(LOS ANGELES, Dec. 31, 2010) -- Car owners were tempted to reduce costs and balance their household budgets by delaying or ignoring regular vehicle maintenance – and many did just that during the recession. This led to a lot of scared and frustrated motorists stranded on the side of the road, along with a 7 percent increase in roadside assistance calls to the Automobile Club of Southern California.
And the frustration doesn’t end there. Putting off car repairs could lead to more expensive and time-consuming breakdowns in the future, according to the AAA Approved Auto Repair Program, which wants to help Southern California car owners catch up their car maintenance beginning this fall.
“There is car maintenance that motorists can’t afford to ignore,” said Dave Skaien, program manager of AAA Approved Auto Repair. “It may have seemed easy to delay maintaining your vehicle during the past few years. But keeping a vehicle regularly maintained is the best way to avoid major repairs that are far more costly to the consumer.
“Proper maintenance is also critical to the personal safety of the driver and passengers,” he added. Skaien is featured in a series of new Auto Club videos that walk motorists through car care basics like fluid changes and part replacements so they can catch up their vehicle maintenance themselves or discuss it more easily with their car mechanic.
He says that motorists most typically overlook and should check include their vehicle’s fluids (oil, brake, coolant, transmission and window washer fluid), batteries, brakes, and belts and hoses.
Skaien explains why each item is important, what symptoms to watch, and when maintenance should be performed.
But First a Word About Your Owner’s Manual
The road to a long car life starts with the owner’s manual. Motorists should be sure to read their vehicle owner’s manual to understand the recommended periodic maintenance checks. Besides routine replacement intervals for automotive service parts, the manufacturer also recommends “routine” inspection intervals for many, with the actual replacement based on the condition of the part when closely inspected. Again, this information is in your owner’s manual.
And Another Word About Maintenance Schedules
Performing the manufacturer’s regularly scheduled maintenance on your vehicle will help ward off costly repairs down the road. Make sure the owner’s manual that describes the maintenance intervals is kept in the glove box of the vehicle so you can refer to it easily.
A vehicle that has regular oil changes, frequent tire pressure inspections and regular check ups will perform well and last a long time since a motorist keeps a vehicle on average about 11 years now. Cars traveling in Southern California’s stop-and-go-traffic, dry heat and dusty conditions typically follow the “severe” maintenance schedule.
1. Tires and Tire Pressure
While motorists should check the pressure in their tires at least once a month, they should increase the frequency during the upcoming cooler months. As the temperature starts to drop, so will the pressures in the tires—typically 1 PSI for every 10 degrees Fahrenheit. The proper tire pressure levels can be found on a sticker located on the driver’s side door jamb. Remember to check the spare.
WHY: Over-inflated tires ride roughly and suffer premature wear at the center of their tread. Under-inflated tires decrease fuel economy, cause imprecise handling, suffer premature wear at the edges of their tread, and can overheat and fail at highway speeds. Tires typically lose about one pound of pressure per month through normal seepage, and as seasons change, tires lose or gain another pound of inflation pressure with every 10 degree change in outside temperature.
WHEN: Check the tire pressures (including the spare) at least once a month when the tires are cold. Always follow the inflation pressure recommendations in your owner’s manual, or those on the tire information label (for original tires) that is located in the glove box or on the driver’s
door jamb. If you have replacement tires on your car, consult the tire manufacturer for inflation information. Do not use the inflation pressure molded into the tire sidewall; this is the pressure needed to achieve the tire’s rated load capacity, and it may or may not be the correct pressure for your particular car.
BOTTOM LINE: The correct tire pressure will make tires last longer and delay the need for you to buy new ones. Plus, having the proper tire pressure will help your vehicle’s fuel economy and will help vehicle performance to keep you safe.
2. Engine Oil
WHY: Without an adequate supply of clean oil, your engine will wear more rapidly and could even seize or be destroyed. Oil doesn’t freeze like water, but its viscosity, or thickness, does increase as the mercury drops. Lighter grade oils reduce the load on your car’s battery and starter, allowing more rapid cranking and starting. Lighter oils also reach critical engine lubrication areas much quicker than heavier oils, greatly reducing engine wear when starting the car.
WHEN: Change your engine’s oil and oil filter at the specified intervals, and follow the more frequent “severe service” recommendations if your driving habits meet any of the conditions described in your owner’s manual. Always use the weight of oil recommended by your vehicle’s manufacturer for the existing temperature conditions. Watch for oil leaks beneath your vehicle and have any leaks corrected immediately.
BOTTOM LINE: Oil is the lifeblood of your engine. Not maintaining the proper levels, using the wrong oil or not changing it frequently enough can destroy your engine. Plus, oil that leaks on to a heated surface can cause excessive smoke and cause damage to oil saturated components.
When the temperature drops, a viscosity change may be needed. The 10/30 oil in the car since last summer was great for heading out across the desert with the family. Now that cooler weather’s coming, 05/30, 05/20 or 0/20 may be needed for your vehicle and your owner’s manual will provide you with the options for your climate.
WHY: Coolant/antifreeze protection is the first item that comes to mind when most people think of winter vehicle maintenance. A 50/50 solution of engine coolant and water will provide the necessary antifreeze capability to keep you moving on the road.
WHEN: While engine coolant may not lose its antifreeze capability, the additives that lubricate the water pump and protect internal engine components from rust and corrosion become depleted over time. Motorists should have the cooling system flushed and new coolant installed when recommended by the vehicle manufacturer. Depending on the type of coolant used, this is typically necessary every two to five years.
BOTTOM LINE: The coolant solution will only work if it stays in the system, which means the hoses and clamps that carry the mixture have to be working well, too. Visually inspect the cooling system hoses for leaks, cracks or loose clamps. Also, feel the hoses to check for brittleness or an excessively soft and spongy feeling. If you find any problems, have them addressed immediately. Hoses six years old or 75,000 miles are prime candidates for replacement due to age and mileage.
4. Brake Fluid
WHY:The fluid in your car’s brake hydraulic system transfers your foot pressure at the brake pedal into stopping power at the wheels. An adequate supply of clean brake fluid is absolutely essential for safe vehicle operation. Old, moisture-contaminated brake fluid, or a low fluid level that allows air to enter the system, can lead to brake fade or a complete loss of braking power.
WHEN:Inspect the brake fluid level at every oil change. If the level has fallen below the “low” mark on the fluid reservoir, it usually indicates major brake wear or a leak somewhere in the system; have the brakes inspected as soon as possible. Your brake fluid should be clear, if it’s not, it likely needs to be flushed. Most vehicle manufacturers recommend that the brake fluid be replaced periodically to flush moisture and contaminants from the system. Every few years is a
common interval; check your vehicle owner’s manual for specific recommendations.
BOTTOM LINE: Old brake fluid or low fluid levels can result in your brakes fading or damage to the hydraulic system. Plus, a leak in the brake system can cause a complete failure.
WHY: Any brake system problems that were noticeable in the summer will become worse in the first rain of the season, during heavy rain and during winter in some areas of Southern California when traction is reduced. Brakes that tend to grab or pull on a dry road are likely to lock on wet, icy or snow-covered pavement, resulting in a loss of stopping power and/or steering control. Make sure brakes are working properly before winter weather arrives.
WHEN: Have your brakes inspected when the owner’s manual indicates it should be done or every 5,000 miles. A lot can happen to your brakes over the course of driving 5,000 miles.
BOTTOM LINE: Brake pads, rotors, drums, calipers, wheel cylinders, and hardware all need to be checked to keep you driving safely. Due to technological advances, many components will look fine but all items need to be inspected regularly and replaced.
6. Power Steering Fluid
WHY: Inspect power steering fluid for proper level and condition. Low power steering fluid can cause damage to the power steering system and dirty and or burnt power steering fluid can lead to premature power steering failure.
WHEN: If your vehicle's manufacturer recommends a fluid change interval, follow that. Do-it-yourselfers will need to consult a service manual for the procedure on their vehicle. If there is no recommended change interval, however, change it as often as you would your engine coolant. Long-life power steering fluid should be changed every five years or 100,000 miles.
BOTTOM LINE: The fluid should be checked at every routine service interval. Change the power steering fluidat any time up to the interval recommended for your vehicle or if it appears significantly darker than new fluid.
7. Windshield Washer Fluid and Wiper Blades
WHY: Anyone who has made the mistake of using their windshield washer on a cold morning and found it was filled with water—that is frozen in the reservoir or freezes when contacting the windshield—knows the importance of checking the windshield fluid reservoir before the first freeze of the year and using a windshield washer cleaning solution with antifreeze components. When filling the washer reservoir, also check the operation of the pump and sprayers.
WHEN: Wiper blades should completely clear the glass with each swipe. If there are streaks or missed spots, it’s time to replace them. During the snow season in Big Bear, Running Springs and high desert areas, consider installing winter wiper blades.
BOTTOM LINE: These special units wrap the blade in a rubber boot that prevents ice and snow buildup that can inhibit good contact between the rubber blade and glass.
WHY:Power from the battery flows to the rest of your vehicle’s electrical system through the cables, clamps and terminals. If these components and connections become corroded or loose, your car won’t have the power needed to start the engine and operate other systems.
As a general rule of thumb, you can expect a new car battery to last about four to five years. If your vehicle has had a battery replacement, the replacement may last longer (or shorter), due at least in part to the warranty rating of the battery when it is purchased. Normally, you can expect to get more life from a battery with a longer warranty, but depending on your climate (freezing ambient temperatures during the winter or extremely hot temperatures in the summer take an early toll on battery life), and your driving style (short trips where the engine is started and stopped frequently versus less-frequent use as in a longer commute only twice a day without the need to start the engine repeatedly), “your mileage may vary”. And, unlike many automotive parts that give “warning signs” when they need replacement, batteries have been known to show no early symptoms of their demise.
WHEN:The battery, cables, clamps and connections should be inspected at every oil change. If there are signs of corrosion, or you notice other indications of electrical problems such as slow engine cranking or dimming headlights at idle, have your repair shop test the battery, charging and starting system, and clean and tighten the battery connections as necessary. Batteries more than three years old should be tested during every oil change.
BOTTOM LINE: No one enjoys walking into a parking lot to discover their car suddenly won’t start. Keeping the battery maintained will greatly reduce the risk of it going dead and help extend its life.
9. Engine Air Filter
WHY:Your vehicle’s air filter prevents dust and dirt from entering the engine. A dirty or clogged air filter restricts airflow and will reduce engine performance and fuel economy while increasing exhaust emission levels.
WHEN: Check the air filter every six months or 7,500 miles. Typically, your repair shop will inspect the filter at each oil change. You can check it by holding it up to a bright light. If you can see light through much of the filter, it’s likely still clean enough to work effectively.
BOTTOM LINE: Dirty air filters not only affect your fuel economy, but other vehicle systems such as the emissions control system and spark plugs. It might result with problems keeping your car running properly.
10. Cabin Air Filter
WHY: The air inside your vehicle can be as much as six to 10 times dirtier than the outside air. So enter “cabin air filters,” once only available in luxury vehicles. Automobile manufacturers have been equipping their mainstream cars with cabin air filters for several years.
WHEN: They need periodic replacement to be effective, just like air filters on the heating-air conditioning systems in homes. Vehicle manufacturers recommend changing your cabin air filter at least every year, or 10,000 to 15,000 miles, depending on conditions for maximum performance.
BOTTOM LINE: Some cabin air filters trap fine particulates and pollen and others add an additional layer of activated charcoal to this particulate filter to help absorb toxic and foul smelling components.
11. Engine Accessory Drive Belts
WHY: While the battery provides a reserve source of electrical energy, the alternator provides electrical power once the engine is running and charges the battery. Make sure the alternator belt is properly adjusted. A loose belt is a common cause of a dead battery. While older vehicles require manual belt tightening, late models typically have automatic tensioners—but those can wear out or fail. When checking the belt tension, also inspect it for signs of wear such as cracks or missing segments on ribbed belts on the underside that signal the need for replacement.
WHEN: Checking these belts and their condition during your regular oil changes or very 5,000 miles is important and a good rule of thumb. At 75,000 miles you and your trust-worthy mechanic should discuss replacing these.
BOTTOM LINE: Newer cars have just one belt that controls everything. If it fails, motorists lose control of power steering, the water pump, alternator, air conditioner and sometimes power brakes.
12. Timing Belts
WHY: Another “drive belt” in your engine is one that is more hidden than the regular “fan belts” or serpentine belt. In many engines, loss of the timing belt while the engine is running may cause extensive damage to the internal engine components, such as valves and/or pistons. The timing belt is hidden behind a cover in most engines, and requires removal of a fair number of engine components, such as regular drive pulleys, the water pump, and perhaps a motor mount, to gain access.
WHEN: Typical timing belt replacement intervals may be specified by the manufacturer around 60,000 miles to over 100,000 miles. Since more labor is required for its replacement, be prepared for a higher repair bill.
BOTTOM LINE: However, should the timing belt or “timing chain” break, this is definitely a show stopper, as the engine will no longer run.
13. Hoses and Clamps
WHY: The coolant solution will only work if it stays in the system, which means the hoses and clamps that carry the mixture have to be working well. Visually inspect the cooling system hoses for leaks, cracks or loose clamps. Also, feel the hoses to check for brittleness or an excessively soft and spongy feeling.
WHEN: Hoses six years old or 75,000 miles are prime candidates for replacement due to age and mileage.
BOTTOM LINE: Rather than driving your vehicle until a problem with hoses becomes apparent with a road side breakdown, replace them as signs of wear appear and keep your vehicle free from trouble. If you find any problems, address them as a Do-It-Yourselfer, or have them addressed immediately by a professional and trust-worthy mechanic.
The Automobile Club of Southern California is a member club affiliated with the American Automobile Association (AAA) national federation and serves members in the following California counties: Inyo, Imperial, Kern, Los Angeles, Mono, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Tulare, and Ventura.