When I was growing up, my dad kept a little notebook in each car with a checklist and notes on regular maintenance. We have some better tools at our disposal these days, but cars still need regular maintenance and the onboard computers don’t always keep track of the things they can’t measure. So, here’s a quick list of the things my dad would check regularly and are still important to check today.
Tire tread and pressure
Engine oil and filter
Engine air filter
Windshield wipers and washer fluid
Cabin air filter
Brakes pads and rotors
In his little spiral-bound hand-sized notebooks, my dad was pretty diligent about noting the date, mileage on the car, and what inspection or maintenance was done at that time. Yes, I know it’s pretty nerdy, but he was an engineer and kept pens in his pocket, just like Dilbert. Here’s an example of what he’d write in his booklet:
1987/10/01: 57,334 mi
LF: 25 => 28 psi, 1/2″
RF: 27 => 28 psi, 1/2″
RR: 28, 3/8”
LR: 26 => 28 psi, 1/2″
From this little entry, we can see that the tire pressure needed adjustment in a few tires and the tread depth is OK, although one tire is wearing faster than the others, so maybe we need an alignment.
This is just one example, but you get the idea. We just note things that need a fix. In this case we might know that the cooler fall air in October is contracting the air and reducing the tire pressure – so, it’s no surprise that we have to add a little air. We might also decide at this point to look back for the last time we had an alignment and schedule another one.
Each of these checklist items is important because it has an impact on occupant safety and the health and value of the car. For each, you should refer to your car owner’s manual or a model-specific guide from a publisher like Haynes or Chilton for details on parts and specifications. You can probably find some good guides online, too. Here’s a little explanation of each topic.
Tire tread and pressure: Low tire pressure can wear out a tire or even lead to a blow-out. A flat tire can leave you stranded on the side of the road. Checking your tire pressure regularly can help you spot a puncture like a nail or a screw that might be repairable before a slow leak leads to a flat that will burn through the sidewall. Checking the tread can identify other problems like needed rotation, alignment, or over- or under-inflation. I actually look at my tire roundness every time I walk up to the car.
Engine coolant: Antifreeze or coolant (the same fluids acts as both) circulates through the engine, drawing out heat and letting it dissipate into the air via the radiator. It’s called antifreeze because the water has to be mixed with a liquid that won’t freeze at low temps. That way, driving in sub-zero weather won’t cause the fluid to freeze in the radiator and stop the circulation, which ironically will cause the engine to overheat. Check the level regularly and top it off if it’s low. If it’s down a lot, check for a leak in a hose or the radiator itself, or maybe there’s a weak spring in the cap that will let steam blow out at a lower temp and pressure than it should.
Engine oil and filter: The most critical thing to extending the life of a well-functioning engine is maintaining the oil. If oil gets old and dirtied with carbon soot, it won’t lubricate the pistons as well and you’ll get premature wear, ultimately reducing the efficiency and performance. Engine air filter: An internal combustion engine (ICE) breaths air. It actually needs more air than fuel for each little explosion inside a piston. So, it’s important to keep a clean engine air filter. If you use a replaceable filter, note when you last replaced it and set a reminder for when it’s next due. If you use a cleanable filter, do the same for cleaning. Of course, you don’t want to do it too early or you’ll be spending money unnecessarily. But you don’t want to wait too long, or you’ll be impacting performance. I recommend that you check it every time you check your oil, or about every 6,000 to 10,000 miles.
Wipers and washer fluid: Wipers keep your windshield clear of water when it rains and road grime when it doesn’t. But they only work if the rubber on the wipers is soft and you keep the washer fluid reservoir filled. You should check your wipers after a few months of being installed, or if you ever notice them not keeping the glass clean. If the rubber on the wipers gets hard, they don’t flex right and stay flush against the glass, and thus stop cleaning well. And obviously, if you run out of wiper fluid, you can’t squirt soapy water on the glass to dissolve road grime. Check the level every so often and refill when you need it. You may need to check it every month if you park outside and use your fluid a lot or maybe every six months if you park indoors.
Spark plugs: Plugs are the source of fire for your internal combustion engine. If they’re working properly, they cause a spark to ignite the fuel and air mixture in the piston at just the right time for maximum power. But to work right, they have to be clean and have just the right sized gap between the plug and the electrode. Check them every 10,000 miles or so, or anytime you notice a reduction in power or gas mileage.
Belts: The belts in your engine let the rotation that drives your car drive other things, like an alternator to charge your battery, hydraulic pumps for steering and oil, and maybe other things like a turbo. Regularly check the wear on your belts and test the tension by pulling on them to see if they’re getting loose. A loose belt may squeal, but long before that it will start getting damaged and lose effectiveness. For example, a loose alternator belt might cause your battery to stop charging, prematurely wearing out your battery and leaving you stranded somewhere.
Cabin Air Filter: This won’t affect the performance of the car, but it can affect the smell in the cabin and the health of you and your passengers. This filter is your first line of defense against pollen and dust getting into your cabin. And if fungus or mold spores build up here and get moist, it can make your car smell like a dirty gym bag. To keep your cabin smelling fresh and avoid allergic reactions, I recommend that you replace it every 12,000 to 15,000 miles or once every year, whichever comes first.
Brakes: Brakes are what stop your car. As you can imagine, these are critical things for both normal driving and emergency braking. Modern materials mean brakes last for a long time and we often forget about them. But after years of use over 50,000 miles, it’s a good idea to check them every few months to see how they’re doing. Worn brakes can damage the braking rotor – a disk they clamp down on, or they can lose friction all together, a condition called brake failure. Failure of just one brake may cause you to swerve off the road when braking hard. Failure of more than one might mean you hit something, which will cost a lot more than a brake job.
Brake Fluid: Brake hydraulics are supposed to be a closed system, where air and water can’t get in. But, if a brake hose splits or a joint seal leaks, air and water can leak in and cause pressure fluctuations that make braking fade or fail altogether. Check your brake lines when doing major maintenance like replacing brake pads or rotors or whenever you feel a soft brake pedal.
Making lists and taking notes is easy, but we don’t have to use a crusty paper notepad anymore. Now that we have smart phones with apps, we can easily keep these notes in something like Microsoft OneNote or Evernote. These tools are better than paper because their data is stored in the cloud and available across devices. They’re also easily searchable, so you can quickly find an old record no matter how long ago you made it. Plus, you can snap a picture of a receipt or a product like a bottle of engine oil. Automatic OCR of pics embedded in notes means the text in those is searchable, too. As for reminders, we can easily keep those in our calendars, or use a purpose-built app like Microsoft To-Do or Todoist, where you can create a list of repeating activities with reminders popping up when they’re due.
Hope this helps make auto maintenance easier! And thanks, Dad.