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Of course, there are some things you will want to consider before you get your hands dirty, chief among them your ability to perform general maintenance tasks without endangering your own or others’ safety or damaging your vehicle’s reliability.
If opening the hood and turning a wrench or two without making things worse isn’t in your skill set, you’re better off employing the services of a qualified repair shop—most of which have been deemed “essential” by state and municipal authorities, meaning they’ll be open for business for the foreseeable future.
“As far as experience goes, it’s best to stay in your lane,” says John Ibbotson, Consumer Reports’ chief mechanic. “Dispose of fluids properly, use the correct tools, and watch a YouTube video if you’re uncertain about how to do something.”
If you have dabbled a bit in home repair projects and have a few basic tools and a lot of patience, CR has some basic guidelines to ensure that your adventures in auto mechanics will be safe and rewarding. Those of you who have a well-used engine hoist in the garage and a few involved projects under your belt (you know who you are) won’t find too much here that you don’t already know. But if you’re relatively novice, or even a little rusty, here are a few considerations aimed at keeping you on the right track.
Some Basic Safety Precautions
Work within your skill level. Changing the oil is simple, but if there’s any chance you could screw it up, pay to have a professional do it. Stripped oil drain plug threads can be expensive to replace. If you have any doubts about how to do something, YouTube can be a good resource for how-to videos, although the quality of the advice you’ll find there isn’t infallible.
Never, ever rely on a jack to support the vehicle when you’re underneath it. This is as true for a professional-style hydraulic floor or bottle jack as it is for the screw jack most cars have stashed somewhere for the purpose of changing a flat tire. If you’re going to be under the car at all, make sure it is firmly supported on a pair of jack stands at a point on the vehicle’s underside that can handle the vehicle’s weight. You don’t want a jack stand punching through the floor of your car.
Always have a fire extinguisher handy when you’re working on a car. Motor vehicles—whether powered by gasoline, diesel, or electricity—have the potential to catch fire, even when you’re being careful. Make sure that the extinguisher is fully charged and that you know how to use it properly. Be aware of what to do if your car catches fire.
Treat the flammable liquids and other materials with the respect they deserve. Gasoline cans and solvents should always be capped and stored in a dedicated flammables cabinet, away from electrical sparks and other potential sources of ignition.
Wear proper protective equipment. That includes safety glasses, long sleeves and pants, closed-toe shoes or boots, and gloves.
Don’t do any undercar work unless someone else is home. Keep a phone handy in case of an accident.
Always work on a level surface. If you’re going to raise the car on an asphalt driveway, it’s a good idea to place each jack stand on a board to prevent damage to the asphalt.
Make sure you have all the right parts and fluids. And compare new parts with old ones to confirm that they match.
Perform work during hours when you can pop over to the auto parts store. You never know when you’ll need additional parts, such as an oil pan plug gasket.
Dispose of fluids properly. Fluids drained from the car should be taken to an auto parts store, a recycling facility, or a transfer station, rather than poured out or thrown in the trash. There may be certain days of the month when chemicals are processed.
If you’re even the slightest bit doubtful of your abilities, have a professional do it. Oil leaks are messy and have the potential to start fires. Improperly executed brake and steering repairs can undermine the safety of your vehicle.
Where to Get Parts and Supplies
Parts stores are generally open as “essential” businesses, and if you have to go to one, make sure you take the same precautions you would going to a grocery store. But your best bet is to plan ahead and order parts online through a major auto parts supplier, such as Advance Auto Parts, AutoZone, NAPA, or Summit Racing. Keep in mind that some suppliers will not ship fluids or solvents.
Maintenance You Can Do at Home
The following is a list of simple repair and maintenance procedures that can be performed at home. YouTube videos can be a good guide for proper procedure, as can model-specific repair manuals from Chilton or Haynes. The gold standard for procedural instruction is a factory service manual specific to the vehicle you will be working on.
Check fluid levels. Most cars (although not all) provide ways to check engine oil, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, brake fluid, coolant and—if equipped—differential and transfer case oil. Be sure to use the type and amount of oil or fluid recommended by the vehicle’s manufacturer. Also be aware that overfilling can cause more damage than slightly low fluid levels.
Check tire pressure. A sticker or placard inside the driver’s door will tell you the correct pressure for each set of tires. (Front and rear inflation pressures can differ slightly.) These are cold pressures, so be sure to check with a tire pressure gauge before driving the car.
Check/change lightbulbs. Turn on the lights, then have a helper monitor the front and rear of the vehicle as you operate the brake lights, turn signals, and hazard flashers. If any bulbs are burned out, replace them per manufacturer recommendation.
Check/change windshield wiper blades. Windshield wiper blades last about six months, and they should be able to squeegee water off the glass without leaving too many streaks. If the rubber wiper blades are dried out, replace them. Many auto parts stores will do it free of charge if you’re not so inclined.
Check/replace air filters. Most vehicles have two filters—the engine’s intake air filter and the cabin air filter, which keeps pollen and other air pollutants from entering the passenger compartment. Both should be clean and free of excessive dirt and large debris. If they’re dirty, replace them. It’s usually pretty easy.
Inspect belts and hoses. Coolant hoses and heater hoses, which are subjected to high levels of heat, are the most likely to fail. Look for cracks and leaks. Check other hoses for cracks, wet spots, and other damage. The serpentine belt can be checked by twisting a long run to inspect its ribbed underside. If you see cracks, glazing, or separation of layers, or if the belt looks dry, replace it.
Check car battery. Inspect the battery terminals and cable ends for corrosion or damage, and consider the battery’s age. According to AAA, automotive batteries usually last between three and five years. The date of manufacture should be printed on a sticker on top of the battery. If the battery terminals are corroded, they can be cleaned with a special brush available at most auto parts stores. If you disconnect battery cables, be sure to remove the negative cable first to avoid arcing and sparks.
Change the oil and filter. This is a simple operation in most vehicles. Always make sure you have enough new oil, and that the fill hole is open and accessible, before draining oil from the crankcase. The engine should be warm. If you can’t reach the drain plug without raising the front of the car, be sure to use a jack and jack stands—or ramps and wheel chocks—in a safe manner. Use a drain pan that’s wide enough to catch spills from the filter, and always dispose of used oil properly. It’s also a good idea to wear gloves.
Set up your infotainment system. If you never got around to it, now is a good time to pair Bluetooth devices, set personal preferences like audio settings and seat memory, and customize the vehicle’s drive modes. You can also enter your home and other common locations into the navigation system.
Clear out the clutter. Clean out refuse, old magazines, beach chairs, that basketball with no air in it, and any other junk that has been accumulating as you pressed on with a busy life. Your newfound downtime is just in time for spring cleaning.
For the More Advanced Home Mechanic
Inspect the exhaust system. Raise the vehicle and support it securely on jack stands. Starting at the front of the vehicle, look at the exhaust pipes, catalytic converters, resonators, and mufflers, keeping an eye out for severe rust and sooty deposits that are the telltale sign of pinhole leaks. Exhaust leaks pose a health and safety hazard, and they should be repaired promptly by a professional.
Inspect brakes. Loosen wheel lug nuts while the wheels are still on the ground. Raise the vehicle and support it securely on jack stands. Remove the wheels. Refer to manufacturer specifications regarding adequate brake pad and shoe thickness. On disc brakes, there is usually a window in the caliper through which you can see brake pad thickness. If they’re below manufacturer standards, they should be replaced. Drum brakes can still be found on the rear wheels of some vehicles. To check them, remove the wheel, then follow the manufacturer procedure for drum removal. (They usually slide off.) Note brake shoe lining thickness and replace if worn below manufacturer specifications.
Tire rotation. While you have the wheels off, it could be a good time to rotate the tires, assuming the front and rear wheels and tires are the same size (check first). Also, rotate the tires only if they need it. Put the best two tires on the front. There should be no change from side to side. This is also a good time to check for uneven wear, which indicates the need for an alignment, and possibly worn suspension parts. When putting the wheels back on the car, tighten the lug nuts hand tight, lower the vehicle, then fasten the lug nuts to the manufacturer-specified torque using a torque wrench. Drive the car a short distance and check the torque again.
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