Money-Saving Car Care Steps

Mandatory auto maintenance tips and advice
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Seasons come, seasons go. That's a given. And your car likely works its way through those seasons with determination and diligence. It's not surprising since today's automobiles tend to be some of the most durable goods we own. But there's a catch: While there's a good chance your automobile or light truck will function perfectly for a considerable period of time with little or no maintenance, it will definitely last a whole lot longer if given regular care. On the other hand, though, if your automobile falls into neglect, you could be in for a costly surprise. The truth is, repairs are expensive-much more so than regular maintenance costs. And with today's economy, making something last longer and work better just makes good sense.

So what really needs to be done to keep your car running properly and up to its maximum capabilities? You might be surprised at how easy it all really is. Here is our list of money-saving car care maintenance tips:

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Oil Change, Oil Filter & Lube

Maintaining a clean, adequate supply of oil within the engine is mandatory. If you consult the owner's manual, you'll find criteria to follow for oil change frequencies. Operating conditions have an effect upon how often oil should be changed. Seasons have an effect too. The owner's manual will also lay out the various types and grades of oil recommended for use in a specific car, under specific conditions. Keep in mind that while high quality synthetic lubes are more costly than their crude-based counterparts, they tend to last longer and operate with higher efficiency. There's more too: Many of today's cars and light trucks are engineered so that the condition of the oil is monitored based upon your driving habits. And when its time to change the oil, a message will be displayed somewhere on the instrument cluster.

When changing oil (by yourself or otherwise), consider the filter. It should be changed with the fluid. At some deep discount oil change businesses, they use the cheapest filter they can find.

When it comes to oil filters, the words cheap and good usually cannot be used in the same sentence. Insist on both good quality filters and good quality oil. The cost will end up being a few dollars more per oil change, but over the long haul, it's money well spent.

Finally, don't forget about chassis lubrication. Many cars on the road today incorporate "sealed" systems, but others do not. They need regular lubrication. And for these applications, use the proper grease. Automotive grade lubes specifically engineered for undercarriage use is what you should look for (or demand).

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Tire Rotation & Tire Pressure

If the tires on a car are the same size, tire rotation is definitely beneficial. Tire rotation can extend tire life and at the same time, restore traction and handling as the tires wear (and age). You'll most often find tires on the front axle are more prone to wear than rear tires. Aside from drive type, the front tires live in a much more dynamic environment (for example, steering and turning along with upward and downward travel). Because of this, each wheel position on the car can cause different wear rates and different types of tire wear. That's why tire rotation is important. Another important factor is this: When all four tires are given the opportunity to wear equally (when rotated), optimum handling is maintained for an increased period of time.

So far so good, but what tire rotation pattern should be followed? That's a good question. Different tires (for example directional tires) demand specific rotation practices. So can rotation patterns for use with and without the spare. Your owner's manual can help layout the various rotation patterns.

Tire pressure is a serious issue too. There are any number of studies indicating upwards of 90 percent of all the vehicles on the road operate with improperly inflated tires. Incorrect tire pressure can compromise cornering, braking and stability. In a worst-case scenario, improper tire pressure can lead to tire failure. There's more too: Incorrectly inflated tires also have an affect upon fuel economy and tire life. Tire pressure changes constantly. This may be caused by a minor leak, but the most common factor in pressure change is ambient temperature. Should tire pressure is too low friction between the road and the tire increases. This results in increased tire wear and also creates a situation where the tire can overheat. Simply stated, improperly inflated tires wear out sooner and in many cases can constitute a hazardous driving condition.

In order to check the tire pressure, determine the correct settings first. Late model cars have the tire pressure printed on a decal found on the driver's door jamb. If the rating decal is missing, the owner's manual contains recommended pressures. Tire pressures should be checked with the tire is cold. When checking tire pressure, check all of the tires. Use an accurate gauge (there are many different types out there, but the most accurate are the large face dial types).

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Air Filters

There are any number of air cleaner/air filter arrangements in use today, although most are based upon some form of disposable paper element air filter. Consult the vehicle owner's manual to gain access to the element. Once the element has been removed, lightly shake it to remove dust and dirt. Do not wash, oil or clean with an air hose. If the air filter element has dirt caked on, a new element is required. Many modern vehicles do not require overly frequent air filter element changes, unless used in very dusty conditions. Some vehicles are designed with filters that only have to be changed after 50,000 miles, however older vehicles mandate much more frequent changes.

Certain vehicles (for example, pickup trucks) are often equipped with "air filter restriction indicators." These devices are usually located on the air cleaner/filter cover. If the indicator has turned to black or is in the "red" or "replace" zone, it's time to service the filter.

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Coolant System Maintenance

In the not so distant past, coolant system flushes were common. So were big, iron engines cooled by equally large copper-brass radiators. Coolant flushes were accomplished to remove scale and rust from engines. Today, power-plants are often much smaller in size and are regularly manufactured from aluminum. And so are radiators. Because of this, comprehensive flushing was once more common than it is today. It is, however, still important to maintain the quality of the fluid in your car's cooling system. Coolant, does,in fact, wear out. As a result, the system should be "cleaned" and replenished on a regular basis.

In order to clean the system, the car first must be allowed to cool. Next, the coolant is drained from the radiator (remove the rad cap, open the drain petcock on the rad). All of the coolant is allowed to drain. At this step, the system is completely filled with tap water. The radiator cap is reinstalled, the engine is started and allowed to reach normal operating temperature. This allows the engine to warm sufficiently so that the thermostat opens and water is circulated throughout the system. The engine is then shut off and the system allowed to cool. Next, it's drained.

The process should be repeated again, this time with distilled water. Once drained, the radiator is slowly filled with coolant (antifreeze). A premix works well for most cars and light trucks, as does a 50-50 mix of coolant and distilled water, however you should check your owner's manual for exact recommendations. The radiator cap is reinstalled, and the vehicle is ready for use.

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Inspect Belts & Hoses

Even though most newer cars require little or no attention to the belts or hoses, they should still be examined on a regular basis to determine their working condition. The place to begin is the radiator (located at the front of the car). Be absolutely positive the engine is cold when examining hoses (or belts). Pay close attention to electric cooling fans, as they can operate without the engine operating. These fans function by coolant temperature and are independent from the engine in operation.

Rad hoses consist of two hoses: one at the top and another at the bottom of the radiator, and both lead to the engine. With the engine cold, each hose should be squeezed. If it feels brittle, that means the hose old and requires replacement. Each hose should be inspected for cracks, tears or blisters. If any are present, the hose will need replacement. Clamps and the area of the hose surrounding the clamp should be inspected. If the hose is damp or wet in the area of the clamp, the clamp should be tightened. Each clamp must be sufficiently tight so that the hose cannot be moved (or turned by hand).

Locate the accessory drive belt(s). They're located between the front of the engine and the radiator. The belt can be inspected by turning it (slightly) inside out (this usually means you can gain a slight twist in the belt to allow for inspection). The reason for examining the backside is because deterioration almost always begins on the inside of the belt. The backside should be examined for signs of cracking, fraying or splitting. In addition, the surface should be inspected for any signs of glazing. Glazing and belt hardening is due to long periods of use and high under-hood temperatures. If the belt(s) shows any of the above signs of deterioration, replace the belt (or have it replaced).

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Battery Condition, Clean & Tighten Cables

Sealed, maintenance free batteries have been in use for a number of years. Obviously, they require no maintenance, and have no filler caps, and you never need to add water. Many of these batteries have some form of test indicator (in essence, a built-in hydrometer) located on the top. Most will show a "green" color if the battery is in good working condition. If the hydrometer or test indicator is black, then the battery is discharged. A discharged battery is an indication it needs replacement or there is a defect in the charging (alternator) system.

If the battery is several years old, you should consider having it load tested by a mechanic or auto parts store technician. The battery "load" is how much load or drain is placed on the electrical system before the battery begins to discharge. Sometimes, a battery can be completely drained (discharged) with little or no warning. And that can leave you stranded. Because of this, a load test is important, especially on an older battery.

Battery cables should also be inspected. Ensure the cables are tight and also watch for dirt and corrosion accumulation. Loose and/or dirty battery cables are a common no-start condition. The cables ends along with battery terminals should be periodically cleaned with a wire brush (or specific battery terminal cleaning tool). If you're performing this job yourself, be careful. Remove all metal objects (rings, wrist watches, bracelets) before beginning. The reason is, the jewelry can cause an inadvertent spark. And that can lead to a fire if you're not careful.

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Check & Replenish Fluid Levels for Brake Fluid, Transmission Fluid, Power Steering Fluid

Even in today's most sophisticated automobiles (and light trucks), there is still a need to check and top off various fluids under the hood. We've covered engine oil, coolant and windshield washer fluids elsewhere in our list of must-do maintenance steps. In all cases (below) the owner's manual should be consulted with regard to the proper fluid used to replenish specific levels. Here's a short list and location of other fluid levels you should check and replenish:

Brake Fluid

On most later model vehicles, the reservoir is either transparent or has a visible transparent gauge. You can inspect fluid levels without removing the cap. Typically, the reservoir is marked "MINIMUM" and often with "MAXIMUM" as well. Fluid should not be over the maximum and obviously should not be below the minimum.

Automatic Transmission

Almost all automatic transmissions have dipsticks and allow for fluid checks. Fluid should be checked "warm." That usually translates into a drive or fifteen or so miles. Inspection (and often, fluid replenishment) is by way of a clearly marked dipstick and tube visible within the engine compartment.

Power Steering Fluid

While it isn't necessary to check the power steering fluid regularly, you should check it if a leak in the system is suspected. If the fluid is leaking, then you must have the system serviced as soon as possible. The power steering reservoir (often marked "POWER STEERING" on the reservoir cap) is either found directly on the steering box or rack or remotely mounted very close to it, most often on the driver side of the car. The reservoir will have a removable dipstick tube. The reservoir cap is unscrewed in order to access the fluid. In most cases, the reservoir cap will contain an integral dipstick, which allows for measurement.

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Inspect, Test & Replace Lighting (Lamps & Bulbs)

Something many motorists neglect are vehicle lights. And we're not simply discussing a burned out marker lamp. All lamps are important, and they should all be inspected during regular maintenance. Turn on the headlights. Check park lamps; high and low beam lamps and the license plate light. If equipped with fog or driving lamps, inspect them. Examine the turn signals (all four corners) and follow up with an inspection of the emergency flashers. With help (or with the vehicle backed up against a wall where you can see the lights), apply the foot brake and check the brake lights. Place the vehicle in reverse (with the park brake on) and check the backup lights. If any bulbs are burned out, or if there is a lighting problem, it's obviously time for a repair. When shopping for replacements, keep in mind that quality replacements cost a bit more, but it's your vision and visibility at stake. There's not much point cutting corners here.

Headlamps should be properly aimed as well. Some cars come equipped with little bubble levels that assist with aiming. Others don't. But the reality is, few people have the equipment on hand to properly aim lamps at home. Many repair shops do. As a result, this is often a procedure best left to the pros.

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Inspect & Replace Wiper Blades & Replenish Washer Fluid

Windshield wipers need regular inspection. The reason is, rubber (no matter which blend) deteriorates over time. Sunlight, ozone, cold weather and other factors contribute to the deterioration. Once the deterioration begins, wiper blades lose the ability to flex and flip over in use. They also crack and can often take a set. Additionally, use simply wears down the blade. Once the sharp edge is gone, the squeegee effect of the blade goes away as well. All of those factors prevent the blades from making full contact with the windshield. Wipers can chatter against the glass, and in most cases, the result is a blade that cannot clear the windshield effectively. While there are some band-aid fixes (sanding the blade edges), there is only one solution: Replace the blades. And when replacing blades, consult the owner's manual. Different cars mandate different types of replacement procedures. Similarly, replacement blades sometimes come in different formats and are removed and installed in different ways.

Another important issue is the actual windshield washer fluid level. Contained in a transparent reservoir somewhere close to the wiper motor (usually on the driver side of the vehicle) or has a relatively large, clearly marked cap for a hidden reservoir (again, usually on the driver side of the vehicle), the fluid should be checked and maintained regularly. When using concentrated washer fluid, follow the instructions for adding water. Never mix water with ready-to-use fluid. This degrades the properties of the fluid and may also cause it to freeze in winter conditions. When encountering freezing conditions, many manufacturers recommend you fill the reservoir to only the _-full point to allow for expansion should the fluid freeze. Only use washer fluid. Never use radiator coolant (anti-freeze) since it may cause paint damage and can damage the washer system.

Wash, Wax (Polish), Vacuum, Clean & Detail

There's always something to be said about how a clean and freshly detailed vehicle works. Magic? Maybe not. Clean usually means more aerodynamic, easier to see out of, easier to see (lights) and also tends to make the driver more attentive. In order to get from grimy to clean, a good quality car wash product followed by careful rinsing and drying will do the trick. When clean, wax (polish or both, depending upon surface) the sheet-metal, again, using a good quality product. Clean the glass and vacuum and clean the interior. Where applicable, seats, door panels and dash surfaces can be treated with vinyl and leather cleaners (and in the case of leather, conditioners). Clean out the luggage compartment too.

While you're at it, polish any chrome trim, dress the tires and detail the wheels. It's not a bad idea to rinse the engine compartment and to blast the bottom of the car as well as the wheel wells with a water wand. There are a number of engine wash products on the market that prove safe for electronics and are easy to use. We recommend them too. Many drip dry and leave under hood surfaces looking like new.

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