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Road Trip Checklist - Part 2: Brakes & Battery

Before heading out on a road trip or getaway, take a few minutes to perform a few simple safety checks on your vehicle. In part 2 of our road trip checklist, we'll cover basic inspections for the brakes and battery.

Even though we're all driving less than usual due to coronavirus restrictions, many of us will be relying on our vehicles for a vacation or extended road trip. Being stranded anywhere is an unpleasant experience, but it's even worse when it happens in an unfamiliar environment. To minimize the risk of that happening, we can perform a series of inspections to identify potential issues before they have a chance to ruin a much-needed getaway.

If you missed part 1 of our road trip checklist, be sure to check it out. Part 3 of our checklist deals with maintaining crucial fluids. Part 4 covers lights and filters.

Brakes are a critical safety component of any car, so it’s important to make sure they’re in good shape before you take your vehicle on a road trip. The inspection process for brakes is a little more involved than checking tires, but its fairly straightforward. Note: these instructions are for vehicles equipped with disc-type brakes and wheels with enough clearance to view the caliper. If your vehicle has drum brakes or steel wheels with hubcaps, you’ll need to consult a mechanic.

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  • Check brake pads

In order to inspect the brake pads, you'll need a brake pad measurement tool - the one we recommend has several gauges with a green-yellow-red color code. To make your life easier, you may want a high-output flashlight and a mirror as well. While you can check the brakes at any time, we recommend doing so before the vehicle has been driven. Brakes get extremely hot during normal usage, so checking when they're cold will minimize the risk of burning yourself. Start by positioning the wheels in such a way where you can see the caliper directly. You may need a spotter to help you with this step, since it's not usually possible to see the wheels when you're sitting in the car.

The pads you’re measuring sit directly under the caliper, and the gauge will measure the amount of material present on top of the backing plate. The angle of the feeler gauge should allow you to press the edge flush against the rotor; from there, slide it towards the caliper until it contacts the pad. Start with the thinnest gauge (the first red gauge of the bunch) and work your way up, stopping when the feeler gauge fits snugly with no play. The number on the last gauge that fits is your pad thickness measurement. Inspect the other three corners; if the green gauges fit in all of them, you’re good to go. If the yellow ones are all that can fit, you’ll probably need the brakes serviced when you get back from your trip. If you can’t fit anything more than the red feeler gauges, make sure to get a brake job done before heading out on your trip.

  • Check rotors for damage or wear

While you're at each corner of your car to measure the pads, take a second or two and examine the surface of the brake rotor. They should be evenly worn across with no obvious defects. If you see patches of discoloration, it indicates that the rotors have been overheated at some point. The presence of significant concentric grooving on the rotors points to foreign objects being lodged between the pads and rotors. If you notice either of these conditions, get it checked by a professional.

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Next, we'll move on to the battery. There are three components to a proper battery inspection: visual, physical, and performing a load test.

  • Visual battery inspection

Visually inspecting the battery starts with looking at the battery itself. If it’s been a while since you’ve checked it, it’s highly likely that it’s covered in dirt and dust from the road. Don’t worry, the dirt won’t affect performance. Brush the dirt off to make the labels on top legible. There should be a date stamp indicating a month and year. A car battery will typically provide 5-6 years of reliable service; if the date stamp indicates your battery is older than that, consider replacing the battery to avoid potentially being stranded in an unfamiliar environment.

If the date range falls within 5-6 years, go ahead and inspect the rest of the battery. First, look at the posts and terminals - this is the part that the cables attach to. You may need to flip up or remove a protective cover to see the terminals. Ensure that they are clean and free of corrosion. The latter often appears as a brightly-colored crust that resembles foam. If the terminals are dirty or corroded on the surface, you can easily clean them off. All you need is a small amount of battery cleaner and a wire brush to start the job. Spray down the corrosion with the cleaner and let it sink in for a few seconds, then scrub lightly with the brush. Note: if there’s heavy corrosion, you may need to replace the terminals and/or the battery due to irreversible damage.

  • Physical battery inspection

The physical portion of a battery inspection requires a couple hand tools: a socket wrench and a 10mm socket (or possibly a 12mm depending on the make and model). Make sure the terminals are seated nice and tight, and check for any play against the battery post. If it’s loose, use the socket wrench to gently turn the nut. Don’t over-tighten the terminal, though - that risks damaging the post. Hand tight is more than enough to secure the terminal to the post to prevent it from backing off.

Next, check the tie-down for play - there shouldn’t be any at all. You’d be surprised at how heavy car batteries are, and you certainly don’t want it moving around while driving. If it's loose, use the socket wrench to cinch it tight. If the battery can still be moved after tightening the tie-down, this indicates an incorrectly-sized battery or a damaged tie-down.

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  • Test the battery

The final inspection consists of performing a load test. You’ll need a battery load tester for this part. Many testers (including the one we recommend) will walk you through this process, so it’s pretty easy to perform even if you’ve never done it before. The tester will typically ask you what kind of battery is in the car, whether it’s installed in the car or not, and the CCA (cold cranking amps) rating. The technical information can be found on the labels that were cleaned off earlier.

Most cars and trucks are equipped with a “flooded” type battery from the factory; these consist of cells submerged in acid. Premium cars - typically from European makes - tend to be equipped with AGM (absorbent glass mat) batteries; they look similar from the outside with one exception - there’s a ventilation tube hanging off the top or side. They’ll usually be labeled as “AGM” on the information sticker, too.

Checking off whether the battery is installed in the car or not is pretty self explanatory - if you’re testing a stand-alone battery, it’s clearly not installed. Finally, we’ll need to input the rated CCA into the tester. Read the battery label for this information, making sure to use the “CCA” figure (some batteries include both CCA and standard cranking amps) provided by the manufacturer.

Most testers will provide a pass or fail result; some may provide a “caution” indicator if the battery falls too close to failing the load test. If the battery fails the load test, you definitely want to replace the battery before going on your trip. You may want to consider packing a portable jump starter anyway for added peace of mind, since even a healthy battery can be drained overnight by something as simple as leaving the lights on.

Up next in Part 3: checking important vehicle fluids

Bestcovery Staff
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