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Spring Thaw: Preventing Rust And Corrosion

Posted in How To: Body Chassis on May 1, 2012
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For most of us, winter is almost mercifully over. This means our daily-driver 4x4s that we relied on all winter to get us through the snow, ice, and frigid temps are going to start thawing out. You could just run your rig through the car wash and call it good, but that’s no good. Your rig needs attention. Just as you would inspect and prep it for winter, you now need to inspect and prep it for summer. But where to start? To help with that task, we’ve addressed things to check in four major areas.

Spring is almost here. Water is finally thawing and frozen ground is turning to mud. Now is a good time to give your rig a once over to ensure it’s ready for the warmer temperatures.

Under the Hood
Start your underhood inspection at the front of the engine. After a long winter you’ve probably found out whether your rigs battery and antifreeze is up to snuff. If they weren’t, you’ve either had to replace the battery or a freeze plug in the engine. Either way, you’re probably good to go for summer. However, if you’re not sure about your battery, take it to an auto parts store, where they will often test it for free. Make sure you remove that chunk of cardboard you attached in front of the radiator so your rig would heat up better when it was frigid. Don’t laugh. We’ve seen people forget and wonder why their rigs were overheating when spring temps started to climb. A winter front, like those found on diesel-equipped trucks, is a bit more obvious, so there’s little chance that will go unnoticed. If you have an engine block heater, coil up the cord and fasten it securely underhood. Getting it out of the sun will keep the cord from getting UV-damaged over time and coiling it up will eliminate the chance of damage by hot or moving underhood parts. Moving rearward, check the windshield washer fluid. Now that it’s warming up don’t be tempted to use water. It doesn’t clean as well as windshield washer fluid and it’ll freeze solid next winter. Inspect the engine belt(s) to ensure there are no cracks or extreme wear and make sure all fluids (including the transmission fluid) are at recommended levels. And speaking of fluids, if your rigs engine uses thinner viscosity oil in the winter, make sure you change it to the recommended thicker viscosity oil for summer to ensure proper lubrication.

If you have an engine block heater, coil up the power cord and fasten it securely underhood. This will keep it out of the weather and UV rays.

Drift bashing isn’t near as hard on underbody components as bashing them into rocks, but many areas of the country have something just as evil and it’s called road salt. Its damage may not happen as quickly as rock damage, but it can be just as destructive. It’s like damage in slow motion. The first thing you want to do is use a pressure washer to blow off all the winter crud and salt from underneath your rig. Make sure you spray all of the suspension components, framerails, and even the body tub. With all the slime blown off, inspect everything to ensure there’s no damage. And damage can be defined as rust damage, too. If your rig has control arms inspect them to make sure they’re not rusted. If one of them breaks, you will have a big problem. We had a ’99 Ford SUV that had spent its entire life in the Rust Belt and the centers of the lower rear axle control arms were totally rusted out. Unfortunately we could never find an aftermarket source for these and they had to be purchased from Ford. Salt-saturated snow can sit for days on underbody components allowing corrosion to proceed at a startling rate. If your rig has undercoating, re-coat areas that have cracked or fallen off. This will keep salt and moisture from getting between the undercoating and metal and causing rust. Now you’ve probably been using four-wheel drive a lot, so you know if your rig has a bad U-joint, but get under there anyway and inspect each U-joint for seal leaks, which can hasten failure. It’s always better to fix them at a time of your choosing. The same goes for lockout hubs. Inspect them to make sure they‘re not throwing grease. Inspect your brake lines and fuel lines for damage and rust. If either one of these components fails they’re a big safety risk. Finally, give the transfer case a once over, checking to make sure there’s no leakage from the seals and gaskets and make sure it’s full of fluid.

Corrosion like this is pretty typical in the Rust Belt where salt is used on the roadways during the winter. This underbody photo is of a Ford E-350 two-wheel-drive box truck. The corrosion even attacked the oil pan on the 7.3L Power Stroke engine, creating a hole. A good way to keep this corrosion from happening is to keep grime from accumulating under the truck.

Open the door of your rig. Now look down into the footwell. This is the area of the interior of your rig that took the biggest beating over the winter. Chances are you can see shiny granules of salt resting in the floor mat and in the carpet. Each time you got in your rig you had salt and snow on your boots and now it has saturated the carpet of your rig. At night it would freeze solid and then it would thaw when you drove with the heat on. This cycle was repeated over and over and there’s a chance it never had the opportunity to dry. This salt and moisture will slowly eat away at your rigs carpet and it may be starting to smell like a corn chip and the inside of a septic tank. There’s also a good chance that the salt and moisture has permeated the carpet and is now resting on the metal floorboard, which can hasten corrosion. To fix this you need to thoroughly clean the carpet with a machine that will extract the contaminants. And speaking of moisture, if winter has taken its toll on your windshield or door seals and the spring rain is leaking in, fix that. This can lead to ruined carpet and floorpan corrosion too, and removing and replacing carpet and welding in new floorboards are no fun.

Moisture from a thin layer of snow carried in by the driver’s boots can be seen here in this Super Duty’s carpet. The all-weather floor mats help some, but this carpet needs to be thoroughly cleaned to ensure long life. And it’ll make it smell better, too.

Rusty trucks are a drag. Repairing and painting body panels is expensive and time consuming. To help keep rust at bay, thoroughly clean the painted surfaces, buff or touch up any scratches (especially those that expose bare metal), and then give the finish a good coat of wax. This will help your vehicles finish last longer and it’ll clean up easier after a day of wheeling. And as mentioned previously, make sure you spray under the rig too. Rust often starts from the inside out so make sure these areas are free of built up grime that can hold salt and moisture. Your windshield wipers probably took a beating moving ice and snow over the winter so make sure they’re not trashed before the spring rain starts. If you have a winch on the front of your rig, give it a thorough inspection. Its location subjects it to a fair amount of abuse including a salt bath if you live in areas where they spread road salt. Check the cable in/out lever to make sure it’s operating correctly and make sure the pins in the connector aren’t corroded. If you have a steel winch cable, inspect it for corrosion as well.

Body corrosion like this, found on a ’99 Ford Super Duty in the Midwest Rust Belt, can be slowed by keeping both the inside and outside of the body panels clean.

Bottom Line
Four-wheel drive vehicles are expensive and you worked hard to pay for your rig. With that said, it’s wise to do what you can to prolong your rigs usable life, and keep it looking decent, by exercising simple preventative spring maintenance. It should only take an afternoon, and hey, you were probably looking for an excuse to get outside anyway.

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