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Street Race Truck More... The Toolbox
Car Maintenance and Tips for Beginners

Owning your own vehicle is a great feeling. For many, buying their first car can seem like a dream come true. However, without proper care and maintenance of the vehicle, that dream can quickly turn into a financial nightmare.

Between car payments, insurance, oil changes, inspections, and possibly even accidents, owning your own car can take a heavy toll on your bank account. The good news is that by learning how to do your own routine maintenance, you can extend the life of your vehicle while also saving money along the way.

Terminology

ABS: ABS is the acronym for antilock brake system, which is the braking system that keeps the wheels from locking in sudden stops.

Air filter: Air filters help keep dirt and debris from contaminating motors.

Brake pads: The brake pads are part of a car's braking system, creating friction to stop the vehicle.

Chassis: The chassis is the base frame of a car or truck, with all mechanical parts attaching to it.

Check engine light: The check engine light on the dashboard indicates an engine malfunction.

Coolant: Coolant or antifreeze is the mixture of chemicals that regulates the temperature of the engine.

Cylinder: The engine block has four, six, or eight cavities, or cylinders, that hold pistons.

Dipstick: The dipstick measures the amount of a liquid in a vehicle, such as oil, brake fluid, or coolant.

Drivetrain: The parts that work together to make the wheels move are included in the drivetrain.

Emissions: The pollutants given off by a car are emissions.

Fuel injection: Fuel injection is the system that delivers fuel in an internal combustion engine.

Gearbox: The gearbox is a system of gears that are controlled by the gear shifter in the vehicle.

Ignition system: The ignition system generates a spark and manages the timing of the spark that's responsible for igniting the fuel and air mixture to start the engine.

Jump start: If a battery is dead and the car won't start, a jump start is necessary to provide a jolt of power from another car.

Oil: Engines need lubrication to protect moving parts and prevent overheating, and this is provided by the engine oil.

Service book: Car owners may need to maintain a service book as a record of maintenance performed on a car.

Spark plug: Spark plugs are small devices that send electrical currents from the ignition to the combustion part of the engine.

Timing belt: The timing belt times the rotations of the camshaft and crankshaft.

Tire pressure: A vehicle's tire pressure is expressed in pounds per square inch, and vehicle manufacturers will include recommendations for the best tire pressure.

Transmission: The transmission controls the power from the engine and uses it to move the vehicle.

Battery

If your battery is dead, your car won't start or run. For this reason, it's crucial that you take good care of the battery in your car. You can run regular tests on your battery by using a device known as a voltmeter in order to measure the voltage it's giving off. When the car is off, a healthy battery should give you a reading of around 12 volts.

Keeping your battery terminals clean is important, too. Over time, the terminals on your car's battery will develop a white, powder-like substance on them that can hamper the battery's effectiveness. In order to clean them, make sure your car is off and then locate the battery. While wearing gloves and protective goggles, remove the rubber or plastic caps from the terminals. After that, use a wrench to remove the clamps from the battery's terminals: Start with the negative terminal, and then do the positive one. Using either an equal mixture of baking soda and water or a battery cleaning agent from an auto parts dealer, apply the cleaner to the terminals and then scrub away the corrosion using a wire brush. Once the corrosion has been removed, use a spray bottle with water and a rag to wipe away the excess and dry the terminals. Then, reconnect the clamps and you're all done.

Fluids

Various fluids are required to help keep your vehicle in good working order. Consistently monitoring, refilling, and changing these fluids as necessary is a simple and important way to keep your car running longer. Coolant, brake, and windshield washer fluids are all extremely easy to check and fill. To refill any of these, first, make sure that the engine is cool. Then, simply open the hood and locate each fluid's reservoir. There should be "low" and "full" markings on the tanks to indicate the desired fluid level. Pour the appropriate liquid into the correct tank until it reaches the "full" mark and you're all set.

Checking your transmission fluid is slightly different. With your car in park and the engine running, locate the transmission fluid dipstick. If you're unsure exactly where it is, consult your owner's manual. In order to check the levels, you should remove the dipstick and wipe it with a clean rag. Once it's clean, reinsert the dipstick and remove it once again. If the fluid line is below the "full" mark on the dipstick, use a funnel to carefully add in the amount required to make it full. Be careful not to overfill it.

Getting Comfortable With Jumper Cables

Understandably, many people are hesitant when it comes to using jumper cables for the first time. The cables transfer a large amount of potentially dangerous energy that can be intimidating to anyone. In order to perform a jump-start safely, you should first connect one of the red jumper clamps to the positive terminal on the dead battery. Next, attach the other red clamp to the positive terminal on the live battery. Following that, attach the black clamp to the negative terminal on the live battery. The last black clamp should be clipped to an unpainted metal surface on your car away from the battery, such as a strut.

Once the cables are connected, turn on the working car and allow the engine to run. After a few minutes, try to start the car with the dead battery. After it starts, remove the jumper cables in the opposite order you attached them, starting with the black clamp on the unpainted metal surface and ending with the red clamp attached to the previously dead battery.

Checking Your Oil Level

Motor oil is incredibly important to your vehicle, so you should regularly check its level and change it as needed. In order to check your oil, locate the oil dipstick under the hood. Remove it, wipe it clean, reinsert it, and then remove it again. This process will ensure that you're getting an accurate reading of the oil's exact level and give you a closer look at the oil's state. Motor oil should be amber and translucent. If it's dark and hard to see through, that's a sign that it's time for an oil change.

When it comes to changing your car's oil, always be sure to consult the owner's manual before doing any work. Some vehicles use regular oil, and others use a synthetic oil that includes artificial chemical compounds. Using the wrong type of oil for your vehicle can have devastating and costly consequences. These different types of oils can also affect the number of miles your vehicle can go before you need to change the oil. Be sure to check your owner's manual to learn what type of oil to use and how long the oil should be expected to last. In order to get even more life out of your oil, also make sure to keep your oil and air filters clean.

Danger From Ignoring Oil Changes and Using the Wrong Oil

When it's working properly, oil helps lubricate the moving parts of your vehicle and prevents them from prematurely wearing out. By ignoring necessary oil changes or using the wrong oil, you will severely limit the life expectancy of your vehicle. As a vehicle is operated, the oil will break down and become dirtier and dirtier, causing its effectiveness to drastically decrease. When this happens, your vehicle becomes far more prone to overheating and broken parts. Furthermore, the longer oil is in your car's system, the more particles it will accumulate. This increases the risk of corrosion damage or even a sludge buildup that can require an entire engine replacement.

Braking Systems

Making sure that your brakes are in good working order is one of the most important things you should be doing as a vehicle owner. In addition to the obvious benefit of having a working brake system, your brakes also play a pivotal role in your car's traction control. While braking, be sure to listen for any unusual sounds coming from your car. If you hear any squealing, squeaking, or grinding noises while bring your vehicle to a stop, it's imperative that you check your brakes as soon as possible. This could be a sign that the general wear and tear that comes from brake use has finally caught up with you and it's time for a new set.

The vast majority of modern cars come with an anti-lock braking system that prevents your car's wheels from locking up when slamming on the brakes or accelerating too quickly. This system gives the driver a great deal more control of their vehicle. However, if your car does not have ABS and you feel it start to slide or lose control, don't panic. Ease up on the brakes and start pumping your brake pedal up and down, which will help to gradually slow the tires until they are able to regain traction.

Tires

You can usually find the recommended tire pressure on a sticker on the inside of the driver's door. For most standard passenger cars, this number will fall somewhere between 32 and 35 psi. To fill each tire to the required amount, just remove the plastic cap over the valve and inflate until the gauge reads the appropriate pressure.

However, tire pressure should not be your only tire-related concern. Tread depth and condition are two aspects that you should be checking regularly as well. In order to tell whether or not you have enough tread left, place a penny standing on its side inside the tread's gap. If the top of Abraham Lincoln's head is showing, that could mean it's time for some new tires. Also, any bumps, scrapes, bruises, cracks, or punctures on tires should be taken seriously. If you notice any of these things, you should have them inspected by a professional as soon as possible. Putting it off could lead to a flat or possibly even a blowout, costing you far more in the long run.

Winter Tips and Letting Your Car Warm Up

If you live in an area that gets particularly cold and harsh winters, there are a few other things you'll need to keep an eye out for. First, despite popular belief, you should not let your engine idle in the winter months to warm it up. Although it might make the inside feel more welcoming to the occupants, as your engine idles, the car pumps extra fuel into the combustion chamber, which can dissolve vital lubrication. When this happens, important parts of your engine can be damaged, shortening the life of your vehicle.

Some other tips for using a car during the winter months include adding winter tires for better traction, protecting your wipers from snow and ice damage, and washing off any salt collected from the icy roads. Salt buildup on the bottom of your car is a real danger during the winter months and can cause premature corrosion.

Everyday and Winter Emergency Kit

Last but not least, your car should always contain an emergency kit as an added layer of safety. An accident or breakdown can happen to anyone, and it's best to always be prepared for such a possibility. You can either buy an emergency kit or put one together yourself. If you choose to build your own, it should include jumper cables, flares and/or reflective triangles, a cell phone charger, a blanket, a map, and a flashlight. If you happen to live in an area with bad winters, your emergency kit should also contain mittens, a hat, an ice scraper, bottled water, a collapsible shovel, and hand warmers. It's also a good idea to have a bag of sand or kitty litter to help with traction when needed.

Updated By Mark Houlahan

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