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car maintenance

The 4 Most Important Maintenance Items on Your Vehicle

Modern cars don’t require as much attention as they did 50 years ago, but don’t let that give you a false sense of security – there are still several things you need to keep after.

 

We’ve all been told that keeping up with our vehicle’s maintenance is important. If you look in your vehicle’s manual, you see there are enough service reminders and maintenance points to make your head spin.  Fortunately, there are a few main areas that will, if you remember to keep up with, keep your car operating safely and reliably for years to come.

Oil

It has been said that oil is the life blood of your car’s engine.  This isn’t really accurate because, unless you are really sick, you don’t need to change out your blood. Oil is what keeps your engine’s parts rotating smoothly and working properly.  Over time, exhaust gasses from the cylinders and even small bits of metal will contaminate the oil and reduce its effectiveness.  Heat from the engine also breaks down the oil.  Just like any other fluid, heat will reduce the viscosity (thickness) of the oil.  If the oil becomes too thin, it won’t lubricate the engine as well as it should, and parts wear out faster.

The old rule of changing your oil every 3 months or 3,000 miles has thankfully been disbanded.  Many modern vehicles can go 5,000 or even 10,000 miles between oil changes. To know how long your particular vehicle can go between oil changes you should consult your owner’s manual.  Many newer vehicles even have a complex monitoring system that evaluates your driving habits and various aspects of your oil to determine how long your oil will last.

But, maybe you’re like the majority of young vehicle buyers and you purchased your car second, third, or even tenth hand.  The vehicle is not very new and the owner’s manual is long gone.  In that case, search the internet for a digital copy.  Still no luck?  Try and find an owner’s forum.  These typically have a maintenance section with recommended service intervals.  Often times they also have walkthroughs on how to do the service yourself.  The quality varies from forum to forum, but I’ve yet to have to go past page 2 of a Google search to find what I’m looking for.

Air Filter

Breathe in through your mouth. Breathe out.  Now, take off one of your shoes and a sock.  Now, place your sock over your mouth. Now, breathe in.  You didn’t get as much air as the first time and you now feel a little gross right?  Well, the same thing happens to your engine when your air filter gets clogged with dirt and dust.  A clogged air filter can reduce your gas mileage, your horsepower, and even cause your engine to run rough and stall out.

The frequency of which you will need to change your air filter will vary widely based on two factors.  How many miles you drive each year and the atmospheric conditions during those miles.  Most manufacturers recommend changing your filter ever 5,000 miles.  Personally, I think this is premature.  I’ve found the air filters in many of my street vehicles to be fine for anywhere between 7,500 to 10,000 miles. If you drive in severe conditions (rural dirt roads, or urban areas with a lot dust from construction) you will probably need to change the air filter more frequently.

If your vehicle’s engine isn’t in the best of shape (burning oil under the hood) those fumes can contaminate the filter as well.  In extreme circumstances, these conditions can cause a filter to become unusable in as little as 1,000 miles.  Trust me, I’ve been there.

Brake Pads

Obviously brakes are important, but important does not mean complex.  Many people take a hands-off approach to brakes and take the word of any mechanic or dealership flunky as gospel.  The only rule for how long brake pads will last is this: There are no rules.  How often you need to change your brake pads varies based on your driving style, the type of driving you do, the weight of your vehicle, the quality of the brake pads, and the condition of your brake rotors.

Obviously, if you drive aggressively (tailgate others, hard brake at stoplights, etc.) you will use the brakes more often and wear them out quicker than normal. If you drive in a hilly area or in constant stop and go traffic, you will use the brakes more often and wear them out quicker than normal. Getting the picture?

So, how can you know if you need change your pads? You could take your car into one of the infinite number of shops that offer free brake inspections.  Unfortunately, if that shop is even a little less than honest, they will tell you that you need new pads. If you own a BMW or other vehicle from a small selection of German automakers, then your brake pads have an electronic monitor built in.  When the pads wears down, a light will display on your dashboard.

Even if you own a Cavalier, you’re still in luck. Almost all brake pads come with a built in wear indicator! This usually consists of a small metal tab on the brake pad.  As the pad wears down, this tab comes closer to the brake rotor.  When it finally makes contact, you will hear a slight screeching or scraping sound.

Once you hear the scrape, it’s time to change the pads. You don’t have to do it the same day, but try not to let it go too long. If the scraping turns into a rough grinding sound, you need to change those pads now! Running the pads too low can cause damage to your rotors.  This causes your brakes to be less effective and could cost you more money in the end.

Tires

The last item on our list is the lowest point on your car. The life expectancy of tires, just like everything else on the list, varies.  Personally, I’ve owned several sets of Falken Azenis tires that lasted for less than a year.  They were good tires, great actually, but they were built for track days and performance driving and that’s how I used them. I’ve also owned tires that never seem to wear out.  The BFGoodrich All Terrain tires on my Jeep have around 20,000 miles on them and they still look brand new.  Most normal passenger car tires are rated for between 40,000 and 50,000 miles, but the reality of that is hard to judge.  Tires go flat, cars get sold, other problems contribute to premature wear, and heck, after 3 or 4 years you’ll probably forget when you actually bought them anyway.

Tires, like brake pads, have built in wear indicators.  Between the treads, there are these tiny little ridges that are 1/16 an inch high.  When the tread gets even with these ridges, it’s time to get new rubber.  In case you were wondering, the ridges are 1/16 of an inch because that is the minimum safe tread depth for a road going tire. This is also the minimum safe tread depth allowed by law in many states.  Check your tires every month or so for wear and damage.  It only takes a minute. Run your hand over the tread, especially on the inner and outer edges.  If you feel anything weird (uneven ridges, waves, wires!) get your tires checked out by a reputable tire shop.

(Here is everyone’s favorite host, Mike Rowe, explaining tread wear indicators)

There are plenty of other parts on your car that will require maintenance at some point in your vehicle’s life.  Various fluids, bushings, bearings, and engine components all need touching up or replacing from time to time.  Some can be ignored for a while, some practically forever.  Keeping these four at the top of your check up list will keep your vehicle on the road and safe for a lot longer than you might think.

About

Adam currently serves as the supervisor of Student Services for Columbia Southern University. His hobbies include adventure racing, anything involving the outdoors, and zombies. He spends his free time enjoying all of these things with his wife and two dogs.

 
  • Andrew

    Regarding brake pads: First, while many cars’ pads still come with the metal indicator tab, nearly as many do not as the tab can crush against the rotor and gouge it, ruining the rotor and your brake distance. Additionally, being just a bit of spring steel, it’s not uncommon for one of them to snap off or bend out of alignment. You should never rely solely on hearing the indicator tab screech.

    Second, the article doesn’t mention brake shoes for drum brakes, possibly because drum brakes are fading out of existence, but they are still sold on some cars. Drum brakes work in a similar, if slightly more complicated, method as disc brakes, essentially working in reverse. Instead of clamping in on the rotor, the brake pads (called brake shoes on drum brakes) press out on a drum, which necessitates a spring return mechanism. It’s not a big deal in the big scheme of things, but it does add a few quirks. For example, the first time you replace brake shoes, it’s going to take you a lot longer than the first time you replace brake pads. You will put the wrong spring in the wrong hole. Don’t worry, everyone does it. Fortunately, the system only fits together the way that makes it work, so if it doesn’t go together, take it apart and try again. Once you do a set of drums, it’s not difficult. Additionally, the drum prevents visual inspection of the brake shoes. You can usually get a peek at a disc brake’s pad without taking the wheel off, but no such luck on drums. Fortunately, all but the absolute cheapest of modern cars have at least front wheel disc brakes (done because besides being cheaper and easier to service, disc brakes also have better stopper power). Just change your rear drums at least every other front brake job and you’ll be fine. You can get away with doing the rears every other time because 1, disc brakes do tend to wear out a bit faster than drums, and 2, around 70% of braking power comes from the front brakes so they will wear out faster and you can get by with a bit of reduce braking power in the back.

    • Adam

      You’ve got some great points Andrew. It’s true that you should not rely solely on the indicator tab. It is simply the most obvious indicator that it is time to change your pads. Ideally, you would pull your wheels every so often and inspect the pads and rotors, but there are a lot of people who don’t have the time/ability/resources to allow for this.

      As for the tab causing damage to the rotor, I will agree that it can happen, but also state that it takes a lot of damage to make a rotor unsafe. I would wager that more than half of the vehicles on the road have rotors that would be deemed as “grooved” or “worn” or “damaged” by a dealership technician. It is true that eventually they become too worn or damaged and are unsafe to use, but that takes a LONG time of hard use and negelect. Small grooves and pitted surfaces do reduce stopping distances, but it is marginal. Personally, I feel that you should always drive within the capabilities of your vehicle. If it doesn’t stop like new Corvette, leave some more space between you and the next car. You can’t control emergencies and morons, but you can put yourself in a better position to react when they happen.

      Shoes and drums were left off primarily for the reasons you mentioned (phasing out, and limited wear). If you can pull a wheel off you can check your shoes, but if you don’t know what you’re doing, you shouldn’t go any further. I can change out a set of pads in about 20 minutes (including jacking and wheel removal on both sides). Shoes sometimes take an hour per side. It just isn’t something you should tackle if you aren’t ready or properly equipped. They are much easier to get apart than they are to get back together.
      I agree with your comment about getting by with reduced braking power in the back. That is why ABS was first introduced as on option on the rear brakes. If the rears lock up, you have a lot better chance of sliding sideways (like yanking up the e-brake in any action or street racing movie).
      I appreciate your comments and contributions. You could have very easily said something like “This sucks. There isn’t enough info” but instead, you provided helpful information to supplement what was provided. This piece could have been much longer(we didn’t even touch on chunking or feathering in the tires portion), but eventually you lose people’s interest with too many details, or it becomes too brand/model specific.
      Thanks for reading :)

      • Andrew

        Thanks for the well-written response. I hadn’t realized it, but I had forgotten to say that I liked the article and its content in my initial comment.

        Upon further thought, I agree with you regarding servicing drum brakes yourself. I’ve done them enough times on family cars that it’s old hat, but it can be very frustrating without the right tools, especially considering that the best tool I’ve found for doing drum brakes is a weatherstripping removal tool. That’s something that can’t be assumed to be common knowledge or reasoned out.

        As for the tab damage, I should have written that a bit differently. The primary issue there is to not damage the brake pads during handling. My father’s work van had catastrophic brake failure on two separate occasions just an hour or two after getting new brakes. The first incident, the tab was bashed down, putting it in contact with the rotor even with the brakes off. Applying the brakes buried it into the rotor and ruined them in under 50 miles. The second time, the mechanic dropped the pads, cracking the lining. After a couple of uses, the lining sheared completely off, causing the pad studs (the rivets connecting the lining material to the steel back plate) to embed in the rotor. Needless to say, the shop that did both of those brake jobs is no longer in business.

        Now, those are pretty rare circumstances and most people will never have one of those things happen to them, much less both. But they serve a point as a warning. If you have some form of indicator, be it a spring steel tab on a brake pad, a check engine light, or even a smoke detector, where the status quo is silent and it activates to warn you something is wrong, never blindly assume that system is working. Because if it isn’t, it will continue to tell you everything is alright even when things are going horribly wrong.

        But I’m rambling. In conclusion, great article and a great response to my comment. Thanks for both.

        P.S. Almost forgot. I do have one slightly random bit of advice for people who want to take that first step into taking proper care of their cars. Before you do anything, be it change the oil, do a brake job, or even replace the air filter, buy a repair manual. Autozone, O’Reilly’s, Advance Auto, and all the rest have racks of manuals covering most cars on the road. Chilton or Haynes, both are excellent so get whichever works for you. Chilton tends towards diagrams and Haynes towards pictures. They really are indispensable and will let you know about any quirks your car may have. For example, my 2000 Camaro has 100% metric bolts with one exception. The oil pan drain plug is an SAE bolt.

  • Noel

    I’m glad you mentioned tyres. It’s surprising to see how many people will buy cheap crappy tyres yet fork out loads for the “bling”. For me tyres are the most important thing as they are the only thing that is in contact with the road.

    • Adam Brewton

      I know right! I’m guilty of buying cheap tires on occasion, but it’s always been out of neccessity and never on my high performance stuff. Do your research, ask around, just because it’s cheap doesn’t mean crap, but it is much more likely.

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