Automotive Lubricants

The Impact of Weather and New Technology on Vehicle Maintenance


The Impact of Weather and New Technology on Vehicle Maintenance
© Dusty Cline; Denis Dryashkin; lianez; Olha Yerofieieva


The do-it-yourselfer is going the way of the dinosaur. Modern vehicles no longer have carburetors—or for that matter any other forms of ignition systems. They are all run by onboard computers. Almost all vehicles now employ some form of automatic transmission to get the power of the engine to the wheels, which can be either front-, all- or rear-wheel driven. On top of that, the latest innovations include lane keeping and crash avoidance systems, which are again run by computer-driven radar.

This means that the do-it-for-me crowd is now entrusting its family chariots to experts who are trained and have the latest computer diagnostic tools and equipment at their disposal. However, a new subset of do-it-for-me folks has emerged: traveling mechanics.

Jim Lang, an authority on aftermarket trends, has identified seven major aftermarket outlets. These include auto parts stores, big box stores (with service bays), car dealers, foreign specialists, light vehicle specialists (i.e. quick lubes), light repair specialists, service stations and tire stores. He has now added a new category to his aftermarket report. He refers to it as “mobile repair.” Mobile repair is a small part of the do-it-for-me segment at present, but it is growing rapidly. Each of these outlets has a part to play in weather-related maintenance.

With that background, we need to address the impact of weather on vehicle maintenance. As all of you are aware, 2022 has not been a good year in the United States weather-wise. There has been a lot of flooding as well as other foul weather, which has made driving and, more importantly, maintaining your wheels doubly important. 

As a California kid, I didn’t see too much in the way of serious weather challenges until 1969. That year, my hometown, Orange, California, was visited by the heaviest rain I can ever remember in that region. Nearly 30 inches of rain fell in the month of February. There were mudslides, flooding and general mayhem going on. My family’s car, a 1966 VW Beetle, did okay with the inclement weather, but we worried about whether or not it would float in some of the water running down the streets. That was right around the time that the VW ads boasted that VWs would definitely float. However, they would not float indefinitely.

When I moved to Houston, Texas, to work with Pennzoil, I became very aware of the impact of tropical storms and hurricanes. In August 1983, Hurricane Alicia roared through Houston directly over my home with winds of 115 miles per hour. The rainfall was not significant, but wind damage was common. Shortly after that, a bunch of vehicles came on the market at distressed prices. They represented just about everything that rainy weather can dish out. 

More weather events occurred over the 26 years I lived in Houston. One that was particularly harrowing was tropical storm Allison in June of 2001. It started while I was at work in downtown Houston. I had driven in instead of riding in with the vanpool that day. By about one o’clock in the afternoon it was really apparent that this was going to be a real soaker. The van left and shortly thereafter I got a call from one of the riders who basically said, “You better get out now!”  

I followed his advice and drove home in my GMC pickup. Had I not been in that truck with its higher clearance, I would not have made it home. By the time the tropical storm receded, there had been over 40 inches of rain; the downtown walking subway was flooded, and an underground parking garage wall had collapsed, causing several fatalities. Even the Houston Symphony took a beating when water flooded its music and instrument storage space, destroying many musical scores from some of the most famous conductors of its 100-year history.

While at Pennzoil, I learned a hard lesson about unique weather events.  Many of you will remember the Mt. St. Helens volcanic eruption on May 18, 1980. The explosion generated about half a cubic mile of ash and dust that was blown over a mile into the air and east northeast at over 60 miles per hour. Ultimately, it covered over 20,000 square miles of the Western United States. The ash caused air filters in vehicles to be completely blocked and oil filters to become clogged as well. Pennzoil’s distribution center in Spokane, Washington, required truckloads of filters daily for the next several weeks.

On a much less dramatic scale, here in Arizona we get dust storms that affect transportation as well. The Weather Service calls them Haboobs (Arabic for “blasting wind”). They are hot and strong winds that pick up dust and sand and can rise up to a mile in the sky. They interfere with air travel as well as highway vehicular traffic and can cause air and oil filter issues, too.

I have had my adventures with cold weather as well. While living in St. Louis, Missouri, I experienced two winters that were 100-year events. An ice storm occurred on New Year’s Eve in 1976. The next day we had a significant snow event (8-10 inches) and a major power outage in the area. The temperature didn’t get above freezing until mid-March. The lowest temperatures during that time were around 15 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. Driving was treacherous, and the cold made it very hard to even start my VW Bug. 

Fortunately, I knew a German fellow who knew what to do. The ’66 was the last year of the 6-volt battery, and he changed the cable from the battery to the starter to one with a larger diameter, effectively reducing the resistance in the cable and allowing enough amperage to get to the starter to allow it to crank.

That’s a long history of my experience with weather events, and it brings to mind what lubricants are involved and how they are maintained to minimize problems. For the new breed of mobile repair entrepreneurs, make sure you have reference material (videos are a good choice) as well as a good parts source. These are the major types of lubricants you should be aware of and how to diagnose problems with them.

  • Engine oil: You have to be aware of possible contamination due to water. It doesn’t take much (~100 parts per million) to cause oil to become cloudy or downright muddy looking. That’s partially due to the additive systems in the oil. But it is also the result of water’s insolubility in oil, which is not a good situation and one that calls for an oil change as soon as possible. Depending on the degree of water content, the engine may need to be flushed by circulating and draining engine oil. Gasoline containing alcohol may magnify this problem since the alcohol does collect water.
  • Transmission fluid: These fluids face issues and solutions that are similar to those faced by engine oils. Plus, water in a transmission can be an even more difficult problem. There are commercial systems available to flush transmissions. Power steering fluids are in this category.
  • Gear oil: Typically, a gear box is not as delicate as either an engine or a transmission. However, it does contain yellow metals that are more susceptible   to corrosion. Flushing and examination of various gear parts are called for periodically. If the gear box has been submerged   for any period of time, you may be out of luck anyway. 
  • Grease: Here is one area that may be okay. Grease used for wheel bearings and CV joints is supposed to be water resistant, and most really are. Repacking the grease is a good idea.
  • Oil and air filters: These are sometimes ignored, but after Mt. St. Helens erupted it should be obvious that regular changes or as needed are important. For these, you have to look at them to know what kind of shape they are in. 

Cold weather driving is a completely different problem. Batteries should be checked, and maximum charge density should be employed. Engine oil should be as recommended by the original equipment manufacturer. Specifically, check for cold weather viscosity recommendations. It is particularly relevant for electric vehicles to use the recommended products in cold temperatures. At low temperatures, batteries can lose much of their power. Lithium batteries typically lose 23% of their charge density when the temperature drops from 25 °C to -15 °C.

So the bottom line is that all service outlets need at least three things:  

1. The proper tools to work on vehicles affected by weather events

2. A proper source of information to assist in diagnosis and repair

3. An available source of parts to carry out the repairs. If you are a computer whiz as well, that could come in handy.  

Welcome to the next generation of vehicle technology.  

Steve Swedberg is an industry consultant with over 40 years experience in lubricants, most notably with Pennzoil and Chevron Oronite. He is a longtime member of the American Chemical Society, ASTM International and SAE International, where he was chairman of Technical Committee 1 on automotive engine oils. He can be reached at