If you are like most people, including myself. car maintenance is one of those chores that you know needs to be done, but you’d rather not do. Sort of like mowing the grass, cleaning the toilet, or flossing. But, like all of those things, if you don’t perform routine car maintenance, you will run into problems down the road (pun intended!)
How important is routine maintenance? Well, let me tell you about a friend, whom I will call S. Back in high school, S. had a used Chevy Blazer that he used to drive to school and his job at the mall. One day, he stopped for gas on the way to work and then his car wouldn’t start. The engine had seized. It turns out, there was absolutely not a single drop of oil left. He didn’t even know that you needed to check it!
He got off lucky. Another friend (who really should have learned from S.) had a much more spectacular failure. C. was in his 5th year of college and finally ready to graduate. Just one last final to go. He was driving to school to take his final final exam. He started to smell smoke, so he pulled over to investigate. No sooner did he get his car to a stop on the shoulder of the interstate, but the engine exploded. Guess who didn’t have any oil in their engine either?
So your car needs routine maintenance, and if you learn how to do it yourself, you will save a boatload (carload?) of money in the process. The problem is that many people think that car maintenance is difficult and expensive to perform yourself. For some of the most common and basic maintenance jobs, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Aside from replacement fluids, it should only take about $20 to buy the items you need. Consider it an investment; they will pay for themselves in a couple uses.
Top off Fluids
Topping off fluids is probably the easiest and most important car maintenance step. Unless you have one of those German luxury cars where everything is self-contained and you need to go to the dealer to get an oil change, everything is accessible right under the hood. Simply pop the hood and lift it up.
Items to check here are oil, coolant, power-steering, transmission fluid (many newer cars are self-contained for that and don’t have a dipstick, but if yours does, check it), brake fluid, and windshield washer fluid.
The oil dipstick is usually a long shaft kind of by itself. The handle is usually a different color and may or may not have an icon printed on it. Pull it out, wipe it with a rag, replace it, and pull it out again. Near the tip there will be markings letting you know if you need to add oil or not. The line marked fill means that you are one quart of oil low. Halfway between the two markings would be half a quart. If the oil doesn’t even reach the dipstick, add oil RIGHT NOW!
Check your service manual to determine the right grade of oil.
Most people just call this anti-freeze, but you actually use a 50/50 mix of anti-freeze and water. Anti-freeze extends the range at which water remains a liquid, otherwise it would free and burst your radiator in the winter, or boil off while driving in the summer.
There is an overflow reservoir attached by a small hose to the radiator. You are supposed to check the fluid level in there, but I find that to be unreliable. Instead, I open the radiator cap and check there instead. ****NEVER TRY TO OPEN THE RADIATOR CAP WHILE THE ENGINE IS STILL HOT***** First of all, it is hot; very hot. Second of all, it will be under pressure and will shoot up when you loosen it, sending boiling hot liquid everywhere.
Once the engine is cool, remove the cap like you would a child-safe medicine bottle. The level liquid should be near the opening. If not, pour pre-mixed anti-freeze/water mixture directly in.
The power steering reservoir can be in numerous places and may or may not be marked, but the cap will be about three inches in diameter and the reservoir itself about as deep.
Here is a hint. Power steering fluid is expensive, but Type F automatic transmission fluid is the same thing and much cheaper. Buy that instead.
In every car I have ever seen, the brake fluid reservoir is in the corner of the engine compartment closest to the driver. It is also clear in most cases so you can check it without opening. If it isn’t see-through, first try cleaning it with your rag. It may just be dirty.
Windshield washer fluid
While this one isn’t important to the running of your engine, it is still a safety issue. If dust, bugs, or bird poop is blocking your view of the road, that can cause an accident. The reservoir is almost always in a front corner of the engine compartment. In many cases, you will just see a long neck coming up from somewhere hidden. In almost all cases, it will say something about the windshield, or have the stream of water icon that is also inside the car showing how to turn the windshield washer on.
In the summer, they sell a formulation that is supposed to remove bugs easier and in the winter, they sell a formulation with a lower freezing point. The lower freezing point stuff is usually the same price as the regular, so I just buy that and use it year round.
There are two primary filters in the engine that are easily replaceable. The first is the oil filter, which we will get to momentarily. The other is the air filter. Back in the days of carburetors, it was a round ring that sat on the top of the engine. Now it is usually a box off to the side. Look for a boxy compartment to the engine that is held in place with latches. Disengage those latches and remove the lid. The air filter will have a plastic bezel around a wavy white material somewhere between paper and cardboard. If the filter is white or light gray, it’s okay. Darker grey, brown, or even black means that it needs to be replaced.
You need to routinely check your tires for wear and damage. Make sure they are properly inflated (inside the driver’s door, when you open it, there will be an information panel telling you the proper tire pressure). If they are low, some gas stations still have free air. King Soopers will let you use their air compressor for free if you buy gas. But most places will charge between 1-3 quarters.
Also check the tires for cracks, that there is nothing sticking out of the tire, and other signs of damage. Finally, check the tread wear. Take a quarter and stick it upside down (so Washington is on his head) in between the treads. If you can see the top of Washington’s head on the coin, you have less than 4/32 of an inch of tread left and it is time to replace the tire.
Changing the oil is probably the most involved of the easy to perform steps, but is important, because oil wears out.This is best done while the engine is warm but not hot. Hot oil can burn you, but cool oil will drain slowly.
First, you need to jack up your car. If you only have a scissor jack, get jack stands or a different jack. It is NOT safe to get under your car when it is propped up with a scissor jack. The car can easily fall off the jack and seriously injure you if you are underneath. This will break your $20 budget, but is important.
The other items you need are an oil drip pan, a wrench,and oil filter wrench and a funnel. If you don’t have a set of wrenches already, go to an automotive parts store and they can look up what size wrench your oil pan plug needs.
Once the car is jacked up, put it in park (or gear, if standard transmission), engage the parking brake, and block all the tires on the ground with blocks of wood, large rocks, or cinder blocks.
Crawl under the car and locate the oil pan. It will be roughly a foot square with a bolt sticking out of the end. Take care not to use the transmission fluid reservoir by mistake. Position the drip pan underneath the bolt, and use the wrench to remove it.
While it is draining, remove the oil filter. In some cars, it is underneath, on others above. Use the filter wrench to turn it. On the new filter, smear used oil on the gasket and then screw it in place. It should only be hand tightened, or the gasket will not seal properly.
When the oil is done draining from the pan, replace the bolt. Pull the drip pan out from under the car, and lower it to the ground. You can then fill the oil from the same cap where I described above.
Washing the car doesn’t sound like car maintenance, but it is. A dirty car rusts more easily!
Do you do your own car maintenance? Is there anything else you do that I didn’t cover here?
Also found on the 419th edition of the Carnival of Personal Finance: http://www.miss-thrifty.co.uk/2013/06/24/carnival-of-personal-finance-419-the-toads-edition/