Do-it-yourself Auto Maintenance

By Eric Christensen

August 9, 2012 5 min read

Not too long ago, car maintenance was a fairly straightforward concept. Cars used to be largely mechanical in nature, so if you learned how the systems worked, you could perform maintenance at home.

When it comes to modern cars, very little is mechanical. Instead, cars are becoming increasingly digital and computer-controlled. What used to be simple home maintenance projects is now anything but.

Quite a few modern cars no longer come with dipsticks for checking your car's oil level. Swapping out your old car battery for a new one can often mean damaging your onboard computer and losing critical information if you don't take the proper precautions. Despite these developments, though, there are still several beginner maintenance projects a car owner can do at home.

Michael Calkins, manager of approved auto repair at AAA, recommends starting with your owners manual. "Look at what the recommended maintenance is, and go down the list. You'll find things you can do, like changing filters or checking the various fluid levels. Tire pressure is really important to both safety and the fuel efficiency, and that's something that can be checked with a $5 tool." The owners manual will also list any specific replacement items that your car requires. Regarding fluids, for example, Calkins says, "A lot of manufacturers are moving toward proprietary fluids or fluids that meet certain specifications."

Alternatively, Calkins suggests going online to look for more information on make- and model-specific car maintenance. But he recommends an in-depth review of online material. "Some (forums and videos) are better than others," he says. "But certainly with some reading, you will find out what is involved and if there are any pitfalls."

Jim Turnure, category manager at Pep Boys and a former ASCE master technician with 35 years of experience, recommends visiting your local parts store for maintenance guides or to ask the employees for advice. Turnure stresses that it is critical that you familiarize yourself with a project before you begin. He also says: "If you feel uncomfortable, there is usually a reason, so stop. Do not force it. Take it to an expert." This will prevent accidental damage that can be quite expensive to repair.

Among the easiest at-home maintenance projects is windshield wiper blade replacement. Calkins says, "Repair shops typically charge at least a couple tenths of an hour to replace those, usually $20-30. But anyone with basic skills can read the directions on the package and take their time to do it carefully."

Both Calkins and Turnure suggest changing your oil at home, but it will require some specific equipment. First, check your manual to see if your car takes a specific type of oil or filter. Some of the newer filter models require an inexpensive tool to remove the filter. Next, check whether your car uses a drain pan. If not, a special oil-removal pump may be needed. If your car does use a drain pan, Turnure suggests keeping an extra drain plug gasket on hand so that you can replace your old one on the spot.

Calkins recommends using ramps to raise your car. Turnure prefers to use a heavy-duty floor jack and jack stands. Turnure also strongly recommends buying safety goggles to protect your eyes while working under your car and a box of nitrile rubber gloves to make cleanup easier.

Once you have purchased the equipment, an oil change is simply a matter of swapping your old filter with a new one and replacing your old oil with fresh oil. When finished, Turnure reminds car owners that old oil can be recycled at your neighborhood parts store.

Finally, Turnure suggests checking your belts and hoses while your oil drains. "Radiator hoses break down from the inside out," Turnure says. "Squeeze it. If it is soft, that's bad." When inspecting your belts, Turnure suggests looking for stress cracks or worn grooves that don't mesh well with the machinery.

Modern car maintenance can be intimidating. Manuals are often quite technical, describing onboard computer systems, proprietary fluids and nonstandard tools. But doing maintenance at home will help ensure you drive a safe, clean and fuel-efficient car. It can also save you money in the long run.

Just follow a few simple steps. Educate yourself before you begin. Know your comfort level, and wear safety gear. Use the proper tools and parts, and take your time.

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