There are a few things you should do frequently to keep your car in peek working order. The simplest schedule is to do them once a week and before leaving on any longer trips, but they should always be done with a cold engine. Here’s how to do them. All the pictures are of my own 2004 Mini Cooper and I’ll be assuming you have your owner’s manual on hand.
Frequently checking you oil ensures the engine is properly lubricated to avoid excessive wear.
What you’ll need:
- Rag or paper towel
- Engine oil (see your owners manual for the recommended viscosity)
- Funnel (optional)
Somewhere under the hood, typically beside the engine block, you should see the dipstick handle. It should be yellow, labelled “engine oil,” or both. Pull it out, wipe it off, and put it back. Then pull it out again and examine the bottom end in good light. You’re looking for two things; the colour of the oil and the amount of the dipstick it covers.
Clean engine oil is usually a golden colour and fairly transparent, as the oil gets dirty it gets darker and more opaque. If your oil is dirty it needs to be changed. If it gets to be the black most people think of, change it immediately.
The oil level is indicated by how much of the dipstick it covers. Most dipsticks have a clear “minimum” or “add” line, if the oil is below this you need to add more. Also common is a distinctive pattern on the end of the dipstick, if the oil is only in this portion you need to add more. The last common dipstick markings are small holes or indentations, if these are empty you need to, you guessed it, add more oil.
To add oil you’ll need to find your filler neck. It’ll most likely have an oil can symbol on it and often what kind of oil your car needs, and is usually a round cap on top of the engine block. When you open it and look inside you’ll probably see what looks like moving parts. Pour the oil into the filler neck. If you use a funnel you can drastically reduce spillage. Check the oil again and repeat as necessary.
When you’ve topped up your oil push the dipstick in as far as you can and make sure the filler cap is closed up tight. If you need to add oil frequently you may have a problem. Put a clean piece of cardboard under your engine for several hours. If you pull it out and see a puddle, you have a leak, get it fixed. If you don’t you may still have a leak. If you smell burning or see thick blueish exhaust, it’s probably leaking into the cylinder, get it fixed immediately.
You’re looking at two things on your tires; tread wear and air pressure.
What you’ll need:
- Tire pressure gauge
- Air compressor (recommended)
The first step in checking your tire pressure is a simple visual inspection. If the bottom of the tire looks squished, the pressure is probably low. Next you need to determine the desired pressure. The maximum pressure should be printed somewhere on the tire and your owner’s manual may have a pressure chart. Never overinflate your tires, and only go more than a few psi below the maximum on the vehicle or tire manufacturers’ recommendation. Thirty to thirty-five psi is usually good for most passenger cars.
Next you check the pressure using a pressure gauge. Start by zeroing the gauge either by pushing the reset button or sliding the graduated stick into body. If you can’t find one of those things, you don’t have it; if you can’t find either, you probably have a piece of junk that’ll be almost impossible to use. Their should be an opening that fits tightly on the valve stem, stick it on. Once it stops hissing and the gauge reacts, you have it on right. If the gauge reads above your desired pressure you need to let air out, if it reads below you need to put air in. To let air out you press the small stud on your pressure gauge into the centre of the valve stem. To add air use an air compressor with a tire attachment, which looks a lot like the end of a pressure gauge. If you don’t have an air compressor you can use the air hose at your local gas station instead. Place the compressor’s tire attachment on the valve stem just like you did with the pressure gauge and wait, you should hear a reverberation sound coming from the tire. Repeat as necessary.
For tread wear you’re looking for two things again; remaining tread depth and even wear. All this requires is a visual inspection. If the treads are wearing unevenly, you need a wheel alignment, find a mechanic. If the tread looks shallow, or worse has disappeared entirely, you need to replace your tires. There’s also a chance you’ll notice cracks in the tires, which also mean they need to be replaced.
What you’ll need:
- Coolant mixture (antifreeze and/or distilled water)
- Funnel (optional)
The coolant in a car is typically a mixture antifreeze and distilled water. The proper ratio depends on the temperature, your owner’s manual should have a chart for that too. If you don’t have enough of it or it doesn’t flow properly excessive heat will damage engine components and the cabin heater won’t function properly, as weird as that sounds.
You’ll need to find the coolant expansion tank/reservoir. It’s usually a translucent tank near the firewall. If you look at the side of it you should see one or two lines, with labels similar to “min/max” or “fill cold.” The coolant level should be at or above the “cold fill” or “minimum” line. If it isn’t, add more until it is. Just like with the oil, if you’re adding coolant frequently, you probably have a leak somewhere that needs to be fixed.
Brake, Clutch, and Power Steering Fluid
These are necessary for the hydraulic systems in your car. If the fluid levels get too low they won’t function properly, making your car more difficult or even dangerous to drive.
There should be two or three reservoirs near the firewall. They may be translucent, like the coolant reservoir, or have a dipstick in the lid, like the oil. In either case the fluid level needs to be above the line, or some other obvious mark. If it’s not, just add more until it is.
I’ve saved the easiest for last. All you need to do is find a cap with the same symbol as your windshield washer control in the cab and fill it to the top. If your car has headlight washers, they may have a separate reservoir that needs to be filled. The only thing to be careful about is to make sure you use washer fluid that can handle all the temperatures your car is likely to experience.