Top 5 Car Repairs You Can Do Yourself
In the spirit of Treat Yo Self season, you may be inclined to give yourself the gift of an outrageously expensive and completely unnecessary car upgrade. But maybe pump the brakes on buying those 15-inch subwoofers for the back of your two-door economy sedan. Instead of going all early 2000s and pimping your ride, let’s start with these five basics to help keep your car going into the new year.
5. Replace Your Windshield Wipers
If you’re new to cars, even replacing your windshield wipers can be intimidating. This is the easiest repair on this list, and it’s more than likely to give you a big morale boost when you’ve successfully replaced both wipers in the parking lot of the auto parts store.
If you notice that the visibility in the rain is not any better when you are using your wipers than when you’re not, it’s likely time for a new set. Other signs of needing new wiper blades are more obvious: excess vibration, squeaking, falling apart on your windshield. Replacing your wipers is something that may need to be done every 6 to 12 months. But apart from not being able to see in the rain, the overall wellbeing of your vehicle isn’t affected if you need to stretch to make it to your next paycheck.
Pick out the right wipers for your vehicle by checking what is recommended in your owner’s manual. If you don’t have that, you can usually look up this information online or at the auto parts store. If you’re still confused, just measure the length of the wiper blades currently on your vehicle to compare and match. There are no tools required, but sometimes it might be easier to loosen a release clip with a flat head screwdriver to get the assembly apart. It’s a fiddly job, but once you figure it out you won’t forget how to do it ever again.
4. Check Your Tire Pressure
Keeping an eye on your tire pressure yourself, without relying on your onboard computer, is an essential car care skill to have. Keeping some kind of regular record of your tire pressure can help identify problems early on, like a faulty tire pressure sensor or identifying a slow leak before it becomes flat. I recommend working this into your regular routine, like always checking your tires when you stop at your favorite gas station to buy fried chicken. Tire pressure should really be checked when the tires are cold first thing in the morning, or haven’t been driven on for at least three hours, so you might as well get yourself another four-piece combo.
Making sure your tires are properly inflated can make your car more fuel efficient and prevent tire blowouts. Always look up the recommended PSI (pounds per square inch) for your vehicle. This is the number you want to keep your tire pressure at, inflating or deflating if necessary. It is usually not the PSI number on the side of your tire. That number is the maximum pressure your tire can withstand in use. If you are a real nerd you can even track the MPG (miles per gallon) of your car while also tracking what the PSI on your tires is to see if you can gain more efficiency. If you are doing more highway driving you will likely want to keep that PSI number topped up. However, if you’re mostly driving around our lovely pothole-ridden swamp you may want to play around with slight underinflation as this might help you rock-crawl out of some of these tire-eating sinkholes without busting your vehicular rubber. Remember to check all five tires—the four on your car plus the spare. You don’t want to discover your spare is flat when you need it most. Just like checking the battery on your vibrator!
3. Test and Replace Your Battery
Next up we have one of the most essential repair and maintenance tasks: making sure your battery is working properly. Running down your battery can mean a shorter overall lifespan which means you will be spending your hard-earned money on more batteries rather than fun pimp-my-ride stuff.
If you ever notice anything wonky with any electric component in your vehicle, the first place to start looking is your battery. If your battery is dead and you can’t start it you might try jumping it. If this happens once, or even twice, it’s no big deal. But if you are constantly running down your battery and needing to jump-start it often, this is a sign that your battery is at the end of its life.
If you find yourself short on cash, buying a whole new car battery is not something you would look forward to. You can use a multimeter to test the voltage and amperage of your battery to make sure it’s still holding a charge. If you don’t want to do all that, you’ll need to at least know how to take it out. To safely remove your battery, start by disconnecting the negative terminal from the post first. Tuck the terminal end behind something so it has no danger of touching the battery posts if you don’t want an accidental shock or spark. Next, take off the positive terminal, usually marked with a red cap and a plus (+) sign somewhere near the post.
Sometimes you will have to pop off a hose or take off some other small components to get the battery safely out, but it should be doable. Always stay aware of where the battery terminals are and be extra careful not to connect the two posts together with an unwieldy tool or hand.
2. Flush Your Coolant System
A coolant flush is usually recommended every 30,000 miles or every 3 to 5 years. However, if you’ve recently had your radiator replaced, your car hasn’t been driven in a while, you’re experiencing overheating problems, or the heater in your cab isn’t working, you may want to look into flushing out your entire cooling system to give it a fresh start. This will help clear out any debris before it creates a bigger problem, like a hole in your radiator. This may seem like an extreme service to do at home, but I think it’s one of the best to do if you are just starting out wrenching. There’s not a lot that can go wrong, and giving your car an extra coolant flush here and there will only increase your knowledge of your own ride.
You will need access to a hose with running water, a big bucket, barrel, or kiddie pool to catch old coolant, a flat head screwdriver (or a hose clamp driver, if you have fancy tools), and a flush and fill coolant kit which should be less than $5 at any big box or auto parts store. And while you’re out, pick up some new coolant to replace the old stuff you’re going to drain out.
Keep your container handy to catch any coolant spills you may create. You will need to dispose of it properly. Some auto parts stores will take your used fluids like engine oil, transmission fluid, and coolant. If you’re already on a first-name basis with your mechanic, ask if they would dispose of it for you. If you accidentally spill some on the ground, rinse the area with water to dilute the coolant. Coolant tastes and smells sweet, which is not great for surrounding animals and kids as it’s also pretty toxic.
Carefully follow the directions on the flush-and-fill kit to install it properly. Once installed, you will be able to flush your coolant system easily by attaching a hose with running water, while your car is running, to backflush the entire cooling system. After catching and properly disposing of any old coolant (which could be anywhere from a dark rusty brown to a neon green color), you can let any clear water run through to the shady tree you’re likely working under. It can’t be worse than the lead pipes that are bringing that water to your hose.
1. Change Your Engine Oil
My friends and enemies, I present to you the number-one car repair you can do yourself—the one, the only, the always classic—Engine Oil Change. It is recommended to change your oil every 3,000 miles or every 6 months or anytime your car computer tells you to do it. Just like flushing the coolant, you won’t hurt anything by getting an oil change ahead of schedule, while letting it linger can lead to some major and expensive engine problems if you’re not careful.
Before you start, you should know a few key pieces of information: the kind of engine oil you need in your car, how much of it you need, where the engine oil drain plug is, and where your oil filter is located. You will also want to gather up some tools which may vary depending on what kind of car you own and how accessible the engineers decided to make things under there. I recommend sitting down and finding a few videos of folks doing an oil change on a car of the same make, model, and decade as yours. Watching a few of these will help you figure out exactly what tools you will need for the job. Gathering this information and tools ahead of time will help your mental health in the long term—trust me on this one.
Even though the tools and steps may be a little different for every vehicle, the basic steps are the same. You will need to drain the old oil (and dispose of it responsibly), remove the old oil filter, put on the new oil filter while remembering to put a little new oil around the gasket for better seal, and finally close the drain plug and fill the engine with new oil. Take your time and make a day out of it. Maybe have a cookout with your friends and change the engine oil on all your cars together—or just on the one functioning vehicle of the group.
Once you master these five basics, the world is your oyster. If you can do all these repairs regularly and confidently, then and only then can we even begin to plan out what it would take to put a full surround sound system and a flat screen TV in the back of a two-door compact car.
Got questions about your car, truck, SUV, or other engine-powered vehicle? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
illustrations by Deanna Larmeu