What Are Normal Driving Conditions in the Desert?

There is a difference between minimal and severe driving conditions. Minimal conditions include driving limitedly, not using your vehicle for towing, and driving in consistently moderate temperatures. Unfortunately, this does not describe the Southwestern United States, a region dominated by desert terrain. Dusty conditions and temperature extremes make desert driving fall under severe conditions that test your vehicle’s endurance.

Manufacturers recognize extra stress wears out mechanical systems faster. The maintenance section of your owner’s manual offers alternative service schedules depending on how you drive. Severe conditions are any time you push your vehicle beyond the technically optimal parameters the engineers envisioned. Too much stop-and-go traffic or hard acceleration shortens the lifespan of components.

As you are about to learn, a car driving in the desert faces some extreme conditions.

Heat’s Effect on Your Engine

A combustion engine harnesses the power of heat and converts it into motion. Burning fuel releases a lot of chemically stored energy, but the mechanical processes can only capture a limited portion. Your cooling and exhaust systems safely discard the rest.

High ambient temperatures make it harder to release the excess heat into the air. When too much heat gets trapped in the components, your drivetrain components experience stress:

  • Cooling system stress - Fans run faster, and coolant cycles more often.
  • Rubber and plastic deterioration - Seals, hoses, and gaskets develop leaks faster.
  • Air conditioning resistance - It becomes harder to pull on your A/C compressor.
  • Operating parameter reaction - The engine computer limits performance to compensate.

The chemicals in your oils, coolant, and transmission fluid also break down when exposed to heat. They lose their ability to perform their jobs as efficiently. Left too long between services, and your engine lacks adequate protection. These factors all contribute to early failure of mechanical parts.

Another common problem caused by high heat is battery failure. Batteries recharge while driving, and this tends to build up some heat naturally. Constant exposure to high temperatures cook the lead-acid plates and damage their ability to hold a charge. It's common for batteries to fail during summer months.

Steering, Braking, and Handling

Friction from the road or applying your brakes generates plenty of heat, and your brakes and tires require adequate cooling as well. Air blowing through ducts across the rotors is usually enough to cool the wheel hub assemblies.

When too much heat energy accumulates, brakes lose their ability to dissipate energy through friction. Brakes no longer slow or stop your vehicle. This condition is known as brake fade. High temperatures also encourage tires and brake pads to wear faster, requiring frequent replacement.

It’s Cold at Night in the Desert

When the sun goes down, temperatures drop. You may not see any ice or snow, but your vehicle still gets chilly. Starting up a cold engine puts extra stress on the moving parts as the metals grind together. A high-quality motor oil coats your internal components with a film to prevent this wear.

Every modern liquid-cooled engine uses a mixture of water and coolant in the radiator. Water alone might be sufficient as a heat transfer agent, but it should not be used alone. Water can cause damage to your cooling system and engine block. When water freezes, it expands. The pressures are powerful enough to pop seals or crack engine blocks. Specially formulated antifreeze prevents this situation from developing, but these chemicals wear out faster in the desert and need regular replacement.

Watch Out for Dust Contamination

Even though the American deserts are not the typical dune-covered wastelands, they still have plenty of dust and fine particles floating around in the air. These contaminants quickly fill up your intake’s air filter. A clogged filter restricts the engine’s ability to draw air through and make power. Your motor pulls harder to produce the same performance results you demand.

Maintaining Your Vehicle in the Desert

The extreme climates are hard on cars. Here are a few desert driving tips to help you out:

  • Extra Water - Keep a container of water for your coolant reservoir and check it regularly.
  • Tire Pressure - Ambient temperature changes cause your tire pressures to fluctuate.
  • Brake Inspection - Have your brakes inspected for wear before they fail.
  • Battery Test - Make sure your car starts to avoid being stranded in the heat.
  • Maintenance Schedule - Use the manufacturer’s severe conditions service intervals.

If you are new to desert driving or aren’t sure what your vehicle needs, make an appointment with one of our service centers. Have Sun Auto Service check out your car today and review your vehicle’s maintenance intervals with our friendly service consultants.