Alright Traveling Dads: You’ve been eyeing a family trip, and finances dictate that hitting the road instead of flying may be the most economical way to travel. When the weather begins to change from winter’s gloom to the glory of spring, many begin using our cars more.
Well, a cheap road trip can turn into a major financial hardship if your trusty steed is not ready for the task. So what’s a concerned dad to do?
Before getting into the full swing of warm weather, take time out to give your car a maintenance checkup. The following tips should be used as a general guide. If you’re not comfortable performing basic tasks, seek the help of a professional automotive service center or dealer repair shop. Ready? Here we go!
Your wiper blades got you through winter, wiping away rain, sleet, snow, leaves, mud and more. Look at your blades for any obvious wear and replace them if they are chipped, flaking or peeling.
As a general rule, it’s a good bet to replace those babies every two years if you live in a harsh summer or winter climate, and every three years for everyone else. To extend the life of your blades, use a separate cleaning cloth in your wash bucket to give them a good wipe every time you wash your ride. Pull the blade away from the windshield (careful – not all blade arms will give your full clearance without contacting the hood) and wipe them until black residue disappears. Consider replacing your wiper blades now so you can drive squeak and streak free during April showers and summer thunderstorms. Wiper blades are easy to replace, and remember many discount auto parts chains like AutoZone and Pep Boys will perform this task for free with blade purchase.
Cost – $5-25
Grille and under-the-hood cleanliness
Check your radiator grille and the cowl (the hood area just ahead of the windshield) for accumulated debris from winter. Remove any leaves, twigs, acorns and other detritus.
Buildup in these areas may cause your engine to overheat or your air conditioner to overwork itself. On certain vehicles, a buildup in the fresh air intake system can cause water to back up into the car and cause thousands in water-related computer damage.
Cost – $0
Lift your hood and check your antifreeze. Fresh antifreeze is vivid in color (traditionally bright green, but today’s blends can be orange, pink, red, clear and even dark blue). Dirty antifreeze looks dull, oily, multi-colored or even rusty. In most cases, you should flush and refill your antifreeze every 24 months. WARNING – Antifreeze is actually an engine coolant, and it does its best work at high temperatures, drawing away damaging heat from your engine. So that means it’s hot! DO NOT open the clear coolant bottle under the hood or open the radiator cap when your car is hot unless it’s 100% necessary. If you must, use a thick cloth to open very slowly, allowing built up steam and pressure to slowly dissipate. Unless you are mechanically inclined, leave this one to the professionals. That mail you call “junk” usually contains great offers and discounts on auto repairs, and cooling system maintenance is always part of special deals this time of the year.
Cost – $25-100
Winter is hell on batteries. If your car’s battery is more than four years old, have it professionally load tested to see if replacement is due. Many discount auto parts stores will perform this test free of charge. Always replace with the same series and power ratings to ensure your vehicle operates properly. Be sure the battery is properly secured so it does not bounce around when you’re driving. Believe it or not, unsecured batteries can lead to an underhood fire. Note: Some cars, including many Mercedes-Benz automobiles, have two batteries. Also, if you don’t see your battery under the hood, it’s under the rear seat or in the trunk. But you remember that from reading your Owner’s Manual, right? Serious DIY’ers can invest in tools to check your battery and charging system. My favorite was sent to me for evaluation by Griot’s Garage, a catalog and online retailer of high-end goodies for your vehicle. Their Battery Tester and System Tester gives a quick read on the health of your battery and charging system. See their full line of cool things to keep your ride running well and looking awesome at www.griotsgarage.com
Cost – $75 – 300
Belts and hoses
Winter is very hard on belts and hoses. The cold, salt and dirt make rubber hard and brittle, so it’s a good idea to check your belts and hoses every spring. Twist belts to inspect for cuts and tears. Give hoses a squeeze when the engine is cold. If the hoses feel soft and mushy, replace the offending hoses.
As a general rule, it’s a good idea to replace them every two-four years depending on climate. Have your dealer or favorite shop clean your engine each spring to remove winter’s grunge. You can also do this, but be sure to protect electrical components like the alternator and mass airflow sensor from steam or water. After cleaning, treat all hoses, belts and other rubber parts with a quality rubber dressing. Pay close attention to the serpentine belt, which drives cooling, electrical, power steering and other systems on your vehicle.
Cost – $10-200
Spring is a good time to check your brakes. The most obvious warning sign for brake trouble is brake noise, chatter or grinding (or that big warning light on the dash!). Your brakes should also be checked for corrosion, which can lead to premature brake failure. And don’t forget the brake fluid! Keep the brake fluid reservoir clean so you can give a quick visual inspection of the brake fluid, which should be replaced every two years. If it is dark and dirty looking, have the system professionally flushed and refilled. Brake fluid naturally attracts moisture, which can wreak havoc on expensive anti-lock brake systems. Brake system service is best left to those with mechanical skills or a competent service facility.
Cost – $50 – 1,000
Spring is the best time to check your air conditioning (A/C) for proper operation. Most people forget to run their A/C during the winter months, which can result in premature failure of system seals and the system compressor. Also remember that many modern cars have pollen and cabin filters! Failure to change these on a regular basis places additional stress on your cooling system, as it literally chokes the A/C system, and may lead to premature component failure.
Cost – $80-300
As a general rule, today’s modern, high-tech motor oils can safely take you many miles. If you use a quality oil, no longer do you have to change your oil every 3,000 miles. Between 5-7 thousand is a safe bet if you always use a new filter. One oil company even advertises their oil is good for one year or 20,000 miles. If you are due a change, flush stressed winter oil as soon as possible, and use the proper viscosity for your vehicle. This information can be found in the owner’s manual. Dig it out of your glovebox or trunk and familiarize yourself with your car’s basic needs.
Cost – $30 -150
Tires and suspension
Are your tires, tired? Did monster potholes turn your once straight wheels wobbly? Does your smooth riding car now track like a tank? Well, there’s no season more brutal on your vehicle’s underpinnings than winter. Look at the tread on your tires and stick a penny in the tread to measure depth. If Lincoln’s head shows fully, your tires are at the end of their safe life. With a latex or vinyl glove for protection run your hands across the tread (car off and parking brake set please!) and note any bumps, lumps or uneven tread patterns.
Visually inspect the tire sidewall for any lumps or cuts. To check your suspension, rock the car up and down vigorously three times. If the car bounces when you stop rocking, you probably need new shock absorbers or struts.
Cost – $0-1,500
Taking the steps to ready your vehicle for spring will help to ensure trouble free miles as the temperature rises. Though the prices for some listed services may seem high, remember they vary from car brand to brand, and shop to shop. If you regularly service your vehicle, you will better the odds your spring road trip is a safety success!
Schedule with your service facility soon to avoid the rush when the mercury hits 90 degrees!
And be sure to document all services done on your car. There are many apps now available if you have a smartphone, just choose one that suits your needs. You can also keep it simple with a small notebook with dates, type of service performed, mileage at service time, when next similar service is due, and cost of service. Having records can be a huge plus for vehicle resale! Even though you should save receipts for work done, having an immediately accessible record of work can save lots of headaches as your vehicle piles on the miles.
In my next post, I’ll detail some top cleaning and procedural tips to keep your vehicle’s exterior and interior in top shape.