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How to Fight Car Rust

Pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.

Rust is an unfortunate reality that every car owner has to face. This unsightly problem not only detracts from the appearance of your car, but can also lead to you shelling out a lot of money to have it fixed at the local body shop if it gets out of hand.

To avoid a hit in the wallet, practice smart rust prevention methods and learn how to repair small rusted spots on your own. Proper rust prevention keeps the car body in top condition to help the vehicle maintain its value over time.

What Makes Cars Rust?

Pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.
Pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.

Rust formation requires three elements: an anode, a cathode and an electrolyte. Anodes are metals that release electrons; cathodes accept electrons. Electrolytes are liquids that give electrons something to move through. This means that, whenever your car is exposed to moisture, there’s a potential for rust to form. That’s why cars rust faster in humid climates and during seasons of severe weather. Salt used on roads during the winter and carried in ocean breezes makes cars more susceptible to rust since electrons move quickly through salt water.

Where does Rust Most Commonly Appear?

Photo by Ben Hosking on Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Photo by Ben Hosking on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Some areas are more prone to rust than others, so when inspecting your car for rust, make sure to check the frame, wheel wells, fenders near the tires, chassis, the engine, the exhaust system and the trunk thoroughly.

This doesn’t mean that rust won’t form anywhere else. Inspect the entire surface for scratches, chips and pits. Any exposed metal is a prime location for rust to form. Dark spots on the paint may indicate hidden rust that needs to be fixed. Pay particular attention to the front of the car and the areas around the wheel wells since these are often exposed to loose road debris. Rust can also form in places that you can’t easily inspect, so have your mechanic check the underside of the vehicle the next time it’s up on a lift.

Rust will first appear in paint nicks, scratches and cracks.

Such appearance is usually referred to as surface rust. If left unattended, surface rust will become scale rust, meaning that it has reached deeper levels. You can instantly recognize it by formation of bubbles. If it progresses any further, the metal will flake away and leave a hole, which means that some costly repairs will be needed.

Practicing Good Rust Prevention

Taking the right precautions can help stop rust before it starts. Rust forms when moisture and other substances such as salt find their way into unprotected areas on your car. When heat comes into play, this facilitates oxidation of the metal and you end up with spots that might be tricky to find and hard to get rid of.

Regular cleaning and maintenance is essential to keep rust at bay. Following these steps can help you safeguard your vehicle:

  • Give the car a thorough washing twice a month and wax it every two months.
  • Increase washing to once a week if you encounter salted roads.
  • Never leave spilled liquids sitting inside the car.
  • Wash interior carpets as necessary.
  • Give wheel wells an additional cleaning whenever they look dirty.
  • Wipe accumulated moisture off metal surfaces.
  • Clean the underside of the car using a hose or lawn sprinkler.
  • Examine the car frequently for damage and touch up any chips in the paint as soon as possible.

What to Do When You Find Rust

Sometimes it’s impossible to avoid rust even if you’re diligent with cleaning and inspecting. If you do come across small spots of rust, it’s imperative that you take care of them right away. If you choose to ignore them, they can quickly become big spots that you won’t be able to handle yourself. To fix rust, you’ll need a few simple tools:

  • Painter’s tarp
  • Painter’s tape
  • Soft, clean cloths
  • Masking paper
  • Handheld sanding wheel
  • Acid solution
  • 150-grit sandpaper
  • Primer
  • Paint in a color that matches your car

Be sure to gather some safety gear as well. Safety glasses, a mask and rubber gloves protect you from debris, dust and chemical exposure as you work. Put on all of your safety equipment before starting the job.

Next, you need to protect the parts of your car that aren’t rusted. The best way to protect the car is to use painters tape and masking paper. Avoid using newspaper since paint and other substances can easily leak through. Be precise when you cover to avoid dust accumulation and other blemishes on the surface of the car. Make sure the windows are closed so that no dust particles enter the vehicle’s interior. Once the car is masked, use a 150-grit sanding wheel to polish off as much of the rust as you can.

Switch to a metal grinding wheel to finish the job. Be careful as you go to avoid damaging intact parts of the car. Finish up with 150-grit sandpaper to smooth out the area. Grab a clean cloth and wipe off any dust. Apply an acid such as lemon juice, vinegar or a commercial preparation to the area to dissolve any remaining rust. Remove the acid as soon as possible with another clean cloth to prevent it eating away at too much of the vehicle’s surface. Now get your primer and paint.

Pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.
Pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.

Read the labels carefully before applying three coats of primer, waiting about ten minutes between each coat. Once the final coat has been applied, leave the primer to dry for about 12 hours. Gently sand the surface smooth and wipe it clean before applying at least three coats of paint to cover the area. Wait a full 24 hours after painting to remove the tape and masking paper. If everything looks good, go ahead and give the car a thorough washing and waxing so that it shines like new.

In Conclusion

Owning a car involves a lot more than hopping in and driving yourself around town now and then. Routine maintenance including rust prevention is essential to maintaining the look, value and operation of the vehicle in the long term.

What do you do to keep your car rust-free?

Ask your mechanic to check for clogged drain holes and other potential problems that could facilitate rust. Be sure to wash your car regularly and be diligent about looking for rust every time it gets a bath. Being attentive to the state of your car makes you more aware of conditions that promote rust and helps you catch and repair small spots before they can cause serious damage.


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