Basic Car Maintenance

Throughout the rest of this website you'll find in-depth articles describing in intricate detail how everything automotive works. On this page, I've simplified all that knowledge into a series of basic car maintenance tips, subdivided by category. Some tips have simple explanations right here whilst others link back to the articles in the rest of the site. If you can't find what you're looking for, try the search button at the end of the top menu. If you still can't find what you're looking for, or have a suggestion for something else I should cover, contact me using the contact button on the top menu bar.

Can't fix it? Junk it for charity instead
Before we start, I thought it worth pointing out that if have the mechanical skill of a limp banana or otherwise have a car that you can't fix no matter how much maintenance advice you get, there is another option to just sending it to the breaker's yard. In America for example Junk-car.org is a car donation program that benefits underprivileged children. All proceeds from the junk cars are used to fund a vast array of services including mentoring, parent education, and summer camp placements. With this particular group, if you donate your car you even get free junk car removal and towing. Junk-car.org will also issue a tax-deductible receipt upon donation. It's a nice solution and better than having a redneck caron-bricks parked outside your front door. If your car is perfectly serviceable, then let’s move on to the tips:

Wheels and tyres Rotate your tyres!

Every 5,000 miles or 8,000km, rotate your tyres.

Clean brake dust off regularly

Brake dust contains all sorts of nasty stuff. If you leave it too long, the combination of road grime, moisture and heat from your brakes will bake it on to your wheels. Brake dust normally clings to wheels with static electricity so a damp sponge and clean cold water is the best way to get it off.

Check your tyre pressures
Check your tyre pressures regularly - once a week is ideal. Bad tyre pressures can affect fuel economy, handling and comfort. It's easy to do and there is no excuse not to.

Check your tread depth
Bald, slick tyres might be good for motor racing but they're no good on the road. Most tyres come with tread wear bars built into them now - find one, examine it and if your tread is too low, replace your tyres. Four new tyres might seem expensive but they're cheaper than a fine or an accident.

Engine Check your belts
At the front of your engine there will be a series of rubber drive belts that loop around various pulleys, driving everything from the alternator to the a/c compressor. Rubber perishes, more so in extreme conditions like those found in an operating engine bay. Get your timing belt and accessory drive belt checked every 25,000 miles, preferably replacing it every 50,000 miles. See the Fuel and Engine bible for information on interference engines and why checking your timing belts are a necessity, not a luxury:

Fuel Economy
Check your tyre pressures regularly - once a week is ideal. Bad tyre pressures can affect fuel economy very noticeably. It's easy to do and there is no excuse not to.

Checking your oil level

This is something everyone can do - it's quick and easy and it'll tell you if your engine needs oil. If the oil is too high or too low, it can cause trouble for your engine. To check the oil, park on level ground and wait until the engine has cooled down after driving, and then locate the dipstick. Pull it out and wipe it clean, then push it all the way back in until the top of it is seated properly in the dip tube again. Wait a moment then pull it out again. Check the level of the oil. If it's between the high and low marks, you're fine. (If it's too low, add a little.) The high and low marks can be denoted by two dots, an "H" and "L" or a shaded area on the dipstick. The photos below show a Honda dipstick which has the two dots. Why not just read the level first time around? The first time you pull the dipstick out, it will have oil all over it and it will be difficult to tell where the level is. That's why you need to wipe it on a rag to get a clean dipstick, then dip it back into the oil to get a good reading. More information on why you should check your oil level is here

Checking your coolant level
Again, something everyone can do. The coolant is the other thing your engine cannot go without. Every engine is different but if you check your handbook you should find where the coolant reservoir is. It will normally be bolted to one side of the engine bay or the other, and be a white semitransparent bottle. Wait until your engine is cool and take a look at it - the outside should have 'low' and 'high' markings on it and the level of coolant inside should be between the two. Do not take the radiator cap off to check coolant levels. If the coolant system is still hot then it is still under pressure and the pressure release will burn you.

Fuel / gas

Will higher octane or premium fuel give me better gas mileage and/or more power?
No. Sportier cars have higher compression engines which generate more power and require higher octane fuel to prevent detonation. That's where the myth of "premium = more power" came from. If your handbook says "regular", use regular. See octane and power for more information.

Electrical Disconnecting and reconnecting your battery

If you're going to do any work on your car involving the electrical system, disconnect the battery first. To do this, loosen the connector for the negative/ground terminal first, and wiggle the terminal cap off. Use a wire-tie or similar to tie the cable back out of the way. If you need to take the battery out, you can now take off the positive connector. Why negative then positive? If you disconnect the positive side of the battery first, the negative side is still connected to the entire car. If you drop a tool and it lands on the positive battery terminal and touches anything else on the car, you'll have an electrical short. By disconnecting the negative first, you're cutting off the return path for the current. Now, if a tool drops on to either of the battery terminals, it doesn't matter if it touches part of the chassis or not - there's no continuous path for the electrical current. Reconnecting your battery. Connect the positive terminal first, and the negative second - the reverse of removal, and for the same reasons. When you slip the negative connector on, there will be a spark as it gets close and makes contact with the negative battery terminal. Don't be afraid of this - it's nothing to worry about. Make sure the terminal caps are done up nice and tight.

Check your battery terminals
Most modern cars run on a 12 volt negative ground electrical system. If your battery terminals or contacts aren't clean, you're making it more difficult for the current to pass around the electrical system. Remove the terminal caps as described above and clean each contact post with a wire brush to get a nice clean metal contact surface. Do the same to the terminal caps, then reattach them as described above?

Lights One indicator or blinker is flashing faster than the other

When you indicate one way and the blinker flashes quicker than when you indicate the other way, it means one of the bulbs has blown. An auto parts store will be able to tell you what sort of bulb you need to replace it with and your manual should show you how to get at the indicator bulbs they're different on every car.

Don't touch the glass when changing headlight bulbs
Most headlight bulbs now are filled with halogen and have special coatings on the outside of the glass. If you pick the bulb up by the glass with your fingers, you will leave trace amounts of oil and grease on the glass. When the bulb is used, that area of the glass will get hotter than the rest and it will eventually cause the bulb to crack. When changing headlight bulbs, only hold the metal bulb holder at the base, or make sure you're wearing rubber surgical / mechanic's gloves (clean ones) if you're touching the glass.

Dash / instrument warning lights

The check engine light. Every new car now comes with OBD-II - On Board Diagnostics 2. This is a fault-registering system connected to sensors all over the car, engine, fuel and emissions system. When the check engine light comes on, it can mean many things. There are something like 4,000 unique OBD2 codes that can be stored. Handheld OBD2 diagnostic tools can be plugged in to the OBD2 port which is normally under the dash on the driver's side. These tools can read out the fault code and/or reset the system to contain no codes. Codes are split into two categories historical/inactive, and active. The historical codes are lists of things that have been detected in the past but are no longer an issue, whilst the active codes are things that are a problem right now. Codes are subdivided into B-codes (body), C-codes (chassis) and the biggest list of all - Pcodes (power train). P0440 OBD-II code. This is the most common code you'll find and it's the first thing you should check. P0440 is the code for Evaporative Emission Control System Malfunction which covers a multitude of sins. The one thing it covers that you can check is your gas cap (petrol cap). Most new cars have a pressurised fuel system and vapour recovery loop. If you've filled up with petrol and not twisted the gas cap until it clicks, you've not sealed the fuel system. It won't pressurise and the OBD2 system will log a P0440 code. In fact, on a lot of cars, that code is so common they'll actually have some way of telling you to check the gas cap. In the Honda Element, for example, if a P0440 code is logged, the dash scrolls "CHECK GAS CAP" across the odometer display. So if you get a check engine light, check the gas cap first and see if the light goes off. Note: even if the light does go off, the code will likely still be stored in the OBD system and will show up next time it is checked. It wasn't the gas cap. If tightening the gas cap didn't do it, you'll need to find someone with an OBD2 diagnostics tool or reader. Some garages will charge you just for plugging the device in and reading the code. If they do, walk away.

The service engine light / Maint Reqd light. This might indicate "Service", "Service Engine" or "Maint Reqd". It's an indicator that you're getting close to a scheduled maintenance interval. On some cars it's as simple as counting miles before it comes on, whilst on others it maps engine temperatures, oil temperatures, air temperatures and other indicators of probable stress to tell you when it might be time for new oil or a service. In most cars this can be overridden or reset by you, the owner. Your handbook will tell you if this is the case. If you take your car for a service, the garage should reset it for you. Typically this light will come on when you start your car, and then turn off again as part of the self-check. If it stays on for 10 seconds then turns off, it normally means you're within 500 miles of needing a service. If it flashes for 10 seconds, it normally means you've exceeded a recommended service interval. The electrical fault light. This warning light is different in every car but normally it looks like a picture of a battery, similar to the picture on the left here. You'll see it come on and go off when you start your engine as part of the car's self-test, but if this light comes on and stays on, it means the electrical charging system is no longer working properly. Think of it like a cell phone battery. If the cell phone is plugged into the charger, you can use it indefinitely, but when you disconnect it from the charger, there's a limited amount of time before your battery runs out. It's exactly the same in your car, only bigger. Every car has an alternator - the charger - and a 12v battery used to supply power to the electrical system. If the alternator becomes faulty or the drive belt to it snaps, then it will not be able to do its job. The longer you drive, the more your car will use up the remaining juice in the battery and eventually the engine will die. This almost always requires a new or refurbished alternator.

Brake warning light 1 Most cars nowadays have a brake warning light on the dash. Its purpose is to alert you that something is wrong in the braking system somewhere. If it comes on, check your owner's manual to find out its meaning. Unlike the single-purpose ABS warning light, the brake warning light doesn't have a standard meaning; it could be used for multiple purposes. For example, the same light may be used to show that the hand brake (parking brake for the Americans amongst you) is on. If that's the case and you're driving, you ought to have noticed the smell of burning brake dust by now. The light can also indicate that the fluid in the master cylinder is low. Each manufacturer has a different use and standard for this light. Which is nice? Because it would be such a drag if the same indicator meant the same thing in every vehicle. Brake warning light 2 If you've got an ABS-equipped car, you also have a second light - the ABS light. If it comes on, get it seen to as soon as possible. It means the ABS computer has diagnosed that something is amiss in the system. It could be something as simple as dirt in one of the sensors, or something as costly as an entire ABS unit replacement. Either way, if that light is on, then you, my friend, has got 1970's brakes. It's important to note that this light normally comes on when you start the car and then switches off a few seconds later. If it stays on, blinks, throbs, flashes or in any other way draws your attention to itself, take note. It's not doing it just to please itself.

Coolant warning light This is normally the coolant level warning light. If this comes on it means that the level of coolant in your radiator is low and needs topping up. DO NOT OPEN THE RADIATOR CAP WHEN THE ENGINE IS HOT! The coolant system is pressurised and it could easily release pressure and spray you with boiling coolant. Do it when the engine is cold. Top up the system with either a pre-mixed coolant bought from a shop, or with distilled water. Don't use tap water - the mineral deposits in it boil out in the cooling system and calcium gets deposited around the inside of the radiator making it less efficient (which will eventually cause it to fail). It's always best to use pre-mixed coolant, or to mix your own rather than using neat water. The coolant mixture behaves as antifreeze in winter as well as a corrosion-inhibitor to stop your engine rusting from the inside out. Oil warning light Typically this light will come on if your oil pressure is too low. Low oil pressure is serious and if you continue to drive with this light on, eventually your engine will die. Low oil pressure can be caused by a failed oil pump, a blocked oil filter or strainer in the sump or by low oil levels for example if your engine is burning oil. Either way, you need to get it fixed, and fast. Low oil pressure is A Bad Thing and your engine won't thank you for leaving this problem untreated.

Get better gas mileage - improving your fuel economy
They used to say that you could only rely on two things in life - taxes and death. Not true. There's three things. Taxes, death and the cost of petrol spiralling forever upwards. So consider this page your guide to making the best of a bad situation. Follow these tips and you should be able to improve your mpg - miles per gallon. Better fuel economy = more money in your bank account.

First things first: measuring your gas mileage
It seems obvious but a lot of people just don't know how to measure their average gas mileage. Fuel economy is a total mystery to them. So bear with me - I realise to a lot of you this is the age-old adage of teaching you to suck eggs. So - a lot of cars nowadays have an mpg readout that you can select from their onboard computer. Whilst these are useful, they do tend to be a bit optimistic. I've found over the past 6 to 8 years that on-board mpg displays tend to over-read by about 7%. Not much but enough to give you a skewed view of reality. So how do you measure your average mpg? It's easy. You need to start with a full tank and always fill your tank to the point where the pump cuts off. It's painful to your wallet, especially at today's prices, but it's the best chance you have.

So first - fill up. Fill your car to the point where the pump cuts off and zero your trip counter. Now you know you're starting from a 'full' tank. I say full because each car has a different amount of dead space at the top of the tank and in the fuel filler neck, but if you let the pump cut off on its own each time, it will generally fill to around the same level each time. Next time you fill up, again fill the tank to the pump cut-off and importantly, make a note of the number of litres or gallons you put in, and the trip counter reading. Divide one by the other and you get either miles per gallon (mpg) or km per litre. Zero the trip counter again and keep a note of the mpg calculation. Each time you fill up, fill it to the pump cut-off, and make a note of the amount that went in and the trip counter reading, calculating your mpg or litres per km each time. Once you have four or five calculations, you can start to figure out your running average using some simple maths, or an online mileage tracker like mymilemarker.com ortrackyourgasmileage.com. Below is the ongoing tracker for my current vehicle.

New car or something else?
One of the first things that people think of once they think they're getting bad gas mileage, is buying a new car - a more fuel-efficient one or even a hybrid. But be careful - you have to do your homework here. Take into account how much you could sell your existing car for and how much you're going to pay for the new one. It's important because generally speaking, going this route will normally result in a net loss - you'll end up losing money unless you keep the new car for 5 years or more. Better fuel economy will mean that the day-to-day running expenses will be less once you've got the new car. But think about it - the initial outlay to swap cars will likely be huge. So then you're left with the other option - getting better mpg out of your existing car. In order of ease-of-attainability then, the carbibles.com ten tips for better gas mileage:

1. Your right foot

So simple anyone can do it. If you're caning it away from the traffic lights, you're wasting petrol and your mpg will be down. If you're endurance racing at 80mph on the motorway, you're wasting petrol. Here's the thing - your gas mileage can drop off as much as 15% between driving at or below 65mph and driving above 65mph. Now I love speed as much as the next person but you have to be realistic here - do you want better fuel economy or to get there marginally quicker? I sound like a total wet blanket telling you this of course, but driving slower absolutely will improve your mpg. Why? Because once you get over about 65mph, you're using more engine power to overcome drag, which means consuming more petrol to do it. What about when you're not on the motorway? Well consider a little less braking if you can. If you can see the next set of lights ahead of you are red, don't race up to them and come to a complete stop. Try to moderate your speed a little if you can do it safely. If you can get there as they turn green and the traffic in front begins to move, you're doing OK. That's because it takes more energy to get you going from a complete stop than it does from a slow roll. So if you can do this, it will improve your mpg.

2. Change octane if you can
Too many people drive around with medium or premium gas in their tank when they just don't need to. If your owner's manual says "regular", it means it. Putting mid-grade or premium in is just wasting money. Why? Unless you have a high-compression engine which could be prone to detonation (pinking / pinging), you have absolutely no need for highoctane petrol. The only thing that higher octane gives you is less probability of detonation. In high-performance cars with high-compression engines that means allowing the engine management system to work at peak efficiency but for probably 75% of you, your car will quite happily run on the cheapest petrol you can put in it. Not an improvement in fuel economy per se, but money saving at least.

3. Use the internet

Again - not so much about improving your mpg as saving money; no matter where you live, there will be one or more internet sites that can provide you with petrol prices in your area. Vote with your money. Buy from the cheap ones, and shun the expensive ones. It's not improving your mpg, but it is saving you money, and in the long term, that's what counts here. Apathy in this area is what the petrol companies rely on. To get you going, here's a couple of examples. US petrol prices. UK petrol prices. For others, use your favourite search engine.

4a. Check your tyre pressures
This is a total no-brainer. Check your tyre pressures regularly - make it part of your sunday routine or something. All motoring sites and magazines tell you the same thing and that's for a reason. If your tyre pressures are low, you will be increasing the rolling resistance of the tyre on the road and that will be robbing your fuel efficiency - your gas mileage will be down. So make sure they're up to manufacturer recommended values (at the very least) and watch your mpg get a little better.

4b. Get low rolling-resistance tyres
You might never have considered this, but manufacturers do make tyres designed for low rolling resistance. This means that there's less effort required to roll the tyre along the road surface. Less effort means fewer loads on your engine. Less load means better mpg. When I went for aftermarket alloy wheels and tyres on my Honda Element, my gas mileage dropped by about 1mpg due simply to the change in tread pattern of the tyres.

5. Get rid of the roof rack

You go biking or skiing at the weekends. Great. When you're commuting to work, that empty roof rack is adding aerodynamic drag to your car. More drag means more power to overcome it, which means worse mpg. Take it off when you're not using it. Same goes for those 'aerodynamic' roof boxes - if you're not using it, get rid of it. Yes they look aerodynamic but the fact of the matter is they do induce drag. And to be honest, they look silly. Hey - I know it means getting up and doing something rather than just routinely getting in your car and driving off but we're talking about gas mileage here. Mpg. Fuel economy. It's all to do with money. Be lazy? Or save money?

6. Change your air filter
Out of sight, out of mind. I'm guilty of this. Your air filter is what protects your engine from ingesting all the dust, dirt and crap in the air. If it's doing its job well, it will clog up, much like the bag of a vacuum cleaner. Once it clogs up, your engine has a harder time sucking air through it. To compensate for the reduced airflow, the engine management system will richen up the mixture, using more petrol to keep the engine running smoothly. Replace your air filter once a year and you'll guarantee better gas mileage. So why am I guilty of this? At the time of writing I change the three-year-old filter in my car and my mpg jumped by 2.5 overnight. On my car that equated to a 13% improvement for an outlay of $14. Duh!

7. Change your oil and oil filter
Whilst you won't see any massive improvement by changing your oil and filter, you're ensuring that your engine is keeping its 'fresh blood'.

8. Get new spark plugs
Spark plugs work in an incredibly hostile environment. If you've got more than 30,000 miles on yours, change them. Fresh plugs that aren't covered in carbon deposits will certainly help you in your quest to become a fuel miser.

9. Ultrasonic cleaning for your fuel injectors

The only sure-fire way to clean your fuel injectors is to have them removed and given an ultrasonic bath. This is like those jewellery cleaners you might have seen. Basically it's a small tub filled with detergent solution that is hit with ultra high frequency vibrations or sound waves. The net effect is that any carbon deposits are shaken off the fuel injectors. Clean injectors give a more even fuel-air mix which results in a more predictable burn in the cylinder, which will contribute to improved gas mileage. If your injectors have never been done, or you've got more than 60,000 miles on them, consider getting the professionally cleaned. It won't be cheap but it's cheaper than a new car (by a huge margin) and it will help your mpg.

10. Remapping your ECU - chipping and tuning
Expensive one this, but it might be worth investigating. For the most part, chipping or remapping your engine management computer would normally be done to improve performance. It is possible however to go the other way - trade off some performance in exchange for better gas mileage. Not a lot of places are advertising this yet but as the price of petrol continues to spiral, I wouldn't be surprised to see this happen. For example, a few tuning houses in America have seen some interesting results from flashing European engine maps into US vehicles. It's a bit dodgy because it means those vehicles won't pass the emissions tests, but if you're serious, you could get a dual-map system. For the inspection and emissions, leave it in "US" mode. For everyday driving, use the European map. Of course you didn't get that idea from here :-)

What does all this add up to?
Realistically, if you religiously stick to the above points (from a regime of previously doing nothing special), you should expect to see a mpg improvement of about 15%. Doesn't sound like a lot? Let me put a number on it. Last year I spent around $2600 on petrol throughout the year. A 15% improvement in gas mileage correlates to a 15% decrease in outlay to fill my car. In my case about $400 a year. How useful is that? It's a round trip to Vegas (no hotel). 6 months car insurance. 5 weeks grocery shopping. And so on and so on. So you can keep wasting money if you like, but if you're serious about getting better gas mileage, these simple steps really will help. Happy motoring and I hope you see some improvements in your fuel economy. Oh - and if you're interested, send me your ideas. After my initial blog post, I had some good ones come back straight away so on page 2 you'll find the expanding list of reader-submitted tips.

11. Weight is everything.
Clear the junk out of your car. Weight is everything when it comes to fuel economy. Every extra kilo you carry will adversely affect your gas mileage. If your car or van has removable seats that you never use, remove them and keep them in the garage. If you're feeling brave you could get rid of the spare tyre and jack and replace it with a can of tyresealing goop. If you're into modding, ditch the factory hood and replace it with a carbon-fibre one instead. If you're über serious, get rid of the glass in the rear side windows and replace them with perspex / lexan. Always think lighter. For that matter, go on a diet....

11b. Weight is everything - your wheels.
Following the 'lighter is better' theme, can you reduce the weight of your wheels? Alloy wheels can weigh less than steel wheels if you choose carefully. As well as increasing your fuel economy, this has the added bonus of giving you more useable power because you're reducing the unsprung weight. That means the engine is wasting less energy just turning the wheels. Be careful though - if the car feels a bit sportier you might be inclined to drive a bit sportier and that goes against tip 1 on the previous page; your right foot is directly connected to your mpg.

12. Block gear changing.
If you've got a manual, you likely already are getting better gas mileage than someone in the equivalent car with an automatic. But you can eak out a few more mpg by block gear changing. This is where you don't necessarily go from 1st to 2nd to 3rd etc. If you're careful (and this requires some experimenting), you can go from 1st to 3rd to 5th and so on. The key is to make sure that you don't go too high up in the rev range in the lower gear, or too low down in the upper gear. Go to high in the lower gear and you're burning petrol for no reason. Go too low in the higher and the engine will labour and suck petrol badly. With newer cars with 6- and 7-speed boxes, block gear changing is much easier than it ever used to be, and for a lot of motorcyclists (I included), it's the norm. 13-5-6.

13. Aftermarket remedies and in-the-tank products just don't.

Pills, stickers, fuel-line magnetisers, powders, airflow disruptors. Since the dawn of time it seems that there have been aftermarket products that claim massive increases in power and gas mileage. For the most part, they don't work. I've reviewed some of them on my product reviews page and in some cases the fuel economy actually went down with the product in use. Remember the old adage: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. ie. when Uberjuice Industries tells you that you'll get 50% more mpg by simply pouring their food colouring into your tank, don't fall for it.

14. Coast in gear, not in neutral.
If you need to coast while you're driving, don't slip the car into neutral but let it coast in a high gear. Most cars nowadays will shut off the fuel supply to the engine completely if you coast in gear. If you put it in neutral, the engine consumes enough petrol to keep it ticking over. ie. you'll get better fuel economy coasting downhill (for example) in gear.

15. Fit a thermatic fan instead of a belt-driven one.
Fitting an electric (aftermarket) thermatic fan to replace the engine driven fan/viscous coupling fan could help improve gas mileage. It'll be slight it's arguable whether you'd even be able to measure it, but eliminating the drag caused by the extra belt or viscous coupling and the fan can only help. Ok so most modern cars are equipped with electric fans as standard now but it could benefit older makes or those still being manufactured with belt driven cooling fans.