Chapter 9

Common Car Issues

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There are a few problems that are common to all vehicles. Knowing how to deal with these issues will save time and money in repairs and emergency service calls.

Changing a Flat Tire

Flat tires are increasingly rare as tire technology and performance is increased. However, as long as pneumatic tires are used, there will be the possibility of an unexpected flat. Replacing a flat tire is an extremely helpful skill that can save a trip from becoming an expensive exercise in calling for help. Start the procedure by making sure the vehicle is in the safest possible location, away from the roadside if possible, and use any flares or markers to warn other drivers.

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Image Courtesy - “flat rental” by velkr0 on Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Tools

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A jack is required to lift the weight of the car off of the flat tire. A lug wrench, sized to turn the lug bolts on the wheel is needed to remove the faulty wheel/tire assembly. A pair of gloves can be very helpful as can a mat or carpet scrap to work on. Finally, an adequate spare tire is needed.

A Note on Spare Tires

Many modern cars come with what is known as a "donut" spare. This is an undersized, lightweight, low-speed rated tire that is easier to carry in the car but compromises by being less durable. If using a "donut", be sure to carefully follow any restrictions on speed and miles driven. If the vehicle has a full-size spare, speeds and distances driven are less important. In either case, make sure to periodically inspect the spare to verify inflation and condition.

The Job

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Following manufacturer's recommendations regarding jack points, position the jack to lift the corner of the vehicle that has the flat tire. Block the other tires and set the parking brake so the vehicle cannot roll off the jack. Before lifting the car, loosen the lug bolts on the wheel that will be removed. Once the nuts are loose, jack the vehicle until the tire is off the ground. Remove the lug bolts and set aside. Remove the wheel. Position the spare tire on the hub and re-attach the lug nuts. Tighten the lug nuts. If the wheel turns when tightening the nuts, just get them snug.

Be certain that all tools and equipment is clear of the vehicle and lower the vehicle onto the ground. Remove the jack. Now tighten the lug nuts until they are as tight as can be comfortably achieved with the supplied lug wrench. Tighten the nuts in a star pattern so that no two, adjacent nuts are tightened in sequence. Use some discretion when tightening. The nuts must be tight but there is no need to apply maximum effort.

How to Jump Start a Car

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A dead battery can be a real frustration. Typically discovered right as the vehicle is being started, it can be recognized by a failure to 'crank', dim headlights, or a weak chime on the "door is open" bell. Luckily, with just one simple tool, and another vehicle, an engine start can easily be achieved. There are a few safety considerations to keep in mind however.

Before jump starting the vehicle, inspect the battery. It should be free of cracks or damage, dry and clean. If any of these conditions is not met, consider seeking additional help. A cracked or leaking battery can release strong acids that will damage vehicle components, clothing and skin. If the battery is not damaged or leaking, it can be jumped. Some corrosion on the terminal ends and posts is not abnormal but should be cleaned off at the next service interval.

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To jump the vehicle, it is necessary to connect the battery that is dead to a good battery/vehicle charging system using jumper cables. Start by positioning the good vehicle alongside or nose-to-nose with the dead vehicle. The cars must be close enough that the cables will easily reach from battery to battery. Raise the hoods of both vehicles and set the parking brakes.

Start by connecting the red clamp on one end of the cables to the positive terminal on the dead battery. The positive terminal will have a plus sign near it. Next, connect the other red clamp to the positive terminal on the good battery. Next, while still at the good battery, place the black clamp on the negative terminal (will have a minus sign) of the good battery. Finally, back at the bad battery end, connect the black clamp to a bare metal structure on the car that is not right next to the battery.

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Image Courtesy - “Buddy McNutty, can you help me jumpstart my car?” by Doug Waldron on Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Check to make sure that the cables do not dangle into the fans of either engine. Start the car with the good battery and let it run for a few minutes. It is possible to verify the quality of the connection by placing the dead car's ignition in "auxiliary" and noting whether the lights are brighter, the chime louder, etc. If the connection is good, place the key in "off" and wait a few minutes.

If the connection is not good, i.e. there is no change in the headlights or door chime, first try repositioning the black clamp that is attached to bare metal. If corrosion was noted on the terminal ends, try wiggling each clamp to seat the teeth into the terminal post. After a few moments, start the dead vehicle. If the vehicle cranks sluggishly, more time may be needed for the good vehicle's charging system to add charge to the dead battery.

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Image Courtesy - “Jump Start” by Al Ibrahim on Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Once the vehicle is running, disconnect the cables in reverse order (black, black, red, red). If this order is followed, there is no danger of sparking. If at any time both terminals of a battery are connected, it is paramount that the opposite ends of the cable not touch as they will violently spark.

Do not shut off the vehicle until it has run for at least 15 minutes, preferably at operating RPM (not just idle). Keep in mind that if the battery is faulty, the vehicle will run normally but will not start again at the next attempt.

How to Push/Roll Start a Car

Push starting a car is a way to start a car with a dead battery that requires no tools or equipment but does require friends, volunteers or a slight slope and a vehicle with a manual transmission. The idea is to place the car in gear with the clutch engaged, roll the car, release the clutch and allow the compression of the car and the ignition system to start the vehicle. Obviously there are some drawbacks.

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For example, electrical fuel injection systems will often not work if the battery is very low, automatic transmissions do not allow a vehicle to be rolled when in gear, and some manually timed ignitions fail to provide adequate spark under very low RPM (those achievable by rolling). However, as an emergency measure, the push start is unequalled in simplicity and is worth a try.

Start by gathering a few friends or volunteers (if on flat ground) or by expressing gratitude for being so lucky as to be parked on a gentle slope at the same time the battery dies. It should be noted that this procedure really should not be tried on a hill as a great deal of speed is not required. Plan a clear path for the vehicle to travel at least a hundred yards or so and communicate the plan to the helpers.

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Image Courtesy - “Least its not raining !” by Craig Sunter on Flickr, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Place the ignition in the run position, put the car in second gear (any gear will work, but second is a good compromise between easy to turn the engine and ok for slow speed), depress the clutch and push the vehicle. Once the volunteer pushers have reached top speed, release the clutch. Be aggressive, essentially dropping the clutch, as the idea is to use the vehicle's speed to immediately turn the engine over several times. The engine may sputter a bit but should catch. Keep in mind that as soon as the engine catches, the vehicle will be driving along in gear and will need to be handled accordingly.

Replacing Burned Out Headlights

Modern headlamps are bulbs inside plastic housings. A failed bulb can be replaced by raising the hood and finding the position of the bulb in the back of the housing. The bulb will seat into the housing using a twist-in or clip-in connection, typically with a gasket to seal out moisture.

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Image courtesy of pixabay.com, licensed under CC0 Public Domain.

The wiring will attach to the bulb with a plug. First, unplug the wiring and move the wires out of the way. Determine the method to either turn or unclip the back of the bulb and remove the old bulb. Without touching the new bulb, insert it into the housing and secure the clamping mechanism, either by turning or clipping the bulb into the socket. Make sure the gasket remains in place. Finally, reattach the wiring connection to the new bulb.

What to Do if the Brakes Fail

Recovering from failed brakes requires a cool head and quick thinking. Brake failure on an open road is of little immediate concern. In busy traffic, it almost surely means an accident will occur. In either case, following good driving habits like maintaining adequate following distance and being defensive will be helpful in minimizing risk. If the brakes do fail, some actions should be considered.

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Image courtesy of pixabay.com, licensed under CC0 Public Domain.

First: Escape Route

Is there a way to maneuver the vehicle to minimize risk? On a highway, this might mean moving into the shoulder as the car slows down. In busy traffic, this might mean accepting a rear-end collision instead of diving off the road onto a busy sidewalk.

Second: Alternative Braking

Is there a way to slow or stop the vehicle without the brakes. The emergency brake should be tried as should downshifting the vehicle. Downshifting to increasingly low gears will eventually bring the vehicle to a coasting stop and can be used to "kill" the engine if required. Shifting an automatic into its lowest drive gear will force maximum engine braking.

Third: Is There a Fix?

Immediate concerns when the brakes fail need to focus on safety of occupants, other drivers and pedestrians. If time allows however, there may be an opportunity to determine if a brake pedal blockage has limited braking authority. Did the carpet pile up under the pedal? Did an object roll from under the seat into the pedal area? If a blockage is suspected, and there is time to safely do so, attempt to clear the blockage.

How to Improve the Fuel Economy

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Miles per gallon will increase with:

  • Slower speeds (55 mph is a best efficiency speed for most vehicles)
  • Slower accelerations
  • Properly inflated tires
  • Lighter weight (get all the extra stuff out of the trunk)
  • Clean filters (air, oil)
  • New spark plugs
  • Approved grade fuel

Dealing with Potholes

Potholes are the natural result of wear, freeze-thaw cycles, and water effecting the asphalt. They can lead to flat tires, bent wheels, broken axles, and front-end-alignment issues.

Taller profile tires can be used to soften the impact of a deep pothole and alert, defensive driving should be used to avoid road-bed hazards when possible.

How to Remove Scratches From a Car

Scratches in the surface layer, the clear-coat, of a car's finish can usually be buffed out fairly easily. To determine the depth of the scratch, run a fingernail over the scratch. If the scratch is felt but does not catch the nail, this method may work. First, clean the area. Next, sand with 3000 grit wet/dry sandpaper until the scratch disappears. Keep the sandpaper wet. Next polish with rubbing compound to remove the scuffing of the sandpaper. Finally, polish with a wax finish.

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If the scratch is deep enough to catch a nail or if metal is visible, a longer process is used. First, clean the area with a prep cleaner to remove all oils. Use a sanding pen to blend the edges of the chip of scratch until they are smoothed below the level of the paint.

Apply the smallest amount of touch up paint that will cover the effected area. Allow to dry. Use 350-1500 grit wet sandpaper to level the touch up. Coat with clear-coat touch up. Level the area again with wet sandpaper to at least 2000 grit. Polish with rubbing compound. Wax.

Washing the Car’s Exterior

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Proper washing and waxing of a car's exterior will reduce rust and corrosion and promote the life of the paint, plastic, glass and lenses of the car's exterior. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to maintaining plastic exterior surfaces. Get in the habit of cleaning and treating these surfaces regularly. For general cleaning, use an auto-wash soap and soft bristle brush to clean the exterior of the car keeping the whole exterior wet during application, scrube and rinse. Use a stiff bristled brush for the wheels, tires, and any stubborn grime on the grill or lower panels.

Stickers and adhesives can be removed with cleaners designed to dissolve adhesives without damaging paint. Likewise, a small amount of heat, from a hairdryer for example, can be used to soften adhesives. Dry the car with a chamois cloth immediately to avoid any water spots.

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Image courtesy of pixabay.com, licensed under CC0 Public Domain.

To wax the car, follow manufacturer's directions. Generally, paste waxes will provide the best protection. The wax is applied in small areas with a clean cloth. It is allowed to dry and then buffed off with another cloth. This process should be done in small sections and by hand to avoid burning/scuffing the clear-coat with a power buffer.

Finally, plastics on the trim should be coated with a wipe-on plastic restorer/preserver. Much like sunscreen, these products will reduce the UV damage to the plastic and restore the color that has faded to a chalky-white.

Cleaning the Car’s Interior

On the interior, carpet and upholstery cleaners can be used to remove soil and stains from the carpet and seats. Typically, these cleaners are either applied to the whole surface or to spots for stain treatment. In either case, follow the recommendations of the cleaner manufacturer. Generally, a coffee stain, for example, might be sprayed with a spot remover, then scrubbed gently with a soft brush then allowed to dry.

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Image courtesy of pixabay.com, licensed under CC0 Public Domain.

Dog hair can be removed with a strong vacuum and brush roller, a damp cloth, or with the gentle use of a fine-grained pumice stone such as might be found in a pharmacy for pedicure use. A variety of techniques should be tried based on the length and texture of the hair and the seat/carpet.