How to Perform Basic Automotive Checks
Last updated May 2017
Your maintenance bible is your car’s owner’s manual; it tells you what to do and how often to do it. Since different cars require different maintenance tasks at different intervals, only the owner’s manual provides accurate guidance, but the procedures listed below are the ones most cars require frequently. Some you can do yourself, and others by a professional.
Every Time You Use Your Car
Before you get in the car, make sure all tires are inflated and that there are no bulges or obvious cuts.
Check gauges and warning lights.
Most car dashboards have an oil pressure warning light that comes on as the car is started but should go out as soon as you begin to drive. If it doesn’t go out, stop driving immediately.
Check engine, oil pressure, and alternator warning lights should go out shortly after the car is started. If you have gauges for oil pressure or electrical, they should point to the middle of the normal range.
Temperature gauges should come to rest in the safe or normal range after a few minutes of driving.
The brake system warning light should go out when the emergency brake is released and then stay off.
Once a Month Check the Following
Driving with pressure too low wears out your tires and wastes gas. Tire pressure that is too high provides less traction and may give you a bumpy ride. The owner’s manual indicates the correct pressure.
To check the oil, park the car on level ground, turn off the engine, and wait a minute. Push the dipstick all the way in, and leave it there for a couple of seconds before pulling it out. If the oil level is at or near the “Add Oil” point, add a quart—but don’t overfill.
Your owner’s manual will indicate the type of oil to add. Most standard cars use “multi-grade” oils like 10W-40. In motor oil, a low first number indicates that the oil can be used at low temperatures without thickening so as to prevent a car from starting; the high second number, such as 40 or 50, indicates that the oil will remain thick enough to be effective even at the high temperatures most engines maintain.
Check for corrosion at the posts where the battery cables are attached. Corrosion can cause the battery to lose power. Apply a paste of baking soda and water to corroded areas on posts, let it sit for a half hour, then rinse with water.
Check the coolant level by examining the reserve tank alongside the radiator tank. Caution: Never remove the radiator cap when the engine is hot; you could get scalded by spraying hot water and steam.
Many mechanical components are driven by belts. With the engine off, some of these belts can be conveniently inspected for fraying, cracks, and loss of tension. Check tension by pressing the belt with your thumb; it should not give more than about a half inch when pressed hard.