By Gene And Katie Hamilton
6 Basic Routine Inspections
Your car is an expensive investment so its care and feeding are important. Read through these six routines to keep your car working at its peak performance. And become familiar with the owner’s manual to know specific requirements for your car and when to schedule routine service. We talked with Lori Johnson of Ladies, Start Your Engines who is an automotive writer and former technician and service manager, and teaches women about what car owners should know.
- Check the tire pressure. Properly inflated tires not only last longer, they deliver better gas mileage. Buy a tire pressure gauge ($3-$12) and check your tire pressure regularly. The best time to do this is in the morning before you drive the car or after the tires have cooled down for a couple of hours after a drive. The proper inflation pressure is usually printed on a sticker on the end of the driver side door. Most car owner’s manuals have this information in the specification section, or look on the sidewall of the tire itself. Your car may have a Tire Pressure Monitoring System with an indicator light on the dashboard to alert you of low tire pressure. Use this system as a backup, be proactive with your tire pressure, they will last longer.
- Check the battery. See that the tray beneath the battery is secure and the brackets holding it in place are not corroded. Cars with standard batteries have six small inspection caps that you can remove to check the level of the liquid in the battery, the electrolyte. It is important to maintain the level of the electrolyte above the top of the battery plates. Add distilled water to the battery, if necessary, to top it off. But don’t overfill the battery, add water until the electrolyte reaches the bottom of the inspection ports. Some cars have maintenance-free batteries that are sealed closed so you can’t check the level of the electrolyte.
- Check the S-belt, also called a serpentine belt, which snakes through the front of the engine and connects the cooling, air conditioning and charging systems in the car. It’s a black belt with ridges along its sides and about 1-inch wide. If you notice worn spots or cracks take it to a mechanic for replacement. Older cars have a fan belt that runs around a pulley on the engine to the fan and alternator. Inspect this belt for signs of aging like cracks or fraying.
- How’s the engine oil? "It's like the life blood of your vehicle. If your oil is clean it will keep your engine running with less problems for many years. My 1988 Toyota truck with 298,000 miles is testament to that," says Johnson. All engines consume some oil so by checking the oil level on a regular basis you will get a good reading on the condition of the engine. There is a dipstick that extends into the crankcase of the engine and its end rests in the oil reservoir in the oil pan under the engine. The dip stick is marked with the normal oil level and a low oil mark below it. Maintain the oil level between these marks. It’s not necessary to top off the oil if it is below the normal mark, wait until it reaches at least half way between the two marks. Then add a full quart because it’s a waste of oil to overfill the engine since it will just burn off the excess.
- Engine coolant is another vital fluid that should be inspected on a regular basis. Under normal conditions the coolant level remains constant. But if a leak develops in a hose, circulation pump or even in the head gasket, small amounts of coolant (anti-freeze) can leak out with no telltale sign. The coolant in a hot engine is under pressure so never remove the cap unless the engine is cold or has several hours to cool down. If coolant is needed, check the owner’s manual to make sure you purchase the correct type. Modern engines are made from several different types of metals and to prevent internal corrosion only the recommended type should be added.
- Check the level of windshield washer fluid. Some cars have an indicator on the instrument panel that alerts the driver when the level is low, others don’t. When buying fluid, read the label to choose the correcttype for winter conditions where you live. For example, you’ll see "For use in temperatures to 0 degrees" or "Effective to -25 degrees F" listed on the container.