How Long Can a Car Sit Without Being Driven?

How Long Can a Car Sit Without Being Driven?
Meghan Hessler/Unsplash

Maybe you live somewhere cold and store your convertible for the winter, or you started a new job that allows you to work from home more often. Whatever the reason, you don’t drive your car as much anymore. How long can a car sit without being driven? What happens if it sits too long?

Let’s look at some answers regarding car use and storage.

How long can a car sit?

Anything past two weeks of nonactivity will require some action to prevent immediate problems. Anything longer than six months will take some extensive preparation.

Auto manufacturers build cars for activity. While in storage, many things happen to the outside of your vehicle and inside the engine. Without the regular flow of fluid throughout the engine, gaskets and seals can dry out and become brittle. As your car sits, computer systems that keep the car running will drain the battery, leaving the vehicle without a charge.

These are just a few of many concerning things. Let’s look at these and other possible issues that can happen when you let a car sit.

Fluids can deteriorate

Although synthetic oil can survive up to five years in a properly sealed container, once within your vehicle, synthetics should be changed after six months because of condensation. Most manufacturers recommend changing oil every six months, regardless of mileage. Although there is no standard interval for brake, power steering and transmission fluid, each should generally be okay if replaced in recommended factory intervals.

The battery may die

A drained battery will be the first problem you encounter after letting a car sit for an extended period. If you live in a very hot or cold climate, batteries will have difficulty recovering from lack of use. However, with today’s computer-connected cars, “parasitic drain” from powering electronics will cause a slow discharge over time.

Tires may deflate or flatten

As the months go by, flat tires may be the most obvious sign that your car needs care. Even though we’ve made massive technological advances with tires, they still deteriorate in storage within five or six years because of natural elements. The worst is they’ll develop flat spots from being in one position too long. If you plan to keep your car garaged for months, put the car up on jack stands.

Critters may invade

You may not think you have mice and rats in your house, but leave your car in the garage for a few months and you may find them in their new home—your car. When they take residence in your vehicle, they’ll chew and take everything they need from the wires, insulation and rubber to make their nests. The longer they’re left alone, the larger their family will get. Soon, your vehicle becomes a critter condo.

Rubber components may rot

Rubber or synthetic parts will age over time. But in the case of hoses, the lack of fluid flowing through them while stored over long periods will cause them to dry out and crack. Pay particular attention to your vehicle’s maintenance schedule with regard to drive belts, hoses and bushings. With a car in storage, these parts might need to be replaced within five years.

Different environments may cause additional problems

Extreme heat or cold is detrimental to a car. Your vehicle is affected by temperature even when parked in a garage for long periods of time. Temperature swings can cause moisture to condense in or on the motor, causing rust and contamination of oil, gas and other vital fluids. Because the car isn’t driven, water will not evaporate through the tailpipe.

Fuel can deteriorate

Believe it or not, gasoline can spoil. Most sources agree gas usually lasts anywhere from three to five months in your gas tank. Most vehicle gas tanks aren’t airtight, allowing air to react with the gas, eventually turning it into a gel. It becomes unusable and will damage your fuel system, costing thousands of dollars to repair.

Rust

Rust is another byproduct of oxidation—and it’s highly dependent on the environment where your vehicle is parked. Because rust requires water to form, damp conditions will often lead to rusted metal. Chemicals, like the salt used on winter roads, accelerate the process. You can expect bare metal to start forming surface rust in less than a week. The more time your vehicle is left unprotected, the deeper the rust can form.

Why can’t my car sit without being driven?

Even though show cars or fleet vehicles are often stored for long periods, they are still cleaned, maintained and operated on a regular schedule. Automobiles were designed to be driven regularly, with fluids warming and cooling throughout the engine. When you leave your car unused for long periods, the fluids don’t circulate enough through the engine. Those fluids separate into solids and liquids and become coagulated or stale, resulting in damage or loss of their effectiveness. An unused car will eventually fall into disrepair, much like someone who stays on the couch every day.

What is the minimum time that I should drive my vehicle?

You’ll save unseen trouble by driving a few times each month for 10 miles or more at 50 mph or higher. A day of running errands or carpool duty should be enough to keep your car in decent shape. This lets your engine warm up to operating temperature and warms up brakes, heats transmission and radiator fluid and moves springs and shocks.

Tips for storing a car safely

Newer models emerge from long periods of inactivity with fewer issues than older models. However, regardless of the vehicle’s age, take extra precautions to try and stop it from deteriorating.

Clean your car

Regardless of how you store your vehicle, wash and wax the exterior to prevent corrosion and paint damage from dirt and moisture. Clean your interior of trash and food items that tempt rodents. Preserve the interior with leather and vinyl protection.

Keep it in a covered, dry, climate-controlled place

Storing your car in a climate-controlled garage is the best option. You control the temperature, humidity, dust and contaminants.

Keep it in an enclosed garage

If you don’t have access to a climate-controlled space, any garage is better than leaving a car outdoors. Ensure the space is well-ventilated and open the car windows slightly. This prevents moisture from building up inside the vehicle. Consider investing in a dehumidifier, which keeps the air in the garage dry as well.

Keep it covered outside

If outdoor storage is your only option, you can still take steps to prevent damage. Invest in a high-quality, padded car cover. Prolonged sun exposure damages your vehicle’s paint, seats and dash more than virtually any other element. A car cover keeps dust, objects and small animals away from your car. For extra safety, stuff clean rags into the exhaust pipe and any other areas creatures could nest. Place rat traps and animal repellents inside the engine compartment, trunk and interior.

Take care of the battery

When it comes to your battery, you have some choices. If you have a cold winter or hot summer coming up, disconnect your battery and take it inside a temperature-controlled location with adequate ventilation. Do not store it on concrete. If you have your vehicle in a garage, purchase a battery tender, also known as a trickle charger, to automatically charge your battery when needed. After it charges your battery, the charger will switch to storage mode.

Prepare the tires

Purchase a good tire gauge and an electric air pump to check and fill your tires to the recommended pressure. If you plan on storing the car for a few months, place the vehicle on jack stands to prevent the tires from getting flat spots.

Keep up with some scheduled maintenance

Older transmission fluid, power steering fluid, brake fluid and coolant will have contaminants and damage components if left in the vehicle while in storage. It’s a good idea to perform maintenance and replace these with new fluids before storage.

Fill the gas tank

Have your gas tank at least 90% full and use a fuel stabilizer before putting your car in extended storage. This will limit opportunities for condensation and fuel contamination.

Consider changing your registration

If you’re planning on keeping your car off the road for a year, consider changing your registration status. Most states will let you register your car as a planned nonoperating vehicle. Although you’ll still pay registration fees, they’re considerably less for a nonoperative vehicle than a daily driver.


About Bumper

At Bumper, we are on a mission to bring vehicle history reports and ownership up to speed with modern times. A vehicle is one of the most expensive purchases you'll likely make, and you deserve to have access to the same tools and information the pros use to make the right decisions.

Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.