After several months of activity, Taal Volcano is finally erupting, or at least in the process of clearing its throat. In doing so, it has spewed ash into the atmosphere, and winds are expected to carry it north towards the National Capital Region and possibly beyond.
The last time Metro Manila experienced ash of this magnitude was when Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, and the morning after we (who were already around back then) awoke to find a curious "winter wonderland" in a country that doesn't have snow.
But while volcanic ash may seem harmless, it's actually very dangerous. Simply put, volcanic ash isn't anything like you would normally get when you burn paper. Volcanic ash is actually pulverized rock and glass from the volcano. According to the US Geological Survey (USGS) volcanic ash is abrasive, mildly corrosive, can conduct electricity when wet, and doesn't dissolve in water. Think of it like sand, but gets scattered by the wind, and you can breathe it in.
So what are we supposed to do when it comes to managing ashfall? Of course, we know that we have quite a bit of clean up to do, as heavy ash build-up can be dangerous to structures. We also need to take extra precautions to protect our eyes and lungs by wearing protective goggles and N95 masks, but what about our cars?
Well, we've compiled a short list of tips with regards to driving, servicing, and cleaning cars in times like these. We based it on our experiences with experts in the field, car manufacturers and even the USGS.
1. Avoid driving if you can
It goes without saying: avoid driving in heavy ashfall unless you absolutely have to.
Driving in ashy conditions is very dangerous because of visibility issues, but also because according to the USGS, even dry ash can make roads very slippery. When it gets wet, volcanic ash turns into a mud-like substance that can also be very tricky to drive on.
If you have to drive, stay below 55 kilometers per hour. In heavy ash conditions, don't follow other cars too closely and always use your headlights.
2. Don't just wipe off ash from the body
If you've ever had a dirty car and some random kid decides to draw -with a finger- on your paintwork, you'll know the pain because that really leaves a mark. Dirt, after all, is abrasive.
Ash is worse because it's basically rock and glass, which is why you should put away that rag or microfiber cloth and grab a hose instead. Use water to wash away the ash because it will be gentler on your car's paintwork. A pressure washer is preferred, but a hose will do if your system has decent pressure.
3. Avoid using your windshield wipers without washer fluid
The abrasive nature of ash is also something you should keep in mind with your wipers and windshield, which is also another reason why you shouldn't drive out in ash unless you're forced to.
The problem is that if you use your wipers on your windshield, the silicone blades will pick-up the ash and potentially scratch your windshield. And that's something that won't buff out; you'll have to replace it.
If you do have to use your wipers, never do so while they're dry. You can use your windshield washer nozzles, but make sure you can turn on the water and fully drench the windshield before the wipers activate. Some even recommend that you have a water bottle handy to fully drench the windshield manually, but that will be difficult to say the least.
4. Your car's cooling and A/C system are very vulnerable
The bad part about ash is that it has a tendency to clog up tiny spaces, and cars are particularly vulnerable because they have radiators. If you take a look at a radiator, you'll notice that it has hundreds (or thousands) of fins that can easily get clogged up.
A/C units (both household and automotive) are very vulnerable too because of the same heat exchanger design, and given that they actively generate moisture in the process, the ash can actually turn to that muddy gunk and cause a lot of damage.
That will have to be cleaned out if you happen to drive in the midst of an ashfall. If you want to DIY, you will need a pressure washer.
5. Your car will need to be serviced
There is a lot of clean up involved with regards to ash because it just gets everywhere. Ash can get into the brakes and do some damage to the discs and calipers. Ash can get into the vents on your windshield cowl so keep your A/C on recirculate until you clear that out. Ash can cause abrasion on the rubber seals (weatherstrips) on top of the damage it can do to other external parts, but it can also damage internal components as well.
Your engine will be very vulnerable to ash because it has to suck in air to produce power. Your air filter will be the first thing that needs either replacing or cleaning; to do this, use compressed air on the clean side of the filter to blow out the debris from the dirty side. If you can replace the filter, even better.
Your engine oil and transmission fluids are also worth checking because ash particles can find a way in there as well. If you do spot some ash particles on the dipstick, you will have to change your oil because the abrasive ash can damage internal engine or transmission components if left unchecked.
Many of these tips actually come from fast off-roading in desert conditions because the issues are largely the same; sand, like ash, is abrasive, hard to see through, gets everywhere, and is tricky to get out.
The best thing to do is to avoid driving and to protect your car by parking indoors or using a cover. But if you have no other recourse, well, these tips should come in very handy.