You may not be a mechanical ace, or even all that mechanically inclined, but every car owner should know how to handle the basics of car maintenance. Keeping your car in good shape between professional check-ups helps ensure it will live a long and productive life, and also help ensure it’s always safe for you and your family.
Keeping your car in good shape means having a handful of tools around. This collection of five tools will ensure you are properly equipped to keep your car at its best, whether it’s a simple utilitarian transport mechanism, or a beloved four-wheeled family member.
Keeping your tires at their optimum inflation pressure means you’ll get better gas mileage, your tires will wear more evenly and last longer, they’ll provide their proper level of grip in all weather conditions, and you won’t run the risk of a blowout at speed from under-inflated tires. It’s important to check your tire pressure at least once a month, as tires will naturally lose pressure over time. It’s also important to keep a close eye on tire pressures when the seasons change, as warmer ambient temperatures can cause tire pressure to rise, and colder weather can cause pressure to fall.
You don’t need to keep an air compressor on hand, as your local gas station probably has one that you can use for free or for a few quarters—but that would also be a handy addition that could save you some time. Be sure to use your own tire pressure gauge rather than the one built into the gas station air compressor, as those aren’t always properly maintained or very accurate to begin with.
Look for a dial-type or digital display tire pressure gauge rather than the stick-type, as they’re much more precise and more accurately calibrated. If you have a normal passenger car, a gauge with 0-60 psi range is ideal, but if you have a large truck, you’ll need a gauge that reads up to 100 psi to cover the higher inflation pressures necessary for carrying heavy loads.
This might sound super-technical and tricky, but it’s actually as simple as plugging in a cord and pushing a couple of buttons. Every car and light truck in the U.S. built after January 1, 1996 is required to have an OBD-II port on board, so unless your vehicle is older than that, it will have the necessary diagnostic access port. This system will let you see what that light on your dash means without paying a mechanic $100 or so to diagnose it.
Once you have your OBD-II reader, you simply key on the car, plug in the reader, and tell it to collect any codes it sees. It will report the problem with an alphanumeric code, such as P0217, which indicates an engine over-temperature condition. Once you have that knowledge, you can often find out the severity of the problem or repair method online. Even if you have no plans to do the work yourself, looking up the reason for your car’s malfunction gives you good information to take to your mechanic—and to ensure you aren’t taken advantage of once you’re there.
If you live in an area that sees lots of snow and ice in the winter, you probably have a set of winter tires and wheels that live in your garage all summer. Sure, you could take them down to the tire shop and have them put on for you. But you could also save that cash and do it yourself in about 20 minutes.
All you need is a jack and some jack stands, to help you get your car off its tires and then keep it there safely. You could use the jack that came with your car, but that’s geared more for emergency use, and likely won’t hold up to many years of regular use. A good jack should cost less than $100, and the jack stands can often be had for as little as $20 each. You’ll want to get four jack stands, so that you can jack your entire car up and swap out all four wheels at once.
As a bonus, if you should decide to get your hands a little dirtier at some point down the road, being able to jack your car up and keep it level means you can safely get underneath it to change the oil.
Before you take your wheels off, you should have a torque wrench handy for putting your wheels back on. It’s not enough to just put them on “real tight”—you need to look in your owner’s manual for the recommended torque specifications for your lug nuts (the nuts that hold your wheels to the hub) and then set your torque wrench to that figure. This will ensure not only that you get your wheels on tight enough, but also that you don’t over-tighten. Over-tightening can “stretch” the lug bolts that hold your wheels on, dangerously weakening them and potentially leading to failure while driving—meaning your wheel might come off.
Look for a torque wrench that’s rated up to 100 lbs/in, as most wheels will need to be torqued to somewhere in the 70 lbs/in to 90 lbs/in range, though some may need more or less torque. If you have no clue where to start, the people at your local hardware store will be happy to help—torque wrenches are very common and incredibly easy to use.
You’ll also want to get a socket that fits your torque wrench and your lug nuts. If you’re not sure what size your lug nuts are, you can find out by measuring them directly (use a caliper to measure the distance across the nut from one flat portion to the flat area directly opposite), or again, ask for help from your hardware store or your favorite mechanic.
A good flashlight, shop light, or other very bright, portable light source (not your smartphone’s LED!) will allow you to properly inspect your car. Even in broad daylight, it’s hard to see into every nook and cranny in your car’s engine bay, or its undercarriage. Just flicking on the light and having a good look around can help spot problems before they bloom into full-on maintenance nightmares.
Look around inside your engine bay. Is there any fluid splattered around that looks like it shouldn’t be there? Anything oily or sticky on parts of the engine or on the underside of the hood? Is there evidence of animals being present (rats, squirrels, and other rodents love to curl up in engine bays at night, and often chew on wires, leading to potentially serious electrical problems)?
Get on the ground (or use your jack and jack stands to get your car up off the ground) and shine your light around the underside of your car. Are there any sticks, rocks, or other road debris hanging down? While you’re there, inspect your wheels and tires, all the way around to their inside edges—you’d be surprised how much abuse your wheels and tires are subjected to on a daily basis, and what can be stuck in/on them. Look for rust, especially if you live in an area where the roads are salted in winter. Generally look for anything out of the ordinary—signs of drips coming from the engine bay or the transmission, black sooty deposits around the exhaust pipe, or other signs of accelerated wear.
With this simple assortment of very basic tools, you can do all of the non-invasive maintenance you need to do on a weekly or monthly basis, helping to keep your car in top running condition between its usual visits to the mechanic.
automotive freelance journalist