Hobby #2 : Car Maintenance

by Chris Sanchez

Basic Car Maintenance for Everyone!

Working on cars is certainly not for everyone. This may be a pretty basic article for car enthusiasts who already do most of their own maintenance but for beginners or those looking to learn a little more, I hope it can be insightful.

I have a strong drive to work with my hands and one of those outlets is to work on my own car when I can. My dad taught me from a young age how to take care of a car. From simple things like changing the windshield wipers and checking the fluids to tougher things like changing the oil and replacing the brake pads.

Taking care of your car doesn’t have to be complicated and even this simplest of things, like routine oil changes, can lengthen the life of your car for many miles. If you’re not comfortable doing tasks yourself then make sure you’re able to find a trustworthy mechanic. That’s certainly easier said than done but still important none-the-less. Trying to research for the best reviews online that will help you determine who to go to. For the basic or routine tasks however you can find freedom and ownership in being able to take care of something that seems to be a mystery for many people. This article will help outline the basics and a subsequent article or two will go into the more complicated car maintenance jobs.


Tires (Your car only touches about the size of your hand)

The first and easiest thing is checking your tire pressure. Everyone should buy a tire pressure gauge to keep in your armrest or glove box. You should try and check your tire pressure at least once a month or every other month to ensure they are not losing tire pressure. Driving on flat tires is not only dangerous but reduces gas mileage as well. With an under inflated tire it has a wider than necessary footprint on the road which causes excess drag. It can also lead to abnormal wear, which will cause you to replace your tires earlier than their expected life. Be sure not to overinflate your tires either. There should be a PSI range printed on the outside wall of the tire itself or on the edge of the driver’s door. Over inflation can be dangerous, your tire heats up as it is making contact with the road and if it’s over inflated then it might cause a blowout. Keeping tabs on your tire pressure takes 2 minutes every so often and it can save you money or even from getting into a car accident. If you don’t take away anything else from this article please at least do this, as it’s too important to ignore.

Along with checking tire pressure it's important to check the tread left on your tires. I see all too often people driving around with bald tires which is dangerous. It's expensive owning a vehicle, and tires are no exception, but it's important to make sure that minimal square inches of contact with the ground that thousands of pounds are resting upon is gripping the road appropriately. The easiest quick test is to grab a penny, put Ole' Abe's head upside-down and stick him into the tread. If your tire covers part of his head your good. If you can see all of his head to the very top (which is at the bottom with the penny upside-down) then it's time to get new tires. Here is a visualization of what I mean.


Windshield Wipers (Can't miss what you can't see)

Next on the easier side of the spectrum is replacing your car’s windshield wipers. It seems like something so simple yet if you forget and it rains for the first time in a while, it’s a major hazard. I’ve even had unexpected times, when it wasn't raining, where my windshield got dirty and without proper wipers on the car it would’ve been very difficult to see. Costco always has a great price on top of the line windshield wipers but if you don’t have a membership then you can usually count on Amazon as well. Make sure to replace your wipers once every 6 months. Putting a reminder on your calendar helps or you can always pick two major holidays to remind yourself as well. New Year’s and the 4th of July are great ones to choose but if you have two dates more memorable make sure to keep them top of mind.


Fluids (Eww, gross...)

Another somewhat basic task to perform but requires slightly more work is checking your car’s fluids. This requires popping the hood of your car and looking for the measurement sticks for their respective fluid. Easily overlooked but cannot be forgotten is to only measure the fluids when you’re parked on a flat or near flat surface.


Oil (The blood of your engine)

Oil is the most important one on the list. Without proper levels of oil in the engine your cylinders can seize, causing major engine damage and thousands of dollars in repairs. The oil dipstick will usually be a bright yellow or orange handle or loop. It’s normally located near the front center of your main engine block. Have a paper towel or dirty rag handy, as you’ll want to wipe off the dipstick when you initially pull it out to ensure a clean measurement. Oil splashes all around when you drive and can lead to more oil being on the dipstick than what the true level is at. So pull out the dipstick, wipe it off and look at the measurement markings near the end of the metal. It’s good to know what to look for before you do the measurement. There are typically two lines, the upper limit and the lower limit on the stick and you’ll clearly want to see the oil mark between these two lines. Once you can recognize where it should be at then re-insert the dipstick all the way down till it stops against the handle, pull it back out and make sure to stop any oil from dripping off without touching the bottom of the stick. If the oil doesn’t reach the bottom line or is right at it then time to add some oil. If it falls between then you should be all set. You should never see the oil above the top line. If that’s the case then you should remove oil as this can lead to other issues, which can cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to repair as well. This will be rare as long as you or your mechanic is following proper fill instructions when doing oil changes.

To add oil, near the dipstick there should be an oil cap. On that cap it’s important to see what type of oil is needed for your car. 10W - 30 or 10W - 20 are common types but make sure to see what kind your specific car needs. Again, Costco has great deals on oil but they sell it in 6 – 1 quart packs, so it’s a good deal if your changing your own oil but if you just need an extra quart go to the nearest auto parts store to buy it. There are many different types of oil and it can be confusing to know what brand or type to buy. Typically I recommend “Fully Synthetic” as this is intended for longer miles between changes and older cars, but it’s best to stick to the kind already in your car if you happen to know. Only pour half a quart to start and see if that is enough to get the oil level between the lines. If the line doesn’t move then pour the rest of the quart in. Make sure to give it time to drain into the oil pan before checking. If it needs more than one quart, it’s either time for an oil change (Once every three months or 5,000 miles depending on the type of oil) or your car is burning oil or has a leak, which you should have a mechanic look at. This will happen with older cars due to bad seals or gaskets.


Washer Fluid (Clean those peepers)

Windshield washer fluid is important as unexpected dirt or debris can cover your windshield at any time. If you don’t have any windshield washer fluid locked and loaded then it’ll be very difficult to properly clean your windshield at a moment’s notice. The washer fluid should be $2-$3 dollars per gallon at most and last you quite a while. This usually has a clear container under the hood that allows you to visibly see the fill level but there may be a measuring stick as well. Keep this topped off as often as you can. A tip for those who live in colder environments in the winter or travel to the mountains in the winter months; Since windshield washer fluid is mostly water it will freeze which prevents you from cleaning your windshield and can possibly cause damage to the storage housing. In order to prevent freezing, pour a slight mixture of anti-freeze in with your washer fluid but make sure to keep the ratio fairly low. About 25% is probably the most you’ll want to add as anti-freeze isn’t meant to clean windshields but it’ll keep the liquid useful through the coldest of months.


Anti-freeze (Not just for cold!)

Since we’re already talking about anti-freeze let’s cover that one next. Anti-freeze doesn’t just prevent your engine from freezing in the winter but from over heating in the summer. This should not fluctuate nearly as much as your windshield washer fluid nor oil, so if you seem to be filling it up often there may be a leak. Unfortunately there is no standard from auto maker to auto maker so you might need to look for the cap’s location in your owner's manual. Make sure to also look closely at the anti-freeze you buy at the store. Some are "pre-mixed" and some are concentrated that you'll need to dilute before adding to your engine. Following your owner's manual is important here.


Transmission Fluid (Can't move if you can't flow)

Next is with regards to your transmission fluid. This only applies if you drive an automatic car but that seems to be a large majority of people so it’s certainly likely you’ll need to check this as well. Just like with the engine oil, without proper levels of transmission fluid in your transmission it can cause it to seize up. Replacing a transmission will always be a very time consuming and costly repair so keep this fluid properly filled as well. You shouldn't have to be filling this us very often either. It is sold by the quart and if you need to ever buy more than one you may have a leak that needs a mechanic's trained eye.


Brake Fluid (Helps stop your car, duh)

Last but not least is the brake fluid. Your car has hydraulic brakes which take fluid to pump through the brake lines in order to make pressing the brake much less work. Without hydraulic brakes, stopping your car would take tremendous effort and you may feel like Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble trying to stomp on your brake pedal without much effect.  Once again, this should not need to be changed or topped off very often so if that’s the case there may be a leak and it’s very important to have someone check it out immediately.

With all these warnings I may start to sound like the language in the owner's manual but it’s true. Unless you know specifically what is causing fluid loss in your engine it important to not ignore it and have it looked at.


There you have it! The "Basic Car Maintenance for Everyone Guide" (Part 1). There will be more complicated tasks in future posts but I'm sure this is more than enough to try and digest for now. Good Luck and Happy Maintenance!