Pride of ownership really begins here.People who consider themselves car klutzes have miraculously been transformed into auto aficionados by the simple process of weekly car care.
It’s a wonder what a little engine oil on the fingertips can do to bond man or woman and machine. So let’s get started.
Every Seven Days or Once a Week-Whichever Comes First
Got a couple of minutes? That’s all it takes once a week to make sure your car is in good shape. In fact, it takes less time to check your car every week than to worry about it.
Your car is a drinker; it uses several fluids. These fluids include oil, coolant, windshield washer fluid, brake fluid, and maybe power steering fluid. Your car also uses pressurized air to keep tires inflated. The fluids can evaporate, deteriorate, or leak out, and the air can leak out. In each case, the fluid or air must be checked and replaced as needed. That’s something you can easily do on a regular basis to help keep your car troublefree. Your weekly checks can be done over the weekend or before you drive to work on Monday morning (or whenever your work week starts). If you don’t drive your car very often-maybe it’s your second car-you can check the fluids and pressure less frequently, but make a habit of it. Make your checks on the 1st and 15th of the month, or on even-numbered Wednesdays, for example. If you’d rather watch the odometer than the calendar, make these checks after every 250 miles of driving. Or you can make these checks every time you fill your gas tank. The important thing is to do them regularly.
You might not need tools for these checks. They are mostly visual checks. However, you might need a wrench or pliers to open a power steering or brake fluid reservoir. You will need an air pressure gauge to check pressure in your car’s tires, but you can probably borrow one from a service station attendant. By keeping a rag in the trunk or under your car’s seat, you can make sure you don’t get your hands dirty as you make these checks. You can perform these checks just about anywhere. Some people do them in their garage. Others do them in the driveway or in the parking lot after work. You should be able to efficiently complete these weekly checks in just a few minutes. To ensure that fluids are settled (and you don’t get burned), make sure your engine hasn’t been running within the past half hour. To make the process easier, the weekly checks described in the rest of this Article appear in a logical order.
Check Oil Level
Parts in your car’s engine rotate at tremendous speeds. Oil circulates in the engine to lubricate these parts and keep them from wearing out. When the engine is off, this oil settles to the lowest spot in the engine-the oil pan. An oil pan stick or dipstick was installed on the engine by the manufacturer to allow you to check the level of the oil. Warning: Don’t attempt to check your oil in a white tuxedo.
To check the oil level in your car, follow these steps:
- Have an old rag on hand to wipe the dipstick. Make sure your car is level and the engine is cool. Open the hood and look for the dipstick. It is a rod with a curved handle sticking up from one side or the other of your engine. Push the dipstick down in its tube, if needed, to make sure it accurately measures the oil level in the oil pan.
- Pull the handle up to remove the dipstick rod from the engine. There should be a light or dark brown liquid coating the last couple of inches on the rod. Hold the rod away from your fine clothes to make sure oil doesn’t drip on them. (If the liquid is reddish-brown, you have the automatic transmission dipstick. Replace it and keep looking for the engine oil dipstick.)
- At the lowest end of the dipstick rod will be marks and maybe the word FULL. Lower on the rod will be another mark and maybe the word ADD. Some dipsticks have only a narrow area stamped with a criss-cross design or just two dots. If so, the highest point of the design indicates FULL and the lowest point means ADD. Visually check to identify the highest point on the stick covered by oil. This point should be somewhere between the FULL and ADD words or marks.
- If the top edge of oil is above the ADD mark, the oil level is okay. If the top edge of oil is below the ADD mark, you must add oil without overfilling it. How much? For most cars, the distance between the ADD and FULL lines is about one quart of oil. So you can add one quart of oil. If the oil mark is well below the ADD mark, put one quart in, let it settle a few minutes, and then recheck the oil once.
- To add oil, first find the oil cap on the engine. Some cars have a twist-off cap on the valve cover (a long and wide part on top of the engine that often has a design or lettering). Other cars have an oil-filler tube with a round cap that you should pull off. To make sure this is the right place to put oil, remove the cap and look for signs of dark brown oil buildup.
- Remove the cap from the oil container (of course, you’ve made sure the oil is the same as that already in the car) and carefully pour oil into the engine. If this can’t be done without spilling oil on the engine, use a funnel. (Oil won’t hurt the outside of the engine, but it smells awful once the engine gets hot.)
- Wait a few minutes until the oil settles into the oil pan, and then recheck the oil level to make sure it’s between the ADD and FULL marks. Filling oil past the FULL mark can cause more harm to an engine than running it too low. Why? Because excess oil is worked up into a lather by moving parts, reducing the oil’s lubrication qualities.
Keeping Your Car’s Cool
Another important fluid in your car is the coolant. Coolant is a mixture of antifreeze fluid and water that circulates throughout your car’s engine to remove excess heat. The coolant then circulates throughout the radiator where air flow cools the liquid before its journey back through the engine.
To check the radiator coolant level, follow these steps:
- Make sure the engine and radiator are cool. If not, wait until they are before checking coolant level.
- Open the hood and find the radiator. It’s typically located at the front of the engine compartment just behind the bumper. On most cars, a coolant reserve tank located nearby holds the top layer of coolant from the radiator. If so, look at the side of the coolant reserve tank for two lines: one identifies MAX (maximum) levels, and one identifies MIN (minimum) levels. The highest level of coolant should be between these two marks.
- If coolant is low, tum the radiator cap counterclockwise one-quarter tum to relieve any pressure remaining in the cooling system. Then push the cap down and tum it counterclockwise until it is off.
- Check the coolant level in the radiator. If it is below the base of the filler neck, add coolant (remember: half-antifreeze and half-water), and then replace the radiator cap.
- Open the cap on the coolant reserve tank and add coolant until the level is between the minimum and maximum marks. Replace the tank cap. Clean up any coolant that may have spilled on the floor or ground.
Check Power Steering Fluid Level
Not all cars have power steering. Steering systems have evolved over the years so that power steering is not necessary on many smaller cars. But if your car has it, you should check the power steering fluid level once a week or every 250 miles unless the owner’s manual says otherwise.
To check the power steering fluid level, follow these steps:
- Find the power steering reservoir on your car. Power steering units pump or circulate hydraulic fluid to help you easily steer the car with reduced effort. This fluid is held in a reservoir attached to the power steering pump. On most cars, this pump is rotated by a fan belt at the front of the engine, so that’s where to look first.
- To check the power steering fluid level, remove the cap or top to the reservoir. The cap on some power steering reservoirs has a dipstick attached to the underside, indicating the full and add levels. Other reservoirs have a mark on the inside of the casing to show where the level should be filled to. Note: Power steering fluid expands when hot. That means the level in the reservoir is higher if the engine has been running recently. Some power steering dipsticks are marked for FULL HOT as well as FULL COLD. Check the level when cold, if possible.
- To add power steering fluid, check your car’s owner’s manual for the fluid brand recommended by the manufacturer. Then pour fluid into the reservoir as needed to bring it up to the full mark. Don’t overfill. That’s it. You should check your power steering fluid level weekly or every 250 miles, but you shouldn’t have to top it off more than every couple of months. If you do, there’s a leak somewhere and repair is in order.
Check Brake Fluid Levels
Brakes are obviously important to your car. Without them, you would run right past where you wanted to stop. Brake systems use hydraulics to magnify the pressure of your foot on the pedal to stop the car. Hydraulic systems, in turn, use hydraulic fluid. In this case, the fluid is called brake fluid. Power brake systems also use a booster to enhance your power to stop the car.
To check brake fluid levels in your car, follow these steps:
- Find the master brake cylinder. On many cars, look under the hood on the wall between the engine and the driver’s area (called the firewall). The power brake booster, a large round unit, may be mounted on it. Some import and older cars have them under the floor below the driver, accessed by moving the carpet to expose a metal plate that is, in turn, moved to uncover the master brake cylinder.
- Clean off the top of the reservoir before opening it so that crud doesn’t fall into it. Then remove the cover from the master brake cylinder reservoir. The cover usually has a four- or six-sided head that can be unscrewed with a wrench.
- Visually check the level of brake fluid in the reservoir. Make sure the fluid is up to just below the cover’s threads or a FULL mark on the inside of the reservoir.
- To add brake fluid, make sure you have a can of brake fluid (the owner’s manual tells you which Department of Transportation, or DOT, grade to use) that you opened in the past year. At about two bucks a pint, you can afford to throw out older brake fluid and use only the fresh stuff. With the master cylinder cover removed, carefully pour brake fluid in until the level is about 1/4 inch below the top. Replace and tighten the cap.
If the master brake cylinder is empty or nearly empty, you might have to bleed the brakes. One more related task: Some cars have a hydraulic clutch booster. This helps your foot move the car’s clutch plate or disc. If your car has one, you can check your owner’s manual to see where and what to do about it. In most cases, the clutch booster uses brake fluid, so checking the fluid level for that is the same as checking the fluid level for the hydraulic clutch booster.
Check Tires and Pressure
Tires of a few decades ago, called bias tires, needed to be replaced once every year or two. Today’s radial tires can, with regular maintenance, last five years (or one year of a teenage driver). Today’s tires also are safer and make a car easier to steer when compared to the older, bias tires.The key statement in the last paragraph is “with regular maintenance.” That’s where you come in. You can either check the air pressure in your tires or ask the gas station attendant to do it once a week. By doing so, you can make sure you get SO,OOO-not 2S,OOO-miles from your SO,OOO-mile tires. It can also save fuel because underinflated tires reduce fuel economy.
To check tires and pressure on your car, follow these steps:
- Read your car’s owner’s manual or the side of a tire to learn what air pressure you should have in your tires, measured in pounds-per-square-inch or psi. Most modem car tires have recommended pressure somewhere between 24 and 34 psi when the tires are cold. A typical recommended cold pressure is 28 psi. Add 2 to 4 psi when carrying a heavy load or pulling a trailer. The tire’s maximum load pressure is embossed on the tire wall. Don’t exceed it or the tire police will repossess your tread. Actually, excessive pressure makes tires wear unevenly and reduces their usable life.
- Check tire pressure in your driveway or at a nearby gas station when the tires are not hot from driving. Find the valve stem on the front left (driver’s side) tire. It protrudes from the wheel rim. If the valve stem has a cap, unscrew it and set it aside. Place the mouth of your tire pressure gauge against the end of the valve stem. Push it until you hear a rush of air, and then release it. The tire gauge has a dial or a sliding scale that indicates how much pressure is in the tire.
- If air pressure is lower than it should be, add air using an air line at a gas station or tire shop, or a hand pump (and get the added benefit of exercise). If pressure is greater than it should be, use the nipple on the tire gauge to press the center of the tire valve stem and release air. Release a little, and then recheck the pressure. Remember to replace the valve stem cap if your tire has one.
- While you’re there, visually inspect the tire for wear. Some tires have a tread indicator that shows you when the tires are too worn to be safe. Inspect the tire for damage as well. A cut in the tire casing can become an auto accident just a few miles down the road. Wear across the tire tread should be even. If not, take your car into a tire shop.
- Repeat this process for the left-rear, spare, right-rear, and right-front tires. This circling of the car makes it easier to remember which tires have been checked if you’re interrupted. Don’t forget the spare tire.
Why all this ruckus about tire pressure? Because the main reason why tires don’t live as long as they’re designed to is not high blood pressure; it’s low tire pressure. Low tire pressure makes tires wear out at the edges. It also makes the car ride sloppy. Checking tire pressure once a week or every 250 miles is an easy way to increase the life and safety of your tires, and it takes just one to two minutes.
When the Bottom of the Tire Is Flat
Before driving anywhere, even a quick two-mile hop, make sure you have a good spare tire on board and the correct tools.
To change a flat tire, follow these steps:
- If you’re at the side of the road, turn on your emergency flashers and raise the trunk lid to signal to others that you are having a problem.
- Use the flat edge of a tire tool or screwdriver from your trunk to pry the hubcap (if your tire has one) off the wheel rim. Use a tire tool to loosen, but not remove, the four or five lug nuts holding the wheel to the axle.
- Place a block behind a wheel on the other axle. Then place the car jack under the car frame or on the bumper as described in the car’s owner’s manual. Stop raising the jack when the wheel is high enough to rotate the tire without touching the ground.
- Remove the lug nuts and place them in the hubcap so they don’t get lost. Remove the tire and set it out of the way.
- Install the spare tire on the car. Of course, you’ve been checking spare tire pressure during your weekly checks, so you know the tire is good! Screw the lug nuts on the car by hand, making sure the tapered side of each nut faces the wheel.
- Lower the jack until the tire firmly touches the ground but isn’t supporting the car. Use the tire tool to tighten the lug nuts in a criss-cross pattern.
- When all lug nuts are tight, lower the jack until it can be removed. Replace the wheelcover by pressing it against the wheel rim. If the wheelcover won’t easily go on, place it in the trunk and drive to a service station or tire shop so that they can install it for you.
- Visit a tire shop immediately to have your flat repaired or replaced. You don’t want to get stuck 15 miles from town without a spare tire! Safety First.
That’s about it. Invest a few minutes in your car once a week and you’ll not only save hundreds of dollars in potential repair bills, but you’ll also understand your car better. You might decide to hire everything else out-or not. In any case, you’ll have a clearer understanding and a sense of satisfaction-about your car.