It Is Okay To Leave Roof Racks On Your Car …Mostly

There is certainly are costs and benefits (time and money) influencing the decision of whether or not to remove a roof rack after every use.

It is generally allowed by law to leave roof bars on all the time. There are not many reasons to take roof racks off the vehicle when not in use, making them a great all-year car rack option. Constant use may affect wear and tear, which can be alleviated by regular maintenance.

If it makes sense for you to leave a roof rack on your car at all times depends largely on your intended use, car usage, and maintenance among other factors. I used to leave mine mounted for 3 years straight without any real downsides.

Pro-tip: Roof racks affect fuel efficiency more negatively than other car bike rack types. If you’re still undecided for which kind to get, check out the best overall car bike rack brands here.

You can you leave roof bars on all the time

Apart from certain situations, there is no real need to remove roof bars when not in use. This also applies to the most common roof rack types. You can drive with empty roof bike racks, roof boxes, and roof cargo baskets.

In my case, it was a really simple cost-benefit analysis. Having a roof rack helps in many different situations, even apart from transporting bikes in summer and skis and snowboards in winter. Having a cargo box up there is invaluable if the trunk space becomes insufficient – which can easily happen even with a big family hauler. I rarely drive on highways without my bikes, and if I do, it’s usually not for long distances. So the hit on fuel economy is negligible. With seldom visits to carwashes, the deal was sealed for me to leave my reliable Thule roof rack on there indefinitely.

This was a decision I made after weighing the positive and negative effects for my situation. For more detailed info on what leaving a roof rack mounted means for you, I invite you to check out my article “how roof racks affect cars“. One major effect is the gas mileage.

Roof bars do increase fuel consumption (sometimes)

Long story short: Roof racks are a drag on fuel economy. Still, there is nuance to this statement.

The reason why roof racks can lead to increased fuel consumption is because of the additional aerodynamic drag they create. Unless heavy cargo is loaded onto the rack, drag is the only reason for lower fuel efficiency. As you know, air drag is greater the faster you go and the greater the frontal surface area.

It is therefore recommended to remove empty roof racks for fuel efficiency reasons when you travel a major portion of miles at high speeds like on highways. Conversely, there is virtually no hit on gas mileage from roof racks when traveling at a slower pace like in city traffic. The same is true for loaded roof carriers. Higher speed equates to greater decreases in fuel economy.

So roof bars can only have any effect when the car moves, obviously. Which is a weird way of saying: If you rarely use your car anyways, this topic is a no-brainer.

If you want to nerd out on the details of roof rack fuel efficiency, you are in luck!
I got just the article for you.

Do roof racks wear with age?

In order to even make this decision, I think a durable roof rack is fundamental. Durable means, that the roof rack is made out of sturdy, high-quality materials, is coated to protect it from the elements and salt in winters and is tested thoroughly by the manufacturer to easily withstand anything I can put it through on the road. To easily identify such high-quality producers, I made a list of reputable roof rack brands.

Anything strapped to the outside of your car is exposed to the elements and the usual wear and tear. Roof racks are no exception. If you leave one on a car for any significant length of time you can expect worn coating or brittle rubber feet. A quality roof rack can be maintained for years on end without degrading performance or safety.

Honda Civic with a Thule Roof Bike Rack
This Thule roof bike rack outlasted my 1999 Honda Civic.

If you have a quality rack there is little to worry about unless you live where there is snow. Then the road salt and junk can cause issues if you don’t regularly wash it. Plastic racks will age faster by the sun exposure and will start getting weaker besides fading color. Some kind of exterior plastic protector would be good for keeping them in good condition.

Do roof racks damage your car?

To clarify this question, we need to make an important distinction between roof rack types. The first category attaches to the factory-installed side rails on a car roof, that are a fixed part of your car. Aftermarket roof bars attach to them, not to the roof directly. So there is no contact to either the roof or any part of the actual car chassis. The side rails attach to the car on two to three contact points and distribute the weight evenly.

So-called “clip tower” roof racks on the other hand are completely removable and attach to the side of your car. They have no pre-installed attachment points and are mounted in door frames of cars. The weight rests on four rubber feet, that stand on the car’s roof.

roof rack with clip tower feet on a honda civic
My roof rack with clip tower feet hooked between doors and roof on a Honda Civic.

In order for them to fit the safety tension between the door and the roof, they are placed below the rubber seal of the door frame. This still seals from rain and wind, but the rubber has to assume a shape not intended. Unless it is brittle, it does not take damage from this. You’ll probably be left with slightly distorted rubber that’ll take a while to return to shape when the rack is removed.

The other point of contact are the rubber feet, that hold the roof rack’s weight on the car roof. The support on the side of the car is extremely strong, so there is virtually no risk of actually denting the roof.

Can roof bars damage paint?

We clarified before that only one type of roof rack has direct contact with any painted surfaces of the car. Since the clip tower roof racks are not bolted to the car, there is the tiniest of movement possible, especially with the usual road vibrations while driving. These vibrations alone are not enough to harm the car’s paint besides some minor marks.

It is important to note, that regular cleaning is very much recommended in order to remove and dirt trapped between the rubber feet and the car roof. Make sure there isn’t any muck when installing the roof rack, to begin with. Under normal operation, especially in dusty, rainy, or snowy regions, it is to be expected that some dirt finds its way in any cracks.

Bits of road dust will get caught between the rack and roof over time and abrasion marks can result. So, remove the roof rack regularly to clean it underneath, even if it stays installed.

Can a car with roof bars go through a carwash?

Manufacturers clearly state that racks must be removed before using an automatic car wash. This is due to the possibility of brushes getting tangled in roof racks or their accessories. In the worst case, they can damage the rack, pull it off or damage the carwash itself.

I personally have not had an issue using them with a bike roof rack or bike trunk rack attached. It is possible, although not recommended. With that being said, the roof rack prohibits the brushes from cleaning the area under the rack. Manual cleaning is still necessary to get your car completely spotless.

Depending on the vehicle and type of rack, you may exceed the maximum height limit for automatic carwashes.

Roof racks may increase your car insurance

Depending on the insurance provider, even temporarily attached (removable) roof racks can be considered vehicle modifications. Sadly, this means for some of us installing an item to make travel life easier, we get stuck on another hurdle.

This is highly dependent on insurance carrier and jurisdiction though. One reason is that any modification increasing the vehicle’s value also justifies an increased insurance premium to cover possible damage.

Another reason is the safety issues attached to the additional accessory on your roof. Faulty installation or incorrect usage might pose road safety issues for you and others.

That being said, your insurance may already cover some types of modifications, including car racks. Sadly, there is often a distinction made for functional mods. If you decided to match your car’s paint job to a pineapple, the only things raised will be some eyebrows, not your insurance rate. For roof racks, however, it is not necessarily that straightforward.

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