5 car fixes everyone should know how to do

A lot of us have AAA, or roadside assistance through our car’s manufacturer or our insurance company for the major car problems. But you can’t always get help right away, and when you’re stranded even a few minutes can feel like hours. And maybe even for less critical fixes, you’ve just always relied on your car dealer or garage, or a friend or family member to do for you. There are a number of small car repairs—for simple but important things—that everyone can, and really should know how to do.

Change a tire

Most cars come with a jack and a spare tire, so you can replace it on your own if you need to. But many people have never actually replaced a tire. The good news is, it’s not very hard!

The biggest concern is safety. Please, please make sure you’re somewhere safe from other traffic, and any potential robbery or violent crime. If not, call for help and come back later if you need to.

  1. If you’re in a safe spot, make sure your car is turned off, in park, and that the parking brake is set. Turn on your hazard lights.
  2. Assuming you have a lug wrench and a jack, along with your spare (most cars come with this), use the wrench to loosen the lugs on the wheel you’re replacing. Then place the jack under the car at a jack point (your owner’s manual will tell you where those are.) Make sure you’re NOT under the car—you don’t want it to hurt you if it falls off the jack.
  3. Jack the car up and remove the lug nuts. (Put them somewhere safe, so they won’t roll away or get lost.)
  4. Remove the flat tire, and slide the spare onto the lug bolts.
  5. Put on the lug nuts, and hand-tighten them.
  6. Carefully lower the car enough that the tire is touching the ground, but the full weight of the car isn’t yet on the ground.
  7. Tighten the lug nuts completely, using all of your strength and weight.
  8. Lower the car all the way.
Lug wrench and tire, spare, with wheel removed. (Image credit: Nexen Tire)

Then just check the tire pressure (if you have a gauge) and go to a gas station to fill it up more if needed. Remember to take your flat to a tire shop to have it repaired and put back on, so you can put your spare back in the trunk.

For a more short-term fix, products like Fix-a-Flat, or tire plugs, can be a great thing to keep on hand for emergencies. They’re generally not permanent solutions, but they can help you get to safety quickly, so you can deal with a more permanent repair later.

Replace a fuse

Fuses are tiny little pieces of plastic and metal, and they might look really inconsequential, but they can sometimes cause big problems for your car (and therefore, for you) when they stop working.

There are a number of fuses, and they all have different jobs, but if your power locks, power windows, heater or AC, or stereo stop working, there’s a good chance it could be a fuse. Or your interior lighting, or headlights or tail lights might stop working. (You can tell it’s a fuse instead of a bulb if both headlights or tail lights stop working.)

Lots of things can cause fuses to blow, but the most common is overloading the circuit. Just like at home, when you’re running a space heater and then plug in the hairdryer and everything stops working, using too many accessories in at once in your car can blow a fuse. But unlike home electrical circuits, cars don’t have breakers where you can just flip a switch, so you’ll probably have to replace that fuse.

Your car’s owner’s manual will have a map of what all the fuses do, or if you don’t have that you can look it up online. Once you identify the fuse that might be causing the problem, you can pull it out and see if it’s blown. That’s easy to tell, because there’s a little wire in the fuse that will have a visible break if it’s blown.

The fuse on the right is blown. (image credit: My Handy Garage)

If that happens, you can replace it with another fuse of the same amperage and type. (It can be a good idea to have replacement fuses on hand—a set of them is pretty inexpensive and you can get one on Amazon or at your local auto supply store.) If the fuse blows again, there may be a bigger problem you should have a mechanic look into—but if it was simply a matter of running too many things at once, or just that the fuse had gotten old, you should be good to go.

Replace windshield wipers

Replacing your wiper blades may not seem like all that much of an emergency, but sometimes you’ll find that they suddenly aren’t doing their job—and that you really can’t see out your windshield. Then it can actually be pretty critical that you replace them before you do any more driving in the rain. (It’s actually recommended, in any place with wintery conditions, that they be replaced every 6 months. And 12 months is the maximum recommended life span even for less-rainy places.)

Hook-style wiper blade attachment. (image credit: 2CarPros.com)

The good news is that replacing wipers is really simple. Installation for each car may have slight differences, but the general procedure is pretty standard across all makes and models. Here’s an overview, so you have some idea what you’re getting into:

  1. Identify the wipers that fit your car. You can either look at the ones already on it, and see what size each blade is. (Be sure to look at both, because often the driver’s and passenger’s side wipers are different sizes.) You can also go online to most auto supply stores’ sites, or manufacturers like Bosch and Michelin, to put in your car’s make and model year and see what size wipers you need.
  1. Go online or to your local auto supply store and buy the wipers in the size you need.
  1. Look at the instructions in your car’s owner’s manual or on the packaging for your new wipers. There’s generally a hook, a clip, or a tab to release the blade, and then attach the new one.
  1. After you install the new wipers, it’s a good idea to test them, to make sure they’re moving smoothly across your windshield and clearing it effectively.

Replace a battery

If your car won’t start, and there’s no obvious reason the battery died (e.g., you didn’t leave any lights on), your battery might be dead. Simply jump starting it will often do the trick, but if the battery has too little power to be successfully jump started, or if it dies again soon after that, it’s likely you need a new battery. (They often need to be replaced as soon as 2-3 years!)

You can look at your existing battery to see what type it is, and then go to your local auto parts store or online to get a new one. 

First make sure your car is turned off, in park, and that your parking brake is set.

When you open your hood and look at the battery (some cars have a plastic cover you might need to remove to get to it), you’ll probably see a red cap and/or a “+” on one of the terminals (the part of the battery that connects to your car via a cable.) That’s your positive terminal. The other one, which is either black or unmarked, is the negative terminal.

Start with the negative terminal first. You’ll need a wrench the right size to unscrew the nut at the terminal. Loosen it just enough to remove the cable from the terminal. Make sure the end of the cable doesn’t touch the battery or anything metal. (Ideally, put a towel or a piece of cardboard under it.)

Do the same thing with the positive terminal.

Remove whatever clips, straps, or retaining systems are holding the battery in place. You might want to take a picture of it with your phone first, so you can remember where everything goes. (Be sure to put those pieces somewhere safe, where they won’t fall into the engine bay or otherwise get lost!) Then, pull the battery out.

Slide the new battery in, making sure that its terminals match up with the right cables (positive to positive, negative to negative)

Replace the retaining clips or straps that hold it in place.

Connect the positive (red) cable first. Replace the red cap, if there is one. 

Then connect the negative terminal. 

Make sure the battery seems secure, and then start up the car!

Replace a headlight bulb

The headlight bulbs in your car are typically easy to replace… but here are a few tips:

  1. Identify the right replacement bulb for your car. You can look it up in your car’s owner’s manual, or online, or go to your local auto parts store. (Those stores usually have big catalogs where you can look up bulb types by the make and model of your car. But it’s usually easier to just ask the people who work there!)
  2. Once you have the right bulb, you’ll want to open your hood. You’ll usually see a sort of plug with some wires going into the back of the headlight housing. There’s usually a metal or plastic tab or clip that you can press or squeeze, and then pull out. 
  3. Once you pull out the connector, you’ll see the bulb. And you’ll be able to tell how it’s held in. Usually, it’s with clips that just need to be squeezed to release. (Take care not to break the clps. Slow and gentle is always the best strategy here.) 
  4. Pull off (or unscrew) the old bulb. 
  5. Without touching the glass with your fingers (the oils from your skin can shorten the bulb’s life if they get on its surface), plug in/screw in the new bulb. Then, it’s just a matter of fitting the bulb mount back into its space, and reattaching the clips to hold it in.
plastic retaining clips in a headlight housing.

These are relatively simple fixes, and the dealer or auto supply shop will do most of them for you… but it can be very convenient and empowering to just do it yourself, right when you need it!

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