Car Maintenance for the Clueless

I am not a girl who has ever been accused of being mechanically inclined, and I therefore had to learn these lessons the hard way. I have translated the tech-talk into layman’s terms for those of us that still have troubles popping the hood.

You’re in the right place if:

– You have not checked your car’s fluids in, oh, about a year.
– You’d like to check your oil but think that a dipstick is the guy in front of you in line taking so long at the grocery store.
– You have ever had to add oil before taking your car in for an engine flush so that the mechanics wouldn’t know that you ran the engine without oil.
– You have never taken your car in for an engine flush.

Checking/Changing your Oil
Check every week

Regular oil: Change every 3,000 miles or 3 months, whichever comes first. In strict car-maintenance terms, waiting a year and a half like I did to change your oil is a bad idea.

Synthetic oil: Change the oil filter every 3,000 miles or 3 months. The oil does not need to be changed until about every 9,000 miles. Synthetic oil is a bit pricier than regular oil, but should be used in high-mileage vehicles or in vehicles that tow heavy loads or are subjected to extreme temperatures (think Alaska or Texas).

Checking your oil is simple. To ensure a proper reading, let your engine cool off; hot oil has a tendency to splash and will make the fluid level look higher than it actually is. When you pop the hood, there will be some type of handle labeled “engine oil” or something equally as clever; that is your dipstick. Pull that out, wipe the oil off of it, and then stick it back in (car maintenance is very passive-aggressive). When you pull it out the second time, look at the level where the oil is. There will be some type of indicator on the stick. (For the really clueless, E stands for empty and F stands for full.) If the oil is very dark (think Godiva milk chocolate) or significantly below the “F” line, then you’ll need to get your oil changed.

When it comes to changing your oil, it’s a good idea to let someone else do it. While your buddies may swear up and down that it’s an easy job and you shouldn’t have a problem, keep in mind that all that nasty, black, burned oil that you haven’t changed in a year and a half has to go somewhere, and getting it all over your cute, brand new jeans is no fun. Plus, getting an oil filter unscrewed with an oily hand is not only disastrous for your manicure, but nearly impossible as well.

Checking Radiator Fluid
Check once a month

The purpose of a radiator is to regulate the engine’s temperature. It serves as both a coolant and antifreeze, and if it is not checked can lead to some really smoky traffic jams. Radiators have a nasty tendency to leak, so check this every month!

Most vehicles have a transparent overflow tank where you can eyeball the fluid level. If it is below the “Fill to Here” line, add 1 part radiator fluid mixed with 1 part water. Some auto-part vendors have caught on to how ridiculous this rule is and offer fluid that is already diluted. It may cost a couple bucks more, but that way you don’t run the risk of making the same mistake that I did and forget to add the water.

In a pinch – like if you’re stuck in traffic and your engine is beginning to overheat – turn on the heater full blast (even if it is mid-summer in Texas), put the car in neutral (don’t try this if you’re on a hill), and rev the engine (step on the gas pedal). These tactics divert heat from the engine, but remember that they are quick fixes! If they don’t work and your engine begins to smoke, pull over and call someone. Do not attempt like I did to open your hood with your bare hands – smoke generally means that something is very hot – or try to keep driving (smoke is also a signal that something very bad is happening).

Automatic Transmission Fluid
Check every 1 to 3 years or 1,000 to 3,000 miles

Transmission fluid is actually very important, if only for the sole fact that your transmission (the thing that changes the gears) is extremely expensive to replace.

In order to properly check the transmission fluid, the engine will actually have to be heated up. So, if it’s been sitting in your driveway cooling down so that you could check the oil, you’ll need to drive around the block a couple of times and then let the engine sit, idling (in park). The transmission fluid is actually checked when the engine is on, so make sure that what you’re unscrewing is the transmission dipstick and NOT the radiator cap, unless of course you’re the type that rather fancies searing-hot liquid in your face. The transmission fluid dipstick is usually located off to the side of the engine and is checked much the same way that the oil is; pull it out, wipe it off, reinsert it, and then pull it out again and check the level, which should be somewhere between “add” and “full” lines.

If you need more automatic transmission fluid, it’s a good idea to have this done at the auto shop because the folks there will hook it up to a filtering machine and will flush out your engine. It’s a little expensive but much less than, say, buying a new car.

In Conclusion

Car maintenance is not as complicated and tedious as most people would make it out to be, but it is a very important measure to take. Much like the rest of the world, it’s full of dipsticks and standards and entirely too many moving parts, but luckily for us, engines have clear “fill to here” lines and rules for proper maintenance that will assure a longer life for your beloved vehicle. Maybe now you won’t have to worry that your engine will suddenly explode or do something equally frustrating. At least, one can only hope.

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