Regular preventive maintenance is the single most important thing you can do as a car owner. However, not everyone agrees on what preventive maintenance is, what you should do, and when you should do it. Let's clear that up, and give you some tips that apply to any vehicle.
Anyone who's ever worked on cars will tell you: Don't ignore preventive maintenance. The basics, like changing your oil, checking your tyre pressure, and having scheduled services are like getting regular checkups at the doctor. They keep you healthy and give you — and the experts — a chance to catch anything serious before it becomes a major problem. With your car, that can save you thousands of dollars.
First, Read Your Owner's Manual
Pay attention to your owner's manual. Regardless of the vehicle you drive, your regular maintenance schedule is inside it, suggesting how often you should change your oil, your filters, any drive or timing belts in your vehicle, and other details.
If you've purchased a new car that includes a long-term warranty, you'll already have a schedule of suggested maintenance. Even with a second-hand vehicle, however, you should set aside time to check the details in the car's manual.
Preventive Maintenance Every Vehicle Needs
Resist the urge to be cheap and skip trips tp the mechanic. Preventive maintenance is one of the biggest ways you can save money — not actively, but in the long term. Spending a little money now on these basics will save you from more costly repairs later on:
- Do your own inspection. It's basic, but give your car a once-over periodically so you catch anything that looks out of the ordinary. Make sure all your lights are working. Check the air pressure in your tyres every month or so (buy a cheap tyre pressure gauge and keep it in the glove box). Doing this is good for your tyres, gets you better mileage, and can save you petrol costs. Listen for any strange sounds, inside and out. Make sure your tyres have enough tread. If anything's out of the ordinary, don't ignore it.
- Learn to check your fluids. Even if you don't ever learn how to change your antifreeze, power steering or coolant liquids, you should learn how to check those fluid levels. In some cases, you can see the tank level directly, but most have gauges or dipsticks you can pull out to check current levels against a notch that indicates optimal levels. Even if your owner's manual doesn't have much to say about checking your transmission fluid or antifreeze, don't be afraid to open the hood and see if you can find it. If you're running low, add more (if you can) or get it changed. Most importantly, never ignore a leak.
- Inspect and get your timing and serpentine belts replaced when necessary. Many people will tell you to get your timing belt replaced every 100,000 kilometres or so, and your serpentine belt replaced every 60,000 kilometres. Again, your owner's manual will offer real numbers for your specific vehicle. Use it as a guideline, and ask your mechanic to inspect the belts when the time approaches. If they're still in good shape, don't bother, but if they're worn out, get them replaced before they fail. If you wait and those belts do fail, you'll break down, and the damaged belt can damage other components, making the repair even more expensive.
- Check your oil and get it changed regularly. Whether your car has a dipstick to check the oil's colour and oil level or the dipstick has been replaced with an electronic gauge, you should know how to check it. Knowing the difference between clean oil and muddy, murky oil will save you a fortune on unnecessary changes and gives you an indication of possible problems. It's hard to make a universal recommendation for how frequently you should change your oil, so check your manual. Don't stick with supposedly "universal" rules such as "every 5000 kilometres" — requirements vary.
- Check your battery and clean the contacts (if necessary). Most batteries these days don't require much maintenance, but you should check regularly to make sure it's not leaking and there's no mineral or other buildup on the contacts. If there is, clean it off with a battery cleaning brush (easily acquired at any auto parts store). Buy one and keep it in the boot. While you're at it, consider buying a cheap battery tester and a jump starter. That way, you won't need to call someone if your battery goes flat.
- Replace your windscreen wipers when the view gets streaky. It may seem silly, but I've known several people who just ignored their wipers until they got them replaced as part of a bigger job. Wipers are cheap and easy to replace yourself. Don't wait until you can barely see through your windscreen. Your visibility is important, and you wouldn't wait until you saw an optometrist to clean your glasses, would you? While you're at it, give your windscreen a good cleaning inside and out — if it's hard to see, the problem may be inside, not out.
- Replace your engine air filter. Getting to the engine air filter may be a little tricky depending on the vehicle you have, but replacing it regularly is important. Your owner's manual will give you an estimate for of frequently you should replace your engine air filter, but if you can get to it, check it. If it's dirty, replace it. If you drive a lot, especially in stop-and-go traffic or have a long commute, your engine air filter will get dirtier faster than someone who drives open roads or only drives around on the weekends. If you need help or your owner's manual doesn't lay out exactly how to do it (although it should), this guide from Jalopnik can help.
- Have your tyres rotated and balanced, and your alignment checked. Your manual will tell you how often to do this, and it's important to do to make sure your tyres wear evenly and your car drives smoothly. You can make your tyres last much longer by getting them rotated and balanced. Your alignment is just as important. If you're fighting your car to keep it straight, that's a bad situation that's easily corrected.
- Change your spark plugs. If your spark plugs are worn out or covered in buildup, your engine isn't working efficiently. That can cost you money in fuel for starters, but it can also lead to a breakdown. It may sound daunting, but in many cases checking and replacing them isn't that difficult. If you don't feel like doing it yourself (or it's a big and complicated job for your vehicle), follow your manual's recommendation and have them changed regularly.
These are maintenance tasks that every vehicle needs, and almost all of them are things you can do yourself. We can't stress enough the importance of checking your owner's manual for anything we may have overlooked here, or anything specific to your vehicle.
If you don't have your manual, you can find it pretty easily online. Check with your manufacturer first — they may well offer a PDF copy on their website. Our friends at Jalopnik turned us on toJust Give Me The Damn Manual, which is a very useful resource. If all else fails, a Google search may produce what you need.
Use Technology To Track Your Maintenance
Keeping tabs on the work you have done to your car can be a pain. I like to keep my receipts in the glove compartment so I can look through them when I'm in the car if I need to, but that's no real filing system — you could do just as well scanning your maintenance receipts and putting them into Dropbox or Evernote, or whatever other note-taking tool you prefer.
If you're looking for a more portable option, here are a few apps to try:
- Road Trip (iOS) is one of the most robust mileage and maintenance tracking apps for iOS available. Tracking fill-ups and kilometres travelled is super-fast, as is adding maintenance history, expenses, and reminders for future work. The app has a tyre log to track summer and winter wear on your tyres, and supports other vehicles like boats and motorcycles as well. You can track as many vehicles as you like, too. The lite version gives you a taste, while the full version will set you back $5.49 for the iPhone or the iPad (it's not a universal app, so you'll have to buy it twice for both platforms.)
- Car Maintenance Reminder (Android) is a free app that will keep track of your fuel efficiency, cost and mileage, and also gives you a place to track all of the maintenance and repairs you have done to your vehicle. You can add notes and costs, and get notifications and reminders when you should get some work done. The free version tracks one vehicle. If you have more than one, the $3.23 pro version is for you.
- aCar (Android) is free, and one of the most popular Android apps for tracking vehicle maintenance and mileage. Tracking fill-ups and mileage is quick, entering in your maintenance history and expenses is easy, and you can even enter specific notes or information about parts you prefer or that your vehicle requires. The app notifies you based on time and/or mileage when you should have work done, and supports custom notifications. aCar Pro adds in multiple languages, home screen widgets for quick access to data and logging, and connections to other popular car apps and websites, and costs $6.99.
Consult A Mechanic When You Need To
Maintenance is important, and much of it is work that you can do yourself, but some things really are left to a professional. Jalopnik cites this list of repairs better left to the experts.
Whatever you do, don't ignore work that needs to be done. This hilarious thread and this post outline some of the most dangerous basics that people tend to overlook on their cars. Delaying preventive maintenance or obvious problems, sounds, or leaks will inevitably lead you to more expensive and time-consuming repairs down the road.