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Running a car

A guide to car maintenance by a guy who’s done it all wrong before

Car maintenance - that thing people who order slacks from the back of newspapers do on sunny days or before the annual road trip to Skegness. The thing the rest of us ignore all too often.

I couldn't tell you the number of times I've thought to myself, "I really need to top up my windscreen washer tank thingy," only to discover 2 weeks later that it's still drier than a sand snake's pyjamas.

But car maintenance is something that really doesn't take that long, is pretty damn easy, and has serious benefits for your car, your wallet, and your safety.

Oil check

We'll start simple - the oil check, something best done once a month.

Your engine's oil is what keeps all the moving parts running smoothly. If it's not topped up or becomes contaminated, your engine could be seriously damaged.

And they cost mega bucks to replace.

Oil check
  1. Safety first

    Make sure that the car is on level ground, and that the engine has been off for about 10 minutes (otherwise you could get a face full of hot oil).

    Hot oil is thinner so you'll get a less accurate reading if the engine's not cold.

  2. Find your dipstick

    You'll want a clean-ish rag and maybe some gloves if you've just had your nails done.

    Pop the hood and peer in for the O-ring - which probably looks like this >

    Engine oil dipstick
  3. Check it out

    Pull the dipstick out and wipe the residual oil off the stick with the rag or the side of the oil reservoir, like you would with a pot of bubbles when you were a kid.

    At the tip of the stick you'll see the word 'ADD,' 2 vertical dashes, and the word 'FULL'. Once the stick is clean, put it back in to get a true oil level.

  4. Look for your level

    Remove the stick and look at the tip again. The oil itself should be anything from inky black to a golden colour. If it's anything else, or is dirty-looking, it'll need replacing (we'll get to that).

    If it's between the dashes, you're OK, but if it's getting closer to the 'ADD' you might want to consider topping it up.

  5. Top it up

    If your oil does need a top up, you don't pour it down the tiny dipstick hole! This has fooled more than a few people, myself included the first time I tried. There'll be a screw cap on the engine, probably with 'OIL CAP' and a little oil can on it - that's where it goes.

    If your oil needs replacing entirely because it's dirty, it can get a little messy. Unless you're confident you can bleed an engine of oil (REALLY think hard about that), it's probably best to either ask a car-savvy friend or relative, or take it to a garage.

  6. Water coolant

    Since you're already poking around under the bonnet, you may as well have a look at a few other things.

    We covered how to top up your screen wash a while back, but another one to watch is your coolant, which stops the engine from overheating.

    Water coolant
    It is VITALLY important you do NOT try to do this when the engine is hot - you could get scalded by the pressurised hot water.
    1. Check the level

      Find the coolant filler cap on the engine and check to see if the level in the reservoir is in between the min / max.

      If so, job done! Have a cup of tea, preferably leaning against the bonnet with an oily rag hanging out of your back pocket.

    2. Fill her up

      If the level is below the min mark, remove the cap and top it up with the correct kind of antifreeze - the car's manual or a quick Google will tell you which one you need.

      You really don't want to get this wrong or pour coolant into the wrong tank, so getting a car-savvy friend or relative to help you the first time isn't a bad idea. Swallow your pride and, in the process, make their day.

      Hey, while you're there - it's a good idea to also have a look at the hoses you can see. Any signs of moisture or staining are signs that trouble's a-coming and taking the car to a garage may be in order.

    Tyre pressure

    This one is sooo easy and only takes 5 minutes, but is very, very important, and should be done at least once every 2 weeks.

    Without tyres, you'll be going nowhere fast, so they need to be looked after - tyre blow-outs are pretty dangerous and very scary. Tyres lose pressure gradually as it is, so they need a boost now and again. Plus, correctly pumped tyres will save you fuel!

    Tyre
    1. Find out what your tyre pressure should be

      Different cars have different recommendations for tyre pressure, so find out which your car needs, either on the inside ledge of the driver's door, inside the petrol cap, or in your car's manual.

      The number at the end is the PSI amount, which is what you'll be wanting to check.

      You might find your tyre pressure is in bar if it's on the old side. 1 Bar = 14.5037738 PSI - but the air machine will give you the option with no maths required!
    2. Go to the air pump at a petrol station

      Most petrol stations will have a pressure station where you can check and top up tyre pressure. Drive up to the area that says 'Air' on the forecourt and park.

      You'll probably need to put money in the machine, and you'll need to enter the tyre pressure you want as well. Just press the + or - button to select it.

    3. Check the pressure and fill up

      Take off your valve caps and then work your way around the car with the nozzle (or 'regulator').

      Put the nozzle onto each valve, then wait a couple of seconds while it checks the pressure. If your tyre pressure isn't up to what it should be, the regulator will automatically fill or deflate the tyre to the level you put in the machine, then beep when you're done.

      Make sure you put all your valve caps back on nice and tight.

    4. Do a general tyre check

      It's also a good idea to check the tyres for those 'cuts or bulges' you heard about in your show me, tell me questions.

      It's a good habit to check your tyres every few times you top up with fuel, as that way you'll avoid the hassles that come with a sudden road-side tyre change. The side of the road is a poor place to put your car mechanics skills to the test, trust me.

    Lights check

    Another easy check that can prevent a lot of grief is making sure all your car's lights are working. This should be done once a week.

    Lights that don't work can get you into trouble - either the police will slap you with a fine, or other road users won't know that you're signalling, meaning you could end up in a crash.

    All you have to do is switch all your lights on and walk around the car. Takes 30 seconds, tops.

    If you notice any bulbs are blown, you can find which bulbs you'll need in the driver's manual and replace them yourself, or you could simply take the car to a Halfords - their weFit bulb fitting service is cheaper than a garage, and you'll still have your warranty.

    Head lights

    Wiper blades

    This is one that's commonly overlooked, but is super-super important whatever the season. Rain, dust, leaves, slush, grit...all things that are going to mess up your vision if you don't have wipers in good repair.

    Wiper blades deteriorate, and when they're old and damaged they don't do their job like they should. If they're not clearing the windscreen when it's wet, or are juddering across the screen, it's time for a new pair. They're cheap and easy to replace.

    Just pull the arm away from the windscreen, find the lock-pin on the arm (near the bit which connects it to the car), remove the old wiper blade and slip on a new one.

    Rain

    These easy-to-do maintenance tasks will mean your car runs smoother, is safer and more fuel efficient, and will save you money when it does need a service.

    Take it from a guy who's been charged £80 for branded wiper blades at a car service - do the little things yourself.

    Test your car maintenance knowledge


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James started writing stuff for ingenie in 2016. His first car was a Mitsubishi Gallant - because "side-impact bars are cool." You can see more of his writing at jwcreative.org.