Side profile of car with open bonnet. Figure with magnifying glass on left looks at the engine. Figure on the right is puzzled and thinking about money.

How to stop your car battery from going flat – and six other lockdown motoring tips

This blog was originally published on Friday 24 April, but has now been updated according to the new coronavirus rules in effect in England from Wednesday 13 May and Northern Ireland from Monday 18 May.

Since the lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus began two months ago, MoneySavers with motors have been asking us – and each other via the MSE Forum – how to keep their car in good nick if it's not being driven much, or at all. Understandably, they want to avoid having to shell out for repairs when they're able to hit the road again.

With new lockdown rules for England and Northern Ireland coming into force over the last seven days, maintaining cars is now a bit easier for those able to leave home, but if you've not used yours for a while there are checks you should do beforehand. If you're in Scotland or Wales where the rules still require you to stay at home, or in England or Northern Ireland but still not driving, we've tips to help you look after your car while not using it. 

Now, although we're experts in MoneySaving (so can help you save money on MOTs, car insurance etc), we're not mechanics so can't claim to know everything when it comes to car maintenance. That's why we've roped in the AA*Green Flag* and RAC* to help, and though they didn't quite agree on everything, we've done our best to summarise their combined wisdom below...

Firstly, DON'T break lockdown rules to look after your car. But fortunately, the Government has clarified that "people must keep their vehicles in a roadworthy condition at all times", so you should be fine to maintain your car whether it's parked on your drive on in the road outside your home. The only major risk is if it's a long way away. Of course, as in some parts of the UK you can now drive to take exercise or for other reasons, you can kill two birds with one stone and use these journeys to help maintain your car. For more info on the rules, see our full Life-in-Lockdown Help guide or the Gov.uk website.

New. Driving for the first time in a while? What to check beforehand

Woman driving a car on a sunny day.

If you're thinking of venturing out a little due to the slight easing of lockdown restrictions in England and Northern Ireland (remember that in Scotland and Wales you're still required to stay at home unless you have to drive) and you've not used your car in a while, there are a few things the AA and Green Flag say you should check before driving to make sure you're doing so safely and legally:

  • Brakes – If your handbrake/parking brake hasn't been released since you last drove, it may stay locked when you first release it. Drive off gently and it should free itself, though you might hear a loud clunk from one of the wheels. Apply the brakes when you first drive off too – they may sound noisy if rust has built up on the discs, but this should clear after you use them a few times.

  • Fluids – Before starting the engine, check all fluid levels, including brake fluid, coolant, engine oil, power-steering fluid and screenwash.  

  • MOT – If your MOT expired on or after Monday 30 March you DON'T have to get your car tested for six months from the expiry date due to an extension granted because of the pandemic. If it expired before Monday 30 March, you'll need to book an MOT as usual and shouldn't drive until you're taking your car for the test. Although test centres and garages have been allowed to stay open so you can do this, the Government says that at present you should only get your MOT done if you need your car to be able to shop for bare necessities, for medical reasons or for work (if you can't work from home). For more info, see coronavirus MOT help.

  • Tyres – If you've not been keeping them inflated to the correct pressure while you've been off the road, check the pressure and inflate accordingly before you head out.
     
  • Vehicle tax – Check your car is taxed or you could face a fine of up to £1,000. If you have declared it as being off the road by getting a Sorn (statutory off-road notification), you will need to renew your vehicle tax. For full details, see paying vehicle tax.

  • And finally... check nothing's living under the bonnet – Before starting your car after a lay-up, the AA says you should pop the bonnet and make sure that nothing has nested in your engine and/or chewed through any pipes or hoses.

How to keep your car battery from going flat

Car battery warning light.

If your car isn't being used, its battery will eventually go flat. But how long your battery will last without you starting your car all depends on how old the car is, how it's been used and what condition the battery is in, according to the AA, Green Flag and RAC. If it's a modern car that's been looked after with a battery that's in decent shape, it should be able to go at least a couple of weeks without needing to be started. Older batteries are likely to go flat sooner, especially if it's very cold out (though thankfully that's not an issue at the moment).

To be safe, it's suggested that starting the engine once a week and allowing it to run for 15 minutes can help keep the battery charged – if you keep your car in a garage, move it into the open before doing this, and don't leave your car unattended while the engine's running. But it's not a solution for everyone, with the RAC saying that, if your battery isn't in good condition, starting your car up occasionally may actually drain it rather than charge it. If that's the case, and if possible, seek expert help for the best course of action.

If you're not driving during lockdown, it may be possible to remove the battery from your car to keep it from going flat. But the motoring specialists are unanimous in recommending that you do not do this unless you know what you're doing, especially if your car's from 2014 or after, as it's likely to have complex electrics. Doing this also means central locking and alarms won't work.

  • It's a more advanced option, but instead of driving or starting up your car, you can use a mains-powered charger to keep your battery topped up during lockdown. Bear in mind that charging a car battery requires the right knowledge and equipment to be done safely and effectively, and that they should only be used according to the manufacturer's instructions.

    If you don't have a charger it's worth asking friends, family or neighbours if they have one you can borrow (provided you can do so without breaking social-distancing rules), or you can buy them online from the likes of Amazon* and Argos*, or specialists such as Halfords* and Euro Car Parts*.

    There are three basic types of charger:

    • Battery charger. Charges your battery from empty to full, which can take anything from two to 24 hours for a full charge, but usually about 10-12 hours.

    • Maintenance or trickle charger. For cars being stored for long periods of time. You hook it up and it sends small amounts of charge to the battery to keep it topped up.

    • Automatic or smart charger. Can charge your battery from empty to full and then will automatically switch to sending a small amount of charge to keep it topped up, removing the risk of overcharging your battery and damaging it. As you might expect, this is the least MoneySaving option of the three.

    For help choosing a charger, the Halfords car battery charger buyers' guide is a good place to start.

Moving your car back and forth will help look after your tyres, brakes and air-con

Close up of wheel on stationary car parked on gravel.

If you've got the space to do so without leaving home, you can help maintain some of your car's parts and systems just by moving it backwards and forwards...

  • Air-con  The air-conditioning in most cars uses coolant – liquid that flows through it to regulate the temperature – to lubricate its seals. If you're not driving, the coolant won't be flowing through the system, so the seals could dry out, causing leaks. To avoid this, Green Flag recommends you switch your air-con on when moving your car backwards and forwards.

  • Brakes – If your car's stationary for a long time, corrosion can start to build up between the brake pads and discs – especially if it was wet when you last drove – which can lead to them getting stuck together. The experts say the handbrake/parking brake may also lock due to moisture in the mechanism, which means it might not release when you're able to drive again.

    Moving your car back and forth at least once a week can help to avoid this. The brakes may be noisy – this will be because of the rust build-up on the discs, which should clear when you're using the car normally again.

  • Tyres – Driving keeps tyres supple, so if your car's left sitting for a long time without moving, the rubber will start to break down and they'll develop flat spots. The stress of bearing the car's weight can also weaken their structure or cause cracks, especially in the sidewalls. Shifting your car backwards and forwards can relieve the strain on your tyres.

    Keeping them inflated to the correct pressure will also help look after them while you're not driving. If you don't have a pump, and can't borrow one, you can get them online from retailers such as Amazon* and Argos*, as well as car specialists such as Halfords* and Euro Car Parts*.

How to look after your fuel tank (if you can)

Close up of the fuel cap on an orange car.

Not an urgent one this, but petrol and diesel deteriorate over time, which can cause problems. This is caused by condensation that comes from air in the fuel tank, and the fuller the tank, the less air in it to cause problems. If you're able to keep your car filled up safely when you're not using it, do so – but don't leave home and make a non-essential journey just to fill up.

What to do if you've got an electric car

Close up of a white electric vehicle charging.

As with petrol and diesel cars, it's not good for the batteries in electric cars when the car isn't driven for a long time. To keep the battery topped up, the AA's tip is to put your car into 'ready' mode (usually done by pressing the 'start' button until the 'ready' light comes on) for 10 minutes or so, once a week. The batteries of some electric cars and plug-in hybrids can be topped up by plugging them into the mains charger – check your car's handbook.

If you're going to leave your electric car for a long time without topping it up, Green Flag recommends you do so when the battery's 45-55% full, and then charge it up when you're able to drive again.

What to do if your MOT's due

MOT test centre sign.

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Government's granted drivers with an MOT due from 30 March an automatic six-month extension. So if, for example, yours was due on 2 April it will now run out on 2 October 2020 – but you'll still have to keep your car in a roadworthy condition. For full info, see coronavirus MOT help.

If I'm not driving, do I need car insurance?

Close up of a dent under the rear lights on the right side of a silver car.

Even if you're not driving at all due to the lockdown, you'll still need car insurance. Until 2011, you only needed insurance if you actually drove your car, but then it was changed so you needed it just for owning a car – with one exception. If you keep your car on private land, eg, garage or drive, you can declare it as being off the road by getting a Sorn (statutory off-road notification), which cancels your vehicle tax and and means you don't need insurance.

But is the hassle worth it? Over to Martin:

The difficulty is we don't know how long lockdown will last. If it's just weeks, this'd be a faff for a small saving. Yet if you don't think you'll drive much anyway even when the rules relax, then, for example, if you've two cars and are only likely to use one, it could save you cash. Though do remember if you've no car insurance, your car isn't covered for damage or theft.

For more on the risks and costs, and full info on how to cancel your insurance and how to get a Sorn, see our coronavirus car insurance cost-cutting tips.

  • I'm driving far less, can I save by, say, reducing estimated mileage? Insurance is all about risk, and the more likely providers think you are to make a claim, the more they'll charge to cover you. There are three key things you can change on your policy that may save you money: substantially reducing your estimated annual mileage, changing the usage from driving for work or commuting to social and domestic, and removing younger or riskier extra drivers. As prices are based on your personal circumstances, it's difficult to say if this will work, but for more on what you could save and how to check, see our Should I reduce my car insurance cover? help.

  • What do I need to tell my insurer? It may not help you, but if your circumstances have changed significantly due to the coronavirus outbreak, eg, you've lost your job, or you have new convictions or major medical issues, you must notify your insurance firm. See What must I tell my insurer mid-term? for more.

  • The biggest savings for most come by switching. A huge number of drivers overpay for insurance, so it's worth checking prices for a new policy even if you're not due to renew anytime soon, especially if your usage has changed and you've not made a claim on the policy – though factor in about £50 of admin fees if you're cancelling an existing policy. Full details in Cheap Car Insurance, but these are the basic steps:

    - Step 1: Combine price comparison sites to check 100s of insurers in minutes. They don't all cover the same insurers or give the same prices, so try as many as you've the time/patience for in this order: MoneySupermarket*Confused.com*Compare The Market* and Gocompare* (this is how we rank them).

    - Step 2: Then check the big insurers and hot deals not on comparison sites. Aviva* and Direct Line* can be competitive, but don't appear on comparison sites. They also don't always feature some deals – for the latest, see hot deals comparisons miss.

    - Step 3: See if counter-logical savings work for you. While checking prices it's worth seeing if you can save by choosing comprehensive cover over third party, adding a responsible (usually older) extra driver to your policy or legitimately tweaking your job title.