Despite the prevalence of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, vehicle ownership rates in the U.S. continue to hold steady. This means automobiles are still an important part of many American households. While having a car provides a level of personal freedom you just can’t replicate with alternatives like public transit, that freedom comes at a price.
Annual maintenance alone cost thousands of dollars. That’s in addition to obvious expenses like loan payments, insurance, and licensing fees. The scary thing is that many drivers on the road know next to nothing about how their vehicles work. While having a trusted auto mechanic is essential, knowing a few simple upkeep tips can help prolong the life of your vehicle and save you money in the long run. If you want to be a responsible vehicle owner, you need to know the ten following basic maintenance tips.
10. Proper Washing and Waxing
While maintaining your vehicle’s functional components is the most important part of keeping it in good repair, you shouldn’t overlook the aesthetics. Having a clean vehicle not only helps it hold value, but can help prevent signs of wear and tear such as rust. The general rule is you should wash your car every two weeks or so. If your vehicle is exposed to corrosive elements like salt (especially in snowy climates), you should do it a bit more frequently.
Whether you take your car through an automatic car wash or wash by hand, it’s important to use soap designed specifically for use on vehicle exteriors. Additionally, you should aim to wax your car at least twice a year and even more than that it if you don’t park in a sheltered area.
9. Removing Paint Scratches
One benefit of washing your car by hand is you’ll be able to give it a close visual inspection at the same time. Unfortunately, one of the most likely things you’ll find are scratches which, if you care even a little bit about your vehicle’s appearance, are just the worst. Oh, and auto shops charge an arm and a leg to repair them. Luckily, fixing scratches yourself is not only much cheaper but pretty straightforward.
Minor scratches to your car’s clear coat are the easiest to get rid of, as you can often just polish them out with a compound. Deeper scratches tend to involve sanding and applying some matching paint, so you’ll definitely want to determine the depth of the scratch before making any repairs.
8. Check Oils Levels
Regular oil changes are one of the best things you can do to keep your vehicle running smoothly and efficiently. However, in between oil changes, you should still keep a close eye on your vehicle’s oil levels. If you’re leaking oil or have been putting off that needed oil change, you should top off your oil level.
To check the oil level, park your car on level ground and wait for the engine to cool. Locate the oil dipstick and pull it out, making sure to wipe it with a clean rag. Then push it back in the dip tube as far as it will go and remove it again. Take a look at where the oil level comes to. If it’s between the two dots on the dipstick, your oil level is good. If it’s too low, add about 100ml of new oil. Check your owner’s manual to see which type you need. Repeat if necessary.
7. Changing the Battery
Car batteries may have a long life, but they do die eventually. When your battery inevitably goes, it’s really handy to know how to swap it out for a new one. With the engine off, remove the battery cover — if there is one — and label the positive and negative cables before removing them. Disconnect the negative cable, making sure to move the clamp away from the battery post and then do the same for the positive cable clamp.
Remove all screws holding the battery in place, swap out the old battery for the new one, and reconnect the cable clamps. One thing we should note is that a DIY battery swap only really makes sense if you can do it at home. If your car dies out on the road, it’s probably a better idea to call roadside assistance or a tow truck.
6. Jump Starting the Battery
If your battery dies and replacing it isn’t an immediate option, you may be able to jump start it using a pair of jumper cables and someone else’s vehicle. Start by parking the vehicles close together and turn both engines off. Next, attach one of the red clips to the positive terminal of the good battery and the other to the positive terminal on the dead one. Then attach one of the black clips to the negative terminal of the good battery and the other to an unpainted metal surface in the other car, such as an engine bolt. DO NOT connect the clamp to the negative terminal of the dead battery, as this could create a spark.
5. Cleaning and Replacing the Air Filter
Air filters are an oft-overlooked component that are actually tied quite closely to your vehicle’s overall health. Air filters prevent harmful debris such as dust and other contaminants from entering the engine, radiator, fuel lines, and other key components. If they’re not replaced regularly, your vehicle could experience decreased performance or even engine damage. Fortunately, a new air filter is cheap and you don’t need to be a mechanic to install it! Just follow these steps.
- Open the hood.
- Locate the air filter unit. It should be housed in a box to the side of the engine, with a big black hose sticking out of its side. Google your make and model to find it, if you have to.
- Remove the air filter cover and take the filter out. If necessary, remove any excess dirt from the filter housing.
- Insert the new filter and replace the cover.
If your air filter is still in good condition, you may want to try cleaning it instead of putting in a replacement. Depending on the type of filter, you can clean it with a vacuum or damp cloth. If you get the filter wet, be sure to let it dry completely for 24 hours before reinstalling it.
4. Replace the Wipers
Windshield wipers are one of the most underrated parts of your vehicle’s safety system. They need to be regularly replaced. Worn out blades tend to leave streaks and are ineffective at removing debris such as rain and snow. The good news is the actual act of replacing your wipers is one of the easiest vehicle “repairs” you can learn. Just follow these three steps.
- Lift the wiper arm away from the windshield.
- Depress the small tab holding the blade in replace and remove the old blade.
- Line up the new wiper blade with the arm and push it in tightly.
Even though it’s a pretty straightforward repair, make sure to consult your owner’s manual first before attempting to replace your windshield wipers. The manual will specify the proper blade size for your vehicle and include instructions on how to replace them. While you can get by with universal blades, it’s better to go with whatever size the manufacturer recommends. It will simply be more effective.
3. Changing the Brake Pads
Some people may balk at this being considered a “basic” maintenance tip. While changing your brake pads is a more advanced car repair, it’s also one that sounds much more intimidating than it is. The truth is if you already know how to replace a flat tire, swapping out your brake pads shouldn’t be too much of a step up. You’ll want to consult a guide before attempting this (Lifehacker has a great one) but the task can be broken down into five steps.
- Loosen the wheel lug nuts.
- Jack the car up.
- Remove the wheels and slider bolts.
- Remove the old brake pads and replace them with new ones.
- Put the slider bolts and wheels back on securely.
Again, this is a repair that many car owners won’t be comfortable doing themselves. There’s no shame in leaving a task like this to a professional. However, if you consider yourself even a bit handy, knowing how to change your brake pads can be a great way to save a lot of money on vehicle maintenance. Plus, the investment you’ll make in tools will pay off in the long run since they can be used in many of the other repairs on this list.
2. Maintain Tire Pressure
It kind of goes without saying that maintaining your vehicle’s tire pressure is important. But what you may not realize is that keeping your tires at the recommended PSI (pound-force per square inch) has additional benefits than just decreasing the chance of a flat. Incorrect tire pressure can negatively impact your vehicle’s fuel economy and cause the tire to wear out faster. Both those things will cost you more money than necessary.
The good news is checking and maintaining tire pressure is arguably the easiest piece of vehicle upkeep there is. Invest in a decent tire pressure gauge and inflate when the pressure gets too low. As an added bonus, most new vehicles have sensors that will tell you when the pressure is too low. Most passenger vehicles recommend a PSI between 32-35, but you can usually find the specific number listed on a sticker inside the driver’s door.
1. Replacing a Flat Tire
If there’s one vehicle repair you absolutely need to know, it’s this one. While roadside assistance can take care of a flat for you, it’s much quicker and cheaper if you can swap a tire all by yourself. Assuming you have the necessary tools on hand (jack, lug wrench, and fully inflated spare tire, you’ll need to do the following.
- Park your car in a safe location and apply the parking brake and wheel wedges to ensure the car doesn’t roll away.
- Remove the hubcap (if necessary) and loosen the lug nuts.
- Raise the vehicle with the jack.
- Remove the lug nuts and flat tire.
- Place the spare tire on and install lug nuts.
- Lower the car back down and ensure lug nuts are nice and tight.
While this is a basic vehicle repair, it’s also one you want to ensure is performed properly. If you’ve never attempted to change a tire before, grab a friend or family member with some mechanical know-how and practice on your own vehicle. That way you’ll be prepared for the real thing.