Cars are more complicated today than ever before. Most systems in your car are computerized and need specially trained mechanics to deal with major repairs. But that doesn’t mean that you should give up on the notion that careful car maintenance will help keep your vehicle looking and running well, and, more importantly, out of the repair shop where the charges are usually going to be higher than you would like them to be.
The most important thing you can do regarding your car’s safety and longevity is to read your owner’s manual and find out when your car should be brought in for scheduled maintenance. It’s always better to spend some money on a regular basis, than to wait for something to go seriously wrong. It’s also a lot better to be safe than sorry…
…But there are also things that any car owner can do on his or her own. Unfortunately, most people overlook some of the simple things they can accomplish in their own driveway or garage, with a little time, a modicum of elbow grease and an assortment of simple tools. So, if you want to save money and extend the working life of your vehicle, follow these tips. They’ll help to keep your car running smoothly and your wallet in your pocket, where it belongs.
Wheels and Tires
You should check your tires regularly. Make sure that your tire pressure is up to specs. Beware of cheap tire pressure gauges – they don’t work as well as they should. Either invest in a decent gauge, or check your pressure at the gas station. Incorrect tire pressure affects fuel economy, car handling, and the comfort of your ride.
Check your tires’ tread depth. Never keep bald or slick tires on your car. You’re gambling your life and those of your passengers by riding on tires that don’t have adequate tread. If the tread is too low, replace them. No excuses.
Your tires should be rotated every 5000 miles or so. It’s not an easy job to do yourself, unless you can jack up the entire car safely. Take your car to the shop for this job. It’s not going to be expensive and your tires will last a lot longer.
Under the Hood
Most of the working parts in your engine are not going to be visible. But that doesn’t mean you can’t check what you can see. For example, make a visual inspection to determine if there are any leaks where oil or coolant has escaped from places where engine components are bolted together. A leak may mean that a gasket has failed. But replacing a gasket is going to be a lot cheaper than replacing an entire engine, should the problem get worse over time.
Check and change your engine oil and filter according to specs. No single step will help an engine last longer than regular oil and filter changes will. And yes, you can do this job, yourself. It’s a bit messy and some cars have oil filters that are tricky to get to, but it’s definitely something that will give you a sense of accomplishment. Make sure that you take used oil to the auto parts store for recycling. Don’t dump it in your yard or the street. It’s bad for the environment and against the law, as well.
Check the coolant level and flush the cooling system once a year. Replace what you’ve flushed with a 50/50 mixture of antifreeze and distilled water to keep the radiator and other parts of the system in good shape and corrosion-free. Check all hoses and clamps for breaks and leaks.
If you have a car with an automatic transmission, check the transmission fluid by pulling out the dipstick. The fluid should be pink and viscous and up to the mark on the stick. If it’s thin and brown and smells somewhat burnt, or too low, you need to get the car into the shop and have the transmission checked. A new or rebuilt transmission will run into the thousands of dollars.
While you’re under the hood, check all the other fluids, as well – brake, power steering, and windshield washer. Don’t forget to check the air filter, too. A clogged or dirty filter reduces your gas mileage.
Your battery is the heart of your car’s electrical system. If your battery terminals or contacts aren’t clean, it’s more difficult for the current to pass through the electrical system and your car won’t start. Carefully remove the cables attached to the battery posts and check for corrosion. Always remove the negative terminal first, then the positive. If you see what looks like a whitish/blue powder on the posts or contacts, it’s time to do a little cleaning.
Corrosion can be melted away with a mixture of water and baking soda. Use a wire brush to clean each post and get them as clean and shiny as possible. Reattach the cables and make sure they’re nice and tight. Always connect the positive terminal first, then the negative. Also, make sure that there is enough water in the battery cells. If not, fill each cell up to the top line with distilled water. Be careful whenever you’re working with your car’s battery. The acid in the cells can do damage to you and your surroundings.
This is another good time to check your car’s belts, as they are also part of the electrical system. The fan belt connects the alternator to the engine and it’s the alternator that keeps the electricity going after the battery has given the starter the charge it needs to start the car. If the alternator is not working properly, the car will use whatever charge is left in the battery, until it is exhausted. Then, the engine will die and you will find yourself slowly rolling to a stop when you don’t want to.
Brakes wear out over time. You’ll know when your brakes are getting old because you’ll have to depress the brake pedal a little more than you’re used to. Also, you’ll notice that your car is traveling farther than usual before coming to a full stop. Some car owners still do their own brake jobs, but the majority of us don’t have the know-how to do the job right. And when you’re dealing with brakes, you don’t want to be second-guessing. If you think that your brakes are wearing out, don’t wait. Take your car into the shop and have them checked by your mechanic.
While your brakes are being checked, have your wheel bearings greased and the front alignment checked at the same time. Your mechanic can also see if your car’s front-end components – tie rods, ball joints, etc. – are in good shape.
Lights & Wipers
Make sure all your lights are working – headlights, taillights, brake lights, and turn signals. You can replace most lights yourself, but be careful when replacing headlight bulbs. They are filled with halogen gas and have a special coating on the outside of the glass. If you touch the bulb, you will leave trace amounts of oil or grease on the glass. When the bulb heats up, the area you touched will overheat and eventually crack.
Your wiper blades let you see when it’s raining. Cracked, torn or worn out blades that streak your windshield imperil your vision and your safety. Replace them periodically. It’s a fairly simple job. Just make sure you buy the correct replacement blades for your car model.
The indicator lights on your dashboard used to be called “idiot lights.” No explanation necessary. Pay attention to them. They are hooked up to the car’s computer to warn you when systems are out of whack, or something has malfunctioned. Some lights are there to simply tell you that you are nearing the time for an oil change or some other scheduled maintenance, but some others will alert you that there is a serious problem and you need to stop driving immediately and call for assistance.
Indicator lights that you should not ignore include the oil pressure warning light, the coolant warning light, the battery warning light, and the brake warning light. If they come on when the car is started and then go off, everything is functioning normally. But if they come one when you’re driving, take note and realize that continued driving might not be the smartest thing to do.
The Body and the Interior
Keeping your car’s body clean and maintained is the easiest thing you can do yourself. Washing the car every few weeks with a non-abrasive cleanser and a garden hose will keep it looking new. Add a twice a year waxing to help keep dirt and grime from harming the finish.
Keeping the interior clean will add to your comfort and will also help your car’s resale value when it’s time to move on to another vehicle. Every auto parts store sells cleansers that will give your car’s interior a thorough once over.
Taking good care of your vehicle can make the difference between being the proud owner of a good looking, long lasting, reliable machine, and saying goodbye to a rusty, faded-paint jalopy that fell apart or broke down long before it was designed to. You’ve spent a good deal of money for your car. Spending a little more time and money on periodic maintenance will protect and prolong your investment.