Quick Maintenance Guide
for Casual Car Owners
Let’s face it, not everyone is a gear head. You may never venture to rebuild an engine or even change your own oil. Still, there are certain maintenance moves and emergency repairs that every car owner should know how to do.
Making sure your car is properly taken care of, whether you do it yourself or not, is one the keys to staying safe on the road. Proper auto care begins with awareness. In this easy guide, we give you a checklist of the most essential tasks you should be able to perform to keep your car running smoothly and safely.
Can You Do These 7 Simple Things?
Check and adjust your tire pressure.
Making sure your tires are properly inflated can improve handling, boost fuel efficiency, and keep your tires from wearing down prematurely.
You can start by checking the recommended PSI for your tires, which should be on your driver’s door jam and in the owner’s manual. Then, just stop by a gas station that has an air compressor where you can check and inflate your tires. (Be sure to bring quarters.)
Check your tire tread with a penny.
When your tires’ tread is too worn down, it can cause your car to lose traction and result in unsafe driving. New car tires usually have tread depths of 10/32 or 11/32 of an inch (or more). Tires should be replaced when tread depths reach 2/32 of an inch.
To check your tires, insert a penny into the tread, with Lincoln’s head facing down. If the top part of his head is covered by the ribs of the tire, you are at more than 2/32. If you can see his whole head still, you need to have your tires checked.
Clean your headlights with toothpaste.
When your headlights build up that layer of crud from the road and weather exposure, it can have an effect on your ability to see while driving at night. Cleaning them may be easier than you think.
Start by wiping them off with Windex. Then apply a small amount of toothpaste with baking soda and scrub with a soft cloth, adding more toothpaste and water as needed. Essentially, you will be removing the dirty and damaged protective coating from the headlight lens.
Once you have scrubbed off the dirty coating, apply a sealant to protect your newly cleaned headlight.
Read a dipstick.
For car un-enthusiasts, popping the hood and poking around can seem like you are asking for trouble. However, even if you are never going to change your own oil, you can easily check your dipstick to make sure you have enough oil and that the oil does not have grit in it ─ a sure sign of trouble.
To start, make sure your car is on level ground and the engine is not hot. Then, pop the hood, locate the dipstick, and pull it out. Wipe it off with a rag so the stick is clean and you can see the line marks on it. Reinsert the dipstick all the way in for a minute, then pull it back out. Check both sides to see whether the oil on the stick is hitting the right marks. If it is too low, overfilled, or gritty, talk to your mechanic.
Jump-start your car.
Despite the intimidation factors of working with jumper cable clamps and a charged battery, jump-starting a vehicle is pretty simple. Most sets of jumper cables have step-by-step instructions on the packaging (so it is worth keeping the packaging in your trunk, too).
You start by turning off both vehicles and putting them in park. Then, attach one of the positive (red) clamps to the positive terminal on the dead battery. (Hint: The positive terminal will likely have “+” or “POS” on it.) Attach the other red clamp to the positive terminal of the good battery. Next, attach a negative (black) clamp to the negative terminal of the good battery. Then attach the final black clamp to the negative terminal on the car with the dead battery.
Start the good car and wait a bit. Then start the other car. Once both cars are running, take all the clamps off in the reverse order and be careful that they don’t touch each other. Be sure to drive your car for a while so the battery can get charged back up.
Jack up your car and change a tire.
Your car should have a spare tire and a jack in it in case of emergencies. Although it’s not always an easy task, changing a tire is an important life skill that may come in handy one day if you’re ever stranded on a road with not much traffic and bad cell reception.
First, make sure your vehicle is in a safe place, out of traffic, with the engine off and the parking brake on. Turn on the hazard lights. Then start by removing the hubcaps and loosening the lug nuts. (Hint: The jack in your car should have a lug wrench to loosen these.)
Once the lug nuts are loose, get ready to jack up the vehicle. Read the instructions for using your car’s jack, and pay careful attention to where the jack should be placed under the car. You can cause costly damage to your car if you just stick the jack under there willy nilly and start cranking.
When the car is raised, take the lug nuts all the way off, remove the tire, and replace it with the spare. Put the lug nuts back on, tightening them with your hands. Then lower the car and remove the jack. Finish by tightening the lug nuts further with the wrench, using the full weight of your body to get them as tight as possible.
Get answers from your owner’s manual.
Your car owner’s manual has a lot of useful information in it, such as how to check your dipstick and where to find your spare tire and jack. It can also be a great resource if a random light comes on in your dashboard and you want to look up what the warning means.
If you bought your car used and it did not come with an owner’s manual, you should be able to download one for free from the manufacturer online.