Basic Car Maintenance for Mamas who Don’t Know Cars
The Responsibility of Owning a Car
Driving can be a lot of fun. Do you remember how excited you were when you first learned to drive? That exhilarating feeling you got pushing the gas pedal for the first time? And owning your first car? It was probably even more thrilling! When you graduate from using “mom’s car” to owning your own, it can really make you feel like an adult. (Learn the dos and don’ts of car buying from this earlier post.)
A necessary part of owning that vehicle is being responsible for taking care of its necessary maintenance. Owning a car is a privilege and responsibility we should treat well and respect! That means treating the car like we actually value it – which we certainly do, seeing as we use them for everything from going to work, to carpooling to soccer practice, to picking up dinner on the way home!
Vehicle maintenance isn’t always universal knowledge, unfortunately. And it certainly isn’t common sense! But that’s why we’re talking about it today – so that even if you know nothing at all about cars, you can still take great care of the vehicle you own!
Basic Car Maintenance
The basics of taking great care of your vehicle starts with reading the owner’s manual. But let’s be real – who reads that until they have to?? The truth is, your vehicle maintenance schedule is actually in there! It lets you know how often oil needs to be changed, your filters and belts replaced, where different parts and reservoirs are, and any specs you need to know like PSI (tire pressure) and much more.
If you’re dealing with a certain problem in particular, you can always look it up in the manual’s index in the back of the book. Or, read below!
Make sure to monitor your vehicle’s tire pressure. Maintaining proper tire pressure (PSI) keeps your vehicle running smoothly, improves fuel efficiency, and makes tires last longer. It’ll also help prevent blowouts. (In case you don’t know what those are – blowouts are when you’re driving down the road and smell rubber, only to have your tire essentially “explode” while you’re driving.)
Keep in mind that “proper” does not always mean “maximum” PSI.
You can find the optimal tire pressure for your particular car in the owner’s manual or the sticker located inside the door jam. Usually, it’s between 30-35 PSI – but double check to make sure.
If you need to adjust your tire’s pressure and don’t have an air compressor at home, run up to a local gas station that has an air pump (this usually costs money, but not much). Or, you can visit a local Discount Tire and they’ll adjust it for free! Free?? Free is good.
Remember to keep an eye on your tire tread. If you look at your tires and notice the tread depth is getting thin, it may be time to replace them. Ideally, you’ll want to make sure your tread stays greater than 4/32” thick – but never less than 2/32” – otherwise it could be dangerous. The thinner your tread, the longer it takes to slow down, which could cause an accident. Plus, it increases your chance of a blowout.
An easy way to measure your tread without buying any special equipment is to use a penny. Place the penny – Lincoln’s head down – into a groove. If you can still see the top of his head, your tire tread’s too thin.
Tire Rotation, Balance & Alignment
Keeping your tires properly rotated and balanced, and the suspension properly aligned, can keep your vehicle running at its best. It also keeps your tires from wearing unevenly – which makes them last longer!
The easiest way to handle this car maintenance step when you don’t own any mechanic equipment, is to take it up to a local shop. Discount Tire, Jiffy Lube, NTB, and SpeeDee are all reputable places to take your vehicle to be serviced at.
It’s best to take your vehicle in for this service if you notice uneven tire wear or if the car pulls to the left or right when you’re driving. If you bring your car in for any other service, you can always have them check the alignment at that time.
Changing a Tire
Owning or merely driving a car means that there’s a chance you may need to change a tire one day. Running over nails, hitting something in the road, unexpected tire blowouts, looking down at your phone only to bump into the concrete barrier – life happens! But the important thing is to stay calm and take care of the problem.
If your tire is in need of a change, pull over somewhere safe and put the hazards on and turn the vehicle off. If you have cinderblocks or wheel chalks at your disposal, place them in front and behind the car’s tires – you don’t want the vehicle to accidently move forward or backward for any reason!
Next, get out your jack, lug wrench, and spare tire. If you have a hubcap, you’re going to want to pull it off. Try not to break it – use a flathead screw driver or crowbar. Now check your lug nuts holding the tire on – are there covers? Take ‘em off.
You’re going to want to loosen the lug nuts (without completely unscrewing them) next, in a star shaped pattern. Make sure you do this while the car is still sitting on the ground. And remember – a star-shaped pattern. A lot of people forget that part, so don’t forget!
Then and only then should you use the jack to lift up the vehicle – apparently not all cars should be lifted the same, so read your owner’s manual to find the lift point. Usually you can position it under the frame, closest to the wheel in question (see the video below if you need a picture), but you should double check just to be sure.
Once the car is jacked up and you’re able to completely unscrew the lug nuts, remove the old tire.
*The Discount Tire video also suggests a great tip – put the old tire under the car next to the jack just in case it slips!*
When you put the spare on, the “valve stem” (where you can check the air pressure) should face out as you align it with the “wheel studs” (where the lug nuts came off). Push it all the way on. Put the lug nuts back on and tighten them by hand – again in a star shaped pattern.
Now get your old tire out of the way and lower your jack until your vehicle is back safely on the ground. Lastly, you can tighten all the lug nuts in your star shaped pattern with your special lug wrench.
Put all your tools and equipment away, including the old tire.
Woohoo! You did it!
However, keep in mind that a spare tire isn’t usually like a normal tire. They’re often smaller and can’t always handle highway speeds. Get to the nearest auto shop you trust to buy a replacement. It’s okay if you have to wait until the morning; just remember to make it a priority when replacing the tire is possible.
Don’t have any equipment with you, and your car doesn’t have any unexpectedly stowed away?
Then your best bet is going to be calling roadside assistance, or a tow if you don’t even have a spare. Many auto insurance companies offer some kind of roadside assistance and/or towing coverage for a few dollars extra per month. Otherwise, there’s always AAA. Oh! But did you know that if you’re on a toll road, they often have a roadside assistance service? At least in Texas they do. If you ever find yourself on the side of the North Dallas Tollway or George Bush with a flat tire, call the NTTA at 214-224-2203 (it’s the number on your TollTag). With all the money we’re shoveling into those toll roads, go on and get your money’s worth!
Checking & Changing the Oil
We’re not going to go into the steps of actually doing an oil change yourself – mainly because I have no idea how to do it, and I don’t know many mamas who have the equipment needed lying around the house. But we will cover when you’re supposed to have it changed, and where you can go to have it done.
Inside your vehicle’s owner’s manual is the listed number of miles you should aim for between oil changes. It can be anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 miles, which is a big difference so check the manual!
Another way to tell if you need to change the oil other than the number of miles is to actually look at it. Take out the “dipstick” in the engine (it looks like a ring you can pull up and out) to check the color and consistency. Oil, over time, will change from transparent light brown color to thick and black. And if it needs to be changed, it’ll feel coarse and gritty if you rub it between your fingers.
If you determine the oil does indeed need to be changed, find a local auto shop you know and trust. We’ve had absolutely terrible experiences with a local Firestone (they tried to tell us we needed to replace expensive parts when we really didn’t) but we absolutely love SpeeDee Oil Change & Auto Service. Every time I’ve gone (even by myself!) they’ve made it a point to go over my car’s fluid levels with me and explain where everything should be. They’re also not at all pushy, and they’ve never claimed my vehicle needed any repairs it didn’t. Ask around or check Yelp reviews to see what the best place near you is.
Checking the Fluids
Different fluids you need to keep an eye on to make sure they’re at the proper levels are:
- Radiator fluid
- Engine oil (Read more about oil above)
- Brake fluid
- Coolant & anti-freeze
- Windshield washer fluid
- Power steering
- Transmission fluid
Since every engine looks slightly different, it’s best that you check your owner’s manual to figure out where each part and container is located. Each of the above listed fluids have minimum and maximum “fill lines” where they should be (ideally) filled to.
Windshield wipers are fairly easy to replace yourself, and generally even easier to tell when they need to be replaced.
If your wipers are leaving streaks or making weird noises when you use them, check the blades first. Wipe them down with a damp paper towel to see if they’re just dirty. If this doesn’t solve the problem, then they’re probably ready for replacement.
Your vehicle’s owner’s manual (or your local parts store) will tell you what kind of windshield wipers you’ll need to buy. Check out the video below for easy installation instructions!
When Warning Lights Come On
There are many different warning lights that vary depending on your vehicle. If one comes on and you aren’t sure what it’s for, consult your owner’s manual. If the manual doesn’t help, then visit your local auto parts store such as AutoZone. Ask the clerk to read the diagnostics for you. They’ll take a handy little machine out to your car, hook it up, and the tool should tell them what warning or code is going off.
In my experience, this often comes up as some random code. But a quick Google search of the code and your vehicle’s make and model can tell you exactly what’s going on.
Owning a car is a big responsibility, but taking great care of it through regular car maintenance can keep your vehicle running well for many years to come. So keep up with your tires, fluids, oil changes, wipers, and warning lights.
While we may have not addressed every possible vehicle problem you may come across, these basics will certainly open the door to DIY car maintenance. If you’re looking for more in-depth instructions or a topic we didn’t happen to cover, check out YouTube. There are tons of instructional videos to browse through!
When in doubt, always go to someone you trust. If an auto repair shop is what you need, check Yelp and Google reviews to make sure the place you’re considering has a good reputation.
Good luck, mamas! Take excellent care of those vehicles!
PS: For more topics that will help you be a successful adult, check out all of the posts in our “Adulting Series“.