Auto Academy: 5 Types of Car Maintenance You Can’t Afford to Skip

Car trouble
Car trouble | Source: Thinkstock

One of my goals when it comes to these Auto Academy and Engines Exposed articles is to give the average vehicle owner an appreciation for the complexity of their vehicle. For the most part, we get in, throw on some tunes, and drive, far more concerned with our social media feeds than with the operation of our car. Cars are a mechanical ballet with a level of intricacy that would make Baryshnikov go cross-eyed if he tried to choreograph it. An obvious result of this is that it is important to maintain these machines so that the ballet runs smoothly until the final curtain.

When I worked as a mechanic, I saw cars in all manner of shape come through the door. One car had never had an oil change yet had nearly 20,000 miles on the odometer. A minivan came in with mismatched tire pressures, which might not seem so bad until you realize that the pressures were 82, 21, 43, and 54, all on tires that were rated for a maximum of 32. Basic maintenance can help your car run smoothly, extend its life, keep you safe, and save you money. I’m going to assume that you are already changing your oil regularly, and share with you the five maintenance tips that I have found to add the most value to your cars.

1. Check your tire pressures and rotate your tires

Car tire
Checking tire tread | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Your tires are one of the most important parts of your car. They provide you with the grip you need to accelerate, stop, and safely avoid accidents. Tires that are inflated to incorrect pressures can wear out more quickly, affect fuel economy, and decrease vehicle handling. The correct tire pressure for your car can be found in your owner’s manual or on the sticker that is mounted to the rear of the driver’s side door frame. The pressure that it lists is the cold pressure so make sure you measure and adjust your tire pressure before driving extensively. Friction with the road will increase the tire pressure, which can give a false reading. Rotating your tires will ensure that they are worn evenly, which will give you a predictable contact with the road surface.

2. Check your air filter regularly

Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet
Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

This one is especially important if you have an older car or if you live in an area with high levels of airborne contaminants (dirt road, pollution, high pollen count, etc.). Your engine needs air to function and, as we’ve discussed before, air is the bottleneck to performance. All of the air that your engine uses needs to pass through the engine air filter. Ensuring that it is clean will ensure that your engine is breathing easily and producing peak performance.

3. Check your fluid levels and replace/add as needed

Checking the engine oil
Checking oil | iStock

As I stated at the beginning, I’m assuming that you are changing your oil according to the manufacturer’s recommendation. That being said, there are other fluids that are essential to a car’s operation. Namely, brake fluid, power steering fluid, coolant, and transmission fluid.

  • Coolant and power steering fluid can be checked easily by visually inspecting the reservoirs and adding fluid if the levels are low. Coolant does need to be tested for quality, even if it appears to be in good condition, according to the maintenance schedule for the vehicle, as the formula can degrade over time.
  • Transmission fluid in an automatic transmission can be checked using a second, shorter dipstick in the engine bay. Unlike checking the oil level, the car should be idling in park on a level surface when you check the transmission fluid. The handle on this dipstick is usually red or black.
  • Brake fluid levels can be seen in the reservoir much like coolant and power steering fluid. Unlike those fluids, brake fluid is hygroscopic: This means that it will absorb moisture from the atmosphere over time. This will lead to a squishy brake pedal and a reduced boiling point for the brake fluid.

4. Replace your fuel filter

Mechanic working under the hood of a car
Mechanic working on car | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News

With advent of fuel injection, the fuel filter has a very important job. Fuel injectors are precision pieces of equipment and they would not respond well to contaminated fuels. The fuel filter is running constantly while the vehicle is in operation, which means that it will have a relatively short life. Many cars recommend replacing the fuel filter every 30,000 miles, but some have more aggressive schedules. If you are purchasing discount gas at the shady station across town, you might think about accelerating the replacement of this workhorse.

One interesting side note regarding the fuel delivery system: The fuel pump is a mechanical device, which means that it generates heat as it does work. On modern cars, it’s located inside the tank and immersed in gasoline, which serves as a heat sink to keep it cool. If you regularly run your tank down to fumes, you will expose the fuel pump to higher temperatures, which can accelerate failure. Furthermore, most of the sediment that is present in the fuel will settle to the bottom of the fuel tank. If you let the level get too low, the fuel pump will draw this sediment-laden fuel into the fuel system, which can plug the fuel filter and increase amperage needed to run the pump thereby shortening the life of the pump.

5. Replace your cabin air filter

Cabin air filter
Cabin air filter | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

This one might not seem as critical for the operation of your car, but it is certainly important for the health and safety of its occupants. My first car started to have an intermittent failure of the blower motor that provided air into the cabin of the car. This proved problematic on cold winter mornings; it wasn’t until I replaced the cabin air filters that I realized why: They were positively packed with debris. The increased resistance to flow caused an increase in the amperage that was being sent to the blower motor, which tripped the circuit breaker. Given the right circumstances, it would still work, but it was luck of the draw. Replacing the filters cleared that up and ensured that I was breathing clean air.

Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.