The Preventive Maintenance You Need to Do On Your Car (and When)
Regular preventive maintenance is probably the single thing you can do as a car owner to keep your ride happy and save money on repairs in the future. However, not everyone agrees on what preventive maintenance is, what you should do, and when you should do it. Let’s clear that up, and give you some tips that’ll apply to any vehicle.
Anyone who’s ever worked on cars or spent a ton of money getting their car repaired will tell you: Don’t ignore preventive maintenance. The basics, like changing your oil, checking your tire pressure, and getting scheduled inspections and work done are like getting regular checkups at the doctor. They keep you healthy and give you—and the experts—a chance to catch anything serious before it becomes a major problem. With your car, that can save you thousands.
First, Read Your Owner’s Manual
Pay attention to your owner’s manual. Regardless of the vehicle you drive, your regular maintenance schedule is inside it, and you’ll never fall for old car myths like, “You should change your oil every 3,000 miles,” (unless of course, your manual says you should, and odds are it doesn’t). You will, however, discover how often your manufacturer really does suggest you change your oil (it can vary widely by vehicle), your filters, any drive or timing belts in your vehicle, and more. You’ll even find out whether you’re putting the right gas in your vehicle or whether you’re using the right kind of oil in the first place.
Seriously—you wouldn’t fire up a complicated piece of technology or a massive new home appliance without checking the manual to make sure you know what you’re doing. Most car lovers already know how important this is, but it’s still important even for people don’t consider themselves interested in how their car works. If you’re using the wrong oil, for example, or filling a car that calls for higher octane fuel with the lowest octane stuff you can buy, you may run the risk of voiding your warranty, and worse, causing damage that’ll cost more to fix than you’d save by using the cheap stuff.
Preventive Maintenance Every Vehicle Needs
When we covered the ways you can save serious money on car repair, more than a few people pointed out that preventive maintenance is probably one of the biggest ways you can save money—not actively, but in the long term. Spending a little money now on these basics will save you from more costly repairs later on:
- Learn to check your fluids. Even if you don’t ever learn how to change your antifreeze, power steering, coolant, or even your wiper fluid (although seriously, don’t let someone charge you to change wiper fluid), you should learn how to check those fluid levels. In some cases, you can see the tank level directly, but most have gauges or dipsticks you can pull out to check current levels against a notch that indicates optimal levels. Even if your owner’s manual doesn’t have much to say about checking your transmission fluid or antifreeze, don’t be afraid to open the hood and see if you can find it. If you’re running low, add more (if you can) or get it changed. Most importantly, never ignore a leak.
- Inspect and get your timing and serpentine belts replaced when necessary. Many people will tell you to get your timing belt replaced every 60,000 miles or so, and your serpentine belt replaced every 40,000 miles, give or take. Again, your owner’s manual will offer real numbers for your type of vehicle. If you can’t find the manual, look around online. You’ll probably find the actual recommendation for your car. Use it as a guideline, and ask your mechanic to inspect the belts when it gets time to replace them mileage-wise. If they’re still in good shape, don’t bother, but if they’re worn out, get them replaced before they fail. If you wait and those belts do fail, you’ll break down, and the damaged belt can damage other accessories, making the repair even more expensive.
- Check your oil and get it changed regularly. Whether your car has a dipstick to check the oil’s color and oil level or the dipstick has been replaced with an electronic gauge, you should know how to check it. Knowing the difference between clean oil and muddy, murky oil will save you a ton on unnecessary changes and gives you a way to tell if something’s wrong with your engine (e.g. the oil looks terrible but you just had it changed). It’s hard to make a universal recommendation for how frequently you should change your oil, but the answer is—as we mentioned—in your owner’s manual. Don’t just blindly follow the 3,000 mile myth though—for most vehicles it can be as high as 10,000 miles, depending on the oil your vehicle calls for (something else that’s in the manual).
- Check your battery and clean the contacts (if necessary). Most batteries these days don’t require much in the way of maintenance, but you should know where it is and check it to make sure it’s not leaking and there’s no mineral or other buildup on the contacts. If there is, clean it off with a battery cleaning brush. It will set you back a couple of bucks at any auto parts or department store. Buy one and keep it in the trunk. While you’re at it, consider buying a cheap battery tester or jump starter. You’ll never need to call someone or wait for AAA (or a friendly passer-by) to give you a jump.
- Replace your windshield wipers when the view gets streak-y. It may seem silly, but I’ve known several people who just ignored their wipers until they got them replaced as part of a bigger job. Wipers are cheap and easy to replace yourself. Don’t wait until you can barely see through your windshield. Your visibility is important, and you wouldn’t wait until you saw an optometrist to clean your glasses, would you? While you’re at it, give your windshield a good cleaning inside and out—if it’s hard to see, the problem may be inside, not out.
- Replace your cabin air filter. Replacing a cabin air filter is probably one of the easiest things you can do to keep your car comfortable. Most vehicles make the cabin air filter easily accessible, and replacing it is as easy as opening a box. You can get a fitting filter at any auto parts store. It may not be critical to your car’s operation, but it’s easy, it makes the ride more pleasant, and it’s a repair you’ll never have to pay someone else to do.
- Replace your engine air filter. Getting to the engine air filter may be a little trickier depending on the vehicle you have, but replacing it regularly is important. Your owner’s manual will give you a mileage estimate for how frequently you should replace your engine air filter, but if you can get to it, check it. If it’s dirty, replace it. If you drive a ton, especially in stop-and-go traffic or have a long commute, your engine air filter may get dirtier faster than someone who drives open roads or only drives around on the weekends. If you need help or your owner’s manual doesn’t lay out exactly how to do it (although it should), this guide from Jalopnik can help.
- Get your tires rotated and balanced, and your alignment checked. Your manual will tell you how often to do this, and it’s important to do to make sure your tires wear evenly and your car drives smoothly. You can make your tires—which are expensive to replace all at once, by the way, take it from someone who’s done it several times—last much longer by getting them rotated and balanced. Your alignment is just as important. If you’re fighting your car to keep it straight, that’s a bad situation that’s easily corrected.
- Change your spark plugs. If your spark plugs are worn out or covered in buildup, your engine isn’t working efficiently. That can cost you money in fuel for one, but it can also lead to a breakdown. It may sound daunting, but in some cases checking and replacing them isn’t that difficult. If you don’t feel like doing it yourself (or it’s a big and complicated job for your vehicle), follow your manual’s recommendation and get them changed regularly—for most standard copper spark plugs and vehicles, that’s around 30,000 miles (but again, it varies – some iridium plugs can last up to 100,000 miles).
Use Technology to Track Your Maintenance
Keeping tabs on the work you have done to your car can be a pain. I like to keep my receipts in the glove compartment so I can look through them when I’m in the car if I need to, but that’s no real filing system—you could do just as well scanning your maintenance receipts and putting them intoDropbox or Evernote, or whatever other note-taking tool you prefer.
If you’re looking for a more portable option though, one that lets you see what you’ve had done recently so no one tries to upsell you on work you don’t need, here are a few apps to try:
- Road Trip (iOS) is probably one of the most robust mileage and maintenance tracking apps for iOS available. Tracking fill-ups and mileage is super-fast, as is adding maintenance history, expenses, and reminders for future work. The app has a tire log to track summer and winter wear on your tires, and supports other vehicles like boats and motorcycles. You can track as many vehicles as you like, too. Thelite version gives you a taste, but the full version will set you back $5 for the iPhone or the iPad (it’s not a universal app, so you’ll have to buy it twice for both platforms.)
- Car Maintenance Reminder (Android) is a free app that will keep track of your fuel efficiency, cost, and mileage, but also gives you a place to track all of the maintenance and repairs you have done to your vehicle. You can add notes, costs, and of course, get notifications and reminders when you should get some work done. The free version tracks one vehicle. If you have more than one, the $3 pro version is for you.
- AutoCare (iOS/Android): AutoCare has been around for a while, and does a pretty good job of tracking your vehicle’s maintenance history, mileage, repair history, service expensives, and more. You can even use it to remind you when it’s time to get something specific done so you won’t forget. Plus, it supports multiple vehicles. It’ll set you back $4 for iOS users, and $2 for Android users.
- Car Minder Plus (iOS) is another good, simple app for tracking your mileage and your vehicle maintenance. You get presets for things like oil filters, air filters, belt inspections, and oil changes, and you can enter in your own maintenance work and expenses to the log to keep track of what you’ve had done. From there, enter in your service intervals, and the app uses simple red/yellow/green indicators to tell you when it’s time to get that work done. The app will cost you $3.
- aCar (Android) is free, and one of the most popular Android apps for tracking vehicle maintenance and mileage. Tracking fill-ups and mileage is quick, entering in your maintenance history and expenses is easy, and you can even enter specific notes or information about parts you prefer or that your vehicle requires. The app notifies you based on time and/or mileage when you should have work done, and supports custom notifications. aCar Pro adds in multiple languages, home screen widgets for quick access to data and logging, and connections to other popular car apps and websites, all for $6.
Don’t Ignore Issues, Consult a Professional When You Need To
Whatever you do though, don’t ignore work that needs to be done. This hilarious thread and this post outline some of the most dangerous basics that people tend to overlook on their cars. Delaying preventive maintenance or obvious problems, sounds, or leaks will inevitably lead you to more expensive and time-consuming repairs down the road.
Photos by Brian, Steve Snodgrass, Robert Couse-Baker, Christopher Chen, andteresaphillips1965.