A quick guide to car maintenance.
There's more to car ownership than simply buying a vehicle, and when you've invested a great deal in your new purchase, you'll want it to last and stay in tip-top shape. Routine maintenance doesn't come naturally to us all, and for that reason, a car maintenance checklist is a helpful tool to have on hand to help you keep track of what to do, and when.
Even if your ride is brand new, there are some basic things to know about cars in terms of your physical safety, and the mechanics related to the inevitable wear and tear that occurs the more miles you drive. Yes, oil, brake pads, and spark plugs are some of the important things to check on your car, but so are tire pressure and tread checks, which will directly affect your ability to get where you're going safely. So, if you want to know how to check the health of your car engine and what routine maintenance is most important to help prevent potential problems and costly repairs later on, read on.
Regular inspections of your car serve the purpose of identifying minor issues before they become major; and, while you may be sending your car for routine service and check-up with a mechanic or manufacturer, there are a few aspects you can keep an eye on yourself. It's important to know what you should look out for, so here is a suggested schedule of necessary checks.
Oil is a vital lubricant for keeping all the mechanical bits of your vehicle running smoothly, but its primary purpose is cooling, and checking this is a straightforward process. The recommendation to check your car oil levels once a month serves an important purpose - not only can you top up as and when needed, but tracking how much oil your car requires will allow you to identify a leak or other serious problem if you find the car is burning oil at a rapid rate. Checking oil quantity is as easy as reading levels off the dipstick once a month. To learn more about your engine oil, read our dedicated article here.
For checking engine coolant, the process is simple. Locate the coolant reservoir in the engine bay, and compare fluid levels to the markings on the side. Top up with a mixture of water and antifreeze, or only the coolant if it's premixed. Also check the remaining coolant in the tank - if it looks rusty or has debris floating on the surface, you will need to flush the system. If there seems to be an oily layer on the top, seek professional assistance immediately. These checks should be done at least twice a month, especially before summer and winter temperature changes.
For a comprehensive overview, be sure to read our discussion on all things tire-related here. But, for the purposes of this checklist, there are three things to remember:
Vital to safety, brake pads require a check at every tire change or rotation, or at least every 10,000 miles. Worn brake pads are a recipe for disaster, and if you're hearing consistent metal-on-metal when you use the breaks while driving (not to be confused with the random squeak from wet or dust-covered brakes), new pads are probably already way overdue. Checking the pads can be done without taking the wheels off, although sometimes you may find it difficult to see the pads with the rims on, in which case you'll need to take the whole wheel off. To check brake pad wear you may need a flashlight to look through the spokes of the wheels to see the thickness of the pad itself. On some, there may even be a wear indicator slot in the center - if you can't see the slot properly, the pads need to be replaced. In general, if the pad is less than ¼ inch thick, it needs replacement.
There are two major belts used in your engine, namely the serpentine belt and a timing belt (also known as a cam belt). The latter can also be a chain and tensioner on more modern vehicles, with the idea being that these are more durable in the long run, but even these need replacing eventually. If your vehicle does have a timing belt, however, it can suffer serious damage if the belt breaks - replacing this is expensive due to the high cost of labor involved in the process, so it's good to know what to look out for here: strange noises like squealing, knocking, and grinding can be an indicator of incorrect belt tension or misalignment. To prevent this, have a professional check the belt and its various pulleys and tensioners after every 50,000 miles, at least.
The serpentine belt is easier to access for checking and repairs and is responsible for powering the water pump, alternator, air conditioner, and power steering pump. While it's not the end of the world financially if it breaks, the inability of your water pump to work may cause overheating, so best to check this regularly. Be sure to check the condition of the belt at every oil change - if there are any cracks or grooves in it, you should replace it. Belts can last between 60k and 100k miles. Ask your mechanic to check the tensioners too, to make sure the belt stays on the pulleys as it is supposed to. Warning signs to look out for include squealing from under the hood, engine overheating signs such as steam or vapor, warning lights in the cluster to this effect, and grooves, cracks, peeling of the belt upon inspection.
Another fluid that requires keeping tabs on is the power steering fluid, which is important to maintain the energy flow in the steering system. It also protects seals and o-rings which are critical to the functioning of the whole setup, and, if you're struggling to turn your steering wheel or you hear a screech or groan from the car when you do, it's a fair bet that you have a power steering fluid issue. While this is something you don't have to check very often, it's advisable to consult the owner's manual for each different car to ensure you have an idea of when you should check power steering fluid levels. We recommend checking this once a year at the very least, especially if you have an older vehicle. Checking is easy enough - locate the reservoir marked with the correct label, and use the dipstick provided to check the levels. Some reservoirs have markings along the side instead, which should be easy enough to read.
Both the cabin air filter and engine air filter need to be checked from time to time, although the latter is by far more important - the purpose of both is to stop dust, pollen, and other pollutants from getting in, and they obviously become dirty and clogged over time. Manufacturers vary on how often these should be replaced, so it's best to consult your owner's manual, and do a visual check of the air filter once or twice a year - replacement shouldn't be required more than once every 30,000 miles, although this may be a little shorter if you're on dusty roads more often than not. Read up on this topic here.
Both automatic and manual transmission vehicles use transmission fluid, which is made up of refined oil and additives designed to provide proper lubrication and cooling. While this isn't something you need to change frequently, it's best to consult your owner's manual for guidance. Some experts recommend replacing the fluid every 45- 60k miles, but you can get away with letting it remain in the system for longer. Automatic transmissions can benefit from a fluid flush and refill in terms of an extended lifespan, smoother shifting, and improved fuel economy, so be sure to check transmission fluid if you notice any problems with gear changes.
Functioning headlights and taillights are not only important for the driver to be able to see properly, but also in terms of being visible to other motorists and road users, most especially in low-visibility conditions and adverse weather. Checking that all exterior lights are in working condition is vital to your safety, and while most new cars have a warning light indicating faulty globes, make sure you do a visual inspection at least every second week. This will also prevent you from being saddled with a ticket you weren't expecting. We recommend a brief weekly check of your car lights to keep on top of this.
While this maintenance list for your car will help you keep track of routine inspections, it's important to ensure that you take a little more time to check your ride before long journeys. A road trip checklist can be found here for ensuring your vehicle will manage extended adventures, and differs from a regular car maintenance checklist in that it is not quite as extensive and builds on the assumption that your vehicle has been checked and maintained on a regular basis already. Important items to look over prior to longer expeditions pertain to ensuring you are prepared for any crisis including:
Keeping track of how your vehicle functions doesn't have to be a chore - this list covers the most important basics, all of which can be done by even novice drivers and car owners. Still, if you feel unsure, you could have a professional look over your vehicle, although such car inspections usually cost anywhere in the region of $150 to $400.
With so many moving parts and mechanical bits that require lubrication and temperature regulation, it's never smart to leave fluids unchecked. Without coolant and water, the engine will overheat, heads and head gaskets will be damaged, and the engine can seize entirely. Similarly, without sufficient oil, the engine will start grinding and stall, causing permanent damage. Although other fluids are less likely to need frequent replenishing, at the very least you should be checking your engine oil and coolant levels regularly to avoid such scenarios.
If you aren't confident in your own ability to judge whether maintenance needs to be done on your car, there's no shame in requesting a professional inspection. This is also a great idea if you suspect any problems and think you may have some mechanical work that needs to be done, as the same mechanic doing the inspection can easily give you a quote for repairs at the same time. Depending on the type of vehicle and its age, you can expect to pay as little as $150, or as much as $400.
For the most part, only your tires, lights, and coolant and oil levels should be checked that regularly. The other items can be spaced out over longer periods of time, with more mileage in between. Be sure to check each section for suggested time frames, and always familiarize yourself with your specific vehicle's owner's manual.