Life Skills – Automotive

Whether you own a coupe or a truck, all vehicles require periodic maintenance. If you keep up with it, they’ll reward you with good, reliable performance. If you don’t, they’ll degrade until they quit.

The following is mainly a remind of the things you need to do on a regular basis, along with some amplification and links to help you do them right.

You can either pay the big buck$ for someone else to do it, or you can trade some mental and physical effort and do it yourself.

In the 40+ years I’ve been working on cars, I’ve convinced myself I never want to be a mechanic. However, in the few times I’ve taken my vehicle to the shop, I’ve learned far too often mechanics are dishonest and will take you to the cleaners. In fact, the Internet is chock full of undercover sting operations where they take perfectly good, fully-inspected vehicles in for a tune-up only to be charged hundreds to thousands of dollars to “fix” things that were never wrong.

I’ve also learned the hard way even trained mechanics get things wrong, whether it’s stripping your oil pan drain bolt, putting brake shoes on backwards, re-wiring your security system and vehicle’s electrical system incorrectly, failing to properly clean and prep the bottom of the window before reinstalling it, breaking off door handles, failing to install washers and lock washers where they belong, and incorrectly aligning the vehicle.

Fortunately, the list isn’t very long, because I’ve done the vast majority of my own work. I estimate I’ve saved roughly $10,000 in mechanic’s fees over the years, including who knows how many additional thousands of dollars they would have charged me if I hadn’t done the work myself.

CRITICAL FLUIDS

Engine Oil & Filter: Every 3,000 miles if you use regular oil. Every 5,000 to 7,500 miles if you use Mobile 1 oil and a Mobile 1 oil filter. Are synthetic oils that much better? Absolutely. Mobile 1 continues to top the charts in terms of initial and long-term lubricity, and their filters. In fact, Mobile 1 Annual Protection is designed to be changed once a year or every year, whichever comes first, up to 20,000 miles. I would never go that long, as certain chemicals which the filter cannot filter can build up in your oil which can be harsh on your engine. Just use Mobile 1 and a Mobile 1 filter, change your oil yourself every 5,000 miles, drive conservatively, and your engine should last 250,000 miles if not half a million.

Transmission Fluid & Filter: Every 30,000 miles to 75,000 miles, depending on your vehicle manufacturer’s recommendations, the fluid you’re using, and your driving habits. As automatic transmissions can be finicky with respect to shifting hydrodynamics, use exactly what the Owners Manual recommends.

Engine Coolant: Every 30,000 to 75,000 miles, or whenever it needs to be changed. Some manufacturers want you to go 100,000. I guess their mechanics need the work. Don’t put money into their pockets. Save the money in your own pockets. Use this video guide (<10 min) to determine the health of your engine coolant. If it looks clean and clear but it’s time (mileage), then change it anyway. If it’s cloudy, discolored, or both, consider giving your vehicle a Super Flush. That won’t repair any oil or compression leaks entering your engine coolant, but it will ensure you get a 100% clean and clear fresh start, thereby prolonging the life of your engine, your coolant pump and your radiator.

Brake Fluid: Every 2 years / 24,000 miles to 3 years / 36,000 miles. It’s hygroscopic, which means it attracts water, leading to corrosion, and possible failure of your brakes under heavy braking — just when you need them most. You COULD learn how to do a Complete Brake Flush and Bleed. HOWEVER, bleeding the brakes by pushing the pedal to the floor WILL move the master brake cylinder piston beyond its normal travel into the far portion of the cylinder that has deteriorated due to corrosion. That WILL score the piston, causing it to eventually FAIL. You can use this method on brand new master brake cylinders. You can NOT use it on master brake cylinders older than a couple of years or 30k miles.

Thus, when you use the two-person cylinder method, have the DRIVER call out “OPEN!” and “CLOSE!” That way, the driver can call out “CLOSE!” before the pedal goes more than about a third of the way from rest to the floor. It takes longer, but it’s the RIGHT way to do it to prevent damage to the master brake cylinder piston.

ASIDE: By now you’ve noticed I keep linking to the ChrisFix videos. He not only shows you how to fix things, but how to buy a used car right, without getting fleeced. I love the guy! He’s got a great attitude – the right attitude! I learned all this by reading my owners manuals. You should, too. But in 10 minutes, he covers the basics on any issue. More important, he usually gets it RIGHT. I say “usually,” because a couple of times, experience with things like scored master brake cylinders, I’ve had to learn the hard way. Even so, I use his videos. Often.

Windshield Wiper Fluid: Any blue sudsy kind will do in North Carolina. Use winter formulas for areas which even might drop below about 25 deg F (or your lines may freeze and burst).

Vehicle Washing: Once a quarter, use soap in a high-pressure wash to cut through road greases and tar, which hold road salt next to the metal. THOROUGHLY rinse the soap off with clean, high-pressure water. Use the wax and/or sealant options to protect both the paint and metal from corrosion.

ELECTRICAL

Car Battery: If your vehicle is critical, such as needing to drive to base before your boat or ship leaves the pier, change it every three years whether you think it needs it or not. If things aren’t that critical, every five years or when it fails (so long as you didn’t leave any lights on) is fine. I recommend EverStart MAXX from Walmart for several reasons. First, in 15 years I’ve owned three. None have ever failed before 5 years. Second, they come with a 5 year warranty and will credit you the unused portion. Third, they’re around $100, so the monthly cost is just $1.67. Fourth, you install them yourself, so you’re saving that cost. The EverStart Platinum batteries are overkill. They cost 50% more but don’t add 50% more.

Jumper Cables: Buy a heavy duty set and keep them in your vehicle. It’s not if you’ll need them, but when. You can buy a basic, 10-gauge, 12′ set suitable for smaller vehicles on Amazon for $12. Here’s the link. A heavy duty set will run you $24. A premium set suitable for jump-starting the Titanic will cost you $55 without adding anything for your uses.