Auto Expert: Car Maintenance: Can You Really Do It Yourself Anymore?

Car Maintenance: Can You Really Do It Yourself Anymore?

For most of you, when you open your hood, all you see is a big plastic cover that keeps you from seeing anything pertinent related to your engine. Remember the days when you could see the spark plug wires, there was enough space to see around under the hood, and you thought you recognized a few things whether you knew how to fix them or not?

Today, it’s not so easy. Opening the hood, you’re met with very little exposure to anything that would allow you to do maintenance yourself. I have a theory about this, and it’s the idea that the manufacturers think you shouldn’t touch anything you don’t know about. Vehicles are so technologically advanced today that you need a degree just to work on them. Gone are the days when a big wrench and a couple of screwdrivers could fix anything. Automobiles have so many computer systems now that your main tool is usually a computer or a scan tool. I know many technicians who do not even get their hands dirty because their skill is in the area of being able to diagnose problems.

Sure you still need to have brakes, alignments and tires changed, but the real skill is in diagnosing engine problems, and this can be difficult. So that brings me to the point of, what can you do yourself? If you open your hood and look closely you will see that there are a variety of things that are marked with words or symbols to tell you what they are. These are the things that you are free to do yourself. You can also look in your owner’s manual to find the items that the manufacturer feels are safe components for you to fix yourself.

The most common items under the hood are the washer fluid bottle, power steering reservoir, oil cap, oil dipstick, battery, fuse box, coolant/antifreeze reservoir, and the brake fluid reservoir. Some automatic transmissions may still have a dipstick as well, but more and more manufacturers are getting away from even providing those. Make sure you look closely at these symbols before you ever add any fluids to a reservoir. I will never forget how unhappy the person was who added antifreeze to their washer solvent!

As always, I will tell you to consult your owner’s manual before you attempt to do any maintenance yourself. Many manufacturers require that you buy your products from them. This means items like coolant/antifreeze and power steering fluid must be bought from the dealership. You may find that your vehicle will not operate properly if you choose to use something else and it may void your warranty.

Always use windshield washer solvent and not plain water. Not only will it do a better job at cleaning, but it won’t freeze in colder climates. Freezing can cause the bottle to crack and break and ruin the sprayer motor. Power steering fluid is in a closed system. This means you can add it if it is below the “full” line, but you need to get it looked at because you probably have a leak. Oil should be checked when the engine is not running. The engine can be hot or cold, but may need to sit a moment if it has just been driven. When you shut off the engine all of the oil drains back down to the oil pan. The dipstick is checking the level of the oil in the pan, so we want it all to be there. While the engine is running the oil is circulating through the engine and the dipstick will not give you an accurate reading. On the dipstick there will usually be 2 notches, holes or a hatched area to read the oil level. Pull out the dipstick and wipe it off. Insert the dipstick in a second time and see where the oil is on the stick. It should fall between the marks. If it is below the bottom mark, then oil should be added. Be careful when adding oil. Only put in a little at a time and continually check with the dipstick. You do not want to overfill the oil. You should see a cap with an oilcan or the word oil, on the top of the engine. This is where the oil is added. Make sure that you check in your owner’s manual as to the type of oil your vehicle requires.

Coolant/antifreeze can be added as well. Make sure that you never open the radiator cap even if the engine is cold. This system is pressurized and when you open the cap you introduce air into the system, which can cause it to overheat. You should always add coolant to the reservoir bottle. This will be a plastic bottle with a small hose connecting it to the radiator. Again, check your owner’s manual as to the specific type of coolant/antifreeze for your vehicle and always make sure it is a 50/50 mix of coolant and water. Only add to the full line and have it checked if you find yourself adding coolant often. You may be leaking or burning coolant if the reservoir is frequently empty.

Battery maintenance is important as well. The terminals should be clean at all times. If you find that there is a white powdery build up, this can be cleaned with a toothbrush and a 50/50 mix of water and baking soda. Don’t use the toothbrush to brush your teeth afterward however! If you need to remove the cables to clean them, always disconnect the negative terminal first and then the positive. This will prevent any sparks. When re-connecting, attach the positive cable first and then the negative. Otherwise these batteries are pretty much maintenance free. The days of adding water are gone. A well maintained battery may last 4 to 5 years.

Oil changes are best left to the shop. I only say this because it can be dangerous to lift the car properly. Under no circumstances should you use the jack for the vehicle as a way to hold up the vehicle while changing the oil. They are not safe enough to use while climbing underneath a vehicle. They should strictly be used for changing a tire only. You must also be careful not to spill oil and it must be taken in to be recycled. You also need the proper tools to remove the drain plug and the oil filter. I tell people that for $25-30, it is worth it to let someone else do it!

Air filters are usually easy to change yourself however. Locate is under the hood, usually under a big plastic cover with clips or screws holding it closed. Go to any automotive store and by looking your vehicle up in the product book or by asking for assistance you should be able to find it. You can always go to the dealership to purchase the filter as well. Check the filter about every 15,000 miles or so. If it looks dirty, replace it.

If you find that an electrical item is not working in your vehicle I would always advise people to check their fuses first. Look in your owner’s manual to find out where the fuse is for the component. Remove the fuse and check to see if the filament is broken. Replace the fuse if this is the case. Make sure to only replace it with the size fuse that is recommended. If the fuse blows again or the fuse is found to be okay, then you will need to take the vehicle in for service.

While this may not seem like as much as you would like to be able to fix yourself, it is probably all that you “should” do. Doing something today on your vehicle that you do not understand can become a costly lesson. If you can read about it in your owner’s manual, most likely it is something you can do on your own. Don’t be afraid to get dirty once in a while, but leave the technical stuff to the trained professionals.

Lori Johnson
Ladies, Start Your Engines! LLC
Empowering Women with Automotive Knowledge

Reprinted from the AskPatty website.