say: all the horses have escaped! Perhaps you're losing more and more stoplight/freeway onramp confrontations. Your eyes start to wander and before long, you've got Excel open trying to find out how much it's going to cost to upgrade. Too bad your car is worth almost nothing and you've still got a year of payments left.

Realistically you probably don’t want to learn to be an auto mechanic. You don’t want to spend a huge amount of money in maintenance costs either. Sure you’ve heard from people that you need to maintain your car, but no one ever explained what that entailed outside of changing your oil regularly.

I've owned a few cars. Ok, I've owned a LOT of cars. Along the way, I've learned some of these rules the hard way. The following list is intended to tie together all the advice you've heard over the years and give you some depth of understanding. The stuff you've heard before, I explain WHY. There's probably a few things you haven't heard either.

To start, your car has three basic enemies that can quickly transform it from beauty to beater – heat, dirt, and wear. There are ten rules to mind when dealing with these issues.

Click the link below to read more.

Rule #10. Avoid the snowball effect.

As you look at the aging hoopty in your driveway, realize that all this decay didn't happen overnight. A broken tail light here, a leaky headgasket there. The key is to fix stuff as soon as it breaks. Don't let them pile up on you - before long you'll have a ginormous repair bill that rivals the size of your recent Iphone bill. In some cases, small problems can blossom into bigger problems or even cause collateral damage if left untreated.

Rule #9. Fluids Make a Difference

Fluids are the lifeblood of your automobile. Using the right ones and replacing them at the right intervals can avoid costly repairs in the future.

Replace brake, power steering, and automatic transmission fluids

Hydraulic fluids such as these tend to stay relatively clean in sealed systems. However, over time water gets in and begin to corrode metal parts such as lines and cylinders from the inside out. Failures in these systems can be disastrous. Brakes can become mushy or completely fail, your vehicle may lose power steering capability, and your transmission may stop shifting. Have these fluids replaced every 30,000 miles. Doing so will keep these systems clean and their respective seals tight.

Transmission/Differential Gear Oil

As these parts break in from normal use, metal shavings and particles will form and float around in the fluid. Make sure these fluids are drained and refilled every 15,000 to 20,000 miles to keep the crunchy bits to a minimum. Less debris means less wear on your gears. Less wear means better, more reliable power transfer.

Replace engine coolant

Only two fluids belong in your cooling system. Automotive coolant and distilled water. Not tap water, not spring water, not purified water, not drinking water. Using anything but automotive coolant (premixed 50/50 coolants are ok) and distilled water will leave mineral deposits and corrosion in your cooling system. Over time, this will impede or completely obstruct coolant flow. Once gunk starts to build up, it’s a. hard to get rid of and b. may cause overheating and engine failure in the long run. I run a 50% coolant, 50% distilled water mix.

Have your coolant drained and replaced every year. If you follow these guidelines, you will NEVER need to flush your cooling system as it will stay clean. If you see the shop hook up a garden hose to your cooling system to flush it out with tap water, tell them to stop!

Use Synthetic Motor Oil!!!

Oil has two primary purposes. First is to lubricate the rotating assembly (crankshaft, connecting rods, valvetrain, etc). Second and lesser known, it is the job of the motor oil to cool the rotating assembly.

Why should you use synthetic oil?

- It flows better.

- It lubricates better, leading to less wear. Less wear means your engine retains compression better. More compression means more consistent power delivery. There have been case studies where high mileage motors running synthetic oil (200k+ miles) were torn down to find that the insides were spotless and showed minimal wear.


- It transfers heat better which in turn keeps operating temperatures down.

- It has detergents that cleans the inside of the engine. Cleaner passages means better oil flow. More flow means lower temperatures and less wear.

- It has a superior thermal threshold - does not cook under high heat like regular petroleum oil can.

- Can be changed every 6k to 10k miles instead of 3k.

For turbocharged cars, synthetic oil is mandatory. As exhaust gases flow through the turbocharger, it becomes extremely hot. While the engine is running, oil is circulated through the unit to keep it lubricated. Once you shut off the engine, the oil stops flowing. Whatever oil that is still in the turbo will cook in the heat (sometimes surpassing 500F even after the engine is off). Conventional motor oil will "coke", or become tough deposits that will eventually block oil flow to the turbo, subsequently killing it. Synthetic oil will maintain its viscosity at these temperatures.

One more thing regarding synthetic oil: Make sure you use it after the first couple of oil changes (once your engine is broken in). Doing so too late in the lifetime of the engine will cause various oil leaks as seals become swollen and the detergents in the oil clean away the sludge (that had been inadvertently keeping the oil from leaking). Rule of thumb, switch and switch early. Once you switch, don't switch back.

Rule #8. A clean engine is a happy (and powerful) engine.

You want the inside of your engine to be clean - spotless is even better. Any internal surface that’s covered in crud impedes flow (oil, fuel, air), creates friction, and in severe cases causes detonation and preignition (more on that later). There are three ways deposits form in your engine: combustion byproduct, oil contamination, and intake contamination.

A. Dealing with combustion byproduct buildup:

Over time, a layer of carbon builds up on the tops of the pistons and intake valves. The longer these deposits have to accumulate, the harder they are to clean. Left untreated, the engine will develop light pinging at first and eventually CEF (catastrophic engine failure) when detonation occurs under load.

As load increases on an engine, heat increases. Under these conditions, carbon deposits develop hot spots and will cause preigniton, which is when the air/fuel mixture combusts before its supposed to. Imagine riding a bike. When your foot is past the top of the pedal stroke - say around 2 o'clock, you apply force straight down to provide power. Now imagine if you applied power to your stroke when it was at 10 or 11 o'clock. Ouch! Do that hard enough and often enough and soon you will wear out your knees. In your engine, the equivalent of your knees are the rod bearings. Once these give out, your connecting rods will come loose (usually under load, at several thousand RPM) and usually come out the side of the block (Catastrophic Engine Failure). Furthermore, modern automotive computers read input from a knock sensor, which is sort of like a little microphone bolted to your engine block that will pick up signs of detonation. When it detects knocking or pinging, it will retard timing until the knocking goes away. This will result in drastically reduced power output. With high strung turbocharged motors, the computer probably won't be able to retard timing enough and sooner or later you will be picking up pieces of your engine off the side of the freeway.

Using a quality fuel system cleaner (the kind you dump in your gas tank) 500 miles before each oil change starting from day one will keep your combustion chamber nice and clean. You'll have to do some research to see which ones work best. I personally use Chevron Techron concentrate or Gumout concentrated fuel system cleaner. I also recommend changing your fuel filter every 10,000 to 15,000 miles to keep the gunk from getting into your engine in the first place.

B. Dealing with oil contamination

After long periods, combustion byproducts invariably make their way into your motor oil. As your oil becomes contaminated it loses its ability to lubricate properly and becomes slightly corrosive in nature. Furthermore, it begins to develop sludge that blocks oil passageways.

If you run a good synthetic motor oil and change it regularly, you shouldn't have to worry about this much. The detergents in the oil will keep things spic and span.

C. Intake contamination

The two main contaminants in your intake tract (the path that air follows on its way into your engine) is dirt and oil. The PCV (positive crankcase ventilation) system on your engine vents excess oil fumes into your intake tract to be recombusted, thus lowering emissions (vs. just venting the fumes into the atmosphere). In the majority of cars, there is a hose that runs from the PCV valve (usually on the valve cover) to your intake piping. Over time, these fumes will leave a nasty coating of dirt and oil on the inside of your intake tract, which gums up all the passageways where air can flow (that's bad).

To prevent this from happening, install a simple PCV catch can. It’s just a baffled container that you install inline to the PCV outlet hose. Inside is a baffled box with many convoluted surfaces that will trap the oil in the fumes. Installation is straightforward -usually a couple of cuts to your existing PCV hose and mounting of the catchcan itself. Your car may vary so please do research on installing one on your particular vehicle before proceeding. Expect to spend between $30 to $50 for a decent catch can.

If you've made it this far, then you're well on your way to save your ride from a fate worse than death. In part two, we'll cover a few warnings and some more general no-brainers.

The rest of this series:

10 Rules for Preventing Automotive Performance Loss - Part 2

10 Rules for Preventing Automotive Performance Loss - Part 3

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