Performing routine maintenance on your vehicle is the single most important thing you can do to help ensure it continues to get you from point A to point B for years to come without constant major repairs.
Of course, repairs are inevitable, and some maintenance will require the help of a professional. But there are some things you can and should do yourself to save time and money.
Check fluid levels
Time: 5-10 minutes
It’s wise to check your fluid levels any time you’re under the hood, or at least once per month. Most of the time, you’ll be okay, but that doesn’t mean you should stop checking. This is the easily the most important preventative maintenance tasks you can do yourself.
Once per month, you should check the levels of: brake fluid, engine oil, power steering fluid and transmission fluid. Engine coolant should be checked every six months. And while you’re under the hood, you might as well check the windshield washer fluid, as well.
If one of these is low, you can top it off quite easily, and you’ll know if it’s time to change the fluid altogether or if there’s a bigger problem, such as a leak.
Check tire pressure
Time: 2-3 minutes
Keeping an eye on your tire pressure is also a smart preventative move. Properly inflated tires can increase the life span of the tires, but also the driving performance of your vehicle. Too much air in the tires can cause a stiff, bouncy ride, and the center of the tires will wear more quickly. Too little pressure and too much of the tire will grip the ground, also causing them to wear more quickly along the outside edges of the tire.
You can find the recommended tire pressure in your owner’s manual or, usually, on the driver’s side door pillar. Go by this pressure, not the pressure rating of the tire, which is generally the recommended maximum pressure for the tire, which isn’t specific to different vehicles.
If you don’t have a tire pressure gauge on hand, the air pump found at gas stations sometimes have pressure gauges built in. Some cars also provide a readout of tire pressure on digital instrument clusters. Just be sure to check the pressure when the tires are at their coolest — not after you’ve driven several miles.
If you need air, you can typically get it at gas station air pumps for a dollar. If you need to release air from the tires, use a pressure gauge with a pressure release trigger or use a flathead screwdriver to press on the pin in the middle of the valve stem. Release air little by little, checking pressure along the way.
Change windshield wipers
Time: 5 minutes
Approximate price: $30 (£23.33 or AU$40.66)
One of the easiest things you can do is replace your car’s windshield wiper blades.
The rubber begins to break down over time, be it wear from excessive scraping of ice and snow or from the heat of summer. It’s recommended to replace wiper blades once or twice per year, depending on how extreme the weather is.
Changing wiper blades will vary from brand to brand, but they all have a simple clasp mechanism with a sliding lock or a button to press to release. Make sure to buy the correct length blades for your car — some require two different sizes or might require a rear wiper, too. And don’t let the spring-loaded arm smack back down onto the windshield (like I so brilliantly did a few months ago), because it can crack or chip your windshield, turning an otherwise quick and cheap repair into a costly one.
Change air filters
Time: 2 minutes
Approximate price: $10 (£7.78 or AU$13.55)
So you take your car in for service and every time, without fail, you’re told by the mechanic that you need to replace your air filter. Chances are, the mechanic isn’t wrong.
Air filters, as the name suggests, filter dirt and debris from entering through the air intake system. It’s important to change these regularly — every 15,000 miles or roughly once per year — to prevent serious damage to the engine and to keep the intake system efficient.
Just like air filters in your home can seriously affect the performance of your air conditioning unit, a old and dirty air filter can degrade the performance of your car by blocking air flow`. But that doesn’t mean you have to pay someone to change it for you. Buy one and replace it yourself. It will only take you a couple minutes and will only cost you around $10 (£7.78 or AU$13.55).
To change the air filter, look under the hood of the car and locate the air filter box. Look for clips or a latch to open the box, remove the old air filter and replace with a new one.
Replace spark plugs
Time: 30 minutes to an hour
Approximate price: $30-$60 (£23.33-£46.67 or AU$40.66-AU$81.32)
Spark plugs are vital to your car’s engine running properly. They ignite a fuel and air mixture in the combustion chamber, which drives the piston down, turning the crankshaft. Your car has several pistons that work together to fully turn the crankshaft. Timing is essential, and even one spark plug misfiring or not working properly can dramatically affect your car’s performance, such as a loss of power, poor acceleration, misfires and it can even affect your ability to start the engine.
Changing spark plugs is a little more involved than checking fluids or replacing an air filter, but it can still be done at home quite easily.
In most cases, you’ll need one plug per cylinder, but some vehicles require two per cylinder. Check your owner’s manual for the correct number and types of plugs. Also, take note of the required gap. (You might want to pick up a gapping tool while you’re at the store, since this can be inadvertently bumped in transport and should be measured and corrected before installed.)
To replace spark plugs, first let the engine temperature cool. Then change spark plugs one at a time by gently removing the wire from the spark plug. Use a spark plug socket and torque wrench to remove the old spark plug. Measure the gap and install the new spark plug. (Some prefer to use anti-seize lubricant with new spark plugs, but it’s not necessarily required and some spark plug manufacturers recommend not using it.) Reconnect the boot and repeat the process for each spark plug.
Replace a blown fuse
Time: 2 minutes
Approximate price: $5 (£3.89 or AU$6.78)
If something electronic on your car randomly stops working, like the lights, stereo or power windows, chances are it’s a blown fuse. Fixing a blown fuse is one of the easiest repairs you can do yourself.
Most modern cars have two groups of fuses in panels, one typically found beneath the steering wheel and the other under the hood.
You can often perform a visual inspection to find a blown fuse. Look for a fuse that appears slightly melted, or check the internal u-shaped wire. If the wire is separated, the fuse has blown. You may need to pull the fuse to inspect the wire. The good news is, if you know what has stopped working, you can immediately narrow the search by referencing the inside cover of the fuse panel lid and the owner’s manual. Many fuse boxes also come equipped with a fuse removal key, but a pair of needle nose pliers will also do the trick.
You can pick up a variety pack of fuses from an automotive parts store for a few bucks. Just make sure to get the correct size and type for your car. Many newer cars use shorter style fuses, which are not compatible with the older style fuses with longer leads.
Once you locate the blown fuse, remove it and replace it with a fuse rated for the same amperage.
Install new headlights and tail lights
Time: 10-30 minutes
Approximate price: $30 (£23.33 or AU$40.66)
A burned out headlight or tail light could get you pulled over and a ticket for faulty equipment.
Fortunately, in most cases, changing headlights is a cinch and requires few tools. Pop the hood, remove the power connector from the rear of the headlight, remove the dust cover and remove the clip that holds the bulb in place (if there is a clip). Grasp the bulb housing and gently pull and wiggle until it comes loose. Remove the old bulb, insert the new bulb and reinsert the housing into the bulb socket (this might require a twist to lock the bulb back in place). Reinstall the dust cover and reconnect power.
From inside your car, turn on the lights and check to make sure your new headlight is working.
Replacing burned out tail lights is virtually the same process, but accessed through the trunk or rear hatch of the car.