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Updated: 12 Jan 2021

Coronavirus: how to maintain your car during the winter lockdown

Cars are designed to be driven - find out how to keep yours in good condition and legal to drive while it's not in use

Whether you want to keep your car roadworthy for essential journeys, or are concerned about the impact of not driving it at all during the cold weather, we've teamed up with a Which? Trusted Trader garage to round up our car maintenance tips to see you safely through the winter coronavirus lockdown.

Keeping your car in good nick is essential to make sure it runs smoothly and reduces the risk of an accident. This is all the more important right now, when the pressure on our emergency services is huge.

Unless you're driving for one of the reasons outlined by the government, you should avoid using your car at all for the time being.

For many of us that means our cars will be sat, parked, for extended periods of time. A vehicle that is left unused can develop problems that will prevent it working properly when you come to drive it. The potential for this is exacerbated by the freezing winter temperature.

Whether you're driving your car or not, there are sensible measures you can take to ensure your car remains both safe and legal. Our car experts and Which? Trusted Trader garage IN'n'OUT Autocentres, Wigan, tell you what to look out for.

Want a car you can rely on? Our extensive survey of nearly 50,000 car owners reveals the most reliable cars.

Maintain your car's brakes if you're not driving during lockdown

If left for a while, a car's brake discs can begin to corrode. This can eventually lead to the brakes seizing entirely, which will require a mechanic's attention to put right.

To prevent this from happening, roll your car back and forth a few metres every so often if it's safe to do so. This will also help prevent your tyres from developing flat spots.

Corrosion is made worse by road salt, which can cause damage to metal components if left for long periods. Washing your wheels and car underbody with a pressure washer or hose pipe will minimise the potential for problems while your car isn't in use.

Brake disc corrosion can also cause the handbrake to stick, rendering the car immobile. If you've left your car on level ground in a private area and can be certain it won't roll, you may want to avoid using the handbrake, and leave the car in first gear (or 'P' in an automatic) instead. Just don't forget to depress your clutch before next starting your car, to avoid it lurching forward.

Don't use this tactic if you're parked on a public road, where there's the risk of other vehicles knocking you, or on a slope.

How do you maintain a car battery when not in use?

Cold weather can sap the energy from your car battery, so it's important to keep it maintained, especially if you aren't driving anywhere for a while.

Even when a car is switched off, electrical items running in the background (such as security devices) can drain the battery.

  • If your car is privately parked, you may want to invest in a mains-powered battery maintainer or trickle charger. This will keep it in tip-top condition.
  • If you can't realistically run a lead to your car, simply start it up at least once a week and let it run for around 15 minutes. Not only will this give the battery time to increase its charge, but will also circulate oil and fuel around the engine, which can prevent engine flooding in petrol cars.
  • While the car is running, turn the air conditioning on. This will help maintain the seals in the air conditioning system and reduce the chance of mould developing in your car's air circulation system.
  • Avoid turning your car on and off again in quick succession. The starter motor requires battery power each time, which won't be replenished unless the battery is given time to charge.

Never leave your car unattended when it's switched on.

Got a flat battery? Find out how to jump start your car safely.

Video: how to keep your car running in lockdown

Watch our video for our top tips on reducing the strain on your car's battery.

Keeping your car roadworthy if you need to drive

While many vehicle owners were given a six-month MOT extension during the first lockdown in 2020 (applicable to cars which had an MOT due to expire between 30 March and 31 July 2020), this grace period hasn't been extended for this latest lockdown. If your car's MOT has expired, you'll need to arrange to have it tested before you can legally use it.

Thankfully, garages and MOT test centres are allowed to remain open as essential services, though it's best to check local opening times and availability in advance of your MOT expiry date.

You should not attend an MOT test if you or someone you live with has coronavirus symptoms, are shielding, or if you are self-isolating, either after travelling from abroad or after being advised by NHS Test and Trace.

If you need to drive for essential reasons, check the following - it's also a good checklist for when you go back to driving after the restrictions end:

  • Check fluid levels including oil, engine coolant, brake fluid and screen-wash to ensure they're at least at minimum recommended levels.
  • Gently try your brakes when first setting off to ensure they're working properly. If they've built up corrosion, they may make a crunching or grinding noise for the first mile or so. If this persists, or you notice any vibration through the pedal, you may have warped brake discs.
  • Check that all of your lights are working properly. If possible, ask someone to help you with this (for example, checking that brake lights come on when you press the brakes). Alternatively, park in front of a reflective surface, such as a window, and you'll be able to see the lights in your mirrors.
  • Check that your tyres have sufficient tread depth and no defects. The minimum legal tread depth in the UK is 1.6mm. You can easily check by inserting a 20p piece into a tyre groove. If the outer band of the coin is not obscured by the treadblock, they're too low and illegal to use.
  • Ensure tyres are properly inflated. Under-inflated tyres increase fuel consumption and can affect the braking performance of your car. You'll be able to find the recommended tyre pressures for your model in the owner's handbook.

See our expert guide on how to pass an MOT test.

Many newer cars now have a tyre pressure monitor which will warn you when your tyres have lost pressure. Alternatively, you can check tyre pressures at most petrol stations, or buy a portable pressure gauge to use at home, from retailers such as Amazon or Halfords.

For peace of mind, many reputable garages (including IN'n'OUT Autocentres) will offer a free vehicle health check once you're back on the road, meaning potential issues can be spotted before they turn into serious problems.

Use Which? Trusted Traders to find garages near you. Only garages that have passed an assessment by trading standards professionals, and also follow our Code of Conduct, can become Trusted Traders.

Maintain your tax and insurance

Finally, you'll still need to keep your road tax and car insurance up to date to ensure your car is legal to use on the road.

You won't need to keep your road tax up to date if you make a statutory off-road notification (SORN) - this enables you to claim back the value of any full months of tax remaining on the car, and you'll no longer be obliged to insure it. To do this you need access to off-road parking, and you won't be able to use your car at all - even for essential or emergency journeys.

Cancelling your insurance to save money during the lockdown isn't recommended. Not only will you have to shop for a new policy before you get back behind the wheel, you also won't be covered should your car get stolen or damaged while it's parked.

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