Chapter 4

Handling Basic Car Maintenance

Like any piece of equipment, a car requires periodic maintenance and repairs. While some of these ownership tasks will require the specialized tools and knowledge of a professional auto mechanic, many of the basic car maintenance jobs can be handled at home by any car owner.

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Below is a list of some of the basic car maintenance jobs and the considerations for each. Always check in the owner's manual to see what guidance is offered by the manufacturer. Often, the vehicle's manual will have lots of guidance on basic maintenance and repair tasks.

Additionally, the manual will always have information regarding the type, quantity, grade or specification of any part or fluid being replaced. Always follow the manufacturer's recommendations and always consider the difficulty of a job when deciding whether to DIY or to go to the shop.

Checking the Fluids and Car Parts


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Check the oil level every 3000 miles or before any extended trip. Most manufacturers recommend changing the oil every 3000-5000 miles so a level check before an oil change will show whether or not oil is being burned or leaking between changes. ALWAYS check the oil with the car parked level and with the engine cool. Checking the oil on a tilted driveway can lead to erroneous indications. Remove the dipstick, wipe it off, reinsert and remove again.

This will give a clean reading. The oil should be light brown, nearly transparent and should mark the dipstick between the "low" and "full" marks.

Image Courtesy - «dipstick (365-233)» by Robert Couse-Bakeron on Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Sometimes this will be a hash-marked region on the stick. If the oil is dark brown or black and/or is not transparent, it needs to be changed. If the level is low, carefully add oil of the recommended grade  to bring the level into the full range. DO NOT OVERFILL


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Engine coolant can be checked in the radiator overflow tank. Follow the manufacturer's guidance for checking the coolant. Typically, the overflow tank will be marked with "low" and "full" levels. The fluid should be neon green or orange in color depending on the type of coolant used. The fluid should be clean and clear. It is CRITICAL that manufacturer's guidance be followed regarding engine temperature when checking and filling coolant levels as the coolant system may be under pressure when hot. If in doubt, NEVER remove a cap from the radiator or overflow cap while the engine is hot.

Image Courtesy - «radiator» by EvelynGiggleson on, licensed underCC BY 2.0.

If adding fluid, make sure to mix the coolant with water in the ratio specified by the coolant manufacturer (usually 50:50). If a large fluid leak is discovered or if additional fluid is being added regularly, seek professional assistance. Likewise, a coolant system flush or fluid replacement is a job best handled by the professionals.

Brake Fluid, Power Steering Fluid, Automatic Transmission Fluid, Windshield Washer Fluid

The other fluids that have filler caps under the hood can include Brake, Power Steering, Automatic Transmission Fluid (ATF) and Windshield Washer fluid. Checking these fluids can be as simple as observing fluid levels through a transparent reservoir body. There may be a dipstick attached to the fill cap of some power steering fluid reservoirs or to the ATF lid.

Image Courtesy of, licensed under CC0 Public Domain.

In general, these fluids should be clean, clear, and may be lightly tinted in the case of ATF. Carefully add only the fluid specified by the manufacturer if the level is low when checked in accordance with recommended procedures. Specific steps will be outlined in the owner's manual. For example, many transmissions will require that the car be parked, idling, in neutral when the ATF is checked. Large losses of steering, brake, or ATF can be signs of serious safety problems and should be addressed by a professional.

Checking the Filters

Air Filter Replacement will affect gas mileage and engine performance and should be replaced once a year or more if operating on dusty roads. Obtain a new filter, open the clips or cover over the filter, remove and replace the filter.

Image Courtesy - «Air Filter Change» by Ryan Gsell on Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Fuel Filter Replacement is a bit more complicated. First, identify the location of the fuel filter. This can be under the hood or along a fuel line underneath the body of the car. Look for an in-line filter in the tubes running from the gas tank to the engine.

Release the fasteners that hold the old filter in place. This often requires a special tool that can be rented, borrowed or purchased from an auto parts supplier. Install the new filter. If in doubt, seek professional assistance with the fuel filter.

Belts and Hoses

Under the hood are numerous belts and hoses that are critical for engine operation. The auxiliary belt runs the steering, air-conditioning, and electrical charging systems. The timing belt keeps the valves in sync with the rest of the engine.

Image Courtesy - «Timing Belt Change» by David Brownon Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

A failure of either belt can have catastrophic results for the engine. Anytime maintenance is being performed, it is a good idea to check belts for condition. Belts should be under medium tension, free of chafing or burn marks and should not have visible cracks when gently flexed. Likewise, rubber hoses should be checked for leaking fluids or chafing.


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While under the hood, check the battery. It should be free of any signs of leaking or corrosion. Battery terminal posts will sometimes show corrosion even in normal use. If corrosion exists, disconnect the battery cables by disconnecting the negative terminal first. Clean the posts with mild solution of baking soda and water. Cover with battery terminal grease (dielectric grease or gel) and re-install the cables starting with positive and connecting the negative last. Clean battery terminals will last longer and will be less prone to fault.

Spark Plugs

Spark plugs get changed every 30,000 miles. Obtain the specified plug and some anti-seize paste. Pull the plug wire off of the existing plug by pulling on the plug-wire socket itself and not the wire. Using a spark plug wrench, remove the old plug. Cover the threads of the new plug with anti-seize paste. Avoid getting anything on the electrode of the plug. Install the plug and tighten to the torque specified by the manufacturer.

Image Courtesy - «Old & wasted spark plugs» by Aidanon on Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0.


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Tire inflation is perhaps the most overlooked safety check in the automotive world. Tire pressure should be checked once a month and maintained in accordance with the recommendations in the owner's manual. Correct tire inflation prevents wear, improves traction and braking and promotes positive handling characteristics.

When checking tire pressure, tires should be inspected for uneven wear patterns, often in the form of bands of wear along the edges of the tire tread. Any signs of uneven wear require a trip to see a tire professional. When assessing overall tire wear, a penny can be helpful. Insert the penny, on edge, into the tread of the tire. If all of Lincoln's head is visible, it is time for new tires.


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The brakes can be checked when performing tire maintenance and approximately every 10,000 miles. When checking the brakes, look for the pad that presses against the disc. There should be at least 1/4 inch of pad visible. If there is less, if there is a lot of black dust on the wheel or if the brakes squeal at all during use, it is time to replace the pads. Replacing the brake pads is a slightly more complicated job that involves removing the tire, releasing the brake assembly so that the pads swing off of the disc and removing/replacing the pads. Brakes should be replaced one wheel at a time and care should be taken as dis-assembly of a brake renders the car unusable until the assembly is replaced. For the intrepid owner, brake work can be a rewarding challenge. If in doubt, visit a brake shop.

Image courtesy of, licensed under CC0 Public Domain.

In conclusion, the jobs of car maintenance can often be completed without a great deal of specialized knowledge or tools. A car owner can complete many of the jobs with simple tools and a careful review of the car's owner's manual. Always follow the manufacturer's recommendation and use careful judgment about when to visit a shop while enjoying the new freedom of saving time and money by doing basic auto maintenance at home.