Staying on top of maintenance is the most proven and cost-effective way of keeping your car on the road and running well for as long as you own it. While some automotive maintenance requires a garage and a qualified mechanic, there are many small items and tasks that can be managed from the comfort of your own driveway with little to no prior experience.
Some of the following tasks are preventative checks while others replace small parts from your car as they become worn out. Mastering the following list along with the specific requirements outlined in your car’s owners manual will allow you to keep your car safe and spot a variety of small issues before they become larger and more costly problems.
Semi-pro tip: If you’re having trouble with any of the below checks, do a search on Youtube for a guide. The platform is full of very useful visual explanations for basic automotive maintenance.
Check and maintain tire pressure
Despite this being a very easy task that also ensures the safety and performance of your tires, many drivers ignore their tires until there is an issue. Once a month, and especially before long trips, use a tire pressure gauge to check that your tires are inflated to the correct pressure. If any of the tires are low and you don’t own a pump, most gas stations have a pump that can be used for as little as $1. While checking the pressure, be sure to also keep an eye on the tire wear and condition. Look for worn patches, exposed tread wear markers, cracking, and other damage. If the tire appears worn or damaged, have it replaced immediately. For more information on selecting and caring for your tires, please see “Tires 101” [link to previous article] and don’t forget to have your tires rotated and properly balanced to ensure they live a long and safe life on your car.
All cars use a filter to clean the air being drawn into the engine. The placement and accessibility of the air filter will vary from car to car, but changing it shouldn’t be too difficult and the air filter is generally housed in a plastic box in the engine bay. Replacement intervals can vary widely from one car to another, so be sure to consult your owner’s manual to know when you’re due for a new filter. If you’re unsure of when your filter was last replaced, inspect the current filter. If it’s brittle, cracked, or entirely clogged with dirt and debris, pick up a replacement at your local auto parts store (they can help ensure it’s the correct one for your car) and replace the old filter.
Additionally, most cars have a cabin air filter, which helps to clean the air being drawn into the cabin by the climate control system. Like an engine air filter, the cabin filter will become dirty and ineffective over time. Check your owner’s manual to determine the location of the cabin filter in your car and then take a look to see if a new one will freshen up your driving experience.
Another no-brainer. Washer fluid is cheap and crucial to help clear a dirty windshield. Depending on the age of your car, you may get a warning when the washer fluid has run low. The reservoir (a translucent plastic container) is typically near the engine of your car and can be easily filled with a bottle of washer fluid and a funnel. Keep it topped up to ensure you always have a clear view of the road ahead.
So you’ve filled up the washer fluid but your windshield is still a streaky mess? It’s probably time for new wipers blades. Wiper blades are generally easy to replace and are sized specifically for your vehicle. Depending on the vehicle and its design, many cars use two wiper blades of different sizes. Any auto parts store will have a booklet that will define the blade sizes for your car.
There are a few different styles of installation, but most wiper blades will have a corresponding guide included in the packaging and installation should only take a few minutes. Take a moment to understand how the old blades are mounted, and then install the new ones in the same manner.
Your car uses several fluids to help in the function of its many systems. While filling or replacing some of the fluids may be best left to a qualified mechanic, keeping an eye on the fluids can give you an early warning of developing problems or failing safety in your vehicle.
- Engine oil: This is checked with a dipstick on the engine itself. Open the hood with the engine cold and the car on a level surface, remove the dipstick (generally labelled “engine oil”), wipe it off, put it back, and then pull it back out. The oil level will be indicated on a gauge at the end of the stick. If the oil level is low you can add some oil to the engine (if you’re comfortable with that process) or you can speak with your local mechanic and they can diagnose the oil issue. Never over-fill your engine or drive without oil, as either scenario can cause considerable damage to your engine.
- Coolant (aka antifreeze): Coolant helps your car’s radiator keep the engine at the correct operating temperature and if you’re low on coolant, your car’s engine will likely overheat. For most cars, the coolant is stored in a translucent container mounted near the radiator under the hood. There should be levels indicated on the side of the container and if your car is running low, fresh coolant can be poured directly into this reservoir. Note: some coolants have to be mixed with water while others are pre-mixed. Consult an auto parts store or your mechanic if you don’t know which to use for your car.
- Brake fluid: Like coolant, the brake fluid level is indicated on a reservoir in your car’s engine bay. To find your brake fluid reservoir, look for a label on the container or consult your owner’s manual. If the level appears low, filling it is likely only a stopgap until you can have the brake system checked by a qualified mechanic, as you may have a leak or other problem with the pressure in your brakes. If your car appears to be losing brake fluid, consult a qualified mechanical immediately.
Read your manual
While not the most exciting recommendation, car maintenance is about knowing what your car needs to continue to run as intended by the manufacturer. Your best tool in this fight is your owner’s manual. Dig in and learn more about your car, how it was designed, and what it needs to stay in tiptop condition. Don’t have a manual for your car? Consult your local dealership.
While car maintenance can be a less-than-exciting mix of complicated and boring, most of what is described in this list can be maintained just by knowing what to look for. From a streaky windshield to bald tires or even an overheated engine, our cars aren’t getting any younger and learning to check just a few things will help to keep your car running like new for many more miles.