Essential auto maintenance: 14 musts for any car owner

Changing the oil in a car

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Poorly-maintained cars and trucks lead to thousands of traffic accidents each year.

According to the National Car Care Council, a national non-profit organization that educates consumers about proper vehicle care, the cost of accidents caused by vehicles that are not properly maintained is more than $2 billion annually.

“The safety, performance and life of a vehicle hinges on preventive maintenance,” says Jim Sassorossi, Head of Product Development and Sales at Mopar, Chrysler Group LLC’s service, parts and customer-care brand.

“By keeping up with the maintenance on their vehicles, drivers can sharply decrease their chances of an unexpected breakdown,” agrees Bruce Bonebrake, master mechanic and host of “Weekend Mechanic” on the DIY Network. “Staying on top of vehicle maintenance will not only keep your car on the road and increase your gas mileage, but, most importantly, keep you and your family safe,” says Bonebrake.


14 essential auto maintenance tips

1) Tires

A smooth and safe ride starts when the rubber meets the road, because tire problems are the leading cause of breakdowns, and under-inflated tires can lead to blowouts and serious accidents.

“Roughly one million drivers will call AAA for help with a flat tire during the summer travel season, and many of those problems could be avoided with a quick tire inspection,” says John Nielsen, AAA’s Managing Director of Automotive Engineering and Repair. “Begin every tire inspection with a pressure check when the tires are cold and the car has not been driven recently.”

The entire surface of the tire — both tread and sidewall — should be inspected for uneven or irregular wear. Excessive edge wear, center wear and shoulder wear may be signs that other maintenance is required. Worn tires in need of replacement are much more likely to suffer punctures and other problems.

Use a quality gauge to make sure all five tires (including the spare) are inflated to the pressure recommended by the vehicle manufacturer — information about that can be found in the owner’s manual or on a sticker usually attached to the driver’s door jamb, or sometimes inside the gas cap door. Properly inflated tires increase safety and fuel economy, which will reduce fuel costs during a trip.

Note for winter: As the temperature drops, so will the pressures in the tires — typically 1 PSI for every 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

Also see: Do your tires need to be replaced? How to tell

2) Brakes

Brakes are one of the most used (and often abused) components. A thin layer of the brake pad disintegrates every time the brakes are applied. It’s vital to replace pads or shoes before drums or rotors become damaged. Check pads, shoes, drums, rotors, calipers, fittings, brake hardware and parking brake to prevent problems.

3) The battery

Have your vehicle’s battery tested. A winter full of cold-morning starts or a long hot summer can have a big effect on a car’s battery. Many vehicles do not give any warning signs of imminent battery failure until the car doesn’t start.

Signs that a vehicle is experiencing battery failure may include dimming headlights and interior lights, slow engine starting, “check engine” light is on or accessories failing to operate. However, since indications of battery failure are commonly subtle and misdiagnosed, many drivers only become aware of the condition when their car no longer starts. Newer cars have more efficient starting systems, so battery hesitation is not always noticeable.

Also see: Do your brakes need to be replaced? How to tell

Batteries last on average three years, but driving conditions and style of driving factor in to the life of the battery. Heat is the biggest factor in a shortened battery life, with corrosion caused by heat the leading cause of battery failure. When temperatures are at their highest this summer, drivers should be aware that residents in warmer regions experience diminished battery life — at least 1/3 less life than residents in cooler climates.

One of the best preventative measure motorists can take is to have their car batteries tested before a big trip. Battery testing usually is a free service offered by automotive retailers such as AutoZone, Pep Boys, O’Reilly Auto Parts and Advance Auto Parts. When checking the battery, also be sure to look for corroded terminals, and inspect for a bulging or cracked case.

4) Headlights, tail lamps, turn signals and hazard lights

Properly functioning headlamps and tail lamps play an important role in safe driving, especially at nighttime, or in rainy or foggy conditions. Inspect and test all exterior lamps and lights, including turn signals and hazard lights to ensure they are in proper working order and alignment.

5) Air filter

The air filter is one of the unsung heroes of a vehicle, as it protects the engine from airborne contaminants. Poor air flow within the engine hinders performance and can lead to greater fuel consumption. Replacing a dirty air filter allows clean, unrestricted air flow into the engine and helps ensure proper performance and longer life.

AAA says you can check your engine’s air filter by holding it up to a 60-watt light bulb. If light can be seen through much of the filter, it is still clean enough to work effectively. However, if the light is blocked by most of the filter, replace it.

6) Air conditioning check

A vehicle without air conditioning can be a hot and potentially dangerous environment for travelers during the summer months. Automotive air conditioning systems do not require routine maintenance, but a system that is operating marginally is more likely to fail in hot weather.


Top 5 car repairs
  1. Replace oxygen sensor
  2. Tighten or replace fuel cap
  3. Replace catalytic converter
  4. Replace spark plug(s) and wire(s)
  5. Replace mass air flow sensor



If you have noticed a decrease in cooling capability, have your air conditioning system examined by a qualified technician before setting out on a trip.

7) Oil & other fluid levels

Oil is the lifeblood of the engine, say the Mopar experts, so engine oil level should be checked often, with the oil being changed and replenished regularly. Low or dirty oil may have dire consequences on how the engine and its components perform.

Vehicle fluids and lubricants should be checked often and changed at factory-recommended intervals to make sure they’re fresh and filled. Dirty fluids and low fluids may affect the performance of a vehicle and can lead to breakdowns if not properly monitored and replaced or topped off.

Also see: What kind of fluid is your car leaking? How to find out

8) Cooling system

Particularly in the summer, the cooling system has to work harder to prevent the engine from overheating. In addition to checking the radiator, belts and hoses for leaks or cracks, also confirm that all the connections are snug, and make sure all the fluids are topped off. When towing boats, campers, or trailers, be sure to install additional transmission or oil coolers. In all cases, take great care with a hot engine — it’s very easy to get burned by hot engine parts or fluids.

Always check the coolant level when the engine is cold. If the coolant level is low, AAA says to add a 50/50 solution of coolant and water to maintain the necessary antifreeze capability. The level of antifreeze protection can be checked with an inexpensive tester that should be available at any auto parts store.

9) Make sure your windshield wipers are working

Properly functioning wiper blades increase visibility in all conditions, and rain, insects, grime and other debris on a windshield will compromise the driver’s vision and safety. The life of a rubber wiper insert is typically six to 12 months, depending on its exposure to heat, dirt, sunlight and rain. If your wipers leave streaks or cannot clear the windshield in one swipe, they should be replaced.

Also, check the windshield washer fluid level and top it off with a solution formulated to aid in the removal of insects and other debris. Be sure to test the washer spray nozzles for proper operation and aim before leaving on a trip.

10) Engine belts, hoses and the fuel filter

Belts and hoses under the hood play an important part in the proper function and performance of the engine. Belt or hose failure is the second leading cause of roadside breakdowns, and one in every five vehicles on the road needs to have a belt repaired, so you can help prevent hassles or serious engine damage by replacing belts and hoses at recommended intervals.

The engine belts also drive the air conditioner’s compressor, so also inspect this system for worn or damaged belts. Don’t just look at the smooth top surface of the belt, but turn each one over and check the grooved underside where most belt wear occurs. When any wear is noticed, change the belt or have a professional do the job. (If it’s not too worn, the old belt can be kept in the trunk as a spare, in case the new belt fails.)

Checking and replacing the fuel filter is also key to ensuring that the engine is running at its optimal level, and maximizes fuel economy.

11) Shocks & struts

Following the traditional cold-weather pothole season, shocks and struts should be checked. Shocks and struts are vital to a smooth ride, and may also affect a number of related parts on your vehicle. Quality shocks and struts optimize vehicle handling, tire life and keep vehicles riding smoothly.

12) Perform routine scheduled maintenance checks

“Seasonal auto maintenance and repairs are generally less expensive and more convenient when they’re done as preventive measures, before a system meltdown occurs,” said Tom West, President and CEO of auto parts supplier JC Whitney. “Plus, maintained vehicles almost always last longer and command a higher resale price.”

Motorists should check their owner’s manual for a schedule of recommended maintenance intervals from the vehicle manufacturer. If the owner’s manual has been lost, many websites, such as the National Car Care Council’s site, offer a recommended maintenance schedule for vehicles. Even if it is not one of the recommended time intervals to have your vehicle checked, it is important to inspect under the hood and around your vehicle before long trips.

AAA says that an estimated 3.5 million drivers will suffer more significant troubles and need towing to a place of repair. If it’s almost time for scheduled maintenance, have your car serviced before a trip. If it has been some time since the vehicle last saw the inside of a repair shop, consider having it thoroughly inspected by a qualified technician who can identify potential problems before they put a damper on any travel plans.

“We want consumers to understand that car maintenance isn’t a whole lot different than taking care of your home,” says Bryan Gregory, Advance Auto Parts‘ manager of consumer education. “You change air filters and vacuum the carpets on a regular basis to keep your home looking new. Why not do the same for your car?”

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