Starting a car that’s been sitting idle

Starting a car that’s been sitting idle

Considering the lockdowns the pandemic has sprung on us, there’s no question that 2020 has been a bit of a wild year. But this last weekend I finally got the chance to get out to our backup location, and gosh – we haven’t been out there since February. It’s not looking too wild for a property that’s been left to its own devices for 9 months, the garden needs a little love and rats had eaten into one of the tubs of grain, but for the most part it was almost just how we’d left it, with one caveat. Our pickup was completely dead.

I don’t think the truck has missed a beat for the last three decades, it’s a hand-me down my grandfather gave to my father, who passed it on to me with this property, but it’s never not been driven for such a long space of time. We’re usually up at the property every 2nd weekend, and now it’s almost a year – it’s no wonder the engine didn’t spring to life at the simple turn of a key. Cars just aren’t meant to sit idle for that long without things going wrong, but that doesn’t mean it was all over. We did get it running, and here’s how.

Change the fluids

Everything that’s been sitting in your car is likely gone bad, solidifying with the dust and other things that are likely to gunk up your engine and cause a real failure should you manage to even get the engine started. Before even trying anything else, change the fluids.

  • Drain and replace the engine oil. There’s a plug under the car for this purpose, but it’s a messy job so be careful, and have a large container ready to catch the old oil.
  • Open the coolant and check it’s still the right color (a bright shade of green is a good indicator), and that it’s full. Coolant will leak out, and without it you’ll overheat.
  • Check and other fluids are still full, like the brakes or power steering lines. These should be above the minimum levels, if they’re low simply top them up.

Charge the battery

If you forgot to disconnect the battery (like I did), it’s going to be dead flat after sitting unused for so many months. You’ll need to charge the battery so you can start the engine, whether you’ve got a kit that plugs into a power socket or a set of jumper cables you can use with another car, both work well, just do whatever you have.

There’s even a nifty jumpstarting kit you can buy if you’ve not got a second car. For us, I actually just connected the battery charger and let it run for a few hours in the afternoon, as the truck had been parked nose into the garage and it would have been a pain trying to get the jumper cables to reach (for some reason the ones I bought are crazy short).

Check the tires 

Another thing that’s worth checking is the air in the tires. Of course, a car with flat tires will start, but I wanted to be able to drive the car and I still had time to kill while it was charging so I went around with the compressor and checked the tires too. All but one needed a little air to get the PSI right, and within about 10 minutes I’d got her ready for the road. But I needed to kill a little time while the battery charged, so we headed off to do some other jobs and came back in the afternoon. 

Try to turn it over

With the new oil and charged battery I figured now would be a good time to turn it over, but despite a few chugs of the engine it didn’t fire back into life, so I dug a little deeper.

Change the fuel

I had a feeling the fuel had been sitting too long, so I siphoned out everything in the tank. But instead of throwing this away I set it aside (it’s a good firestarter, especially for back-burning), and replaced the entire tank with a new fill of gas. It was probably far overdue for a change anyway, and we have plenty of gas on hand. Gas does go bad if its left to sit for too long, and cause a whole host of problems for your engine if condensation causes water to build up inside. You do not want this, drain the entire fuel tank.

Oil the sparkplug chambers

Finally, I took each of the spark plugs out and gave a healthy spray of WD-40 into each chamber. I’d have preferred to use a proper spark plug oil for this, but without anything like the sort on hand, WD-40 is almost my go-to lubricant for jobs like this. Cars that sit idle for too long will dry out inside and seize up, so you want to give it as much chance as possible.

Finally, it was time to try the engine again.

The work done inside the chambers and the new gas was the ticket, and after a few splutters the engine kicked into life with a roar. Of course, it’s not quite ready to drive, you need to let the car warm up for at least 20 to 30 minutes and give it another once over to ensure there’s nothing new leaking, broken, clattering or banging now it’s actually running again. And go gently, you never know what’s just on the verge of breaking after so long without use, especially in our old pickup from the 70s. It was nice to see her running again, and I made a promise to myself that day that I’d take better care of the car and the property once we see this crisis through and life finally gets back to normal.

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