Car maintenance you can do yourself

Regularly and properly maintaining your car is just as important to its operation as filling it up with gas. For most car-owners though, getting their vehicle serviced is a chore, so in my never-ending effort to make car ownership more simple and enjoyable, I’ve compiled this list of maintenance items that you actually need, and how often you need to do them. For your reading pleasure, I’ve broken down the list in sections categorized in order of how regularly you need to have these things done to your car.

Regular Maintenance

Engine oil is a critical element of automotive maintenance.
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Engine and oil filter: ​Changing your engine oil is one of the most important and regularly performed maintenance items for your car. Engine oil is designed to lubricate all of the moving parts inside your engine, allowing it to run smoothly with minimal friction. So, it’s best to change it out often in order to keep your engine in top shape. On newer cars that take synthetic oil, its best to drain and fill every 5,000 – 10,000 miles, depending on what your owner’s manual recommends.

My car’s owner’s manual recommends 12,000 miles, but I stick to a 5,000 mile interval. That choice is up to you, though shorter intervals are generally better. Going hand in hand with engine oil is the engine oil filter, which should be done alongside the oil every time it is changed.

Changing your oil is actually pretty easy to do at home, if you have a little time and want to do it yourself. Just make sure you have all the supplies (you can pick them up at any auto supply store, or even order them online if you don’t want to go out shopping!) You can check out this helpful video to show you all the steps.

Cabin and engine air filter: T​he engine air filter is in place to prevent road dust and debris from getting inside the engine. It plays an important part in keeping your engine healthy, but it’s luckily very cheap and easy to replace—you can get one at your local auto supply store or online, and follow the instructions in your car’s owner’s manual or this general set of instructions. Just make sure you the get the right filter for your make and model.

I recommend changing it out for a new one every 3rd oil change. The cabin air filter, similarly, prevents road dust and debris from entering the cabin via the climate control system. For simplicity’s sake, I recommend changing it along with the engine air filter, though this can take longer intervals if you so choose.

Semi-Regular Maintenance

Brake systems have a lot of wearable parts to check and maintain
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Brake fluid: ​The brakes in your car are controlled by a hydraulic system, which of course requires the use of fluid. Brake fluid goes through a heat cycle every time you drive your car, and this can cause it to break down overtime. Additionally, condensation can form in brake lines, which can water down the fluid, lowering its boiling point.

Because many cars use different types of brake fluids in different systems, it’s best to stick to the owners manual for this one, which typically recommends intervals between 20,000 and 60,000 miles.

This is a fairly easy project that anyone can do. You just need brake fluid, a kitchen baster (though you obviously can’t use it in the kitchen again after this), and a brake fluid test kit. Here’s how to do it.

Brake pads and rotors: ​Your brake pads and rotors are the pieces that rub against each other creating the friction used to slow down your car every time you press the brake. When worn, they can create a screeching or squeaking noise, but its usually best to replace pads and rotors before this happens. 60,000 miles is the interval typically used by most manufacturers. Also, a quick tip: don’t have your rotors resurfaced, just have new ones installed.

Changing your own brake pads and rotors is a bit more advanced, and requires some specialized tools, but definitely a project you can do at home if you have some basic mechanical skills and are comfortable with these types of things. (It can be a great way to save some money long term, after you’ve acquired the tools.) Here’s an explanation of what’s involved and how to do it.

Coolant: ​Coolant is a mix of water and cooling agents that flows through your engine and radiator to keep engine temperatures down. Like brake fluid, it can break down and get watered down over time. It’s best to do a flush of the cooling system every 50,000 – 60,000 miles. This is also a great DIY project, even if you’re a beginner when it comes to working on your car. Here’s how to do it.

Spark plugs and ignition coils: ​As you know, every rotation of the crankshaft is powered by a tiny explosion, for which the spark plug is responsible for generating. If your spark plugs aren’t working properly, the engine can misfire. Some spark plugs are designed to last up to 100,000 miles, but since they are so cheap and easy to replace, I recommend a 60,000 mile interval.

If you want to do this yourself, you just need a few basic tools. It’s a good way to save money because it’s not terribly difficult if you have a few hours to devote to it.

Transmission Fluid: L​ike engine oil, transmission fluid is designed to reduce friction among the many moving parts inside your vehicle’s transmission. This is a very important job, and so it’s best to keep the fluid in as good of shape as possible. For this reason, on automatic transmissions, I recommend a 60,000 mile interval. Manual transmission vehicles (good on you if this applies) require a shorter interval, usually 30,000 miles. Also, a quick note on automatic transmission fluid: some manufacturers claim that the fluid in the transmission is “lifetime.”

However, there is no such thing as a lifetime fluid. Dealers and manufacturers just say this because they don’t want to have to do this fluid change, which can be expensive, under new car warranties or maintenance plans. This is the same reason that leads them to recommend 12,000 mile oil change intervals, though the engine is much better off using a shorter interval.

In my case, the manufacturer of the transmission in my car is different than the manufacturer of the car itself, i.e. BMW uses a transmission designed and built by ZF, not one designed in house by BMW. BMW says the fluid is lifetime, but the manufacturer of the transmission itself recommends a 60,000 mile interval.

Changing transmission fluid yourself can be a bit of a mess (draining out the old stuff), but if you’re comfortable jacking up your car, you just need a few parts to do it and can save a fair amount of money doing it at home.

Longer Interval Maintenance

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Timing belt: T​he timing belt is responsible for keeping the crankshaft and camshaft(s) in sync, opening and closing exhaust and intake valves when they should and shouldn’t be respectively. If the timing belt fails, it can lead to catastrophic engine failure, so you want to make sure you replace it before this happens.

I recommend a precautionary 75,000 mile interval. The belt very well may perform past 100,000 miles, but you don’t want to test your luck on an old belt. Some cars, however, use a timing chain instead of a belt. Some manufacturers pull off timing chains better than others, so depending on what make of car you have, you may or may not need to have the chain and guides replaced. For that one, you may have to do some independent research.

Changing a timing belt yourself is an advanced task, and you’ll need some specialized tools. If you’re experienced with working on your own car, you can do it—and can save substantial money, because most of the cost of replacement is labor. Here’s how to do it, so you can see whether you want to take this on yourself or pay a mechanic to do it.

Coolant passages: C​oolant gets to where it needs to be via various rubber passages or hoses. These can become brittle over time and begin to crack due to the heat generated by the engine. When this happens, they are more likely to leak. For that reason, I again recommend a precautionary coolant passage and hose change by 90,000 miles.

If you have a shop manual for your car and some basic tools, replacing a radiator hose is definitely something you can do yourself. Here’s some info on what you need and how to do it.

Folks, that is as simple and complete a list as I think I can generate! Hopefully it has been helpful in relieving some of the intimidation often associated with car maintenance. Just remember that every vehicle is different, so be sure to check your owners manual if you’re looking for information specific to your car.

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