Maintaining Your Car: Periodic Inspections and Professional ServiceUpdated Jan. 2, 2021
When it comes to keeping your vehicle road-worthy and safe, and avoiding costly repairs, taking preventative action is key. No automobile lasts forever, but by engaging in regular small maintenance tasks, you can prolong your car’s life for as long as possible. The brakes, tires and other essential systems should never fail unexpectedly if you take care to follow a maintenance schedule and have the car checked out by a mechanic at regular intervals.
The vehicle owner’s manual is the best source of guidance about how best to maintain your car, as all models of vehicle are different and require different care. This handbook will list every vital maintenance service which must be performed, with a recommended frequency in time or miles driven. It will also provide vital guidance on how to approach these tasks (i.e. when the engine is cool, or in dry conditions).
Do not be confused by the fact that your owner’s manual contains several possible maintenance schedules. As car manufacturers want to make sure your vehicle is kept in safe working order, they include distinct service schedules and guidance to suit different driving conditions. It is up to you to read through these and determine which schedule best suits the way you use your car.
Think of the vehicle’s engine and essential systems working together, somewhat like organ systems in a human body. Just as you can eat well, exercise regularly, have regular check-ups with your doctor to prevent serious health problems before they occur, you can take steps to prevent similar debilitating situations from developing in your car. The three simplest and most important things you can do to keep the vehicle healthy are:
- Topping up and changing the motor oil.
- Ensuring the vehicle is well-fueled.
- Keeping the vehicle clean.
Keeping on top of oil maintenance is essential. If oil levels are too low, every system in your car will suffer from lack of lubrication and may begin to malfunction and fail. Gas is another key issue, as running the vehicle on a tank that is less than 25% fuel can lead to problems in the fuel lines and engine. Never over-fill the gas tank or forget to secure the cap properly when you’re done.
Cleaning the car may seem like a superficial maintenance task but it is vital to the health of all its essential systems. If dirt, grime or debris are allowed to build up around the outside of the car, it will eventually make its way into the engine compartment and other internal features. Keeping the vehicle clean – inside and out – will also make sure you can see the road clearly from the driver’s seat. Be sure to conserve water while washing your car, particularly if you live in an area where water shortages are common. Finally, make sure any cleaning products you use on the vehicle are safe and appropriate for the task.
Now, let us take a look at a general maintenance and inspection schedule.
Establishing a set maintenance and inspection routine is important. With so many tasks that need to be performed at different frequencies, it is easy to forget something important if you are not following a set schedule. Using the information in the vehicle owner’s manual, and our guidance, you may wish to write up a maintenance schedule and refer to it each time you inspect the vehicle.
The more specific you can be, the better. Once you know roughly how long a weekly or monthly inspection will take, you can pencil it into a specific time slot, to make sure it does not get overlooked. When choosing an appropriate time to maintain your vehicle, do not forget to factor in the time needed for the engine to cool down, if you have recently been driving.
Once a week, you should perform vehicle maintenance tasks that do not require popping the hood. This will predominantly involve checking that essential internal and external features are intact, operational and clean.
- Check that all lights are operational, including the headlights, taillights, turn signals and hazard lights. You should also switch the car on briefly to make sure all the instrument panel lights illuminate before switching off.
- Check that your windshield wipers, heating and air conditioning systems are all operational.
- Secure and release the seat belts within the vehicle, to make sure they are fully functional.
- Check the outside of the vehicle for cleanliness and wash it, if necessary. Pay particular attention to your lights and turn signals.
- If you carry an emergency kit in your vehicle (as every driver should) make sure that it is fully stocked with non-perishable food, water, first aid items, a fire extinguisher and a flashlight with working batteries.
- Look over the tires for signs of uneven wear, damage and debris stuck between the treads.
You should also check your tire pressure at weekly or bi-weekly intervals. You may not be able to do this at home if you do not have a tire pressure gauge, but most gas stations have an air pump and gauge you will be able to use. Do not forget to check your tire pressure if you perform this task at a different time to the rest of your weekly inspection. Keeping tires topped up to the correct air pressure is one of the smartest and easiest things you can do to increase their lifespan.
Once a month, you should add an under-the-hood inspection to your ordinary weekly inspection tasks. While fixing and replacing engine parts is usually a job for a mechanic, there are several important maintenance activities which the car owner must perform in the engine compartment. Be sure to check the levels of the following essential engine fluids, topping them up if necessary:
- Engine oil, using the oil dipstick
- Transmission fluid
- Brake fluid
- Engine coolant
- Windshield wiper fluid
Three further maintenance checks should be performed at this stage, these are:
- Check that battery connections are secure and free from corrosion.
- Check that drive belts are not loose, damaged or dirty.
- Check the cleanliness of the air and oil filters.
Always consult your owner’s manual before completing any of these under-the-hood maintenance tasks the first few times. This will ensure you can find everything easily and can avoid expensive or dangerous mistakes.
Topping up fluid levels
Before purchasing engine oil, coolant, or any other fluid for your vehicle’s engine, check the owner’s manual to find out which type of fluid you should be using. There are many different grades and compositions of fluid; choosing the wrong kind for your car could cause serious malfunctions. Furthermore, you must never mix two different types of fluid in an engine reservoir, as substances with different chemical compositions may react with each other and prevent key components from functioning correctly.
You will notice that some of the engine fluids listed above need topping up more regularly than others. The transmission fluid and brake fluid are kept in enclosed systems and should not need to be changed or topped up unless there is a leak or obvious contamination. Despite this, you must make a commitment to check them at every monthly inspection. If the level of either fluid ran low between semi-annual inspections, the engine could sustain untold damage.
Once every six months, you should perform a thorough vehicle inspection. In addition to the weekly and monthly tasks mentioned above, you should check:
- The efficiency of your parking brake. Be sure to test it when parking on a slope, to make sure it can hold the vehicle in place against gravity.
- The air pressure in your spare tire. Even though it has not been used, it will gradually lose pressure.
- The hinges, latches and locks on your doors for signs of wear and corrosion.
- The weather strips on the car’s doors, to make sure they are intact.
- The drain holes in the floor and door of the car. These prevent moisture from building up inside the vehicle and must not become blocked.
You should book your vehicle in for a full service with a professional at least once a year, to make sure any maintenance tasks which you cannot do yourself can be performed. How regularly a vehicle needs a professional service varies a little from model to model. Newer vehicles may only need a service once every 12 to 18 months, whereas older models may need to be serviced twice annually (or once every 3,000 to 5,000 miles). The vehicle owner’s manual will tell you the recommended service frequency for your car.
Never skip a professional service, even if there is nothing noticeably wrong with the vehicle. Some essential maintenance tasks can only be carried out by a mechanic. Missing these tasks will lead to premature wear in various essential systems. Once or twice a year, your mechanic must:
- Drain and replace the engine oil
- Replace the engine oil filter
- Rotate the vehicle’s tires
In addition to a service, your vehicle will intermittently require a full professional tune-up. Tune-ups do not need to be performed as regularly as a standard service, though in older vehicles, they should still be carried out once a year. Modern vehicles are built with advanced technologies that require fewer adjustments and repairs. Spark plugs in older vehicles typically need to be replaced every 10,000 miles (about once a year), whereas now, many vehicles are built with spark plugs that may last 100,000 miles or more.
The tasks performed in a full tune-up vary from vehicle to vehicle. What your car needs will depend on its age, model and whether any essential systems are showing signs of wear.
Approximately every 15,000 miles, a mechanic must check the following systems:
- The service brakes and parking brakes. They will check the brake pads and shoes for wear and test the tension of the parking brake cable.
- The cooling system. This will include checking potential weak spots for signs of coolant leaks.
- The steering system. The gearbox components will become worn over time.
- The suspension. Springs and shock absorbers may need to be adjusted.
- The air filter. This will need to be replaced intermittently.
Approximately every 30,000 miles, a mechanic must also check:
- The vehicle’s battery
- The ignition system
- The automatic transmission
- The engine’s drive belts
- The alignment and timing of engine valves
- The fuel filter
- The exhaust system
Car inspection laws
In most states, vehicles must pass an inspection once a year, or every two years, to be lawfully allowed to remain on the road. The specific tests carried out during this inspection vary from region to region, though they generally include:
- An emissions test (sometimes called a smog test), to ensure that vehicle meets federal emissions standards.
- A safety test. This may include checking the functionality of key safety systems such as the brakes, horn, lights, tires and seat belts.
Florida, Kansas, South Carolina and Michigan currently do not require emissions testing. In states where mandatory emissions tests are conducted, the standard a vehicle must meet will vary by city or country. In many states, older vehicles must pass inspections more often than newer vehicles.
Even if you live in an area where vehicle inspections are not required by law, keep in mind that police officers have the power to pull you over and conduct a roadside safety check on your car, if they believe it may be unfit to drive. It is essential to get your car checked out, serviced and tuned up by a professional in accordance with the recommended frequency in the owner’s manual. Failure to do so will not only land you on the wrong side of the law, it could leave you driving a vehicle that is a danger to you, and everybody else on the road.
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