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What Women Need to Know About
Preventative Auto Maintenance...continued
(Comment #9, February 7, 2005)

Part 2 Daily/Weekly Checks
   You always have options in car maintenance:
  • Do it yourself and save money and build confidence;
  • have someone else do it for you and save time, but pay money;
  • if you have the right friend, try bartering. One lady friend of mine would do occasional ironing or washing for me in exchange for my performing routine maintenance on her car. It was a very satisfactory arrangement that saved us each money and helped us feel useful. And there's always...
  • don't do anything at all.
The Only No-Brainer The single best thing you can do to keep your car in good shape–and it's free–is to stop tailgating! On my daily commute I see at least one rear-ender each way, each day. I can't imagine any situation in which indulging my impatience would be worth risking a demolished cooling system. Hey! Don't do it! It's just plain stupid!

The Issues Here are the recurring daily/weekly car maintenance issues:
  • Filling up with gas;
  • checking your engine oil;
  • keeping your tires properly inflated;
  • checking your engine coolant;
  • checking your lights and signal flashers;
  • checking your power steering fluid;
  • keeping brakes working;
  • checking your automatic transmission fluid.
All of these recurring tasks are easily within the capabilities of anyone who can brew coffee in a kitchen coffee maker.

Filling up with gas "Is this guy really going to tell me how to put gas in my car!" Yes, but only a few valuable points that can save you repair bills.
   First, use the fuel recommended for your car. Premium blends cost more than regular ones, and they give zero performance boost unless your car was designed for them. The same applies to any of the alcohol/gasoline blends.
   If you live in a high humidity environment, as I do, fill your tank to the top every time you buy gas. This reduces water condensation inside the tank which can cause rust and corrosion. This once destroyed the fuel level sender in my old Porsche 356b. Now that was a lot of trouble!
   In Florida, where condensation is a problem, I add half a bottle of water dispersant gas treatment to every other tank. This helps get rid of water that has already condensed. I get the dispersant for a little less than $1.00 a bottle from–where else–WalMart.

signs of trouble causes
probably none; maybe "check engine soon" lamp lights. water in fuel

women can add dispersant
add water dispersant fuel additive
Engine oil check

women can check oil
engine oil dipstick
Do this before you start the engine in the morning or before you start it before coming home from work or shopping. The oil level will be highest at those times. Also, be sure you're on level ground, if possible.
   Somewhere on the side of your engine is an oil dipstick. Pull it out, wipe it clean with a cloth or paper towel, reinsert it all the way, and pull it out again for the check. If the oil is between the two marks it's OK. Return the dipstick and seat it fully.
   If the level is at the lower mark, remove the oil filler cap, usually on top of the engine and clearly marked, and add a half pint of fresh oil. Use the markings on the oil container as a gauge.
   Wait about thirty seconds and check the level again. If it's between the two marks you're finished. Wipe the oil off the dipstick tube and return the dipstick. Replace and tighten the filler cap.
   The oil on the dipstick should be pale brown or yellow and clear. If it's very dark brown or black, it's time for an oil and filter change. This is sometimes difficult and always messy. Have someone do this one for you, unless you know how.

signs of trouble causes
low oil every week(1)
engine oil leak (stained driveway), engine burning oil
Oil very dark you need an oil and filter change. What's keeping you?
Silvery colored oil
major engine problem-get it fixed TODAY!

women and level marks oil should be between level marks

oil fill cap

oil filler cap
I attached a lanyard to my oil filler cap. If I dropped it some night I'd spend a lot of time searching for it.

(1)How much occasional oil loss is OK? About a pint per 1500 miles, city driving, is the max.

Check your tires Use a tire gauge and check each tire with the car cold. See my article on tires, mentioned above.

Engine coolant

women can check coolant
engine coolant reservoir

(2)The actual cause of the wax was a combination of using red coolant and a leaky transmission cooler. What a mess!

Caution! Do this with the engine cold! It's unsafe to open the cooling system with the engine hot.

   There are two kinds of engine coolant: the green kind is designed for short life (less than two years); the red kind is designed for long life. Many car dealerships are replacing the red long-life fluid with the older green kind. It seems that the red coolant may reduce cooling circulation and cause cooling system damage. In the picture at right notice the heavy wax deposits left after using the red long-life coolant only two months. The pressure cap, heater, and thermostat are completely inoperative. I wonder about the radiator! This cooling system will require major cleaning.(2)
   Your cooling system needs to be completely full. You can check this in either of two ways:

The easy way: Most cars have a coolant recovery reservoir that accepts slight radiator overflows that occur when the engine warms up and returns the coolant to the radiator when the engine cools down. This keeps the system free of air. You can usually check the level by looking at the outside of the reservoir; but if yours is discolored or dirty you'll have to remove the cap (with the engine cool!) and look inside. It should be about half full. If you can see the bottom of the reservoir, pour in enough coolant mix(3) to half fill it.

The less easy way: If your car has a radiator cap, remove it (with the engine cool!) and observe the fluid level in the radiator top tank. It should be full to the very top of the fill neck. If it isn't, add enough coolant mix to fill it and return the cap. Wipe up any spilled coolant.
   With the radiator full, add enough coolant to fill the coolant recovery reservoir to the"full cold" mark (about halfway to the top).

Warning! Engine coolant is very poisonous. It will kill animals, children, or adults!
It's also very sweet—animals love to drink it. Never pour this stuff out on the ground or flush it down the toilet! Don't dispose of old coolant anywhere but your town's coolant recovery headquarters. Check with your city hall for the location.

signs of trouble causes
oil slick on top of coolant in the reservoir
may be a bad head gasket;
may be leaky transmission cooler! Fix it now!
recurring loss of fluid
radiator leak, hose leak, water pump seal failure(4). Fix it now! Bad radiator cap, cracked coolant overflow reservoir
waxy deposit in the reservoir coolant reaction;
may be leaky transmission cooler! Fix it now!

waxy buildup
waxy buildup in cooling system

(3)Engine coolant is a 50/50 mix of coolant concentrate and water. I usually make up only what I need to fill the reservoir. If I have any mix left I keep it in a plastic soft drink bottle in the car trunk. The concentrate keeps well on the shelf.

(4)How long should a radiator or water pump last? 50,000 miles is normal low-end. When I have more than 100,000 miles on my car I routinely replace the pump, all the hoses, and the radiator. It's expensive, but it's prevention—I don't want to be stranded by surprise.

Lights and signal lamps This is best done after dark. Start your car, put it in "Neutral" or "Park," and engage the hand brake. Turn the headlights full on.
   Open both doors (don't get locked out) and inventory the lights: two operating headlamps, left and right marker lamps (yellow), left and right tail lamps (red).
   Switch to high beams and check for two operating headlamps again. If either headlamp is out in either position, replace the lamp on that side and toss the old one.
   Turn off the headlights and leave the marker lights on. You should see two front marker lamps (white), the left and right marker lamps, and the two tail lamps.
   Switch on your left turn signal. Confirm both front and rear left signal lamps (yellow, red or yellow) are flashing. Do the same for the right signal lamp.
   Almost done–get back in the car and turn the lights completely off. Put the car in "reverse" and check in the mirror for the white reverse lamps.
   Finally, put the car back in "Neutral" or "Park" and step on the brake pedal. Verify the red brake lights come on.

signs of trouble causes
lamp doesn't work
burned out; replace it
turn signals flash very rapidly wrong lamp installed, water in lamp socket, shorted lamp socket, bad flasher

   Replacing car lamps is easy, but it may involve work under the hood, in the trunk, or under the car. You can do it, but it's not a lot of fun. Maybe get help on this, at least the first time.

Power steering fluid
power steering pump
power steering pump
Do this check with the engine off.
   The power steering pump is easy to find. It has a large cap with a short dipstick. Remove the cap and wipe the dipstick clean. Look closely and you'll see a couple of identified level ranges–one for a hot system and one for cold. Reinsert the cap, lock it down, remove it, and check the level on the appropriate scale (watch out for fluid drips). If the level is in the proper range, everything is OK. If you have to add fluid, do it only a couple of ounces at a time and recheck(4). When it's in the proper range, wipe the neck of the fill tube and the inside of the cap and lock it back down.

signs of trouble causes
dirty fluid, recurring loss, burned smell
system leaks, damaged hoses, pump internal failure, very old fluid. Find the leaks and flush the system. Do it now!

women can check power steering fluid
power steering pump dipstick

(4)What kind of fluid to use? Many modern cars can use automatic transmission fluid; some use power steering fluid. Check your owner's manual.

Brake Fluid

women can check brake fluid
brake fluid reservoir
   Most modern brake fluid reservoirs are made of translucent plastic, so you can usually check the fluid level without taking the cap off. If the fluid is far below the molded mark on the reservoir you'll have to add a small amount. Brake fluid will remove auto paint (and fingernail polish) so be very careful. Drape the reservoir with a cloth to catch drips or spills. Remove the cap and pour in just enough fresh brake fluid to reach the level mark. When you're finished adding fluid, replace the cap and wipe the reservoir top and sides.
   Fresh brake fluid is usually crystal clear (maybe pale yellow). If the fluid in your reservoir is light brown, that's rust, but it's normal. It will eventually have to be drained and replaced, but it's not a cause for immediate worry. The fluid in the reservoir in the picture is very dark. It's time for me to flush my system.

signs of trouble causes
recurring fluid loss
system leak
very dark color
time to flush the system and change the fluid

don't overfill brake fluid
max fill line
Automatic Transmission Fluid Unlike the engine oil check, this one is performed with the engine running. The best time for me is when I get home after work. It's not as easy as the engine oil check, but it's still easy.
   In the driveway, put the transmission in "park" and leave the engine running. Engage the hand brake and open both doors. Under the hood, locate the transmission dipstick and pull it out of the tube. It's a lot longer than the engine dipstick and sort of whippy, so be careful that you don't spatter your clothes. Wipe it with a cloth or paper towel, reinsert it all the way, and pull it out for the check.
   Transmission fluid is pale pink when it's hot, and it will be fairly difficult to see the level, so take your time and be sure the fluid level is between the marks. If it is, it's OK. Wipe the neck of the tube, return the dipstick, and push it in all the way.
   If the level is below the lower mark, check it again to be sure. If it still shows low you can add fluid through the dipstick tube. Use a small funnel and wrap your rag around the neck of the tube to catch any spills. Add no more than a pint of fresh fluid—slowly—and let the funnel drain completely(5). Then check the level again. The goal: just get the fluid level above the bottom mark; don't try to fill it to the top mark.
   When you finish, wipe the neck of the tube and reinsert the dipstick all the way. Wipe the funnel and wrap it in a cloth to keep it clean.

signs of trouble causes
low level each week
transmission leak
discolored, dirty, burned-smelling fluid;
transmission slips while driving
worn transmission, contaminated fluid, plugged transmission filter—all signal the need for a checkup

   Only one more to go—the easiest for last.

you can check your transmission
automatic transmission dipstick

(5)What kind of automatic transmission fluid to use? Check your owner's manual or call the dealership service department.

Windshield washer fluid Alongside your fender, under the hood, is a reservoir neck and cap for wiper fluid. You can use water, but commercial wiper fluid is better; and it's cheap. There are several kinds of fluid and also summer and winter grades. The pink kind contains chemicals which leave a silicone film on the glass. This film reduces visibility for me, and once on, it will never come off—ever. Many men like the pink kind (it must be a testosterone thing.) Regardless, I hate the pink kind! I use the blue kind; it's the simplest and least trouble.
   Pour enough fluid into the reservoir to fill it. Simple! If you live in a cold climate use winter grade fluid to prevent freezing, or add a pint of rubbing alcohol to a gallon of summer grade fluid.

signs of trouble causes
repeatedly dry tank, long time to first squirt leak in the reservoir or hose, hose pinched by hood, nozzle plugged, weak or defective pump, bad battery

wiper fluid is easy
wiper fluid reservoir
What do you need?

supplies for car maintenance
Looks like a lot, but buy only when you need it.

    Purchase these only if you need them
  1. 1 bottle water dispersing fuel additive (~$1.00)
  2. 1 quart engine oil (~$1.50)*
  3. 1 quart automatic transmission fluid (~$1.50)*
  4. 1 gallon engine coolant concentrate (~$4.00)*
  5. 1 12-oz. can brake fluid (~$1.00)*
  6. 1 gallon wiper fluid (~$1.00)

  7. *for correct type see your manual or dealership
1 small metal funnel
1 absorbent cloth
1 zip freezer bag
(tire gauge–see my article on tires)
   In the next automotive article I'll develop a calendar to assist with longer-term preventive maintenance.

   If you have comments on this subject (or any other) email them to:

SC feedback

   Please don't send anything you wouldn't want your friends or family to see.

you need only simple tools
you need only simple tools
I attach a short plastic tube to my funnel to keep it from tipping out of the automatic transmission fill tube.

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