How many miles do you typically wait before changing your oil? To what PSI should your tires be inflated? Do you really need to change that air filter? Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet to ensure longevity and trouble free operation for all vehicles; however, performing some simple routine maintenance can go a long way to keeping your car rolling down the highway while keeping a few extra bucks in your pocket.
As a rule of thumb, you should always check your owner’s manual before attempting any maintenance or repair. Every vehicle is just a little bit different, and a how-to or tutorial you find on the internet may not be accurate. Additionally, your owner's manual will include recommendations specific to your vehicle that you may not realize.
Check and change your oil
This is the single most important routine maintenance you can perform on your vehicle. Running an engine with low or dirty oil will almost certainly result in very expensive repair bills or even totaling out your vehicle.The rule of thumb for timing on your oil changes is once every 3000 miles or 3 months. You can stretch this further if necessary or if you use a high-performance synthetic oil; but it is important to understand that the oil in your engine does a lot more than just lubricate. It also acts as a filter, removing any carbon, dirt or metal that may have made its way into the combustion chamber.
It is important to check your owner’s manual to see if your dipstick is calibrated for a cold engine or a warm engine. If you have a high-mileage car or truck (100K+ miles) it is worth checking the levels and quality of the oil at least once a month. Pull the dipstick and clean it with a clean paper towel. The oil should be translucent amber in color and relatively clean. If your oil level reads low, slowly add oil until it reaches the recommended levels. If it’s black or smells burnt, it’s time for an oil change.
It’s also a good idea to check your oil levels after you drive away from a quick-lube service. Many instances of stripped oil plugs, leaking oil plugs, and other problems resulting in a ruined engine have been reported. In most cases, this happened because of a simple error that could have been avoided. A good service technician should show you the dipstick for you to verify the fill level while you are still in the garage.
Keep your tires inflated to the recommended PSI
Did you know that under or over-inflated tires can cause untimely wear and tear on your vehicle, drain your MPG, or cause catastrophic failure of your tires? Keeping your tires inflated to the proper PSI will save you at the pump and help your tires last longer, saving you money. Most vehicles have a recommended PSI range printed on a factory info tag located on the door sill or behind the gas door. Read it carefully, and follow the recommendations.
Keep a tire PSI gauge in your glove box at all times so you can check your tire pressure regularly. You should do this at least once a month but more in periods of temperature fluctuation or if your vehicle moves from a warm garage to freezing temps outside. While the PSI should be checked and adjusted on a regular basis, it is especially important for any instance where you are towing or pulling a heavy load such as a pull behind camper/trailer or a fully loaded truck bed.
Keep your car clean
Everyone knows a clean car looks great, but did you know it can also help your car stay on the road longer? Dirt, road tar, bird droppings, and tree sap, among other things, all begin to damage your paint upon contact. If you don’t clean it quickly, it may permanently damage your paint beyond simple repair, requiring costly professional body work.
Paint chips and scratches down to bare metal should be sealed with a rust preventative or touch up paint to prevent rusting. It’s recommended to apply a high-quality carnauba based automotive wax to protect your paint finish at least once every six months.
Waxing by hand is time-consuming and labor intensive but very safe for your paint. Utilizing a power rotary polishing tool such as the Makita 9237c, on the other hand, can help cut down the time and effort required to buff and wax your vehicle; but it does require a bit of practice to get a swirl-free finish and could cause damage to your finish if not used properly. A D/A rotary polisher is probably the best tool for the job, as the random orbiting pattern helps prevent swirl marks or hot spots while applying polishing compounds or waxes and is much easier for a beginner to get professional looking results.
A Vehicle’s interior often gets neglected, but it is important to keep that clean as well. Keeping your interior upholstery and carpets clean will help prevent snags, scratches or scuffs and prevent foreign objects from entering any of the control surfaces in your vehicle, which may cause a short circuit in electronic components. Be sure to use a UV protectant on the exposed plastic and vinyl trim in your interior to prevent cracking and fading from sun damage.
If a liquid is spilled on the carpeting, especially soda, it is important to clean and dry the carpeting as quickly and thoroughly as possible, as it may cause the floor pan of your vehicle to rust from the inside out if left unattended. A good set of heavy duty all-weather floor mats are perfect to keep the carpets of your vehicle in great shape.
Change your air filters
The average vehicle requires that you change your air intake filter every 15,000-30,000 miles. This number varies by make and model, so be sure to check your owner’s manual for the specific mileage numbers for your vehicle. Dirty air filters will pass particulate into the engine combustion chamber causing your engine oil to age prematurely, increase engine temperatures, and restrict airflow, which lowers your fuel economy. Frequent travel on unpaved roads will mean you should change your intake filter more frequently. Intake air filters are an inexpensive item that can be easily changed on almost every vehicle without any specialized tools.
There is a second air filter in modern vehicles that is often neglected: the cabin air filter.
If you turn on the AC or heater in your car and get a bad/musty/moldy smell from the vents, chances are you are due for a cabin air filter change. If you have allergies, getting an activated carbon cabin air filter can help cut down on the particulates that cause allergic reactions.
Check the lubrication of your suspension components
This is something that might be beyond most shade tree mechanics, but it is important for the longevity of the most critical components of your vehicle's suspension and steering.
Making sure the ball joints are lubed and functioning properly not only ensures your vehicle is safe and roadworthy; but it can also prevent catastrophic failure which would undoubtedly cause additional damage and potentially cause you to lose control of your vehicle while in motion. You should have the ball joints inspected at least once a year or whenever you have your tires rotated.
Same goes for warning lights on your dash. If you see a check engine light, you should get it checked out right away. You can pick up an inexpensive OBD scanner to keep in your vehicle, or most neighborhood parts stores will have one that you can borrow. With an OBD scanner, you can pull the fault code, look it up, and find the related component. You don’t want to find out that a $10 O2 sensor you put off replacing ended up doing thousands of dollars worth of damage to your engine because it wasn’t running at the proper air/fuel ratio.
Don’t ignore that clunking sound
It might sound obvious, but any time you hear a clunk, screech, or whistle that is out of the ordinary, you should address it right away. It is likely an early warning sign of a larger problem, and ignoring the problem will almost certainly result in larger repair bills down the road. Try to keep a good mental record of what you are doing when you hear that noise. Most good mechanics are able to use that information to get a better idea of what is going on with your car.
Repairing your vehicle yourself is a great way to save money and easier than most people think. Just be sure you have the tools you need to do the job right. A good repair manual will provide step-by-step repair instructions for your specific make and model. As an added bonus, many repair manual publishers are now making their catalogs available in digital format so you can download a PDF to your phone or tablet and always have it when you need it. If you take care of your vehicle, it will likely return the favor and keep you safely rolling on down the highway for many, many miles.
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