Freezing nights keep auto repairmen busy

Techs note consumers aren't doing much maintenance, making them ill-prepared for cold weather.

It's been a great month for the automotive business.

Nearing the end of what will likely be the coldest January in 36 years in Anderson, S.C., business is booming at auto repair shops.

That's especially true of Gerald's Radiator Repair on West Whitner Street, where cars often land after a subfreezing night.

"People don't buy antifreeze anymore, or do much of any maintenance on their cars," Gerald Machen said Thursday. "And they're not used to these kind of temperatures at night.

"So their cars won't start in the morning because the radiator is frozen. Or they start, but after a mile, the car is running hot because ice don't circulate."

An unusually busy month for Machen began in early January, when two 10-degree nights shattered records for the date. Temperatures have dipped into the 20s on several other nights, and the temperature reached only 38 degrees Friday afternoon.

The extended periods of subfreezing temperatures make radiators and hoses especially vulnerable.

"That first cold spell we had (Jan. 7 and Jan. 8), we had a bunch of busted engine blocks, cracked radiators and busted hoses. Weather like this is good for our business, but I hate it for the customers."

Machen has been repairing radiators for 43 years, 25 of them on West Whitner Street. In an era of self-service gasoline, he sees evidence of far less auto maintenance than he did decades ago.

"Most people now don't have a (antifreeze) tester, and don't know how to use one if they had one," Machen said. "People who have the new-model cars don't even know where the radiator cap is. In the new-model cars, which don't have radiator caps, most drivers don't know that the only place you can use a tester is at the overflow reservoir."

Temperatures have been so low that record lows have been set three times in January, placing a premium on things such as a radiator tester.

"You couldn't find one anywhere when that first freeze hit. A man called me wanting to buy mine," said Machen, whose shop provides the testing service free of charge.

Doug Marett, manager of Advance Auto Parts on Clemson Boulevard in Anderson, said battery sales were brisk during the past week -- but nothing like they were in the early days of January, when his store sold all its batteries and every jug of antifreeze in stock.

"I think everyone with a weak battery bought a new one that week. But we're still pretty busy," Marett said.

Marett said tester sales have been steady all month. He sold his entire stock at one point but had testers back on the shelves late last week, priced between $1.99 and $3.98.

"Most garages will test the radiator as a courtesy. We try to keep them in stock for the do-it-yourself crowd," Marett said, "and we've sold quite a few in the last few days."

Davis Edwards, owner Holiday Automotive Services, a Carolinas AAA-recommended service center on McGee Street in Anderson, said he's been deluged with antifreeze issues much of the month.

"We've had a few battery problems in recent days, but the biggest problem we're seeing is coolant-related," said Edwards, whose crews dealt with a cracked radiator, cracked motor block, and blown freeze plugs Thursday. "Three cars were in here (Thursday) with problems caused by the fact that they didn't have enough antifreeze.

"In our business, the extremes are always the busy time. Very hot or very cold temperatures are hard on cars. This time of year, the problems usually surface in the mornings; either the car won't start, or it starts and runs hot because of a coolant problem."


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