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Understanding Car Care


Depending upon how you think of your automobile, transportation, an asset, an investment, will determine how you care for it. Not everyone is skilled at how an engine or transmission works, and for those that don’t, car care may only include keeping the interior and exterior clean. For those who rely upon their mode of transport and take pride in ownership of an automobile, taking care of this investment, no matter how small, is key in maintaining its reliability.

There are multiple aspects to automobile maintenance, most of which contribute to safety on the roads, longer vehicle life, and higher value when it’s time to sell or trade.


Brake fluid – this brief video shows what a master brake cylinder looks like and though they are located in different places under the hood of different cars, your owner’s manual can show you the exact location. Proper working brakes are a number one safety factor in driving and the fluid should be checked monthly.

Antifreeze – most people are unaware of this fluid’s purpose. While it maintains temperature levels in the engine coolant system from either freezing or boiling, it also eliminates rust build-up. The water-antifreeze ratio should always be 50:50. This keeps the engine from running too hot and using antifreeze prolongs the life of the radiator.

Transmission fluid – the automatic transmission is what changes gears in the engine without having to do it manually. This convenient feature on most cars today is one of the costliest to replace if it goes out. Keeping the fluid clean and at proper levels is vital to the transmission as well as the engine system, as it acts as a lubricant for the moving parts inside and as a coolant. Like most fluids, it should be checked monthly and with normal driving, it should be changed every 30,000 to 60, 0000 miles. For more aggressive drivers, the fluid can be changed every 15,000 miles. Failure to keep the fluid clean means the metal shavings and dirt which build up in the fluid are being injected throughout the transmission and causing damage.

Oil – engine oil is what lubricates the moving parts inside of it and reduces the friction between those parts. It also picks up the dirt and metal shavings from this friction and movement that can damage the engine. Keeping the oil clean also increases gas mileage. While most new cars suggest oil changes every 4,000-5,000 miles, some cars burn oil and that is why the oil level must be checked between changes. By using the dipstick to monitor the level and reading the owner’s manual for how many quarts the particular engine should have in it, oil can be added to maintain the correct level.

Windshield wiper fluid – windshield wipers are another piece of safety equipment installed on all cars. These help the driver see in harsh weather conditions such as rain, snow, sleet, or ice. While some car owners think water is good enough, the use of wiper fluid removes any residue dropped onto or built up on the windshield, which is the driver’s eyesight while on the road. One of the easiest fluids to add, the solvent in the fluid not only cleans but helps prolong the life of the wiper blades.

Power steering fluid – the least costly of auto fluids, this is one of the most important, as it maintains the car’s ability to steer. This hydraulic fluid should be checked monthly and unless you are adept at auto mechanics, this should be done by a professional. There are many vacuum hoses and the pump itself is under pressure and must maintain the correct level of pressure. Keeping the fluid levels correct and changing it when it is dirty prevents damage to the power steering pump and associated lines and hoses.

Additional Maintenance Items

Belts and hoses – there are several belts and hoses under the hood of every car which must be checked for cracks or other damage that can cause then to snap and break. The timing belt is a central part of running the engine and when broken causes the engine to stop immediately, leaving a driver stranded. There are drive belts connected to the power steering pump, the air conditioner compressor, cooling fan, and more. These notched rubber bands operate the many parts connected to the engine and should be checked periodically for wear. Radiator and heater hoses are used for air flow between the engine and the radiator and heater block. These should be checked at least every six months to avoid engine overheating.

Windshield wiper blades – with temperature change, use, and exposure to the elements, these rubber blades should be checked twice a year to ensure they can quickly clear the windshield for safe driving during extreme weather conditions.

Lights – in addition to head lights, tail lights, and brake lights, a car has interior and alerting lights. While interior lights seldom go out, replacing a bulb in the receptacles is an easy task. Exterior lights are vital to a driver in seeing at night and in harsh weather conditions and ensures other drivers see you. These lights should be checked for proper clarity and operation, as well as alignment. If head lights are misaligned even slightly, it affects the driver’s ability to see clearly what is in front of the car.

Tires – “so much is riding on your tires” is more than a catchy ad slogan. Tires are the buffer between the road and everything in the car, including drivers and passengers. Tire pressure is affected by change in temperature and failure to ride on them with too much or too little pressure is a safety hazard and damages the tires. Checking pressure should be performed monthly. Alignment is another checkpoint for tires that not only makes the car travel in a straight line to its destination, but misalignment can also damage the tires. Tread life is usually rated by the manufacturer but various circumstances and driving conditions can shorten or lengthen this estimate. It is important to get new tires once the tread wear falls below the recommended level. Failure to maintain all aspects of tire care can cause blow-outs and flat tires, which in themselves, are a road hazard.

Shock absorbers – shocks are the part of the vehicle that enable a comfortable ride, allowing the suspension system of the car to absorb the impact of dips and bumps in the road rather than the passengers. If you’ve ever ridden in a four-wheel drive truck and felt more of a bounce after hitting a bump than when riding in a sedan, you have felt the ride of a stiff or tight suspension. The shock absorbers are the impact buffer for those in the vehicle and do contribute to a more comfortable ride. However, other factors which can be attributed to shock condition are body sway in cornering, nose of the car dipping upon stopping, and delay in stopping after braking. Each of these can be a hazard and alert the driver to poor shock condition.

Exhaust – the exhaust system is made up of the exhaust manifold, oxygen sensor, catalytic converter, muffler, and exhaust pipe. These components work together to rid the vehicle of the gasses which result from the burning of fuel and air in the engine’s combustion chamber. The fact that these gases are toxic to people and the environment is a strong case for keeping the exhaust system in top shape. Not only is there danger of these gasses entering the passenger compartment and affecting driver reaction and awareness, but loss of power, reduction in fuel economy, and many other side effects result in operating a vehicle with a poor exhaust system.

Additional Resources

Car Manuals Online – if you do not have a manual for your automobile, Edmunds provides them via automaker links.

Samarins – is an online auto resource offering maintenance tips, articles, and pictures. They also provide extensive information on researching purchase of a new or used vehicle.

Car Maintenance Schedules – offers tips and information on how to sort out the conflicting maintenance checks prescribed by auto owners versus those in the auto care industry.

Sympatico – is Microsoft’s website dealing exclusively with automobiles. Search for model, make, or questions to view articles.

Auto Maintenance Pro - is a software for Windows which mainstreams auto owners documentation of expenses and maintenance schedules.

Autohaus – a leader in discount auto parts, this site is helpful for those who know little about car care and need to double check a repair shop’s advice and for the do-it-yourselfer that needs additional information on caring for and repairing a car’s engine system.

Motorweek Car Care – this site offers a checklist for complete preventive auto maintenance and articles for seasonal auto preparation.

Two Car Pros – is an online auto help website featuring ask a question, videos, manufacturer questions and answers, auto manuals, and much more for researching car repairs and maintenance.

10W40 – is a free, member-based website offering assistance by professional mechanics and a community of car owners. A point system is used to encourage help from other members with technical knowledge on a specific car question.

Chilton – the number one aftermarket auto manual publisher dedicates its website to do it yourself auto maintenance and repair. Extensive information and diagrams are available to assist in maintaining a top running vehicle.

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