The Penny-Pincher’s Guide to Car Maintenance

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A blur of car problems

Save money without compromising your safety or your car’s well-being

Food on the table or new tires for the family jalopy? An easy answer for most people. But driving on worn tires poses a safety risk. So, too, can a mechanical breakdown that leaves a car and its passengers stranded on the freeway.

Tough times can mean tough choices for folks struggling to make ends meet. Auto Club data suggest that drivers are skimping on car maintenance, leading to a variety of mechanical failures and breakdowns. During the first half of this year, roadside assistance calls increased by 7%, an unusually high number.

Moreover, drivers are keeping their cars longer. In just one year, the average age of the nation’s cars has risen from 10 years to 11 years, an extraordinary increase, says John Nielsen, AAA national director of auto repair.

Unfortunately, older cars require a higher level of maintenance to keep them running. The upshot? More motorists are experiencing firsthand the finite life of automotive parts.

Now or Later

Skimping on basic maintenance is false economizing, because if you keep up with low-cost minor adjustments to your car, you likely won’t have to pay for high-cost major repairs later. Or, as the mechanic in an old TV commercial for oil filters said, “You can pay me now, or pay me later.” For instance, if you replace a car’s dirty fuel filter for $50, you could avoid the $500 bill you’d have to pay for replacing a ruined fuel pump. Spending several hundred dollars to change an engine’s timing belt is far less costly than spending thousands for an engine rebuild. And the list goes on.

If you find penny-pinching to be a necessity these days, be assured there are ways to pinch those pennies while still being car smart. Based on feedback from the Auto Club’s Roadside Assistance and Approved Auto Repair programs, as well as test data from the Auto Club’s Automotive Research Center, here are 12 suggestions that can save you money by helping to prevent common breakdowns.

1. Open the good book. Buried in your car’s glove box is the owner’s manual, which outlines the appropriate maintenance procedures and intervals to keep your car in top condition. Becoming familiar with the factory-recommended maintenance schedules in the manual is the first, and perhaps most important, step to cost-effective car care. If you can’t find the manual, buy one from your car dealer or download it from the automaker’s website.

2. Stay on schedule. Automakers typically offer owners a choice of “normal” or “severe duty” service schedules, the latter requiring more frequent oil and fluid changes. Carefully consider how you use your car, and decide for yourself what’s best. But remember that given all the stop-and-go driving in freeway driving, many cars fall into the severe-duty cycle, says Dave Skaien, program development manager of the Approved Auto Repair program.

3. Stay informed. You may still be holding on to some outdated notions about car repair. For example, the traditional three-month/3,000-mile oil change has generally gone by the wayside, even for some severe-duty schedules. Follow the automaker’s maintenance schedule.

4. Dip the stick monthly. Auto-maker-recommended service intervals of 5,000, 7,500, or even more miles don’t excuse you from checking your car’s oil level between changes. Approved Auto Repair shops are seeing more cars coming in for oil changes that are several quarts low, a recipe for catastrophic engine failure. But it’s normal for a car to use more oil as it ages—up to a quart per 1,000 miles.

5. Keep it cool. When you check the engine’s oil level, note whether there’s enough coolant in the cooling system’s reservoir. The owner’s manual will show you where the reservoir is. Look for any signs of seepage around the radiator and for cracks or strange bulges in the radiator hoses that could be a tip-off to imminent failure.

6. Keep on chargin’. Typically, a car’s battery life is three to five years, says Steve Mazor, manager of the Auto Club’s Automotive Research Center. Your battery may have a charge-indicator “eye.” If it’s charged, the eye should be green—although the eyes are notoriously inaccurate. Most batteries are sealed but not entirely maintenance-free. If the terminals look as if they’ve grown moss, gently scrub them with an old toothbrush and a 50-50 mix of water and baking soda. Be sure the cables are tight. And look for any cracks or fraying on belts that drive the alternator and other engine components.

7. Look down. Your car holds a half-dozen or more fluids of one sort or another, and all of them should remain in your car, not on the driveway. An occasional drop of engine oil or a trickle of condensed water from the air conditioner is no cause for alarm. But puddles of fluids—especially those that are yellow, green, red, or pink—signal potentially serious issues with components, such as the brakes, transmission, or cooling system.

8. Avoid additives. Be wary of any gas-saving claims for automotive devices or oil and gas additives, warns the Federal Trade Commission. Even for the few gas-saving products that have been found to work, the savings have been small. Much the same goes for other engine elixirs, Mazor says. Any benefit they might provide probably isn’t worth their cost.

9. Change filters. Recent Roadside Assistance tow data show a spike in fuel pump failures. Mazor speculates that the cause may be the additional ethanol in gasoline or cash-strapped motorists running too low on fuel before refilling. Avoid running on empty, and be sure to follow prescribed fuel filter changes. By comparison, engine air filter changes aren’t as critical; the research center’s tests show that if anything, a slightly dirty filter may increase fuel economy, contrary to popular wisdom.

10. Buy a gauge. Keeping your car’s tires at their proper pressure (as listed in the owner’s manual or on a plaque in the car, not on the tire’s sidewall) prevents premature tire wear and preserves your car’s handling and braking capabilities. Don’t rely on the beat-up gauge on the air hose at the gas station. You can buy one at an auto parts store for less than $5.

If your car doesn’t have a tire-pressure monitoring system, consider replacing the valve stem caps with caps that warn when tire pressures are dangerously low (less than $20 a set).

11. Keep shining. Frequent washes and twice-yearly waxes enhance the resale value of your car. And you’ll also feel better about driving your older but spiffy-looking car. Touch-up paint from a new-car dealer will hide little chips and parking-lot “rash.” And if an errant rock dings your windshield, have the crack filled immediately by a windshield repair specialist before it spreads and makes a costly windshield replacement necessary.

12. Build a relationship. Repair shops may charge differing labor rates—even the shops of new-car dealers for the same make in the same area. But once you find a shop that you believe to be fair, stick with it. The service personnel will come to know you and your car. When your budget is limited, they’ll help you prioritize maintenance and repair tasks, allowing you to safely put off less pressing ones.

Peter Bohr is a longtime journalist for Westways’ DriveSmart column. Reprinted from the October 2010 issue.

Creative Commons License photo credit: maureen lunn

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