Part 1 - The Good
By P Sanchez
Panaceas have long been a fixture of culture since ancient times. From magical elixirs that promise eternal life, to aftermarket fuel additives that promise to double the horsepower for your econobox, history has shown that miracles can be bottled and sold. With regard to products for your car, quite a few can be easily dismissed as quack alchemy – like anything that over-promises (too good to be true? Well probably, it is.) while others might be harder to prove or disprove.
In this installment of auto repair blogs, we’ll tackle a few types of these pour-in repair solutions and see how experts weigh-in about their effectiveness. Which ones actually work as designed, which are just a lot of marketing BS that count on consumer gullibility, and which could actually do more harm than good.
First: The Problem
It could be argued that the modern internal combustion engine is able to make useful work by managing fluids. Fuel is a fluid, and technically so is air. Both are mixed in the engine, compressed and ignited, and hot expanding gas (still a fluid!) is produced. The gas pushes against the cylinder, turning the crank, and driving the wheel. Then there are fluid systems that keep the engine from self-destructing. You got the engine oil and transmission oil being circulated to keep the internal parts from wearing out. You also have the engine cooling system that circulates coolant, a water-glycol blend that keeps the engine at an optimum running temperature.
There are also fluid-using auxiliary systems. The conventional braking and steering systems use hydraulic fluids to transmit actuation, and the AC system uses refrigerants, a special type of liquid with a relatively high condensation point but with a low boiling point, characteristics needed for AC systems to cool cabin air.
All these fluids are contained through a complex system of casings, seals, gaskets, pipes, and tubes. But as any owner of an aging car would know, these parts lose their integrity over time. Rubber dries, mating surfaces wear out, casings crack. Then your car starts leaking those vital fluids to places where they shouldn’t be (like your driveway)
The surest solution to any leak is a repair job that almost always requires replacing the leaking part. Unfortunately, car repairs can be a costly procedure and car owners are looking for ways to avoid having a reason for a car job, delay the inevitable, or do the repair themselves. Unfortunately, not all car owners are as knowledgeable and well-equipped as a mechanic in an auto repair shop, so quick-and-easy solutions are often the go-to’s.
Plugging a Hole
If there’s one repair job that all drivers and car owner should know is how to replace a flat tire. But it’s a job that’s not only dirty but also a bit physically demanding as the average weight of a small passenger car’s tire is 22 pounds, 35 pounds for an average SUV tire, and 41 pounds for a light truck. Enter tire sealants.
Tire sealants are polymer-based liquids that are either pre-filled in tires or pressure-packed in canisters to be injected into the tire’s air valve at the event of a flat (Fix-A-Flat is a common brand). The sealant’s sticky nature is supposed to clog small punctures in the tire’s threads, preventing the air inside the tire from escaping.
Do tire sealants work? If you’re in a pinch, yes. They help you avoid a full-out flat and allow you to continue driving (or more accurately, “limp”) to the nearest auto repair shop where you can have your flat tire permanently repaired. Experts agree, when it comes to safety, don't push your luck: tire sealants are only temporary fixes.
Using tire sealants are not without their caveats. With sealant pre-treated tires, punctures don’t cause a tell-tale flat and so you may need to inspect your tire periodically for damages. Also, this sealant needs to be correctly applied which means evenly coating the inner wall of the tire. An uneven application doesn’t only mean leaving certain areas vulnerable to punctures but may also result in an unbalanced wheel. Some sealants are also caustic to metal so best to not have it touch the rims.
As a lot of old-timers will tell you: back in the day when weight-savings in cars was purely for performance enhancement, radiators were made of thick metal alloys that made them heavy but very durable – as they should be! Unlike all these fuel-saving and cost-cutting nonsense we have today, giving us flimsy aluminum and plastic radiators. Plastic! Well, I never.
Pardon the poor caricature but it does point out a flaw with modern car design. Seldom are cars built to last nowadays. Car components have sooner expiration dates, including the radiator. So if you have a decade old car, your radiator springing a leak is par for the course.
And for radiator leaks, we have radiator sealants. This type would either be powder form or liquid concentrate, which you mixed into the coolant itself and the material fills short hairline cracks or tiny pores that your radiator may have developed which is causing coolant to leak. If it stops the leak, great! It confirms the size of the damage and it buys you time until the weekend when you should get your radiator properly patched up at car repair center.
We tackle “The Bad”, products that experts are on the fence with regard to their efficacy in solving a purported problem. After, we take on “The Ugly”, products that sound good on paper but might actually be bad for your system.
By the way, do you have a personal experience about a product that actually “repaired” a car problem for you? Or maybe you want to add more to the discussion. Feel free to leave comments below.