With the start of a new year, whether you’re traveling in the immediate future or not, now is a great time to set aside some time to check all of these items on your vehicle for everyday safety’s sake. Then, when you’re gearing up for your next trip by car, just remember to run through each of these again to be on the safe side. No one wants to be sitting on the side of the road wasting valuable travel time waiting on a roadside assistance program or someone else to come help them out!
BTW, three disclaimers …
a) I’m not an automotive expert or even an enthusiast (unless my love of Ford Mustangs count, which it doesn’t). Just a female who has owned four vehicles in the last seventeen years and learned a few things between the driver’s ed instructor, my dad, repair shops, and serious researching via The Googles when the dad was unavailable for questioning.
b) Before checking anything under the hood of your vehicle, make sure the engine has fully cooled off if you’ve recently driven it.
c) I’ve included some affiliate links below to Amazon for tools I keep in my vehicle (or similar versions) and recommend … clicking through the link doesn’t cost you anything unless you buy that item or something else, but it nets me a few pennies to put back into the cost of site maintenance! That’s a few more pennies I can add from my own pocket for those new tires I need this summer! Thanks in advance!
Have you checked to see …
When was your last oil change?
I’ve noticed that recommendations for this vary by manufacturer, dealership service center, commercial locations where you get your oil changed, and even the men in one’s life. With exception to when I was getting my oil changes free from the dealership for the first 24,000 miles on my current vehicle, I’ve always stuck to the 5,000 mile rule with all four vehicles that I’ve owned to date. My dad is the one who ingrained that particular number into me and none of his vehicles or mine have ever had issues in that regard. Granted, I do commute 75 miles round-trip daily plus several errand trips a month, so that’s roughly an oil change every 8-10 weeks. Most commercial places recommend 3,000 miles/3 months (i.e. WalMart and the few Quick Lube places I’ve used). My dealership’s requirement for the free oil changes were that they had to be between the 3,000 and 4,000 mark each time — I typically took it in around the 3,750-ish mark. Ultimately, check the manual when in doubt, stick within warranty guidelines to avoid voiding it, and ask other owners of the vehicle you own what they do.
However … even if you aren’t due for an oil change, check the oil levels periodically. See the dipstick above? Mine has two holes — there’s an L by the one on the left and a H by the one on the right. As long as its above the hole for the L end, you’re ok but keep a closer check the lower it gets. I typically check it at the midpoint between oil changes — and keep an eye out for oil puddles with a day or two of an oil change in case the oil filter hasn’t been tightened properly. See the larger black cap with a spot of blue on it just to the left of the small green cap? That’s where the oil goes. It’ll have an oil can image that resembles a genie bottle on there.
When is the last time you checked your tires?
How old are your tires? Were they new on the car when you purchased it? If not, keep an eye on how many miles you’ve put on them. Depending on the type of vehicle you have (sedan, truck, suv as well as front wheel drive vs. rear wheel drive), tires have a limit on how many miles they’re guaranteed for before replacement is necessary. With the last three vehicles, I replaced tires two to three times during ownership based on how quickly the tread wore (I put anywhere from 90k to 115k+ on each of them), especially on the one front wheel drive car that wore quicker than the two rear wheel drive vehicles; right now I have about 8,000 – 10,000 more miles before the first set will need replacing on my suv.
Also, keep an eye out for defects — I had a tire on my Mustang years ago that was defective and we thought it was the engine because it was a *knocking* sound since the sound was coming from the front driver’s side. Nope, defect in the tire wall. Thankful for having a dad that worked for a tire manufacturer and thinking about that possibility!
Things to check and do periodically — do the Lincoln penny head tread depth test, keep an eye on the tire’s air pressure – keep one of these tire pressure gauges* in your glove compartment, and rotate every other oil change!
**When there’s major shifts in temperature changes like there have been with the crazy winter weather lately, you’ve probably seen the check tire pressure warning light pop on. I know I have. Typically I haven’t needed to add any air unless the pressure gauge actually indicated its low. Mine kicked on a week and a half ago the morning after I picked up from the repair shop — it was 18 degrees that morning — but the gauge showed they were only a couple pounds lower than required + they didn’t look any lower than normal, so I went on to work rather than being late to do a quick air up. When I cranked it up that afternoon the light didn’t kick back on since the temperature outside had risen considerably.
PS: I don’t suggest ignoring all warning lights that pop on, but that one + temperature shifts I’ve figured out a pattern from past experiences.
Tying in with the whole tire thing … Do you live in an area where its snowy more often than not in the winter? Do you need snow chains/tires? When was the last time you checked the condition of them?
This doesn’t apply to me, but I don’t envy those who have to swap tire sets twice a year or that have to have snow chains at some point during the winter! But if you do live somewhere where this is a necessity or occasional need, here’s what About.com had to say on the subject. I tried to find something on snow chain maintenance but didn’t find anything beyond installation tips :-/
What about that air filter? Checked it lately?
Check this when you get ready to go in for an oil change — sometimes I let the shop do this when I’m getting an oil change so I don’t have to worry about it, sometimes I just do it myself because I’ve asked and later discovered the technician didn’t even bother to do so. If its filthy, replace it — its that simple. Clean air filter = more money in your wallet because it helps your vehicle be more fuel efficient!
How old is your car battery? Have you checked for corrosion?
Some car batteries have a ‘calendar’ on them that indicates when it was purchased (or, if you purchased your vehicle new off the lot, when the factory installed it). If not, make note in your owner’s manual of the date of purchase of the battery/vehicle for future reference. I’ve had pretty decent luck with batteries lasting nearly the length of time I’ve owned a vehicle, but I did have to replace a couple sooner than that — one on the used truck that I bought as a high school senior about three years in and vehicle #3 at the four year mark.
Also, keep an eye out on corrosion around where the cables connect to the battery posts. As you can see on the battery pictured above (on my dad’s vehicle), there isn’t any visible. This wasn’t a problem for me until a long while into ownership with the three pre-owned cars I previously purchased, but I’ve noticed appearing far too soon on my Xterra that I purchased new off the lot nearly two and a half years ago.
What do I do to clean the corrosion off? Put on some old clothes, gloves (which obviously dad neglected to do here!) and safety goggles, grab an old toothbrush, and start cleaning it off. Worst case scenario, you can replace those battery cables — I had to on that very first vehicle shortly before I traded it off due to the fact the truck was 12 years old and the cables were pretty worn out/corroded/about to fall apart.
BTW, the orange visible near the toothbrush, its wiring. I went out to my vehicle and checked after prepping the image for this post!
Have you inspected the belts, hoses, and spark plugs recently?
Belts and hoses are pretty easy to inspect for cracks and serious wear — you may need some help, however, replacing them. Check with your local auto parts store to see if they’ll install them for free upon purchase or for a small fee.
As for spark plugs, I asked my dad — he stated most make it around 100,000 miles before replacement may be necessary, and you’ll know that they need replacing. He’s right. I’ve only replaced spark plugs in one vehicle — the truck — and I could tell when accelerating uphill that I wasn’t getting the full ‘force’ of my v6 engine’s power that I did in that same spot in the days before two of them went out.
When is the last time you checked the brake and power steering fluid levels? Checked antifreeze levels?
There’s nothing like turning a steering wheel and hearing a groaning sound (when its not cold out, that is). That’s your power steering begging for some power steering fluid. Periodically check the level on both of these because there’s nothing scarier than power steering or brakes failing. Not that I personally know firsthand … the first groaning sound mine make, I’m on it.
As for antifreeze, wait until your engine is fully cooled and look to see what is indicated level-wise on the side of the tank; don’t open the one at the front of the engine by the hood latch, odds are that’s not the tank location. To be honest, this is one thing I almost never have to add to — why? I have no idea unless the antifreeze fairy or my dad are doing so behind my back 😉
Have you checked your the condition of your windshield wipers and fluid levels lately?
If you’re like me — with break of dawn commutes to work and sunset drives home from the gym — you know that at daylight and dusk during the spring and fall, bugs begin kamikazing into your windshield. Windshield wiper fluid is mucho cheapo by the gallon jug, keep some on hand and refill when you know you’re having to clean your windshield way too often.
As for the wipers, are they cracked? Missing clearing debris off far too often when a quick swipe typically clears it? Time to replace — you can do this yourself for the cost of the wipers or you can pay the auto parts store to put them on. Save your $$ and put them on yourself! Oh, and to save more money, shop around for wipers. I’ve found them cheaper at Northern Tool than I can get them at WalMart or various auto parts stores!
Have you heard any other weird sounds from under the hood or when you brake?
For safety’s sake, have them checked! If you drive as much as I do, you know when something doesn’t sound right on your vehicle. Sometimes auto parts shops will connect their portable tester (similar to this one*) to your vehicle to figure what’s going on if you’re short on money and want to avoid being scammed at a repair shop. And when in doubt, Google it — this is what I did when my last car began making a whistling/tweeting sound on the way back to Little Rock from Memphis. Turns out it was something called a serpentine belt. Off to the repair shop it went as soon as I got back to East Texas … and within hours of it leaving the shop, off it went as a trade-in for the Xterra! (for the record, I was already car shopping for the Xterra I now have, but I wasn’t hanging on to it any longer so I wouldn’t have to sink more down payment money into repairs!)
Do you have a basic tool kit in your vehicle?
Here’s what mine has even though not all of it is visible in the photo above: Jumper cables, extra quart or 2 of oil (I usually just toss in the partial bottle that’s left from the oil change), a basic tool set with screwdrivers, a wrench, and a socket set (to remove battery cables, etc), gloves, a bottle of water, electrical tape, duct tape, a bumper jack, and a tire lug nut wrench. If I know I’ve heard groaning with the power steering, I’ll keep a bottle of the fluid in my vehicle for a few days to be sure its just low and not a leak.
During winter months, I also include some cat litter in case of icy conditions and I need some form of traction.
I keep all of that stuff inside a sturdy Rubbermaid tote (that’s seen better days) in the back of my vehicle that I bought years ago to avoid all it sliding all over the place in the trunk of my Mustang.
In the under cargo storage compartment I keep some paper towels, wet wipes, a first aid kit, a portable air compressor*, an old fleece hoodie I can put on to keep from getting dirt, oil, and grease on my clothing, and a stadium blanket (in the event I’m stranded in cold weather, I won’t freeze!)
Separate of all this, I keep a flashlight, ice scraper, and some OFF bug spray (not pictured) in the driver’s side door + the tire pressure gauge in my glove box for easy access.
Don’t feel compelled to buy the tools and build your own set like my dad did for me years ago — this 64 piece set at Amazon* will do the trick. The air compressor I snagged at Northern Tool — when you have a nail in your tire and need something to get you to a tire shop, it’ll do the trick!
And finally … do you have a roadside assistance plan?
I’ll be honest, I no longer do. When I was with the cellular carrier I’ve referred to in the past as Crap One, I had it as an add-on option on my bill. For the most part, if I break down, my dad, my brother, or one of a few male friends are usually within an hour or less of me if I need something or to be boosted. I’ve been extremely lucky … since getting my license at 16, I’ve only needed help five times that I can recall — when my parents’ car I was driving in high school flooded out during a downpour and wouldn’t crank after stopping at a four-way stop, when my gas gauge freaked and I ran out of gas a mile and a half from a station on the way to the university, when my heater core busted in the university parking lot, a flat tire I walked out to in the university parking lot (a fellow student helped me because the nut that held the spare on wasn’t budging at all for me), and when I walked out to the parking lot at work and found another flat tire (thanks to the coworker who had a portable air compressor!).
However, as there’s a big roadtrip on the horizon this year, I’ll be investigating my options and getting a roadside assistance plan for peace of mind.
Is there anything you’d add to this list? Or something vehicle related you’d like clarified better? Let me know in the comments below …
PS … thanks to my dad for assisting with the content in today’s post as well as being a ‘hand model’ for the images above.