In this time of high fuel costs and tight paychecks, it can be tough enough just to find the money to fill your gas tank, let alone set aside money for a trip to the mechanic to see what may be wrong.
Yet it doesn’t take a trained mechanic – or a big repair bill – to fix some of the most common problems that can cause your car, truck, SUV or mini-van from rough starting. In fact, once you begin to get a handle on what goes on beneath the hood, you may feel inspired to tackle more of your own vehicle maintenance. This maintenance can play a huge part in how well your automobile runs and can shave dollars off fuel lost to a poor performing engine.
Step 1: First, take a look at your owner’s manual. This book usually spells out the maintenance that should be performed as well as how frequently you need to do it. Many of these tasks, like flushing your radiator, checking fluid levels, and even changing your oil, can usually be done at home with minimal muss or fuss. Some manuals feature a troubleshooting section which lists exactly what you should look for when you run into a situation like a vehicle that doesn’t like to start up on a cold morning.
Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the manual, don’t put it away. You can often use the manual as a guide to locate the various components under the hood.
Step 2: Systematically, referring back to your manual, check all fluid levels. This is especially important for the oil and radiator coolant, but all levels – including the brake and transmission – should be checked on a regular basis. Refill to designated levels using the exact type of fluids specified in your owner’s manual.
Step 3: Next, inspect your battery. Dirty connections between the battery cables and the terminals or posts on the battery itself can make it difficult for the vehicle to get enough electrical juice. You can temporarily remove the cables and clean the connections with a stiff-bristled brush. Also, while some batteries are maintenance free, many require water – often distilled water – be maintained in top-mounted cells. Check your battery to see if you need to add water, being sure to follow the directions in the owner’s manual – or your battery documentation, if you still have it on hand. Also see if you can determine the battery’s age. If the battery is coming close to its life expectancy, you may want to replace it now rather than at a more inconvenient time. But you still want to clean the battery connections so the replacement battery doesn’t suffer.
Step 4: Look for your distributor cap. This unit is connected by wires to the spark plugs on your engine. If one of the wires is in bad condition or loose, the car or truck may not start very well. Make certain these wires are firmly connected both to the distributor cap and to the spark plugs. If any are damaged, you may want to replace all of them. This replacement is usually done as part of a vehicle tune-up. If it’s been awhile since you had your car tuned, replacing the wires becomes even more important.
Step 5: If you have the right tools, you may want to remove one or more of the spark plugs and inspect them for damage. These plugs can get quite dirty and sometimes, just wiping them clean before you reinsert them can make a huge amount of difference in performance. If any of the plugs looks fried, consider replacing all of the spark plugs at once.
Step 6: If you usually run your car without a nearly full tank of gas, it’s possible that condensation is getting into your fuel line. If you live in a cold weather climate, you want to add dry gas regularly when you fill your tank. This can dry up any moisture in the fuel line.
Step 7: Inspect all your cables and hoses. A loose or damaged hose or cable can also affect your ability to start or run the vehicle. You may be able to get by with heat resistant tape applied to the problem until you can replace the hose or cable altogether.
Step 8: Refer back to your owner’s manual and find out how to access your air filter. Air filters are another thing usually changed as part of a tune-up but again, if some time has elapsed since your last tune-up, it’s always possible a very dirty filter is causing you problems. If the air filter is hopelessly filthy, replace it immediately. Some units actually let you shake them to remove a fair amount of debris which may be enough to help your car or truck start and run better.
Step 9: Locate the fuse box for your vehicle and inspect all fuses. One burned out fuse – which can usually be replaced for a few dollars – can affect the strangest things.
Step 10: Look at your fan belt. This is a belt that threads about usually three different structures; your owner’s manual should identify it. If this belt becomes loose or worn, it can become much harder to start the vehicle. Left unchecked and unmaintained, the belt will fail and the car will come to a stop. It’s usually easier to replace the fan belt than it is to do short-term repair on it. A nut at the front of the fan belt assembly allows you to slip the belt off its track and put a new belt in its place. Then follow owner’s manual directions to tighten it properly. You don’t want it either too tight or too loose when you’re done.
Finally, don’t underestimate the good folks at the car parts store. Many of the clerks are people with years of experience with vehicles and they are often very willing and able to assist you in troubleshooting a poor running vehicle. They can point you to the products that may help and away from those that don’t do much at all. Bring your vehicle along, and one of the clerks may be willing to step out to the parking lot to glance beneath the hood. Also, they can usually tip you off to some of the better – and most reasonably priced – mechanics in town. It helps to establish a relationship with one or two car parts shops; regular customers often get preferential treatment because they appreciate the business and want you to return.