Car maintenance can sneak up on you. You buy the car, you use the car, you come to depend on it, and the idea that it could suddenly become one big problem fades into the background. It’s easy to forget about the little things, and easier still to put off those looming repairs till they catch up with you. It’s not at all uncommon for a driver who’s been getting around just fine to wake up one day and find themselves at the mercy of a mechanic charging way more than they ever thought possible to get them on the road again.
Fortunately, a little knowledge goes a long way. There are tricks to this trade, and learning them can give you a lot more confidence as a car owner. Auto maintenance can get complicated, but for the most part, there are a small range of not-too-difficult techniques that mechanics repeat over and over again. If you apply them properly on your own, chances are you won’t face any rude awakenings anytime soon — and ultimately, you’ll keep a lot more of your money in your pocket, where it belongs.
Keep a close eye — and ear — on things.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It’s an old chestnut for a reason, and it’s nowhere more obvious than in car maintenance. The vast majority of fixes a mechanic employs are the direct result of a lack of preventative measures. It’s a galling truth that if you avoid doing a few little things now to forestall problems, you’ll be faced with a far bigger, cumulative problem down the road. Something as simple as not changing your oil will mean sludge clogging up your engine, seeping into all vital components and hardening over time. The best solution is to solve the problem before it arises. Watch for anything out of the ordinary — and listen carefully for any unusual noises. If you notice something, check it out right away. When it comes to car maintenance, it’s always best to nip things in the bud.
Test your coolant.
This is a great trick to keep in your tool set, and an important preventative measure. Plus, it’s a snap. We all know we’re going to have to get that radiator flushed sooner or later. But depending on the car and the coolant, it could be anywhere between 25,000 and 100,000 miles. And if you get it wrong, you could be looking at replacing the radiator, heater core, and water pump — exactly the kind of rude awakening you’re trying to avoid. So test it: dip the positive probe of a digital voltmeter (on the lowest DC setting) in the coolant. Then, connect the negative probe to the negative battery terminal and rev the engine to 2,000 rpm. If the reading is higher than 0.4 volts, it’s time to change the coolant.
Keep your battery clean.
This may seem like small potatoes, but think about it: in modern vehicles, the electrical system is often the first thing to go haywire. It’s the kind of thing that sneaks up on you, and can result in a massive overhaul if things go wrong. Don’t neglect the battery; it can get dirty too. The terminals corrode over time, and that can wreak havoc on electrical signaling. Cleaning the terminals is a great way to stave off a disastrous glitch in your car’s computer.
Inspect your brakes.
This is the last thing you’d want to go wrong with your vehicle. Even slightly unresponsive brakes can mean the difference between safety and disaster, so always keep a close eye on the braking system. It’s not as hard as it sounds. Start by taking a look at the brake discs. A few lines are fine, but if you see any dents or big grooves in either one you should go ahead and replace both of them. (It’s safer to replace them in pairs.) At the top of the disc you should see the brake pads; if they’re gotten thinner than 1/8”, it’s time to change them out. Finally, make sure the brake lines aren’t corroded or cracked, in which case they should be replaced too.
Change your windshield wipers.
As straightforward as this seems, most people leave this job to the mechanic — and they tend to upcharge for it. Drivers don’t think of it as a priority, so they often get taken in by the idea that it’s barely necessary or too hard to bother with. Untrue on both counts: driving with a dirty windshield (exacerbated by bad wipers) is unpleasant and just plain dangerous, and replacing them is one of the easiest fixes there is. Buy new wipers, switch on the old ones, lock them in while they’re out and facing up, click out the old ones, and click in the new. It’s literally a snap — and like any good secret, learning it will make things look clearer right away.