20 Aug 2013

9 ways to keep you and your car in good health

Eat healthily, sleep well and enjoy alcohol in moderation. We’ve all heard the preventative maintenance advice for humans. It’s really easy to do. Also tedious. And then embarrassing, expensive and awkward when the time comes to fix the problems that result from ignoring it. There is standard preventative maintenance advice for cars, too, which is about as exciting to follow. If you don’t want to get the same look from your mechanic that the GP gives you on your annual check-up, though, it’s worth a few minutes every now and then.

Broken down Alfa Romeo

These checks are all pretty simple, but you might want to have an owner’s manual to hand. If you don’t have one, an internet search for your make and model will give you the details you need.

1. Coolant stops your car from overheating. Run out and your engine melts, seizing up into the equivalent of a very large paperweight. Check your coolant levels every 3,000 miles or so. Or when the relevant light goes on – that’s a dead giveaway too. Open the bonnet and find the radiator – usually right at the front of the car. The coolant is stored in a plastic tank next to it. Make sure it’s up to the right level, marked on the outside of the reservoir. Add more coolant using a funnel if not – to the reservoir, not the radiator itself. Have a drink yourself, from the tap this time. It’s good for your kidneys, digestion and skin.

2. Oil makes sure your engine runs smoothly, and should be changed every 3,000 miles or so. Run out of this and your engine will grind itself into oblivion, presenting you with a large bill and a very long walk home as it checks out. Find the dipstick – a little metal loop at the end of a long wire – and pull it out. Wipe it clean with a paper towel. You’ll see marks on the end for the right level of oil. Now replace it fully and pull it out again. If the oil doesn’t show inside the markings then find the oil cap on the engine and use a funnel to add another quart. You yourself should avoid engine oil and stick to the healthy polyunsaturates, with plenty of fish oil, which is high in Omega-3.

3. Washer fluid is used to keep the windscreen clean. Like you, if you don’t wash your windscreen will get dirty and become encrusted with dead flies. Ok, it’s not as dramatic as running out of oil but who wants to be dirty? The washer fluid is kept in a reservoir under the bonnet and is usually coloured blue. If it looks low then fill it up. You can often buy fluid to dilute with water. Make sure you buy the right kind for the season – in winter you’ll need more washer fluid. Otherwise it will turn to ice on contact with the windscreen, and then you really are in a world of trouble.

4. The air filter removes the dust and grit from the air that is taken into the engine. Think of it as nasal hair for cars. Like your own nasal hair, it needs checking at least every month to make sure it’s not clogged. It’s held in a large assembly unit – exactly where will depend on your engine type. The assembly should be held together with clips or wing nuts. Remove these and take out the filter. If it’s very dirty then replace it – make sure the new filter is the same dimensions and has the same fittings. Use it as a reminder to trim your own nasal hair at the same time and you’ll avoid socially awkward situations.

5. Belts serve various purposes and should be inspected monthly to ensure they are capable of keeping your trousers up, fans turning, superchargers working, and so on. If any of these fail at the wrong time you could be faced with embarrassment and even arrest. On your car, twist the belt so you can see the underside. Look out for worn, damaged or shiny belts, which indicates that slippage has polished the surface. Find the longest free expanse of each belt and push down on it. It should give about half an inch. Any more and the belt is too loose; less and it’s too tight. Refer to the manual for how to change belts yourself, though this is a job you might prefer to leave to a garage. If you need to change your own belt, consult the internet or ask your mum.

6. Transmission fluid. This lubrication keeps the transmission from wearing out. Sometimes there aren’t suitable analogies so we’ll just cut to the chase and tell you how to keep your car’s transmission fluid at the right levels. Be warned: when making transmission checks ensure the engine is turned off and never put your finger in the transmission fill plug hole. Find the plug – the car will need to be jacked up and level. Clean the surrounding area: you don’t want dirt in your transmission. Use a wrench to remove the plug. It should be immediately obvious if you need more transmission fluid – it will usually leak from the hole or be visible. If not, consult your manual for how to top it up.

7. Battery. The best way to check your battery is to look at it. Like you, if it’s clearly old, worn, cracked, corroded or leaking, it’s time for a change. Wear safety glasses while you’re inspecting the battery, since acid or electrolyte spills aren’t going to make you any prettier. Women like scars but large areas of raw flesh are a turn-off. Pry off the vent cap or cell cover and check the electrolyte level – if it’s below the level of the plates then chuck some more distilled water in. Carefully. With a plastic funnel. Otherwise you’ll create a short and then life could get quite interesting. And brief.

8. Brake fluid. Not one people typically spend much time thinking about, until it’s gone. Then they spend a short time thinking about it, followed by a long period in hospital. Locate the master cylinder reservoir. The type of reservoir, position and how to open them varies from car to car. Consult your manual or the web rather than putting it off for another day, because working brakes are quite important. Top the reservoir up to the mark or within a quarter-inch of the top. Good job. Now go and have a celebratory drink yourself, in moderation of course.

9. Power steering fluid. If your car doesn’t have power steering fluid, it’s for one of two reasons. One is that you don’t have power steering. In which case congratulations, you’ve reached the end of this happy-go-lucky guide to preventative maintenance, auto and human. Go and have yourself a green smoothie and give yourself a pat on the back. The other reason is that you’ve got power steering but have run out of fluid, in which case you don’t deserve any kind of smoothie, let alone a green one. The effects of low fluid levels on the power steering are a lot like what happens to you without your morning coffee: noise, lethargy and general irritability. Find the pump reservoir under the bonnet (make sure the engine is off) and use the dipstick to check the level. The fluid should sit between the ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ markings – there are two because the fluid expands when it’s hot. Top it up, replace the dipstick and go for a 10-mile run to remind yourself not to let it happen again.

Article by Justin Smith, founder of BreakerLink, an online used car part location specialist with links to 100’s of breaker yards across the UK.