Beginner's Auto Maintenance & Repair

General Maintenance

Vehicle Owner’s Manual:

All vehicles are different, and the owner’s manual for each make and model is the most helpful reference for the maintenance and repair of that specific vehicle. Even though it can often look thick, complicated, and dull on the surface, vehicle owners should become familiar and comfortable with the owner’s manual. They’re not so bad once they’re finally opened. Almost any topic regarding your vehicle’s maintenance can be found in the index.

 

Owner's Manual
Owner’s Manual

 

The owner’s manual will have a maintenance chart. The chart will include such information as when to change the oil, rotate tires, replace the air filter, inspect the fuel cap and lines, change other fluids (transmission fluid, etc.), and other maintenance issues. Your car may have different maintenance requirements at 30k, 90k, and 150k miles and other intervals, as may only be indicated in your owner’s manual.

Being familiar with the maintenance chart in your owner’s manual can help you save money when taking your car to the mechanic for maintenance checks. Sometimes the repair shop will suggest additional optional services.

Search the internet for a website where you can search for the vehicle’s make. You could also try your local library.

Vehicle Fluids:

Your car’s fluids may include the following

Brake Fluid:

On most vehicles, the reservoir for brake fluid is clear. You can check the fluid without removing the cap. A marking on the pool will indicate minimum and maximum levels. You’ll want to ensure the level is between those two marks. This fluid should never need to be topped off during maintenance. Low fluid is an indication of a problem. If the fluid is down, you should bring it to a mechanic, depending on your skill level. Most vehicles have a dashboard light that illuminates when the brake fluid is low.

A brake fluid reservoir. Notice the MAX and MIN markings.
A brake fluid reservoir. Notice the MAX and MIN markings.

Engine Oil:

A good time to check engine oil should be each time the vehicle is refueled. Most engines, but not all, have a dipstick to indicate the oil level. Typically the handle is yellow. Follow these steps to check the oil

  • Turn the engine off.
  • Remove the dipstick.
  • Clean the end of the dipstick with a rag
  • Put the dipstick back in.
  • Take it out to look at the level at the tip.

The stick will have marks on it. The “add” mark typically indicates one quart low.
.

 

Oil dipstick (above)
Oil dipstick (above)

 

oil level on a dipstick (below)
oil level on a dipstick (below)

 

Coolant:

Never open the cooling system if the engine is hot. If you’ve been driving, then don’t open it. After you think the engine has cooled, you can lightly touch the radiator cap to test it. If the radiator is hot, DO NOT open it. Opening the radiator cap while the engine is still hot can shoot a six-foot geyser into the air and burn any skin it contacts. The best time to check the coolant is in the morning before the car is driven.

 

Coolant can actually be any color (pink, green, orange, transparent, red, etc.)
Coolant can actually be any color (pink, green, orange, transparent, red, etc.)

 

A low coolant level indicates a possible leak which should be investigated. A minimal amount of evaporation of coolant can occur over time. As a rule, if you need more than one quart of coolant, that indicates a problem.

Consult the owner’s manual for the proper type of coolant. The appropriate mixture is a 50/50 ratio of coolant and distilled water. It is important to use distilled water because the impurities in other water would circulate through the system and ruin the system over time. Coolant can be purchased pre-mixed in a 50/50 solution if desired.

 

50/50 pre-diluted coolant
50/50 pre-diluted coolant

 

Power Steering Fluid:

There may be a clear reservoir for power steering fluid. If there is, it can be checked like the brake fluid described above. The power steering fluid will have a dipstick if it is not in a transparent reservoir. Low power steering fluid is an indication of a leak, and it should be investigated. At that point, the driver may also notice changes in steering performance.

 

Power steering reservoir (black tank).
Power steering reservoir (black tank)

 

Windshield Washer Fluid:

There may be a clear reservoir or a dipstick for windshield washer fluid. If you live or travel in cold climates below 32 degrees, make sure that you use washer fluid with antifreeze.

 

Windshield washer fluid
Windshield washer fluid

 

Transmission Fluid:

Some vehicles have a dipstick, but many new cars do not. In some vehicles, you have to go underneath the vehicle to check this fluid. If the fluid is low, there is a leak that should be investigated. The fluid should also be red.

New transmission fluid, red in color
New transmission fluid, red in color

 

Battery Fluid and Terminals:

If the battery is evident, you can look at the fluid level. Most modern vehicles do not have transparent batteries. Any corrosion or signs of leaks around the storm indicate a problem. Corrosion can be a green or white powdery substance. Don’t ever allow corrosion to come in contact with the skin or eyes because this is an acid that will burn. Excessive discharging of the battery without the engine running (i.e., listening to the radio, keeping the cab lights on, or using any accessory with the engine off) can cause the battery to overheat, which leads to early battery failure and leakage of battery acid. If the battery fluid is low, only use distilled water to refill it. Never add acid to a battery.

The presence of corrosion indicates a problem that should be addressed. However, as a temporary fix, you can clean off the corrosion to get the car started. Start by rinsing off the corrosion with the garden hose. Then disconnect the terminals starting with the negative terminal first, then the positive terminal. Use baking soda, water, or battery terminal cleaner to rinse off the terminals and battery posts. The baking soda reacts with the corrosion to form fizz and bubbles. Use a wire brush or scraper (depending on the type of terminal) to clean the inside of the terminal and battery posts. Then rinse again with more water. Once the terminals and battery posts are clean, reattach the terminals starting with the positive terminal first, then the negative terminal. It is not sufficient to clean off the corrosion. Again, the presence of decay indicates a problem that should be addressed

.

 

Car battery
Car battery

 

Fuses:

They can be anywhere in the vehicle. Modern vehicles use blade-type fuses. The part of the fuse that you’ll see initially is plastic and color-coded. When the fuse is removed, it can have a similar shape to a square letter “C,” with the arms of the “C” being metal and the back of the “C” being the color-coded plastic. The color coding system for fuses has been used since the early 1980s. Older fuses are made of glass tubes. The color coding for modern fuses is universal and indicates the fuse’s amperage.

  • Violet – 3 Amp
  • Pink – 4 Amp
  • Orange – 5 Amp
  • Red – 10 Amp
  • Blue – 15 Amp
  • Yellow – 20 Amp
  • Clear – 25 Amp
  • Green – 30 Amp
  • Orange – 40 Amp

 

Blade type fuses used in modern vehicles. Most of them have a C shape (or E shape, facing down in the image). In a blown fuse, the S or upside down Vs in the middle will be broken (called the element). The image shows the top view of each fuse just above each side view; notice that each top has metal contacts that are not covered by colored plastic.
Blade-type fuses are used in modern vehicles. Most of them have a “C” shape (or an “E” shape, facing down in the image). In a blown fuse, the “S” or upside down “V”s in the middle will be broken (called the element). The image shows the top view of each fuse just above each side view; notice that each top has metal contacts not covered by colored plastic.

 

Glass tube fuse used in older vehicles
Glass tube fuse used in older vehicles

There are two ways to test the fuse: one is by removing the fuse to look at it and the other is to use a test light.

When testing it by removing it, pull it directly out and look through the color-coded plastic to see if the element (connection in the center) is intact. If it’s open, then the fuse is burnt out. Sometimes you’ll also see a black singe that makes the transparent plastic more opaque. Only remove one fuse at a time. It helps to track where the fuse was pulled from and permits easy replacement of the fuse in the correct place. If multiple fuses get removed simultaneously, then the size and placement of each fuse can be found in the owner’s manual.

A fast way to test the fuses is with a testing light. The testing light looks like an electric screwdriver with a pointed tip. The wire or black end of the testing light must be grounded to a clean, unpainted metal surface of the vehicle. If you can’t find a place on the body of the car, you can always ground it to the negative terminal of the battery. The point of the testing light is placed on the metal contacts of the fuse. There is a metal contact on each side of the fuse’s color-coded plastic (on the back of the “C”). Upon contact; the display will indicate if the fuse is still good.

 

Test light
Test light

 

Not all fuses have power all the time. Testing should be performed with the key turned to the “on” position in the ignition and the headlights turned on (don’t crack the car., Only turn the key to the on position). Even with the key and headlights turned on, there is one other
fuse that will not have power: the crank fuse. The crank fuse only has power when the key is turned to the crank position while starting the engine. This fuse must only be tested if the vehicle won’t crank.

Belts & Hoses:

 

Two hoses and a belt are seen in this image
Two hoses and a belt are seen in this image

 

If a belt squeals after starting the engine or while driving, then this indicates a problem with belt tension. Most modern vehicles have automatic belt tensioners, which keep the belt at the appropriate pressure. Checking the belt tension varies by make and model. Modern cars only have one strap, but older vehicles have an individual belt for each engine accessory (i.e., power steering, air conditioning, and alternator). Consult a workshop manual for the proper methods for checking belt tension. Belts can also be checked by visual inspection and touch for signs of cracking, fraying, or glazing. Glazing means the drive surface of the belt will be shiny.

Hoses can be checked visually and by touch for signs of cracking, swelling, or leaks. If the engine is excellent, squeeze the hose to check for softness. If there is any variation from the hose to the hose within the exact vehicle, then that could indicate a problem.

A cooling system pressure tester can help pressurize the cooling system and check for leaks or swollen hoses. This tool be rented from an auto parts store and should come with instructions for use. You’ll attach it in place of the radiator cap and hand-pump it as you watch the gauge. Never exceed the indicated pressure written on the top of the radiator cap. Most modern cars have a limit of 16 psi. Again, do not open the radiator cap if the engine is hot.

Vehicle Lighting:

Vehicle lighting includes:

  • instrument panel lighting
  • warning indicator lights
  • left and right turn signals
  • brake lights
  • hazard lights
  • headlights and tail lights
  • front marker lights
  • license plate highlights for the cab and trunk

Checking vehicle lighting goes quicker and smoother with two people, and two people are required in the case of the brake lights.

The instrument lighting is all of the backlighting for the instrument cluster (all the gauges, speedometer, fuel gauge, and others). The instrument lighting can be checked by turning on the headlights at night or in a dim garage. Check to see that all the gauges are visible. There should not be any dark spots on the cluster.

 

Dashboard showing gauges and warning indicator lights
Dashboard showing gauges and warning indicator lights

 

All warning indicator lights will turn on for a set time (about a minute, but varies per vehicle) when you turn the key to the “on” position without cranking the engine. If one is on, it indicates a problem with its correlating system. The number of lights and types of lights
will vary by make and model.

Exterior lighting is checked with the key turned to the “on” position in the ignition (or with the engine running, but it’s unnecessary to have the engine running to check the lights). Turn on the headlights. Check all four corners of the vehicle. The exact number of bulbs should be illuminated on both sides (right and left, or driver side and passenger side). There should be two orange front marker lights, two tail lights, and a license plate light.

Rear lights of a vehicle with the brake lights illuminated
Rear lights of a vehicle with the brake lights illuminated

Turn the left turn signal on. Check the left front and left rear of the vehicle for blinking lights. Some cars have more than one bulb for the turn signal, and some even include a signal in the rearview mirrors. Be sure every applicable bulb is illuminating. Some vehicles have a cornering lamp, a clear light on the front that illuminates corners while turning. It should be illuminated, but it will not blink.

Turn the right turn signal on. Check the right front and right rear of the vehicle for blinking lights. Be sure all applicable bulbs are illuminating. Check the cornering lamp if applicable.

When the turn signal is on and the indicator is blinking fast or not at all, these are indicators of a failed bulb.

Activate the hazard switch. Ensure there are flashing lights with equal bulbs on all four corners. The hazard lights are wired separately from the turn signals, so it is essential to check them even if they have been checked.

Air Filter:

Remove the air filter. Inspect for visual signs of dirt and debris. If there is any doubt, then change it. It’s cheap preventative maintenance, and it helps preserve fuel economy.

 

Various air filters
Various air filters

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