As I am writing this column, Houston is beginning to recover from seven days of relentless rain from Hurricane Harvey. Harveys legacy includes rainfall totals that exceed all previous Texas weather events and may be one of the worst storms to hit the United States.
Its personal for me, as my daughter and her family live in Houston, and after 26 years living there, we have many friends and business associates who have been battered and bruised by this monster storm. I lived through Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, which flooded Houston, destroyed portions of the citys underground walkways and did significant damage to the Houston Symphony archives, destroying priceless instruments and music scores.
All of this got me thinking about what happens to the cars and trucks that have been abandoned on the road. One television news station even used a swamped SUV as a gauge of the water level in Buffalo Bayou, near downtown Houston. That vehicle was first about wheel-high in the water, then ultimately covered up to the roof. Strangely, the next day, it was gone! No doubt it had finally been swept away by the water coming from the overflowing dams farther upstream.
Automotive guru Jim Gorzelany says people should expect problems if they find their cars under water or suspect theyve been flooded. He notes that salt water can be particularly damaging to a cars components.
AAA recommends that you have an automotive technician thoroughly inspect and clean the engine and other components in the powertrain. The associations John Nielsen comments that, even if your vehicle starts up on the first try, a flooded cars engine, transmission and fuel, brake, power steering and electrical systems are vulnerable to increased wear and premature failure-another good reason for a trained technician to clean and inspect them.
Many of the estimated 500,000-plus flooded cars will be totaled by insurance companies and will wind up in the auto salvage yard along the Hardy Toll Road in North Harris County. I used to commute down the toll road to go to work and would drive by this place every day. It was a huge area of cars and trucks that had been T-boned, rear ended, rolled or had crashed into something, completely collapsing the front end. Will this be the final resting place for the unfortunate vehicles caught on the road by Harvey?
Sadly, not all of them. Some will be cleaned up and loaded onto carriers to be shipped to other parts of the country and sold to unwary buyers. Others will be rehabilitated in Houston and hopefully sold to someone who knows what they are getting and is willing to take a chance on one of these battle-scarred survivors.
One auto expert has a video on Facebook with both good and questionable advice. Before trying to start a car, he says to check the oil level with the dipstick. If it is in the normal range, it probably doesnt have water in the crankcase. Sounds right. If the oil level is very high, there is probably water in it and the crankcase should be drained and the oil replaced.
Since there is water in the crankcase, there is probably water in other parts of the engine. The video maker recommends that the spark plugs be removed and the engine cranked to force the water out of the cylinders and valvetrain. Im not so sure that cranking the engine is a good idea. The additive system in engine oils contains many components that can react adversely with water.
He goes on to recommend the same for transmissions: Check the dipstick, and either start or drain and refill. The problem is that its very difficult to get all of the oil and water out of a transmission without dismantling it completely. I asked Roy Fewkes, transmission expert and consultant, about the proper procedure for dealing with a transmission that has been submerged. The unit should be drained and flushed at least twice, he said, before even cranking the engine. Water reacts with the additive system in transmission fluid at levels as low as 1,000 parts per million, totally altering the units frictional characteristics.
AAA says that if a car has been completely or partially submerged, the owner will probably have to have it completely disassembled in order to clean it up. As you know, this doesnt come cheap. Depending on its make, model and age, the cost to restore a flood-damaged vehicle will probably exceed its value. Thats when the owners insurance company would consider it totaled.
As much as I would like to say that salvage is possible and that many of these vehicles will rise again, it seems unlikely to happen. There is a whole cascade of events and failures that come from water in oil and grease.
But before we talk about the lubrication issues, lets address the cosmetic issues for a moment. Most of you have been around wet carpet and upholstery before. You know that it doesnt take long before water will begin to affect the interior of any vehicle, especially if it is brackish or polluted. Many foul odors will come from the interior, and it will be months, if ever, before the mold and mildew are erased. In fact, you could park these cars and trucks in the desert here in Arizona, and it would still take many weeks just to reduce the odor to the point where you would not gag every time you got inside.
Next, youll need to clean out the undercarriage and wheel wells, since there is undoubtedly mud and debris there. The exhaust system could be in trouble, as well. Corrosion and rust, as well as seepage into the catalytic converter and other exhaust system parts, would make it likely that some or all of those components will have to be replaced.
The engine-ah, the engine-will probably need to be replaced or overhauled to remove the water that has gotten inside. Corrosion will have begun attacking bearing surfaces and other moving parts. The cost to remanufacture an engine is about $2,500 for a Chevy Silverado 4.8L. An overhaul could cost close to $2,000 if the block and heads are recoverable. Even with the very best engine oil in it, no engine can stand to be submerged for several days without significant damage. That includes the electrical system and the computer.
If you think that is bad, just wait. The transmission is another can of snakes to deal with. Automatic transmissions are very sensitive to water or any foreign material in the oil. In addition, the oil is not changed nearly as often as engine oil, so it could be in a more advanced state of degradation. Even sealed-for-life transmissions will get some water in them, and that is all it takes.
Using my Chevy Silverado as an example, a remanufactured four-by-two Chevy/GMC 4l60e automatic transmission costs over $1,600. Some of the newer design transmissions, such as continuously variable or dual clutch versions, will run even more. Of course, a manual transmission is a bargain by comparison, costing about half as much as an automatic. However, Fewkes points out that there are yellow metal or carbon fiber synchromesh guides that wont like the water and the contaminants that come with it.
While not as common as it once was, a differential is also a sensitive part of a vehicles drivetrain. Water contamination is a virtual certainty, and corrosion is the guaranteed result. Replacing a differential will run several hundred dollars. Power steering units are another piece of the puzzle and are almost universal in cars and light trucks. Front-wheel drive makes this product indispensable. You will know it if your power steering unit fails.
If you think that those are the only lubricants in an automobile or light truck, you might consider these, as well: power lock lubricants, door hinge lubes, key lock lubes, steering wheel electrical contact lubes and so on. Very small volumes of these lubricants have a major impact on driveability.
I havent mentioned grease until now, but with most automobiles having front-wheel drive, grease is essential for constant velocity joints. The grease protects the joints, which allow a front-wheel-drive vehicle to turn without extra effort, and its a high temperature, water resistant product. Even so, water will get into submerged CV joints. Wheel bearings also need water resistant grease. Since wheels are often wet, the grease will protect to some degree, but bearings will still need to be replaced.
By now, I hope you have gathered that corrosion due to water is the biggest enemy of any vehicle in a flood. The net effect is that, no matter how good your lubricant is, a submerged automobile is not a good candidate for a rebuild. The only ones that might-and I say might-be possible to save are some vintage and antique cars, which are such collectors items that the cost is worth it. For most of us, the numbers just dont add up, and even the most dedicated car rebuilders would walk away. They would say the cost to repair is such that you would be far ahead to let your insurance total the car and go buy another one. The auto manufacturers would like that as well, since 2017 hasnt been the very best year sales-wise for them.
Even with all this bad news, Texans are a tough bunch, and they will survive, rebuild and move on. They say that once youve lived in Texas, you become a Texan. Its a kind of heart disease, but one that Im glad to have.
Industry consultant Steve Swedberg has over 40 years experience in lubricants, most notably with Pennzoil and Chevron Oronite. He is a longtime member of the American Chemical Society and SAE International, where he was chairman of Technical Committee 1 on automotive engine oils. He can be reached at steve