By making the basic checks offered in the, “CAR Weekly Check Up” article of this site, you’ve moved ahead of most car owners and can now sit near the front of the classroom. I’m proud of you-as long as you keep up on your homework! Once you’ve made these weekly checks a habit, maintenance not only becomes easier, it’s more fun. You’ll gain a better understanding of your car. We all need to be understood. And you’ll be able to read your car’s feelings more accurately. The second step in the CAR Maintenance System is performing simple checks of your car’s systems once every 3,000 miles and replacing parts as needed. Here’s where you can really begin solving car problems before they happen.
A Quarter’s Worth of Maintenance
Modern cars have a million-well, at least thousands of parts. Some of these parts can wear out or at least need periodic adjustments. You can minimize wear and cost by checking these components and replacing them on a regular basis. The CAR Maintenance System presented in this website suggests that you check eight different components about every three months or 3,000 miles. (That’s 4,800 km for you metric fans.) This article describes how to make those eight checks. Of course, the frequency with which you make these checks depends on the age of the car and how much you drive it. Older cars need more frequent checks, even once a month. For newer cars that aren’t driven as much, you can get away with checking these components about every six months. However, running down the list takes less than an hour on most cars, so you might want to do it more often. Better safe than sorry, right?
All Charged Up
Batteries store electrical power for starting the car, running the radio, and other necessities. Modem cars use 12-volt batteries; your house uses about 120 volts. Even so, there’s still enough power in a car battery to get your attention in a decidedly unpleasant way. The charging system (the alternator and voltage regulator) replaces the usedup electricity. If it doesn’t get replaced, your car won’t start.
It’s very important to work safely around your car’s battery. First, the battery uses acid and lead to store electricity. Second, electric current from a battery (at SO or more amps) can quickly destroy a car’s computer system or smaller wires and components. Wear rubber gloves and safety goggles when working around the battery, and make sure you don’t touch metal objects between the battery terminals and other metal. The only tools you’ll probably need are a battery terminal cleaner (a couple of bucks at any auto parts store) and a wrench for loosening bolts. You could use a standard wire brush, but, if you do, don’t use it for other cleaning purposes because the battery acid can be transferred to other surfaces and cause damage. Also, put out that cigarette first! A flame or spark near a battery-even a “sealed” battery-can cause an explosion.
To check the battery and charging system on your car, follow these steps:
- Identify the terminals. One has a + (positive) symbol on or near it and one has a – (negative) symbol. The cable on one of these two terminals is attached to the engine block and the other goes to the starter. The one that goes to the engine is called the ground terminal; this is usually (but not always) the negative terminal.
- Remove the plastic terminal caps, if there are any, from the terminals and carefully brush away any white powder (corrosion). If the battery cables attach to the battery with a nut, remove the nut and clean the terminal and cable end with a wire brush, and then skip to step 6. If the battery uses terminal posts, follow steps 3 through S.
- Use a wrench to loosen the bolts at the end of the battery cable where it wraps around the ground terminal. Carefully Wiggle the cable end up and down until it comes off the terminal. (If the end doesn’t come off the terminal easily, buy and use a battery terminal puller from the parts store.) Then loosen and remove the cable on the other terminal. Warning: Striking a terminal or cable end with a hammer to loosen it can loosen the terminal inside, ruining the battery (I know from experience).
- Place the end of the terminal-cleaning tool over each terminal and rotate it a few times. The wire brush inside the tool will clean the terminal post.
- Twist and open the terminal-cleaning tool to expose the round wire brush inside. Insert this brush into the cable ends and rotate the tool to clean the inside of the ends. If the cable ends are broken or the wire is frayed, replace the cable with one of the same length.
- Use an old paint brush or a Christmas tie to dust away dirt on the top and sides of the battery. Make sure the debris doesn’t fall on other components or on the car’s paint. If the battery is very dirty, remove it from the car and carefully clean it with a solution of a pint of water and a teaspoon of baking soda (season to taste). Make sure the solution doesn’t get inside the battery.
- If you have one, use a voltmeter ($10 at Radio Shack) to check the battery’s voltage. A fully charged battery should read 12.5 to 13.5 volts of power. If it is less, take the battery to a gas station for charging or do it yourself with a battery charger (about $25 to $50). A mechanic’s battery charger (a few hundred dollars) also can tell you the condition of the battery and whether it will hold a charge. If it won’t, replace it now before you get stranded in a land where batteries cost twice as much.
- When reinstalling your car’s battery, attach the grounded terminal last. Install treated felt washers (from your parts store) under the cable ends to reduce corrosion. Place the cable end over the terminal and then tighten the bolt until the end fits snugly. Don’t overtighten the bolt because cable ends are made of soft metal that can break easily.
The most intimidating components on your car are also pretty easy to check and maintain: hoses. Open the hood of your car and you’ll see all shapes and sizes of hoses from l/Z inch to 4 inches in diameter. These hoses deliver fuel, circulate engine coolant, move refrigerant, and much more. Check them once every three months and replace them if they seem soft or have cuts in the surface. If you wait until they actually break, you may have to call for an expensive tow truck to get you off the highway and then a taxi to get you to Aunt Minnie’s wedding on time. Here’s how to inspect and, if necessary, replace worn hoses.
To check hoses on your car, follow these steps:
- With the engine running, open the hood and begin looking for patterns to your car’s hoses. To help define the maze, check the underside of the hood for stickers that serve as a map. You may see stickers labeled Vacuum House Routing, Emission Hose Routing, or For Pizza Delivery, call 1-800555-1234. Other hose systems are self-explanatory, going to and from the radiator (cooling system), to the carburetor (fuel system), or to the car’s heater (heating system). If hoses are not colorcoded, you can often identify families of hoses by their relative size. Vacuum lines, for example, are all about the same diameter. You can often identify hoses by the end connection as well (see step 3).
- Inspect each hose, squeezing it to see whether there are any cuts, leaks, or wear. Listen for soft hissing that identifies a loose vacuum line. Look for liquids that identify a leaking hose or fitting. A shower when you squeeze means a definite problem.
- Check the ends of each hose to make sure they are securely attached. If they are not secure, tighten them. Vacuum lines usually slip on. Cooling system hoses use screw clamps on the ends that you can tighten with a screwdriver. Fuel lines often use spring clamps with tips you squeeze to loosen pressure on the hose.
- Turn off the engine before replacing any hoses, or you will have fluid everywhere. If you cannot easily remove a hose from the car to find a replacement part, take measurements. Remove one end of the hose, if you can, and measure the inside and outside diameters. Then measure the length. Write down any identifying numbers, such as TAl-OS, that appear on the hose. If you have a service manual for your car, look up the part to determine what it’s called.
The cooling system is a critical part of your car. If your engine gets too hot, it can quickly damage itself, so checking your car’s cooling system is an important step in keeping it trouble-free.
To check the cooling system on your car, follow these steps:
- With the engine cold, open the radiator cap. Some caps require you to lift a lever on the cap that releases pressure. Others are twisted one-quarter turn to relieve pressure. Newer systems might have a cap on a separate coolant reservoir near the radiator instead of on the radiator itself.
- Visually inspect the cap and clean off any rust deposits. If the cap leaks or is more than a couple of years old, replace it. The cost of a new cap is typically less than $ IO-a fraction of the cost of a new engine damaged by overheating.
- Visually inspect the coolant in the system. The top of the coolant should be near the top of the radiator or near the FULL mark on the coolant reservoir. Fill asneeded with a mixture of half coolant and half water.
- Inspect the cooling system hoses if you haven’t already done so. There are usually two: one between the top and one between the bottom of the radiator and the engine. Radiator hoses should feel firm, not mushy. Check and tighten the screw clamps on the end of the hoses.
- Inspect the front and back side of the radiator for debris and damage. Bugs, leaves, papers, and other debris can block the airflow and reduce the radiator’s efficiency. Use a soft brush or compressed air to remove debris. Make sure you don’t bend any of the honeycomb fins on the radiator. They allow the passing air into the radiator to keep your engine cool.
- Inspect the top and bottom of the radiator for small leaks or rusty spots that may soon become leaks. If you find any, take your car to a radiator shop where it can be repaired before the problem becomes big enough to mean replacing the radiator rather than repairing it. More important, preventive maintenance can mean getting to the big game on time and avoiding a costly towing bill.
Your car has either an automatic (shifts automatically) or manual (you shift gears) transmission. Each uses a fluid or lubricant to keep it healthy. At least four times a year, you should check the fluid level in your transmission to make sure it is full. You’ll need a clean rag to check the automatic transmission fluid from under the hood. You’ll need to get under most cars to check the lubricant level in a manual transmission.
To check the automatic transmission fluid level in your car, follow these steps:
- Make sure the car is level. Set the car’s parking brake and start the engine. When the engine is warm and at idle speed, move the transmission selector through each gear range a couple of times, ending at neutral.
- With the engine still running, lift the car’s hood and look for the automatic transmission dipstick. It looks like the engine oil dipstick but is located behind a rear-wheel-drive engine or above the transmission on a front-wheel-drive car. The dipstick often is painted a different color to distinguish it from the engine’s oil dipstick.
- Got it? Pull the transmission dipstick out from the tube and visually check that the fluid appears reddish-brown, identifying it as automatic transmission fluid. Carefully touch the liquid on the end of the dipstick to make sure it is warm. It should not be hot. Then, using a clean rag, wipe the dipstick clean and replace it in the tube until the dipstick cap seats.
- Pull out the transmission dipstick again and read the level. Some automatic transmission dipsticks are stamped with words like MAX. LEVEL HOT IDLING IN NEUTRAL-or not. The safe operating range is marked.
- If the automatic transmission fluid is low, add fluid through the dipstick tube. You’ll need a special funnel (from your handy-dandy auto parts supplier) to get the fluid into the small tube, but it can be done. Use the type of automatic transmission fluid recommended by the manufacturer. It’s probably identified in the owner’s manual. If not, ask the auto parts clerk what type is recommended for your car. Add just a little at a time until it is near the top of the operating range shown on the dipstick.
To check the manual transmission lubricant level in your car, follow these steps:
- Look under your car to find the transmission.On a rear-wheel-drive car, the manual transmission is below the floor-mounted gear shifter. On a front-wheel-drive car, the transmission or transaxle unit is under the hood and beside the engine (usually on the passenger side of the car). You might need to safely jack up the car and place stands underneath it to find room to work. Because the transmission fluid must be as level as possible when checked, don’t raise the car any more than necessary to get to it.
- To check the level of fluid in the transmission or transaxle, first find the level plug. It’s typically a bolthead on the side of the transmission casing. Use a wrench to turn it counterclockwise and remove it.
- It’s pinky-finger time. The transmission lubricant should be filled up to the bottom of the level plug hole. Insert your smallest finger inside the level plug hole to see if it is. If not, add the manufacturer’s recommended lubricant through the level plug hole until the top of the liquid is at the bottom of the hole.
For manual transmission fluid, some car manufacturers recommend a heavy lubricant such as SAE 80-90 weight, and others use the same oil as in the engine. Check your car’s owner’s manual or service manual for recommendations.
Check the Differential Lubricant Level
A car’s differential includes the gears that distribute the single drive shaft’s rotation to two or four wheels. Rear-wheel-drive cars have a differential on the rear axle. Frontwheel-drive cars include the differential in the transmission, so there isn’t a separate differential unit. Four-wheel drive cars use a transfer case to distribute power to all four wheels. Most car manufacturers recommend that the differential be filled with an SAE 80-90 weight lubricant. Transfer cases for four-wheel drive vehicles typically use a lubricant similar to (but not the same as) automatic transmission fluid. You might need to order this special concoction from the car’s authorized dealer. It’s refined from pure gold found only in the Andes. Check your car’s owner’s manual or service manual for requirements.
To check the differential lubricant level in your car, follow these steps:
- Look under your car to find the differential. On a rear-wheel-drive car, the differential is a round metal case between the two rear wheels. The transfer case for a four-wheel drive car is on either the front or rear axle. If necessary, safely jack the car up and place stands underneath it.
- To check the level of fluid in the differential or transfer case, first find the level plug. On many cars, it’s a bolthead on the side of the casing; use a wrench to tum it counterclockwise and remove it. On some cars, it’s a rubber plug on the side of the casing; pry it off with a small screwdriver.
- Use your finger to check the lubricant level. It should be filled up to the bottom of the level plug hole. If it isn’t, add the manufacturer’s recommended lubricant until the top of the liquid is at the bottom of the level plug hole.
When Your Car Is Exhausted
Send your car on a vacation after it has been overworked. Not unless you get to go along, you say? You might think your car’s exhaust system always tells you when it’s not working well by making noise. That’s not completely true. A leaking exhaust can also quietly send dangerous fumes into the passenger compartment, making folks sick or worse. Instead of waiting for problems to happen, make sure to check your car’s exhaust system quarterly. It’s actually quite easy.
To check the exhaust system on your car, follow these steps:
- Make sure the engine of your car has been off for at least a couple of hours to allow the exhaust pipes and parts to cool down. The catalytic converter can hold heat for many hours.
- If necessary, raise and safely block both ends of your car to gain access to its belly.
- Visually trace and inspect the exhaust pipes from where they exit the engine (called the exhaust manifold) to the rear of the car. If you have one, use a rubber mallet to softly strike the exhaust pipe, catalytic converter, resonator, and muffler. A small piece of wood can be used instead. You’re checking for holes caused by rust.
- Inspect the exhaust system hangers. They consists of strips of metal and strapping that hang the exhaust system from the bottom of the car. Make sure they are doing their job.
- Inspect the underside of the car for holes that can allow noxious exhaust fumes to enter the passenger compartment. They must be sealed for your passengers’ safety. Depending on the size and type of holes, they can be sealed as you would repair body damage.
Wiping Away the Raindrops
Unless you live on Mt. Waialeale on the Hawaiian island of Kauai (where 480 inches of rain fall a year!), your windshield wiper blades probably won’t wear out very often. Instead, they will deteriorate from sun exposure, or they will build up with automotive lubricants thrown up by cars passing in the rain. Don’t wait until a rainy day to check and service your car’s windshield wiper blades. You don’t want to stand outside in a downpour in your shirtsleeves trying to make your wipers do their job. Check them as you make your other quarterly checks. Then, when you need them, your windshield wipers will be ready to serve you. “Would you like catsup with your fries?”
To check the windshield wiper blades on your car, follow these steps:
- Visually inspect the windshield wiper mechanism for damage or loose parts. Also clear the area around the wiper arms of debris that can slow down their movement.
- Inspect the windshield wiper blades for tears and other damage. Replace damaged or deteriorated blades with identical blades. Remove them in the auto parts store’s parking lot and take them in for a match. Blades and their frame are removed by lifting the arm and unhooking the end of the arm from the center of the blade’s frame. Some blades require you to push a button in the center of the frame release the blade. Helpful auto parts clerks can find the exact replacement for you.