Car maintenance basics for everyone

Modern cars are significantly more complex than their counterparts from the 1960’s and 1970’s, and working on them is an even more specialized discipline. The modern mechanic needs a laptop computer as much as he needs a tool box, and for this reason even those with a decent aptitude for working on engines are opting to have their repairs done by a professional. Still, there are a number of simple car maintenance steps that anyone can do. These simple tasks will go a long way toward preventing trouble which saves you time and money as well as resulting in a safer driving experience.

–A clean car is a happy car: The outside of your car isnt as important as whats under the hood, but it is still important. In addition to the aesthetic benefits of a clean car theres a number of practical matters it addresses. Keeping your windshield clean inside and out is crucial for safety. Keeping the rest of the car clean prevents rust and corrosion.. And when youre cleaning your car, dont forget.

–Clean the undercarriage of the car: This is especially true if you live anywhere it snows”all of the salt and other gunk your car gets underneath it will rust out your body faster than anything. I dont care how cold it is, you should give your car a good bath at least once a week during the winter, and make sure to get underneath the wheel wells and the undercarriage of your car.

–Rinse your engine: Keeping the engine clean helps your car run cooler, and washing away crusty oil, battery acid, etc, will help prevent damage to engine parts.

–Clean your air filter: Change your filter every time you change your oil filter. In between changes, give the filter a good spray with a compressed air hose and blow out the filter chamber as well. Filters are so cheap that you have no excuse to be running around with a dirty one.

–Check and change your oil: Before self serve gas became the norm in the US, every full service gas station would check your oil every time you filled up. Even if you’re like most people and go the self serve route, you should still change your oil every time you buy gas. Change your oil often–every 3,000 to 5,000 miles–and don’t forget to change your oil filter. If you don’t want to tackle the job yourself, there’s no shortage of drive through oil change businesses that will do the job for a reasonable fee. They’ll usually take care of a number of other items on this list, such as checking tire pressure and fluid levels.

–Check and top off other fluids: Change your anti-freeze/coolant annually, and check the coolant reservoir anytime youre under the hood to make sure that its full. It’s also a good time to look for cracks or other damage. Check the transmission, brake and power-steering fluids frequently, and top off when necessary. If your car is going through a lot of these hydraulic fluids it indicates a leak or other mechanical issue and needs to be looked at as soon as possible.

–Check and rotate your tires: Check the air pressure of your tires at least once a week, and keep them filled to the manufacturer specified levels. If you have a real spare tire, and not one of those useless ‘donut’ tires check the pressure in that as well. Rotate your tires every few months to insure even wear. Some automotive chains will rotate tires they sold free of charge. In any case, if you don’t want to do this yourself any decent garage can do it for a very nominal fee. Simply checking the air pressure in your tires and rotating them periodically prevents countless problems and saves you a ton of money. Tires are expensive, and nothing will wear them out faster than improper inflation or uneven wear–not to mention the fact that worn tires are dangerous to drive on.

Emergency tools and equipment: Despite your best efforts to the contrary, things will eventually go wrong. When in does, youll be glad that you planned ahead. These items should be in your trunk at all times: tire gauge, pliers (slip-joint and needle nose), adjustable wrench, flat head and Phillips screwdriver. Dont buy cheap tools”theyll break and the least opportune times. Invest in Craftsman tools or another premium brand, and youll be set for life. Youll also need a flashlight, and if you live somewhere it snows its also a good idea to have salt, sand, a small shovel, and a blanket just in case you get snowbound and have to sleep in your car. A cellphone charger is also a good thing to have, since a cellphone doesn’t do much good if your batteries are dead. There are also ’emergency’ cellphone chargers that don’t require a power source.

–Auto club membership: Just a great investment that will pay for itself the first time you lock your keys in your car or need a tow. AAA is the best known, but there are many others. Most credit card and cellphone providers offer this type of service, and a growing number of car manufacturers including VW and Mini Cooper offer it free of charge for new car buyers. At minimum, they should offer free towing, trip continuation insurance, lockout service, free maps, and some other bells and whistles. Keep in mind, however, that all roadside assistance companies aren’t created equal. Compare what they offer, and consider the type of driving you do–if you frequently travel through remote areas you’re better off going with a bigger company due to their larger network of covered providers.

These tips require any real mechanical skill, but will enhance your driving experience. You’ll have a safer, better running vehicle that will be more dependable and cost you less money over the long haul.

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