Auto Care and Engine Care
“Oh yeah,” said my oldest son when he heard I was building this site, “I forgot that you have to adjust a carburetor at high altitude.” Then after I finished it, he read through it and said, “Remember your ‘O2 sensor on your car may also burn out faster.”
That isn’t quite all there is to it! But it pretty much sums it up. Altitude affects the way an engine produces power, because of the available oxygen. Usually, a quick tune-up will solve any problems, as long as the altitude is not so high that nothing runs.
At 6000 ft, we drove our Toyota Minivan from Washington state to Medicine Bow, by way of Montana (where we lived for two years), and never noticed any problems in its operation. Small differences in altitude normally do not affect an engine, but larger ones can. There is a vast difference between running a car at 6000 ft and operating one at over 12,000 ft.
It pretty much affects any engine – mowers, snowblowers, model planes, motorcycles, etc. For many of them, you can easily tune them up if you notice that the engine is not running as smoothly as it should.
With a car, even if you do not notice a difference, if you permanently relocated to a place which is significantly higher than where you were, it is a good idea to take it in for a tune-up, just to make sure it is operating efficiently.
If you are on vacation, it may help to use a higher quality gasoline, or an octane booster, and when you get back to lower elevations, run a bottle of fuel injection cleaner through the tank to make sure that any residue from inefficient operations is cleaned out. Octane booster can also help in severe cold if you have a car that runs rough.
Higher altitudes also usually mean a colder climate, and more wind. That can affect auto care and function.
Some cars handle better in the wind than others do, and at higher altitudes, the wind can blow hard enough to literally push a car off the road if the steering in the car is loose. So make sure that your power steering is tight, and that the front end suspension is not worn enough to cause front end looseness.
In cold weather, it helps to put in a lighter weight of motor oil, so that it does not thicken up as much in the cold. The use of engine heaters is also common, at least where we live, though none of our cars currently have one. We have only ever had one car that would not start in sub-zero weather. This last winter, when we had a string of days that were extremely cold, my Nissan did a bit of grumbling over the prospect of starting up, but after two grumbles, it obediently turned over.
If your power steering fluid gets low, it will behave badly, and it will be worse in the cold as well. Low power steering fluid may result in a groaning or goosy honking noise when you turn a tight corner.
Shifting can get difficult if clutch fluid gets low also. This worsens in cold weather, so if your car gets impossible to shift when it is cold, check to insure that the clutch fluid is not too low.
Make sure you have a good antifreeze in the radiator, and anti-freeze windshield washer fluid. In extreme cold, even winterized wiper fluid will freeze, but it will help you out immensely on those days when the ground temperature is warm enough to melt snow into puddles or slush on the road, but the air temperature is still cold enough to freeze it when it hits your windshield!
Altitude and cold tend to affect a vehicle more if it is already on the verge of having a problem. Low fluids, poor maintenance, bad tires, or a worn engine or tranny will simply be more troublesome and noticeable, sooner, than if in a warmer and lower environment.