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How Often and How Long To Run A Vehicle During COVID-19 Pandemic Closures To Keep It Charged And Running

Many of us now have no place to drive to. How long and how often to run a vehicle during the COVID-19 pandemic is a good question.

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The COVID-19 Pandemic shelter in place, social distancing, and quarantine mandates have slashed the amount many drivers use their vehicles. With the vehicles likely to sit in place for up to weeks at a time, how can you be sure it will start when you want it to? You know that if you drive the vehicle occasionally it will recharge the battery using the alternator. But how often and for how long should that car be run?

This is a popular topic at forums discussing pandemic car care right now. At the Car Talk Community, one member, Jan Gauntt, asked, "I’m sheltering in place during the pandemic. The car sits in the garage except for one trip out a week to pick up an online grocery order. During that one trip, should I keep driving further and even out onto the highway in order to keep the battery charged up and the car running well? If so, how far or for how long? My battery is two years old." Another member, Bryan Flemming asked, "How often and how far should my 2016 Subaru Forester be driven to keep it in good shape during this time of self-containment?"

These are valid questions from owners who wish to have their car ready for use if needed. Let's face it; We don't know which of us will need to use a vehicle to go to the hospital in the next few weeks. Having a vehicle ready is sound preparedness.

How Often To Drive A Car To Recharge Battery
If only there were one answer. Many cars can sit for two weeks and still start back up on the first turn of the key. Others will die in under a week. The vehicle, the battery's health, and the environmental conditions all play a role. Those looking for a quick answer may like this one: Plan to drive the vehicle at least once per week.

How Long to Drive A Car To Recharge the Battery
Again, there is no specific correct answer. However, there is an answer that will work in almost all cases. 20 minutes. If you want to reduce your exposure to the roadways, let the vehicle idle for five of those minutes before you set out. Unlike in normal times, you are not really "wasting" any gas or creating excess pollution by idling. You are planning to make a meaningless trip anyway. On that note, we do suggest you consider driving to an open park for a walk, or using your weekly trip to do something necessary. Because this situation is likely (hopefully) only going to last a month or two, there is no need for any high-speed highway driving or any kind of specific type of driving. Let the alternator do its job, move the fluids around in their loops while at running temperature and enjoy the scenery.

Related Story: AAA Will Be On the Job To Help You During the COVID-19 Crisis

Will My Gas Go Bad?
Your gas will not go bad in one month, or to months. Don't put in any additives, don't drain the tank every month. It is not going to be necessary.

Should I Top Off My Tank
In any uncertain situation, a full tank of fuel is always this car expert's suggestion. A vehicle without fuel is a liability. A vehicle with a full tank is an asset.

Do I have to Religiously Change My Oil Based On Time?
Did you plan to change your oil exactly as the pandemic left you home? Don't sweat it. Oil changes based on a maximum timespan like 6 months or a year are good ideas in general. Exceeding the time by a month or two is not going to harm your engine.

What About My Inspection Sticker?
Good question. The Man likes to have you pay for that sticker on a regular basis in most states. We would suggest not making a special trip. Perhaps call your local mechanic that issues the inspection stickers for guidance.

Good luck and we hope you and yours the best of health in the weeks and months to come. If you have any tips about keeping seldom-driven cars running, feel free to offer advice in the comments below.

John Goreham is a life-long car nut and recovering engineer. John's focus areas are technology, safety, and green vehicles. In the 1990s, he was part of a team that built a solar-electric vehicle from scratch. His was the role of battery thermal control designer. For 20 years he applied his engineering and sales talents in the high tech world and published numerous articles in technical journals such as Chemical Processing Magazine. In 2008 he retired from that career and dedicated himself to chasing his dream of being an auto writer. In addition to Torque News, John's work has appeared in print in dozens of American newspapers and he provides reviews to many vehicle shopping sites. You can follow John on Twitter, and view his credentials at Linkedin.

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Anne (not verified)    February 21, 2021 - 9:45AM

I'm reading this article in Feb, 2021. After needing to jump start our cars a couple times, we now have them on solar powered trickle chargers and are wondering how often we should plan on driving them. Anyway, I had to laugh in a sad way at this line from the article:

"Because this situation is likely (hopefully) only going to last a month or two, there is no need for any high-speed highway driving or any kind of specific type of driving."

Just took out the Suburban after two weeks and it started fine (but it has a new battery - put in a couple months ago). After we got the new battery and waited a couple weeks, it didn't start, so hopefully the trickle charger is working. Our other car - Subaru - we usually get out one every 7 to 10 days, so not as worried about it, although it did refuse to start one time - Maybe December? late Nov? we started getting groceries delivered early November so use it even less often now. Anyway, trickle charger seems to be working for it.