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Brief Guide | Preventive Car Maintenance

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Car owners are hesitant to believe what they hear from mechanics in general, but once they form a relationship, they feel extremely trusting at that one-on-one level. To demonstrate that first point about consumers being wary of car repair facilities, a AAA poll released in December found that two-thirds of drivers in the US doubt the straightforwardness of auto mechanics, often because they have been subjected to excessive bills or coaxed into purchasing frivolous services. More positively, the same poll showed that nearly the same percentage of respondents, 64%, have chosen a specific mechanic that they do believe is honest. 


It is good that so many people have found mechanics they trust. However, AAA’s managing director of automotive engineering and repair, John Nielsen, points out how sizable that unsure portion of drivers is: “One-third of US drivers — 75 million motorists in total — have yet to find a trusted repair facility,” he reports.

The above data matches up relatively well with findings from a previous Consumer Reports survey, published in 2011. The earlier poll actually revealed significantly stronger confidence, with only 17% answering that they were unsure if they would get work performed fairly at their current shop.

Regardless what else we can make of these numbers, it is certainly true that many people do not feel confident when mechanics make recommendations. That means that legitimate maintenance concerns can often go ignored, leading to faster deterioration of the car.

The fact is that you should not trust everything you hear from a mechanic that you have not properly vetted. It helps to know a bit about basic maintenance yourself so that you can have a better sense whether what the technician is suggesting is a typical, routine concern. Here is a mini-guide on preventive maintenance for your car:

How do you know what needs work? Let’s look at a poll from mechanics of the maintenance problems that are most common. Then we will go through a maintenance schedule, as well as some related advice, so that you have the information you need to handle simple maintenance tasks yourself if desired.


Survey reveals most common gaps in car maintenance

The nonprofit Car Care Council asked repair shops for the percentage of cars they serviced that had various service issues. The results reveal aspects of an automobile that often do not get sufficient attention: 

  • 89% of cars needed some kind of fix or service. 
  • 27% of vehicles had dirty or low windshield washer fluid. 
  • 25% had contaminated or insufficient engine oil. 
  • 18% were in need of a belt replacement. 
  • 18% had air filters that needed to be cleaned or replaced. 
  • 17% had low coolant. 
  • 16% had windshield wipers that required replacement. 
  • 13% had insufficient or dirty brake fluid.
The key point from those findings is really the top one – that the vast majority of cars go without maintenance or fixes that could prolong the life of this important investment.

Standard car maintenance schedule

How should you go about routine checks to maintain your car properly? Here is a relatively standard timeline to check if refills or replacements are needed – falling into basic intervals at which you want to assess each item and see if you need to make adjustments:

Often – The parts of your car that will need your attention most regularly are the tires (their condition and air pressure); exterior lights (turn signals, headlights, taillights, additional brake lights, etc.); levels of windshield washer fluid and engine oil; and dashboard warning lights. (These are just checks of course – your tires will typically last about 30,000 to 45,000 miles, for example.)

Every 30,000 miles or 3 months – At this point, beyond the above elements, check two other fluids – power steering and automatic transmission; the engine air filter and exhaust; belts and hoses; and battery and cables. (Typically, a battery will be able to last about five years, while your serpentine belt, timing belt, and hoses will usually need replacement every 60K to 120K miles depending on the year and model.)

Every 60,000 miles or 6 months – Once you hit this interval, you want to add two additional checks – the chassis lubrication and condition of your wiper blades. (These blades can often go 12 months, depending on quality and impact of the weather.)

Every year – Finally, there are a few things that will only need checking once per year, generally. Those are the antifreeze and cabin air filter, as well as the steering, suspension, and wheel alignment.

Key tips to maintain your car

Here are a few important, central tips for maintenance related to the above tasks:

Conduct a periodic inspection. Related to the “often” category, the elements of the car that you want to check “often” should be reviewed about once per week. For safety, you want to make sure that the lights are functioning correctly. Checking your tire inflation level is simpler if you purchase a “good quality” tire air pressure gauge and store it in your glove compartment. Keeping your tires at the right pressure levels will help them last longer and improves fuel efficiency. When you assess pressure, also check your tread – using either the tire’s built-in wear indicator bars or a quarter. (To use a quarter, adjust it so that George Washington’s head is facing you but upside-down. Put the top of the head into the groove on the tire. Can you still see the top portion of his head? It is time to get your tires replaced.)

The second time will give you a correct oil reading. You want to know if your car is high or low on oil, because either one can be problematic for your engine – so checking oil should be a weekly or at least biweekly event. It’s simple and fast. First, you need to be parked somewhere that is relatively level to gauge the fluid correctly. Also, the car should be cool rather than fresh off the road. Find the dipstick, remove it, and wipe it off on a rag. Now reinsert the clean stick until it is all the way in its original position. Take it out a second time. You can now see the oil level correctly. Why is it necessary to take the stick out twice? Car Maintenance Bibles notes that “the first time you pull the dipstick out, it will have oil all over it and it will be difficult to tell where the level is.” Once it is clean, though, you can get the correct reading.

Pay close attention to your serpentine and timing belts. Looking at the quarterly check, it is key to keep an eye on the belts. Your manual will give you numbers for how long the parts can be expected to last. Although that mileage for when a belt should typically be replaced will be helpful, you still want to watch them to see if they need to be switched out. You do not want to just let them fail. That would leave you on the side of the road. Plus, a belt that is not functioning well can lead to failure of other parts – sometimes creating costly repairs.




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