Top 5 simple secrets to car maintenance

Some of us have driven for years without knowing how to open the hood of our vehicle. Others aren’t satisfied until they’ve taken everything apart just to see how a car works.

In between lie the rest of us, relying on trusted techs for most car maintenance but still knowing how to check the oil or replace an air filter. Regardless of our interest level, all of us should be able to complete certain tasks.

Will you win a medal if you can ace them all? No, but you’ll be better off if you break down on a lonely road. And you’ll definitely feel less intimidated when your service advisor tells you your EGR is on the fritz or your oxygen sensors are not reacting.

You’ll also keep more money in your wallet.

Some of our tips may sound insultingly simple, but read anyway. You’ll be surprised by what you learn.

1. How to Fill the Tank

That’s not necessarily as straighforward as you might think. Check your owner’s manual for your engine’s octane number. Some vehicles set off check engine lights if the wrong grade is used. Avoid rounding up the price on the pump after the first stop-click of the handle. Putting too much fuel in a tank can cause problems with its venting system as the cool gasoline from the station’s underground storage tank warms up and expands in your tank. Avoid the smell of fuel on your hands by carrying a small box of disposable gloves in the car. Remember the number one cause for activating the check engine light is failure to put back the gas cap properly. With older cars, check the fuel tank filler neck for rust at the lip where the gas cap seals. A little steel wool can avoid a visit to the shop or a failed emission’s test.

2. How to Check the Tire Pressure

This is a money-saving task. Get a good quality tire pressure gauge (some of the best cost less than $20). Check the pressure on all tires at least once a month and at least every second fuel fill-up in winter. Check the tires cold which means after the car has been parked for several hours. The owner’s manual or the sticker on the driver’s door or door jamb will tell you correct pressures, not the sidewall on the tire. Most vehicles with tire pressure sensing systems have the sensors build into the valve stems. If any excess moisture gets into the sensor, it will cause the valve to seize and that could cost $100 to repair. Correct tire pressures can improve fuel economy by 10 per cent.

3. How to Change a Flat Tire

I know that’s why we have roadside assistance. But you can save a lot of time waiting for a service truck if you do it yourself. Don’t wait to practise until you are at the side of a busy road. Try a dry-run in the safety of your own driveway.

Have you heard of locking wheel nut? These specially designed anti-theft devices replace one regular wheel nut on each wheel with one that will only turn with a unique key. Your car should have a set and you’ll need it to remove the lock nut.

Lifting a car with its jack on loose gravel or a sloping surface is asking for trouble. The safest way to jack up a car is to ensure it can roll slightly forward or backward to keep the jack perpendicular to the ground instead of rising on an angle. Never try to change a flat unless your vehicle is well away from traffic lanes. In that case, you may want to wait for that service truck.

4. How to Check the Oil and Other Fluids

Hate the idea of wiping off an oily dipstick? Check your engine’s oil level before starting up in the morning. If the vehicle is parked on a relatively level grade, the dipstick will reveal a very accurate reading without having to wipe it off and reinsert a second time. Just about every vehicle has transparent or translucent containers for brake fluid, engine coolant and windshield washer fluid. So a visual check is all that’s needed. Never remove a pressurized coolant cap when the engine is still warm. The resulting eruption of hot antifreeze can cause serious burns. Most vehicles no longer have automatic transmission dipsticks. If yours does, check your owner’s manual for how to check the level. Most require the engine to be running and fully warmed up for this reading. If your brake fluid is well below the normal line and there are no leaks, your brake linings are probably worn to replacement level.

5. How to Change the Air Filter

This is almost always a tool-free event with a few quick-release latches on a plastic box (see your owners manual). Check your filter every other month, more frequently if you drive on gravel roads. A dirty air filter can rob your engine — and your wallet — of up to 20 per cent of your fuel economy.

Olivia Walliser, left, and Nadia Gwozd change a tire. Both are in grade 10 at St. Francis. Photograph by: Ted Rhodes