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Auto Maintenance Tips For The Non-Mechanic

Updated on July 29, 2014

Automobile Engine From Front (left) To Back (right)

The Engine

Many people who are unfamiliar with a car are terrified of going under the hood to do anything with the engine. There is no need. You couldn't do harm to the engine if you wanted to. The engine is a sealed compartment that is only accessible by unscrewing the bolts on the engine block that hold the top half to the bottom half.

The internal combustion gasoline engine is actually a pretty simple mechanism to understand once you get the hang of the basic principles of how it operates. We won't go into that for this article though but it is handy information to have.

In this piece we are concerned with simple maintenance and nothing else.

The engine needs lubricant like the human body needs hydration to function properly. just like the human body will cramp if it does not have enough fluid in it an engine will "seize up" if it does not have enough fluid in it. By seize up we mean literally the internal moving engine parts which drive the engine will fuse together from the heat generated by the dry surfaces rubbing together.

Literally the moving parts will freeze in place causing the engine to stop moving. To avoid this you must keep the right level of fluid in the individual fluid compartments (oil, power steering, radiator, brake and transmission).

Each compartment is clearly marked by a dip stick with a handle that has the name of the compartment written on it and the correct fluid level to keep in them is clearly marked on the dip stick contained in each one that you will see when you pull it out of its compartment.

The oil dip stick is usually located in the front of the engine and the transmission dip stick is usually located in the back of the engine closer to the windshield. The brake and power steering dip sticks are commonly found on either side of the engine in the middle portion and the radiator is the elongated, perforated, box-shaped apparatus in the extreme front of the engine just behind the grill of the car.

The filling reservoir for the radiator is the clear plastic container commonly found on the left side of the engine. It has clear markings on its side to where you should fill it up to.

It is especially important to keep the correct fluid levels in the transmission, oil crankcase and radiator because these are related to the major components that drive the vehicle. The oil and radiator fluids keep the engine lubricated and cool respectively. With either one or both of these low or out of fluid it is just a matter of time before your engine will seize up (from lack of lubrication of moving parts/oil) or overheat (from lack of cooling liquid/radiator coolant).

It is critical to keep the proper amount of transmission fluid in the transmission for the same reason it is important to keep the right amount of oil in the engine: to properly protect the internal moving parts.

To simplify things think of the engine and transmission as being two separate engines in your car which is pretty much what they are. Both need lubrication to keep the internal moving parts from rubbing together creating friction and heat that will eventually cause the parts to fuse together and stop working.

Engine oil should be changed regularly. Most manufacturers recommend every 3,000 miles or so. Transmission fluid should be changed also but not as often as the engine oil. Both can be checked by pulling at their dipsticks to check the level and darkness of the fluids. It is important to note the color of the fluids right after they are changed so that you can tell when they are dirty. Dirty engine oil or transmission fluid will make the corresponding mechanism operate sluggishly and expose them to damage from lubrication that is too thin to protect the moving parts.

I hope we have helped you and not scared you concerning engine maintenance. The simple thing to remember is regularly check and keep the fluid levels at the right levels and you will be good to go.

Basic Overview

The key to a smooth running car is proper maintenance. Keeping the oil changed, maintaining the correct fluid levels, properly inflating the tires and even regularly washing your car are all necessary steps to ensure that your automobile gives you many years of service with few problems.

Neglecting the care of your vehicle can lead to costly vehicle repairs that can put an unnecessary strain on your household expenses and why go through that if it can easily be avoided by doing some simple upkeep on your auto?

Taking the time to check your vehicle can save you time, money and frustration.

Your car will thank you and so will your wallet.

Chevrolet Impala Circa 1976

The Tires

Taking care of your tires is an important part of car maintenance. Keeping them inflated properly as well as checking the tread wear is critical to having a smooth riding well handling vehicle.

Tire inflation is a critical element in your ability to steer and control your car. A little known fact is that overly inflated tires are just as much of a risk as under inflated tires in that both will make it difficult to handle the vehicle.

Your owners manual will tell you how many pounds of air it takes to correctly inflate your tires.usually around 30 pounds is adequate but this may vary depending on the make and model of your car.

Properly inflated tires do several things: 1) help steer the car 2) ensure the tread is making proper contact with the street 3) reduces gas consumption 4) creates a smooth ride

Tire inflation is directly connected with steering. Correctly inflated tires help with controlling the car by ensuring the grooves in the tread are making good contact with the street thus creating a suction effect that literally keeps the car "connected" to the road.

Tires inflated to the right level reduces gas consumption as well. Under-inflated tires create a drag effect that makes the engine work harder to drive the car thus consuming more gas. They allow the weight of the car to create wind resistance. Properly inflated tires make the car aerodynamic reducing the wind resistance allowing the car to flow through the air.

Tires should be rotated and balanced at least twice a year. Rotating the tires ensures even tire wear. Rotating and balancing the tires maintains a smooth ride by promoting even tire wear which comes from the tiers being in different positions.

Front tires take a beating in front wheel drive vehicles so rotating them to the rear helps to ensure all the tires have a chance to "get a break" so to speak.

When you rotate your tires you should balance them at the same time. Balancing the tires helps to keep them round. When a tire is balanced it is put on a spinning machine to round it out. If the tire has indications of being out of round the mechanic will put a small attachment on the rim of the tire to help balance it as it rolls.

When you get your tires rotated and balanced the mechanic will inspect them for treadwear and advise you if you need to replace them. Treadwear inspection can be done by you though. Simply take a quarter and place it in one of the grooves in the tire with the top of the head of George Washington in the groove. If you can see the top of his head your tread is too low and you should replace the tire soon. Tires ideally should be replaced in pairs or entire sets to ensure balanced treadwear.

Rotating and balancing your tires, keeping them properly inflated and inspecting them for tread wear are important maintenance actions that will keep your car rolling smoothly and safely down the road.

Hybrid Car

The Body

Probably the most neglected part of a car is the body. Most people assume that the protection applied to the body of their car when it was built is enough but that is far from the truth. the body of a car needs to be maintained just like the rest of the car and maybe more because it is the only part of the car besides the undercarriage and tires that is exposed to the elements.

Although the paint applied to a car has several layers of protection built through paint applications it still needs some additional protection to keep its factory gloss.

You should wash your car at least once every week or two to remove dust, dirt, road film like asphalt particles, bird droppings, tree sap and other elemental debris that accumulates on your vehicle. Tree sap, bird droppings and road film can be especially damaging and corrosive to your paint if left on your automobile for a long length of time.

Direct sunlight can also be very damaging to the shine of an auto. The ultraviolet rays of the sun are very penetrating and will cause oxidation (whitening) of the paint on your car if it is exposed to it regularly. A good wax job will help to protect your vehicle while giving it that shiny showroom look that attracted you to it. A hand wax job is preferable to an automatic car wash hot wax but in this instance something is better than nothing.

Wax and underbody rust protection is especially important in cold weather climates where road salt and sulphur-based snow melting agents are used. As much protection as you can get on your car's body you should apply. You should try to wax your car at least once a month if not more.

Wax and rust protection from a reputable rust proofing company will help to stave off the effects of the outside elements and ensure that your car will maintain its beautiful new car gleam.

1958 Edsel

The Interior

Although not as important as the other parts of your car, maintenance of your interior does have a place in the pecking order.

No one wants to ride in an unclean car and actually some interior maintenance is related to safety.

If nothing else you should regularly clean your windows and mirror. Clean windows are needed to see the road and road hazards that may be in front or in back of you especially at night. There is nothing more dangerous than straining to see out of dirty windows while driving at night especially in inclimate weather.

Your seats, floors and doors should be at least vacuumed regularly to remove dust, dirt, film and foreign particles from them. There is nothing more frustrating than sitting down in something that leaves a stain on a pair of white pants or a new outfit that you just bought.

If possible you should deep clean the interior of your car using a mild cleaning solution that is already prepackaged by a major company like Armor All. For the adventurous ones you can make a solution of your own by mixing mild liquid dish soap together with water in a bucket. Using an interior brush that you can pick up in the auto section of Walmart or any store with auto supplies, dip the brush in the solution, apply it using back and forth strokes, wipe with a damp cloth, then let it air dry. This is best used on fabric interiors. For leather or vinyl it is best to use a manufactured product.

If you are not that inspired to do it yourself there are plenty of detail shops that are more than willing to do it for you.

Just like with their home furniture most people do not want to see stains, spots or spills on the interior of their car. not only is it an eye sore it is a hazard to your clothes. Regularly cleaning your car's interior will eliminate that danger and leave you feeling good about how your vehicle looks both inside and out.

Automobile Suspension System

The Suspension

The suspension of your car consists of the shock absorbers or struts, the coiled springs. the tie rods and anything having to do with what aids the body of the car to suspend it over the wheels. the suspension system of your car should be inspected regularly to ensure all the parts are in good condition.

The suspension of your car is what absorbs bumps in the roadway to cushion the ride of your automobile. Over time due to constant contact with dips and bumps in the road these parts can become worn which can create a dangerous condition or situation if one of these parts should fail while you are driving.

You should take your car to a qualified mechanic to have it placed on a hydraulic lift so the suspension system as well as the exhaust system, gas tank and other undercarriage components can be examined. Many chain auto shops like Midas Muffler offer free inspections which is a convenience and money saving service.

Again you can perform your own simple "inspection" by pushing down on a corner of the hood or trunk several times to see if you hear or feel anything that may indicate a potential problem. As the car goes down and comes back up you should feel a slight cushion and stiffness and you should hear no noise. If the car dips or rises too fast or hesitates that could be an indication of a problem that you should get checked by a qualified mechanic. A clunking sound is the indication of a faulty strut, tie rod attachment to the wheel or coil spring and should be checked out at once.

In the end inspection and maintenance of the suspension system will give you confidence as you travel down the road.

Braking System

The Brakes

Just as with your suspension system you should have your brakes regularly inspected too. Unsafe brakes are a hazard to you and everyone else on the road with you.

In order to be driving a safe vehicle that will stop when you need it to your car must have sufficient brake padding to ensure that it will not expose you or other drivers to a dangerous situation.

In the same manner as with suspension systems many national mechanic shops like Tuffy Muffler offer free brake inspections or if not free for a small fee. They will pull off your wheels and drums housings (if you have drum brakes) and look to see if you have sufficient brake padding to keep you safe. They will also look to see if there are any fluid leaks in the system (remember brake fluid from the engine section above?).

Leaks in the system are dangerous because fluid pressure is needed to push the brake mechanism to stop the car. If you lose enough fluid your system will lose its ability to exert the pressure needed to apply the pads to the brake cylinder or drum resulting in you having no stopping power.

I.e., no brakes.

So regular inspection of your brake pads and system are necessary to make sure your car will stop when its supposed to and when you need it to.

Automobile Electrical System

Automobile Electrical System

The electrical system is what provides power to the car to operate those accessories that run off of electrical power like the radio, heater fan and lights. The main power source is the battery and generator. The battery is charged by the generator which is run by the fan belts that rotate as the engine's pistons and cylinders move up and down and around.


If I haven't lost you or even if I have let's get to maintenance.

The battery and generator are the most important components of the electrical system. Most batteries today are maintenance free which means you do not have to put water in them like the old days. if you do have a old school battery that needs to be filled check it at least once a month to make sure it has enough water in it to maintain an adequate charge. There are markings within the cylinders that you fill to let you know how far to fill them. If the cylinders are filled too low or are completely dry the battery will not be storing enough charge to operate the accessories or engine properly. It will also cause the battery to become damaged and eventually cause it to stop working resulting in no power in the vehicle.

A charged battery is necessary to operate the accessories and to start the car. A low charged battery will make it difficult to start the vehicle possibly requiring a boost from another car to start the engine.

The generator is what places a charge in the battery and provides electrical power to the car. It operates off of the pulley fan belt system in the automobile. As the internal pistons move up and down and around they provide the circular motion that rotates the pulleys on the front of the engine parts that are attached to the fan belts. This system places an electrical charge in the battery while at the same time operating the electrical accessories in the car.

The generator and battery operate independently from one another. If the generator stops functioning the car can operate for a time period off of the battery alone. An possible indicator that the generator has stopped working is the battery or generator warning light illuminating on the dashboard. If that happens immediately get your charging system analyzed to find out what is not working in it. You should regularly have your electrical charging system checked anyway at least twice a year to make sure it is charging correctly.

You should also periodically check the tension on your fan belts and watch them as the engine is running to note of there seems to be any slippage. A loose fan belt can cause an inadequate charge to be going to the battery resulting in a low power supply in it. there should be a slight bowing in your belts but not so much so that it resembles a "U" shape.

In addition check your fan belts for wear and cracking. Road splash up and rotation can erode the rubber over time causing them to deteriorate.

Maintenance free batteries have a charge indicator located on the top of them that should look green in color. If it does not look green get your battery checked to make sure it is fully charged or holding a charge.

Most batteries will last at least three years without needing replacement. if you don't know how old your battery is get it checked to see how ell it is holding a charge. Most often a sticker will be on the top of the battery to tell you when it was made but if that sticker is missing get the battery tested.

The spark plug wires and spark plugs are part of the electrical system as well. The spark plugs transfer the electrical current generated by the pulley system to the spark plug wires which carry the current to the various parts of the car.

Spark plug wires should be inspected periodically for cracks or breaks in them to ensure they are properly carrying the electrical current much like an electrical cord in your home. Cracked wires should be replaced. Spark plug wires generally last almost the lifetime of a vehicle unless they are exposed to unusual conditions.

Sparks plugs should be routinely checked also. This can be done by pulling one out of its housing in the engine block and looking for excessive burning on the end. If your plugs are located on the top portion of the engine you can inspect them yourself. Just pull the end of the spark plug wire that is attached to it, unscrew it with a spark plug wrench, pull it out and inspect it. Most spark plugs on later model cars are located underneath the engine block however which will require a special snake wrench or a visit to the mechanic to reach.

The main thing to remember about the electrical system is to take care of the major components (battery, generator) and you should be in good shape.

Your Investment

Your automobile is a major investment that you want to last and get years of enjoyment out of. Maintaining it is the natural thing to do.

The beauty, style, comfort and ride of your car are what attracted you to it so it is only fitting that you maintain it in the condition that first drew you to it.

Car maintenance can at times be expensive but that expense pales in comparison to the expense of repairing a poorly maintained vehicle.

Many years ago there used to be an old television commercial with a mechanic on it who used the phrase "You can pay me now or pay me later." His message was clear, better to pay a little now than to pay a lot later.

These are wise words to follow.

Do you feel more comfortable about car maintenance now as opposed to before you read this article?

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