Engine Maintenance- a little goes a long way!

Posted on by Defensive Driving | in Defensive Driving Tips

Now that we’ve discussed some common engine problems, let’s look at ways that you, together with a trusted mechanic, can nip these problems in the bud and prolong the life of your engine.

First, take the time to find a mechanic in your area whom you trust. If you’ve just acquired a car or moved to a new area, take some time to shop around and get quotes from different mechanics. I’ll write more about this in a later entry, but for now, remember that having a good relationship with your mechanic will take stress out of your life and the life of your car.

Next, make sure to follow the tune-up schedule recommended by your car’s manufacturer. You can find this information in your owner’s manual. How often your car needs a tune-up depends on how much you drive, so this schedule will be listed in terms of both time and distance driven. A general rule of thumb is to have a major tune-up every two years or 30,000 miles (whichever comes first), with interim oil changes every 6 months or 6,000 miles (again, whichever comes first.) However, the exact schedule will vary from car to car.

At a major tune-up, your mechanic will inspect, clean, and often replace the parts of your engine that experience the most severe wear and tear. At a tune-up, a mechanic will often:
– Replace the spark plugs
– Replace the fuel filter and the air filter
– Replace the distributor cap
– Check the ignition timing
– Check the timing belts and replace if needed
– Clean and service the battery

In between major services, however, there are a number of small things you can do to make sure your engine is still in good working order. This way, you can spot potential problems before they develop into major issues.

These are easy and very satisfying tasks; for those of us who don’t think of ourselves as “car people”, checking your own oil and coolant can give you a feeling of accomplishment. Try to check your oil at least once every two weeks.
First, park on level ground and wait for your engine to cool down before opening your hood. Then, locate your oil dipstick and coolant reservoir. The oil dipstick is often marked as “oil” and/or will be brightly colored (red, yellow, or orange.) It’s generally very easy to spot, as is the coolant reservoir. This will be a translucent tank off to one side of the engine, with “high” and “low” marked on it. See figure 1 below.

Oil and Coolant
Figure 1: a typical car engine

Once you’ve located the oil dipstick, pull it out and wipe it off using a rag or paper towel. Then, stick it back in, wait a second, and carefully pull it out again. It’s important to do this in order to get a clear and accurate reading of the oil level.

Dipstick- side view

Figure 2: oil dipstick, side view

Your dipstick will have a “high” and a “low” mark. Sometimes these will be marked with lines or with different patterns of scoring. You want to check that the oil level is close to, but not above, the “high” mark. If the oil level is too high, it’s likely something else is leaking into your oil tank. If the oil level is too low, you should add oil; if you aren’t familiar with how to do so, take your car to a local service station. Do, however, make sure that you only add the grade of oil specified by your car’s manufacturer. You also want to check the oil color. The oil should be a light golden brown and should be translucent. If it’s dark or opaque, it’s time for an oil change. If it’s a cloudy white color, then coolant or water is leaking into your oil tank.

Dipstick- Oil

Figure 3: tip of an oil dipstick

While the oil level is fine in the picture above, notice that the oil is a very dark brown color. This means that the oil is fairly old and should be changed soon, although not necessarily immediately.
To check your coolant, simply locate the “high” and “low” marks on the coolant reservoir and make sure that the coolant level is within these limits. WARNING: don’t take the radiator cap off when you check the coolant levels; if the system is still warm, there will be pressure in the radiator. Removing the cap could cause a nasty burn. If you have trouble seeing the coolant level in your tank (perhaps because your engine, like mine, is quite old), you can try shining a flashlight through the tank to better illuminate the fluid level.


Figure 4: coolant reservoir

While you’ve got your hood open, take a moment to check the timing belts on your engine. You’ll see these near the front of the engine. They look like long elastic bands that have been stretched from the bottom to the top of the engine well.

Figure 5: timing belt

Check the belts to make sure that they don’t look frayed, cracked, or worn. If a belt looks damaged in any way, take your car to your mechanic for a tune-up.

If you have a car with automatic transmission, you should also check your automatic transmission fluid about once a month. You may also want to check the fluid level if you notice anything odd about the way your car is (or isn’t) shifting gears.
First, consult the owner’s manual of your car. This manual will tell you where the dipstick for the transmission fluid is located. It will also let you know if the car engine needs to be running when you check the fluid (this is the case for many cars.)
Then, park in a level area and follow the same procedure as for checking the oil: pull the dipstick out, wipe it off, reinsert it, and then pull it out again. If the car engine is running or has just been running (i.e. the engine is still warm,) then the fluid should be at or near the upper “HOT” mark. If the engine is cold, then the fluid level should be at the lower “COLD” mark. The fluid should be clean, slightly pink and transparent; if it’s black, brown, or burnt-smelling, then it’s time to replace the fluid.

Overall, be aware of how your engine sounds and runs, and don’t be afraid to look under the hood from time to time! It’s not as daunting as it may seem.

To learn more about this topic, or a broad range of subjects from “How To Change A Tire” to “How To Jumpstart Your Car”, visit DefensiveDriving.com’s Safe Driver Resources website!

Check out these sites for more information about online defensive driving in Texas, online defensive driving in Florida, and business driver safety.


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