Maintaining your vehicle may seem daunting at first glance. It may help to think of your car or truck as a collection of simple mechanical devices that work together to get you from place to place, instead of looking at your vehicle as one extremely complicated machine. Try to focus on each function of the car and what is required to maintain it. Proper maintenance will significantly prolong the life of your vehicle and reduce the headaches of repairs in the future.
Inspecting Your Vehicle
Check the tread depth on your tires regularly. Tires come in many shapes and sizes, and depending on the application, the type and depth of the tread can vary. Most tires now come with tread wear lines that cross the tire perpendicular to the grooves of the tread. Once the tread wears down to the point that the tread wear lines are even with the tread, your tires need to be replaced.
Another common method to check tread wear is to press an upside down penny into the groove between treads. If you can see all of Abraham Lincoln’s head, the tread is too worn down.
Driving on tires with treads that are too worn can result in blowing out a tire or losing traction in the rain.
Ensure your tires are properly inflated. Your tires were designed to operate with a specific amount of air pressure inside them. Driving on tires that are under inflated can do damage to the sidewalls of the tires, causing them to rupture and deflate. Look on the side of the tire on your vehicle for the maximum pressure rating for the tire, then fill it to match. Place a tire gauge on the tire’s valve stem to see if the tires require air, then use an air compressor to inflate your tires if need be.
Under inflated tires can also dramatically reduce your gas mileage, as the vehicle works harder to propel you on soft tires.
Over inflated tires can also be more prone to blow outs and will reduce the life span of your tire.
Inspect your serpentine or accessory belts for signs of damage. Your engine powers its accessories like the power steering pump, air conditioning and alternator using belts driven by the crank pulley. These belts can wear out or become damaged if a pulley goes bad or they rub on something in the engine bay. Visually inspect these belts for signs of cracking, rubbing or other damage. If the belt appears to be damaged, it must be replaced.
If your vehicle is equipped with a timing belt, it could cause significant damage to your engine if it breaks.
If you notice signs of rubbing, you will need to move what was rubbing it when you replace the belt to ensure it doesn’t occur again.
Check your oil level regularly. To check your oil, locate the dipstick in your vehicle. The top of a dipstick is often bright yellow and easily identified, but if you have trouble finding it, refer to the owner’s manual for your vehicle. Pull the dipstick out and wipe off the oil on it. Look at the clean dipstick so you can easily identify the full line, then slide it back into the engine. Remove it once more and look at the level the oil reaches on the stick.
If your dipstick has multiple lines, the top one indicates “full” and each line below it represents a quart of oil that needs to be added.
If your oil levels are low, it may be because of an oil leak. Fill it back up and check it frequently to determine if there is an issue with oil leaking or burning in your vehicle.
Ensure your vehicle has enough coolant and brake fluid. Under the hood you will find both a coolant and a brake fluid reservoir. These plastic containers will have lines in them that represent how much fluid should be in each. If they are below the full line, you should top them off to ensure your vehicle never runs without either. Refer to your owner’s manual to help you identify the reservoirs and choose the proper fluid to replace them with, per the manufacturer’s recommendations.
Coolant travels through your engine to help regulate engine temperatures.
Your vehicle uses brake fluid to engage the brakes when you press on the pedal. Low brake fluid could cause your vehicle to brake erratically or fail to brake at all.
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Test your headlights, tail lights and turn signals. Your headlights are essential to seeing at night and your tail lights and turn signals help ensure other drivers see you and understand your intentions. It’s important that all of these lights are functioning properly at all times. Have a friend stand outside of your car as you test each light to ensure they are working.
Replace any lights that blow out as soon as possible.
If one of your turn signals begins to flash faster than normal, it is likely because the coinciding turn signal on the other end of the vehicle has blown out.
Take immediate action if you see a dashboard warning light. Most vehicles come equipped with a number of warning lights that can let you know if there is an issue that needs to be addressed. These symbols are fairly universal regardless of auto maker and can warn you about things like low tire pressure, excessive engine temperature or an issue with your anti-lock brake system. Refer to your vehicle’s owner’s manual to see each symbol and what it represents so you can take the proper action when a light comes on.
If a light comes on that you are unsure of, pull over and turn off the vehicle until you are able to identify the issue.
If you do not have an owner’s manual, try referring to the auto maker’s website or a site like http://dashboardsymbols.com/the-symbols
Keep your vehicle battery clean and secure. Most modern automotive batteries require very little maintenance, but you can prolong the life of your battery with a few simple steps. Make sure the terminals of the battery are clean and free from corrosion and check to ensure the strap securing the battery is tight. Some batteries may require that you check the fluid levels in the battery and add to it if need be.
The vibrations caused by an unsecured battery can reduce the lifespan of the battery.
Make sure the terminals are free of corrosion to ensure a proper connection.
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Conducting Regular Maintenance
Change the oil every 3,000 miles, or as directed in your owner’s manual. Motor oil is the lubricant that keeps your engine running smoothly. Running your engine without enough oil or oil that has broken down over time can result in significant damage to your engine. Some vehicles do not require oil changes every 3,000 miles, so refer to your owner’s manual to see what the manufacturer recommends for your vehicle. To change your oil, remove the oil drain plug from the bottom of the oil pan and drain the oil into a container. Replace the oil filter and refill the engine with the correct amount of oil as listed in your owner’s manual.
When you change your oil, you should always replace your oil filter as well.
Check your owner’s manual for the proper oil capacity to ensure you fill the engine up with the correct amount of oil.
Rotate your tires every 6,000 miles. You can increase the lifespan of your tires by rotating them regularly. To rotate your tires, simply switch them from one side to the other, the front to the back, or both. The position your wheel is in in relation to the car affects how the tread will wear down, so rotating your tires to different locations on the car will ensure the tread wears down evenly, whereas leaving them in one place may cause one area of the tire to wear down more quickly than others.
Rotating your tires can make your tires last significantly longer.
You will not need to remove the tires from the wheels, instead simply bolt the wheel and tire together to a different corner of the car.
Replace your brake pads every 20,000 miles or as needed. There are a number of variables that come into play when determining how often to replace your brake pads. Aggressive driving, softer compound brake pads, or frequently driving in traffic can all reduce the lifespan of your pads. Most brake pads come equipped with a small piece of metal that will rub on the rotor when the pads are too low. This causes your brakes to squeak and squeal. If you notice your brakes making a high pitched noise, they likely need to be replaced.
Always replace the pads on both sides of the car at once. Never replace just one brake pad.
Your front brakes will need to be replaced more often than your rears, as they do the majority of the work to stop the vehicle.
Put in new spark plugs every 30,000 miles. Spark plugs ignite the mixture of air and fuel inside your engine to produce power, but over time they can become corroded. Corroded spark plugs have a limited ability to ignite the air/fuel mixture and can cause your engine to misfire or run poorly. A failed spark plug may result in that cylinder of your car ceasing to fire at all. Use a spark plug wrench to remove old spark plugs and replace them with matching new ones.
You may need to adjust the gap between the spark plug and the prong sticking out of it using a spark plug gapping tool. You can find the proper gap measurement in your vehicle’s service manual.
Make sure to purchase the right spark plugs for your specific year, make and model vehicle. Ask an employee at your local auto parts store to look up the correct spark plugs for your application.
Replace your air filter every 45,000 miles. Your engine requires a good source of air as much as it needs gasoline to function, and over time your air filter can become clogged with dust, dirt and oil. Replacing your air filter every 45,000 miles can ensure your engine continues to run properly. Locate your air box by referring to your vehicle’s owner’s manual, then unlatch the clips to gain access to the air filter. Remove the old one and drop a new one into the air box in its place.
A clogged up air filter can reduce your gas mileage and the amount of power the vehicle produces.
Some aftermarket air filters can be cleaned every 45,000 miles instead of being replaced.
Install a new fuel filter every 60,000 miles. Gasoline is often quite dirty, and the sediment would clog up your fuel system and prevent the car from running without a fuel filter. The filter is often located just past the fuel pump on the underside of the vehicle. When functioning properly, it prevents dirt and grime from reaching the fuel system in your engine. Of course, over time this filter will get clogged too, preventing fuel from reaching your engine at all. To change your fuel filter, remove the two plastic clips holding the filter in place and slide a new one in every 60,000 miles to prevent this from occurring.
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Drain and flush your coolant system every two to five years. Like oil, coolant can eventually go bad. When coolant goes bad, its ability to regulate the temperature of your engine becomes compromised and your vehicle may overheat. Combat this by draining your coolant system, flushing it with a hose, then filling it up with a new coolant and water mixture every two to five years.
If You drive your vehicle aggressively or in harsh conditions, you should drain and flush your coolant more often.
If your vehicle has been running unusually hot or cold, it is likely due to coolant that needs to be replaced.
If you break the plastic clips that hold the fuel filter in place, you can purchase new ones at your local auto parts store. Your replacement filter may have even come with some.
You will need to jack the car up to gain access to the fuel filter in most vehicles.
Install new windshield wipers as needed. Your windshield wipers may not seem like an important part of vehicle maintenance, but worn out wipers can put you in danger if you find yourself in a heavy rain storm. As your windshield wipers wear out, they will begin to fail to displace the water on the windshield. Prolonged exposure to extreme temperatures can cause windshield wipers to wear out prematurely.
Make sure to look for the correct size windshield wipers for your year, make and model vehicle.
It is not uncommon for your vehicle to require two different sized windshield wipers.
Addressing Maintenance that Requires a Professional
Review your owner’s manual. Every vehicle comes with a list of service recommendations to ensure it continues to operate properly. You may be able to address a number of these things, but some many be beyond your level of mechanical expertise. Check in your owner’s manual for service recommendations, then choose which ones you feel you can handle on your own.
Some vehicles require timing chain or belt replacements every certain number of miles. This may require removing the engine from the vehicle itself and should not be ignored. Failing to properly maintain your timing chain or belt could result in serious damage to the engine.
Contact the service manager at your local dealership. Once you have identified a maintenance service you’d like to have done to your vehicle, contact the local dealership for your make of vehicle and ask to speak to the service manager. Ask for a quote on what conducting the necessary service may cost. The service manager should be able to provide you with a fairly reliable quote, as they likely conduct regular maintenance on vehicles like yours often.
The dealership that specializes in your brand of vehicle is the most likely to have the tools and expertise required for difficult maintenance tasks.
Some dealerships may provide a loner vehicle to drive while they work on your vehicle.
Get quotes from other trusted dealerships or shops. You may also want to get service quotes from other dealerships in the area specializing in your make of vehicle, or even from local garages. Some small garages may not have the equipment necessary to do specialized jobs on uncommon cars, but they can often fulfill most service requests.
Don’t always opt for the least expensive quote. Try looking up the shops you are considering online to read reviews from previous customers.
Schedule a service appointment. Once you’ve chosen the place you’d like to conduct the maintenance on your vehicle, call them again to schedule an appointment to bring your car in. Remove any personal belongings from your vehicle before leaving it at the dealership for service.
Make sure you know whether or not you can wait for your vehicle there or if you should make arrangements for a ride.
Depending on the nature of the job, it may take hours or days to complete the maintenance on your vehicle.
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Consider service recommendations made by the dealership. When you bring your vehicle in, the service manager or techs may point out other issues they have identified over the course of conducting the maintenance, or offer suggestions for other things you may want to address while your car is already there. You do not have to permit them to do any additional work, so consider what they suggest and make a determination based on your own finances and what’s best for the vehicle.
Some things recommended by the service manager or techs may be issues that should be addressed immediately, while others may be something you can resolve later on.
Never feel pressured to pay for additional services that you do not want.