Every Girl’s Guide to Basic Car Care

I was born into an all-male family. My mother and I were the only chicks in the company of roosters. The level of testosterone flowing in our home was dangerously high at any given time, and I learned to combat it with everything female – makeup, clothes (including unmentionables), feminine products (worked every time) and any gossip about the Hollywood scene.

My dad, realizing that someday I would eventually be married off to some eligible guy (properly vetted, of course), saw a gap in my current skill set. Dads do this; they make sure their daughters have good straight teeth and some useful life skills. One particular life skill I lacked (one of many, I’m afraid) was how to take care of the basics in a car.

We had 2 cars at any given time growing up. One my mom drove, a big, burgundy Impala; and one my dad drove. The latter was strictly for my dad as it lacked the proper floor panel under the driver’s seat and in the constantly inclement weather of Buffalo, NY, no one wanted to step into a garbage bag before getting in the car. This car was beyond hope, and my parents had a standing Do Not Resuscitate order in the medical chart of the vehicle. Every day it started and made it to its destination was a good day.

The big, burgundy Impala was another story. While I looked rather sharp behind the wheel of that beast, my parents felt I should understand how to complete a basic maintenance regimen. I did learn and am trying to pass this valuable knowledge to my own 2 daughters, now driving (God help us), and can hopefully understand the first 5 minutes of any conversation involving cars.

All daughters, heading out on their own, need to know the basics about a car. Car mechanics can spot that glazed look in a woman’s eyes, and I’ll be darned if I have to hear one ask for my husband again before discussing the car I drive every day. (Honestly, my husband knows just as much as I do, but can play along more efficiently by nodding and saying, “Mm-Hmm, Mm-Hmm.” Reminds me of our conversations)

Here are the basics every woman needs to know before getting behind the wheel.

The Owner’s Manual – This handy guide should be required reading and a test should be administered before the keys are handed over. While we wait for that legislation to pass, however, I strongly urge each driver to spend some time learning the particulars of the car she drives. The owner’s manual not only tells you how to put gas in the gas tank, hopefully this section is just for show, but also explains what all the buttons, hooks and straps in the vehicle do. Got a question about tire pressure? Check the manual. Not sure how to remove the back seat? Check the manual. It should never leave your car.

Opening the Hood – Many women do not know how to open the hoods of their cars. It is like mowing the lawn – if we learn how to operate the lawn mower, we may be expected to actually mow the lawn. The hood release for almost all cars is on the lower left side of the steering wheel as you sit in the driver’s seat. When pulled, you should hear the hood release itself from the locking mechanism. With the engine completely turned off, if the hood does not rise easily, you must find the secondary toggle hood release. Stand in the center in front of the car, reach both hands under the hood, and lift up on the release. Once free, the hood should rise all the way up. Some car’s hoods now stay up on their own. If it doesn’t, there will be a support stick on the right or left-hand side that will hold the hood up when fully extended.

Windshield Washer Fluid – There is nothing worse than driving behind a truck kicking as much mud as possible onto your windshield and you are out of fluid. During winter months, we tend to go through it more quickly than in summer, and we may not be able to make it to our next oil change where they refill it automatically. The container for washer fluid is a plastic jug in the engine compartment. The cap of the jug is labeled. Almost everything else in the engine is made of metal or covered in a black plastic so it should be easier to spot along the left or right-hand side. Simply pop the top off the jug and refill with washer fluid that is sold everywhere, even the grocery store. Be sure to replace the cap before lowering the hood.

Checking the Oil – Ladies, the engine oil light has purpose. Nothing good can come from our discussion if this isn’t made perfectly clear. If the light comes on, you must take action. Cars have different symbols to make you aware of what’s taking place in your car, but you will find the indicator light on the small panel behind the steering wheel around the speedometer and odometer. When the indicator light comes on, lift the hood of the car and locate the engine oil dipstick. (That word has so many connotations, but is literally a long metal stick that dips into the oil reservoir, clever) The dipstick will be a slender and flexible metal stick housed in a small tube that comes directly out of the heart of the engine. It should have a different-colored plastic tip or ring to help you recognize it.

Once found, pull the stick out of the long tube, take one of the millions of napkins you have stashed in your glove compartment and wipe the stick clean by pulling it through the napkin. It doesn’t need to be clean enough to eat on but you need to remove any oil so you can read the lines at the end of the stick. Before reinserting, carefully study the markings at the end. Carefully, push the dipstick back into the tube, pushing it all the way to the end and slowly pull it back out. The end of the dipstick is graduated (i.e. it has markings to measure the amount of oil in your car’s engine.) By looking at the end of the dipstick, you should be able to tell how much oil is there by studying the oil mark left on the dipstick. Think of it as sticking the clean knife into a cake to see if it is done. You are looking for wet stuff on the end of the dipstick. If there is Ã?¾ or more of oil, you can make it to the shop that normally does your oil changes for the appropriate attention. If there is Ã?½ or less of oil, you must add oil immediately. See the following section.

Adding Oil – We have determined there is a need and now we need to add motor oil. The owner’s manual will tell you the best type of oil to add to your car. Certain cars perform better with a specific type of oil, so always know what type of oil your car takes. When I first learned how to add oil, I had to use a funnel to keep the oil from spilling all over the engine. Today, however, the containers come in such a shape as to make pouring the oil easier. Step one, again, is to locate the oil cap in your engine. In all of today’s cars, the oil cap is labeled and is a circle about 2 inches across. Remember, if you cannot find it, the owner’s manual can direct you.

It is very easy to add the oil but it can be intimidating, so take your time. If your car is in your own driveway, you may want to park in a safe spot in the street. If the oil drips onto the driveway, it is difficult to remove. Now, we have checked the oil level and determined the level to Ã?½ or less, we have the appropriate motor oil for our vehicle, and we are ready to proceed. Remove the plastic cap in the engine as well as the cap of the motor oil bottle. Slowly, tip the head of the container until it fits right into the opening of the oil well. You have now added a quart of motor oil. It may not be enough, however, and you will need to remeasure the amount of oil in the engine. If the level is not Ã?½ yet, you may need to add another quart. If the level did not move at all, make sure it hasn’t leaked onto the surface below. Your car may still need attention from a qualified mechanic, but at least you have the peace of mind of knowing you can drive it to the shop safely. Always remember to make sure the cap is securely fastened when done.

Changing a Tire – Absolutely, positively, nothing is more frustrating than getting a flat tire when you are on your own. Despair not, it isn’t as hard as you would think. I still call my husband to kill a spider in the shower, but I can change a tire.

You will definitely need your owner’s manual for this job. Each car manufacturer tries to outdo the others in finding creative ways to hide the spare tire and jack, so look it up. We once spent over an hour simply to find the release for the spare tire on our car and 10 minutes to actually change the tire. You should find step-by-step, detailed instructions on removing the jack and tire for your car. Once ready, make sure your car is on a level surface out of traffic. It is incredibly dangerous to change your tire too close to a lane of traffic, so carefully select a safe location that is flat and out of harm’s way. Engage the parking brake, and you are ready to begin.

Step one is to loosen the lug nuts on the wheel. (Girls, saying lug nuts is cool. It is even cooler to know where they are) You may need to remove the hubcap or wheel cover by prying it loose with the tire jack. Once the whole wheel is exposed, you will see the lug nuts in a circle around the tire. Locate the t-shaped or L-shaped wheel wrench. The end of the wrench has a round, hollow cut out that will fit over the nuts. Taking each nut individually, place the wrench over the nut, pushing it over the nut as far as it will go. Using your muscle, rotate the wrench counter-clockwise (as in leftie-loosie) until you feel the nut loosen. DO NOT REMOVE THE NUT. Your goal is simply to make it easier to remove once the car is jacked up. Repeat until each nut is loose but secure.

It’s time now to raise the car off the ground. Assemble the jack according to your owner’s manual, and remember 2 things: everyone needs to be out of the vehicle for the remainder of the process and no one will be able to enter the vehicle until the spare tire is in place. Your owner’s manual should have a photo of the exact spot to place the jack. In every case, the jack will be placed behind the wheel directly under a load-bearing section of the frame itself. If the front tire is flat, the jack is placed under that place where the frame overlaps. If the back tire is flat, the jack will go directly under the rear axle. (The axle is that long, sturdy piece of metal that runs between the 2 back tires and supports the weight of the back of the vehicle.) Each jack operates a little differently. Again, the owner’s manual should have step by step pictures of how to operate the jack.

Position the jack in the appropriate location and start to raise the car by pumping the jack either up and down or around in a circle. Once you feel the jack make contact the underside of your car, look at the contact point and ensure it is a stable connection. If you are sure it is securely in place, continue pumping or turning until the vehicle is lifted off the ground. You know the car is high enough when the entire wheel is no longer touching the ground. It doesn’t need to be more than 2-3 inches off the ground.

The car is up, and you have already pre-loosened the nuts securing the wheel. You should be able to easily remove each nut. Place the nuts close by so you can easily reach them but won’t lose them. Once they are all removed, you can start to pull the flat tire from its mount. It is quite heavy, and you will need to pull it in a shimmy until it is on the ground. Don’t be afraid to let it drop the few inches to the ground. Roll the flat tire out of the way, and roll the spare tire into place. The spare can also be quite heavy, so be ready to heave it into place, matching each of the holes on the tire with each of the bolts on the mounting surface. Once in place, replace each of the nuts you have stored close by and begin tightening. Tighten them by using the wheel wrench and turning them in a clockwise fashion (righty-tighty). Start at the top nut, and work in order as you move around the tire. Do not completely tighten the nuts, but be sure that they are secure.

The car is ready to be lowered and you will reverse the steps used in raising it up. If you turned the jack clockwise to raise it, you will turn the jack counter-clockwise to lower it. Once the car is fully lowered, the jack should move freely. Do not pull the jack out from under the car until it moves freely! With the car now fully on the ground, you can finish tightening the nuts on the newly-placed spare tire. You don’t need Herculaneum strength to tighten the nuts, but they should be as tight as you can make them.

Your car is now ready to drive with this tire, and all that is left is to return the flat tire and the tools you used to their original locations. The process can be rather dirty, so you may want to keep a pair of gloves and a road blanket in your car as part of your car care kit. Once you are used to changing a tire, it takes about 10 minutes. Why not practice at home? A busy highway with the kids strapped in their car seats is not the place to try your hand at changing a tire and the Auto Club can take forever.

Using Jumper Cables – Late for work and the car won’t start. Sound familiar? If the option is available, jump-starting your car can take just a few minutes. Knowing how to use jumper cables is a valuable resource.

How do you know when to use jumper cables? If you know your car has gas but will not start, you may need jumper cables. If you turn the key in the ignition, but nothing happens, you may need to use jumper cables. Before you attempt to jumpstart it, try turning everything off in your car; radio, ac, heat, lights, phone charger, etc, it all must be turned off. Try to start your car again. If your car still won’t start, than try to jump start it.

Your car must be in a position where another car can be parked either nose to nose or very close side by side, but never touching. Most jumper cables are only 6 or 8 feet long, so logically, your battery must be no more than 6 or 8 feet from the other car’s battery.

Place each car in Park and turn off both vehicles. Open both hoods of the 2 vehicles and locate the battery in each vehicle. Every battery has a positive and a negative terminal and each is clearly marked by + or -. Locate each terminal on both cars. You may need to remove a plastic cap to expose what looks like a big bolt. The jumper cables have 2 metal clamps on each end. Each set of cables has 2 colors on each end (yellow and black or red and black, etc). Each end of the same set of cables with have a clamp of each color. You must connect to exactly the correct terminal, so be sure to read the instructions fully before beginning.

? Connect the + positive terminal of the dead battery to the + positive terminal of the live battery using the yellow or red clamps.
? Connect the – negative terminal of the live battery using the remaining black clamp. The other black end of the cable DOES NOT GET CONNECTED TO THE DEAD BATTERY. Connect the other black end of the cable to a heavy, unpainted metal engine part. (Your owner’s manual should identify this.) It is called the ground and may be labeled GND.
? Start the engine of the vehicle with the live battery and let it run for a minute or two.
? Try starting the engine of the vehicle with the dead battery. If it will not start after 4 or 5 tries, there may be another issue and need service. If it does start, remove the cables in the appropriate order and let the vehicle run at least 20-30 minutes.
? Remove the black end of the cable of the previously dead battery that is attached to the engine ground or metal bolt. Then remove the negative and positive clamps from the live battery. Finally remove the remaining clamp from the +positive terminal of the previously dead battery.

You may not be ready to work for your local repair shop, but you can at least take care of the basics of your own vehicle. Learning about your car makes it easier to carry on a conversation with the mechanic who services your personal vehicle and fewer misunderstandings will occur. So c’mon, Girls, let’s talk cars!

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