Car care at home

Despite all the plumbing and wiring under the bonnet of the average modern car, there are still some basic things the average car owner can and should do to take better care of their car. Even if you do not intend to service or work on the car yourself, having an understanding of what is required can help avoid problems and allow you to better explain and discuss things with your mechanic.

If you seem to be forever topping up your water, or your oil for that matter, then have the car checked by an expert. Ignore it, and it could cost you heaps. Even while you are driving, have the good sense to continually check your oil and water gauges or lights; they are not there for decoration, they're designed to give you an early warning of trouble. If they do indicate problems while you're driving, then stop immediately and investigate.

Be smart about safety

Remember, always think safety first; it is better to err on the side of caution.

  • Invest in a pair of overalls - old work clothes may be okay for the garden but in the garage, loose buttons or sleeves or ties might get caught.
  • If you have long hair, tie it back or wear a cap or you risk injury.
  • Remove any jewellery, as it can be easily caught on engine parts or scratch the vehicle.
  • Invest in a set of axle stands or ramps, or both of these. Jacks, stands and ramps should be of good quality.Never jack a car up and climb underneath and definitely do not prop the car up on bricks.
  • It is worth buying a fire extinguisher and keeping it in easy reach. 

Reference books

  • One thing that's common to all cars is the owner's handbook. Chances are it hasn't left the glove box since you first bought the car. Dig it out because it’s specific to your car and is a guidebook to the entire vehicle.
  • If you want to go a bit further, you can buy a workshop manual for just about every make and model of car.

Tools

For most jobs all you really need is a basic toolkit. Chances are you will have most of the essentials at home already - such as screwdrivers, sockets, spanners, a hammer and pliers.

  • There are one or two other things that might come in handy, such as a powerful light with a good long lead so you can see the darkest corner of the engine bay and underneath the car.
  • It is a good idea, before starting work, to visit your local auto parts supplier and pick up all the spare parts you might need. But be sure the parts you buy are designed for your make and model.

A suitable place to work

To work on your car, you will need a garage or workshop. Only some of the smaller jobs can be completed in a driveway.

  • Before you start, tidy the place up a bit so that you can see where you are going. Every good workshop should be clean and tidy with everything in its proper place.
  • You need a decent bench or table near the car for easy access to tools and parts while you're working.

Changing a wheel


First, the car should be parked on solid, level ground. Get as far off the road as possible. Do not park the car where you leave yourself exposed to passing traffic while working.

  • Apply the hand brake and switch on the hazard lights.
  • Gather everything you need from the boot, including the spare tyre.
  • Your car's toolkit will include a jack. There are special jacking points for this, your owner's manual will tell you where they are. Do not use the jack on any other points.
  • Chock the diagonally opposite wheel to the one being changed. Chock both sides of the wheel.
  • Remove the wheel trims, if there are any, to get at the wheel nuts.
  • Loosen them just a little before you lift the car because once the car is jacked up, the wheel will spin freely making it hard to undo the nuts. 
  • Jack the car up until the wheel is just clear of the ground. 
  • Remove the nuts and slide the wheel off, lifting the wheel (on or off) with your hands in a 'ten minutes to four' position.

Caution: Never place your hands directly under the wheel, or put your leg or any part of your body under the car while it's jacked up. There should always be a wheel under the car just in case, so slide the old wheel underneath before pulling out the new one.

  • Place the spare onto the hub. 
  • Replace the wheel nuts, making sure the tapered end locates the wheel, and tightening them as far as you can. 
  • Lower the car, then tighten the nuts again, using a criss-cross pattern to ensure that the wheel is seated correctly and securely. This means to tighten the nuts opposite each other first rather than going around in a circle.
  • And, remember, now you don't have a spare, so get the flat tyre repaired as soon as possible.

The correct way to jack up a car for home repairs

The jack supplied with the car is designed for changing a wheel. It is not recommended to be used for repair work or getting under the car. Use a suitable trolley jack and safety stands.

CAUTION! Getting under a raised car is a dangerous activity. Take all necessary care.

  • Park on a solid, level surface that is big enough for your car e.g. concrete driveway or garage floor.
  • To raise the car, use a trolley-jack that has sufficient capacity to lift the car and complies with Australian Standard - AS 2615 and is in good working condition.
  • To hold the car up, use sturdy safety stands that comply with AS 2538. The jack is not sufficient for holding the car.
  • Locate the correct jacking or lifting points and position for safety stands on your car - these can vary from make to make or even model to model. Check the owner's manual. If in doubt, contact a dealer or the car manufacturer. These points will be different to those used for the jack supplied with the car for changing a wheel.

Procedure

  1. Chock both sides of the wheels opposite to the end being lifted - If applicable, apply park brake.
  2. Position trolley-jack under correct lifting point and raise jack until contact is made. 
  3. Check that its head plate is sitting squarely on the part you are lifting and will not slide off.
  4. Steadily lift the car to the required height, making sure the jack is able to roll slightly to allow for the change of angle as the car is raised.
  5. Carefully position the safety stands and slowly lower the jack until the car rests on them.
  6. Reverse this procedure to lower the car.

Caution !!

  • Never place any part of your body under a raised car until it is sitting securely on safety stands or vehicle ramps.
  • Large vehicles, such as 4WDs, may be too heavy for smaller jacks to lift safely.
  • Short wheelbase or narrow track jacks can be unstable.
  • If the incorrect lifting point is used, the jack could cause damage to the section it is on, or the jack could slip and the car could fall. It is also possible for the car to topple over if it is not be properly balanced.
  • Never jack on an uneven surface or in loose gravel.If the jack cannot roll, such as on gravel surfaces, the change of angle as the car is raised can pull the car off the jack.
  • Never use two jacks at the same time to lift the vehicle i.e. front and rear.
  • Use jacks and safety stands that
    • comply with Australian Standards
    • are operating properly
    • are sufficient for the weight to be lifted.

Weekly car maintenance checklist

Regular checks provide a good picture of the cars condition and any sudden change can be a warning of developing problems. Catching the problem early may prevent serious and expensive damage.

Tyre pressure

Perhaps no other item on your car is taken for granted as much as the tyres. We bully them day in, day out and expect them to go on forever. We don't look at them until one goes flat, and that is always at the worst possible moment. 

  • The most common problem with tyres is low pressure. Low pressure causes heavy wear, poor cornering and braking and, in extreme cases, blowouts.
  • Service station tyre gauges get knocked about a bit so they're not always reliable. When you're talking about something as important as your tyres, it's worth investing a few dollars in a good gauge.
  • Always check tyre pressures when they are cool as tyres that have been warmed up by running for more than a few kilometres will give misleading pressure readings.
  • All car makers recommend a particular pressure for the tyres on their cars. These are listed on a little placard on the car itself.
  • Remove the screw-on dust cap.
  • Place the tyre gauge squarely on the valve and check the pressure
  • Inflate the tyre as necessary.
  • Refit the dust cap, making sure no dirt gets in, as this will cause a slow leak in the valve.

While checking the tyre pressures, also look out for tyre wear or damage.

  • Obviously you shouldn't let the treads wear too low. All tyres have inbuilt indicators to show when they are worn too far. The images show a new tyre and another where the indicator has been worn.
  • If there is noticeably uneven wear then the wheel may need rebalancing, or there is something wrong with the steering alignment. Either way, a specialist should check it.
  • A specialist should also check any damage to the tyre wall, such as splits or cracking.

Lights

Good lights on a car are essential. Light globes can 'blow' at any time, so regular checks are important. The car lights are a roadworthy item and faulty operation is not only dangerous but could incur a hefty fine.

  • The easiest way to check lights is with two people - one to work the lights, one to check them.
  • If you can't find a helper, you can do it on your own by switching each light on and walking around the car. To check the stoplights, position the car so you can see the lights' reflection on a wall, the garage door or shop window.
  • There are a number of different types of globes and fittings used in a car. The most common is the bayonet type, which is changed in a similar manner to the common household globe - push-in slightly, and twist. Your handbook should tell you how to replace blown globes and what type to use.

Windscreen washers

  • When you're checking your coolant level, it only takes a few seconds more to check your washer reservoir.
  • Top it up with clean water and add some windscreen cleaning solvent as well to cut down the greasy road film on the glass.
  • Ordinary washing detergent is not suitable. Detergent plays havoc with your wiper blades and paintwork. Ordinary household detergents can leave streaks and cause rust.
  • The jet of water from the washers should hit the screen in the centre of each wiper's sweep.
  • If the flow is not as good as it used to be, the washer jets can be cleared using a fine needle or pin. Don't use force or the jets may be damaged.
  • Most washer jets can also be re-aimed using the same needle.
  • Oil from exhaust fumes and road grime builds up on the windscreen, so a regular wipe with a good quality glass cleaner will help improve visibility and extend wipe rubber life.

Coolant level

The car's cooling system can be very dangerous and should be treated with respect.

  • Whenever you check the coolant levels, be sure that the system has cooled right down before touching anything.
  • Before you check the system, look in the handbook and read any warning labels. Check the handbook and undo only the caps that are indicated in the book.
  • Most cars have a clear plastic reservoir so you don't need to open the cap to read the level. The level should be between the two marks on the side.

If the level is low check with your mechanic for possible causes.

Engine oil level

  • The car should be parked on a level surface and the engine stopped for at least a minute.
  • Check your owner's handbook for the location of the dipstick.
  • Remove the dipstick and use a clean rag to wipe off the oil.
  • Take a look at the end and you will find marks, which show the lowest and highest recommended levels.
  • Put the dipstick back in, then draw it out again. Look to see where the oil level comes to, it should be around the full mark. It's a good idea to check the level twice.
  • If the level is low, you need to top it up. As a rule of thumb if the oil is down to the low mark it will require about half a litre.
  • The handbook will tell you what grade of oil you need and where to find the oil filler cap.
  • A simple trick when topping up with oil is to put a rag around the filler neck, then if you spill any it will be caught by the rag. To make the job easier it is worth investing in a plastic funnel.
  • Before you finish, give the oil time to drain into the sump then check the dipstick level again. Do not overfill.
  • Now this might sound a bit obvious but you would be surprised how many people forget: put the dipstick back.

Car washing and stormwater pollution

The Dirty Truth

The 'dirty truth' aims to educate people about the consequences of letting anything except rainwater go into the stormwater drains.

The stormwater network is separate from the sewerage system. Everything that goes down the stormwater drains from our streets, driveways and footpaths goes straight into the nearest creek, river or sea without any filtering or treatment.

RACV supports the following tips to help you avoid polluting our waterways:

  • Do wash your car on your lawn and not in your driveway or in the street where possible
  • Don’t hose down left over concrete mix or any toxic substance into the drains
  • Don’t wash your paint brushes under the outside tap
  • Don’t spread fertilizers and pesticides on a windy day

Think twice before you let any contamination go into the stormwater system.



Monthly car maintenance checklist

Monthly checks on your car are just as important as the weekly checks but tend to be overlooked. If you're prepared to spend the time, it can save you trouble on the road and in the workshop.

Automatic transmission fluid level

Automatic transmissions are fairly reliable and shouldn't need much attention but they do appreciate a monthly fluid level check, and you can do that yourself.

  • Automatic transmissions vary from car to car but you should be able to check the transmission fluid level easily enough.
  • It's a matter of checking a dipstick, much like the one on the engine.
  • Your owner's handbook will tell you how to find the dipstick, the sequence for that particular car and the grade of oil required.
  • Most manufacturers specify the fluid level is checked with the automatic transmission at operating temperature. This can sometimes require a drive of up to 20 kilometres.
  • Make sure the car is parked on level ground and the handbrake is applied.
  • Usually the level is checked with the engine idling and the transmission in park. If the level is down excessively, requires frequent topping up or if it is a dark colour and has a burnt or sugary smell, take the car to a dealer or transmission specialist.

Power steering fluid level


It's a straightforward operation to check the level and top up if necessary.

It is important to check the handbook first.

  • On some cars you check the level with the engine running and on others with it stopped.
  • Before topping up stop the engine to prevent the danger of coming into contact with moving parts.

Brake and clutch fluid levels


Cars with manual transmissions usually have an hydraulic clutch which uses a similar set-up to the brakes. You can kill two birds with the one stone by checking brake and clutch fluid levels at the same time.

When your foot pushes on the brake or clutch pedal the master cylinder acts like a small pump pushing fluid down the line, transferring the force to operate the clutch or brakes. When the pedal is released the fluid returns and the level in the reservoir should not change dramatically. Over a long period of time there will be a slight drop in the fluid level as the brake pads wear.

  • The clutch and brake master cylinders are usually located on the rear of the engine bay. The same type of fluid is used in both. Refer owner's manual for specification.
  • Most cars, have see-through plastic reservoirs with level marks to guide you, so it is simply a matter of checking to see the fluid is up to the correct level. 
  • Before removing the reservoir cap clean around the area. Dirt and other materials will contaminate the fluid, which in turn will affect the clutch and brake systems. In addition brake fluid absorbs water from the atmosphere. This moisture will reduce the effectiveness of the brakes.
  • Don't remove the caps unless you have to. Keep the cylinders and caps clean and replace them firmly as soon as you have finished. It is also advisable to only use freshly opened brake fluid.
  • Brake fluid is very damaging to paint work. When topping up reservoirs be extremely careful to avoid splashing it and keep a rag handy to immediately mop up any spills and wash off the paintwork with water.
  • As always, if the level drops suddenly don't take chances, have it checked by a specialist immediately.

Six-monthly car maintenance checklist

While the six-monthly checklist covers bigger jobs, they're no harder than the ones described in the weekly and monthly checklists.

If you don't have your car serviced by a local dealer every six months, it's advisable to change the engine oil, the air cleaner element and the spark plugs and to check a number of other items. These are normally done automatically as part of a dealer's serviced schedule. If you're smart, you won't overlook them.

Change engine oil


In normal operation, unburnt fuel, combustion by-products and condensation contaminates the engine oil. It is recommended to change the oil and filter in accordance with the schedule in the handbook. This will also tell you quantity and grade of oil.

  • Changing the engine oil is a simple enough task but you will need to get underneath the car so you will need ramps or jack stands, and don't forget to chock the rear wheels.
  • With the engine stopped, remove the oil filler cap so as not to create a vacuum lock as the oil drains out.
  • Locate the sump plug under the car at the bottom of the engine.
  • Place a container under the engine to catch the oil. Make sure the container has sufficient capacity to hold all the oil being drained - usually around four to five litres for the average car.
  • With the correct size spanner start to loosen the sump plug. Remember the engine has been warmed up and the oil will be hot. It could cause a nasty burn if you don't take care.
  • Before removing it completely, it's a good idea to tie a piece of string around the plug so it's not dropped and lost in the oil.
  • Undo the sump plug and let the oil run out. It will take a few minutes to drain properly.

Once the oil has drained out, replace the plug. If it takes a washer, fit a new one then start it by hand before finally tightening it but don't overdo it. Now move to the oil filter. It is usual mounted on the side of the engine block. Once again refer to owner's manual. To loosen this, you will need a special tool, an oil filter wrench available at any automotive store.

  • The wrench wraps around the filter canister allowing you to turn the filter and screw if off. In some cars there is not a lot of room around the filter, making the job a little awkward. Care is needed sometimes to avoid catching and damaging wires or other parts near the filter with the wrench.
  • Throw out the old filter, making sure the rubber sealing gasket isn't left behind on the engine.
  • With a clean rag wipe around the engine block where the filter mounts. 
  • Write the date on the filter to remind you when it's due for a change.
  • Smear a little oil around the sealing ring of the new filter before screwing it into place.
  • Directions for tightening a filter on are often on the container or the filter itself.
  • You will need only to firmly tighten it by hand - don't use the wrench. Once the filter touches the engine, it needs only another half turn.
  • The owner's handbook will tell you how much and what grade of oil to use. Now it's a simple matter to refill the engine with the specified amount of fresh oil. Pour the oil in slowly as air locks can cause the oil to spurt back and create a nasty mess. 
  • Check the level on the dipstick is showing full and replace the filler cap.
  • Start the engine and allow it to idle for about a minute, running the oil into the new filter. Make sure the oil light goes out.
  • Stop the engine and recheck the oil level. Filling the filter, the level may have dropped a little and should be top up as required.

When you're finished, drive your car around the block then check the filter and sump plug for any signs of oil leak.

Replace windscreen wiper inserts

The rubber blades wear when the wipers are used and perish in sunlight. These should be checked every month but in particular it's wise to fit new blades at the start of winter- the blades that have sat there all through summer have probably deteriorated so much they're next to useless anyway. In some cases it is also not a bad idea to replace them again just before summer.

The correct wiper inserts should be available at your local dealer or auto store. 

  • It is a simple matter to unclip the old ones and slide them out. refer owner's manual.
  • The most common way is to lift the wiper blade clear of the windscreen.
  • Push the end of the wiper rubber inwards (back along the blade) until the end can be lifted clear of the metal backing strip.
  • The rubber can then be pulled out of the backing strip.
  • Using this old insert as a pattern, the replacement rubber refill is cut to the right length.
  • To refit the process is reversed with the rubber insert fed into the metal backing strip and slid along.
  • Once it reaches the end the rubber is pulled back and refitted under the retaining clip.
  • The blade is then lowered onto the windscreen and the process is repeated for the other wiper.
  • Note wiper rubbers should always be replaced in pairs.
  • Once again refer to your handbook for specific vehicle instruction.

Clean battery terminal and top

Most batteries get pretty grubby sitting in the engine bay. In particular, you will probably find a white ashy looking deposit around one or both terminals. If you want your battery to work well it's best to keep the terminals clean and tight. But be careful: the battery contains poisonous and corrosive sulphuric acid, and produces highly inflammable/explosive hydrogen gas. Avoid contact with skin and eyes. When working around a battery always wear protective clothing and glasses, do not smoke or light a match and take care not to cause a spark. 

  • If there is corrosion (the white deposit) around the battery, wash it off with a solution of warm water and baking soda.
  • To clean the terminals, it's necessary to disconnect the battery.
  • A word of warning: on late model cars with computer management systems and electronic radios, the memory may be lost when you disconnect the battery so make sure you have the radio security code before you disconnect.
  • On all cars, care should be taken not to cause a short circuit with the tools.
  • Disconnect the earth (or negative) lead first and reconnect it last. The earth is usually a short lead that is bolted directly on the engine block or the body. The battery is normally marked with + or red for positive and - or black for negative. The negative is also the smaller of the two.
  • Once both leads are disconnected you can use a wire brush terminal cleaner to spruce up the terminal connections (inside) and battery posts. Then re-fit and tighten carefully.
  • After connecting the leads up again, smear some petroleum jelly on the terminals, this will help prevent build up of scale in the future.
  • The battery should also be securely clamped down. Be careful, however, as over-tightening may damage the battery casing.

Check spark plugs

  • Spark plugs are a wearing part and as their condition deteriorates the engine does not run as smoothly, performance falls away and fuel consumption increases. With the introduction of more efficient electronic engine management systems and platinum-tipped spark plugs the service and replacement intervals on some cars has increased dramatically. Refer to you owner's handbook for the correct type of spark plugs and recommended replacement intervals.
  • You should make a careful check of the plug leads and plug connections in case they're cracked or damaged.
  • Be careful to pull on the cap, never the lead.
  • If you think you will forget which lead goes where, label each one now.
  • Using the right size plug spanner, undo and carefully remove all the plugs.
  • If the electrodes have burnt away throw them out and install new ones.
  • When re-installing the plugs, start them by hand and screw them in as far as they will go before using the plug spanner to finally tighten them. If they do not screw in smoothly, remove and check thread engagement is correct so as to avoid stripping cylinder head thread. Finally, don't over tighten them.
  • Replace all the plug leads, making sure they're routed clear of other components, start the engine and make sure it runs smoothly.
  • Do not handle or remove plug leads while the engine is running. It could not only give you a nasty shock but also may open circuit the system and cause expensive damage to the car's electronics.

Check radiator and heater hoses

  • Radiator and heater hose can leak at and occasionally burst.
  • Every six months, with the engine cold, go over all the car's hoses and squeeze them to check for any soft spots or any signs of cracking or splitting. If you are in any doubt have them replaced.

Change the air cleaner element

Car engines burn a mixture of fuel and air. Like humans, the air our engine breathes needs to be clean.

  • Every six months you should unscrew/unclip the air cleaner container lid and carefully lift out the old filter.
  • Don't let any dirt or other rubbish fall in the hole here or you may cause severe damage to the engine. 
  • Wipe out the inside of the filter container before putting everything back together.
  • It can be hard to see whether an air filter element really needs replacing but they are not expensive and it's probably wiser to simply replace the thing anyway.
  • Ensure the new filter is correctly located, and the lid is properly fitted and secured.

What could be wrong with my car?

Cars are very complex machines and from time to time things go wrong. Problems with cars don’t often fix themselves either and get worse with times. So here are a few common symptoms and the most likely diagnosis so you can describe the problem better to your mechanic.

After prolonged idle periods in traffic my vehicle emits clouds of blue smoke. What is the problem?

Blue smoke is usually caused by engine oil getting into the cylinder and burning. Possible causes range from valve stem seals to a more serious broken piston ring. Either way workshop diagnosis would be required.

My brake pedal is vibrating/pulsating when I apply the brakes. Why?

The brake discs/drums are most likely damaged or warped and will need to be machined or replaced if necessary.

I am driving my car normally, but it feels like it has much less power. Why is this?

This is mostly due to faulty ignition timing or there might be a vacuum leak at the intake.

After my engine has warmed up, the car stalls whenever I come to rest and I have to start the motor again. What could be the problem?

It is most likely that your idle speed is set too low or not properly set and will need to be adjusted. Otherwise Look for a vacuum leak at the intake. For older cars, the carburettor may be flooding, or the points could be worn or not properly set.

When trying to start my car, nothing happens but the headlights are bright as normal. Why won’t the car start?

Firstly, if your car is an automatic, make sure the vehicle is in park or neutral. Otherwise, you may have a problem with your Ignition switch, starter motor or the starter motor solenoid. In most cases, the faulty component will need replacement.

Droplets of water are coming from my exhaust tailpipe when the engine is running at normal temperature. Is there anything wrong with this?

Unfortunately, there most likely is a problem. You could have a blown head gasket or a cracked or warped head. This is usually an expensive repair and will need to be done by a qualified mechanic.

My engine check light comes on intermittently. Is there a problem with my on-board computer?

Have the computer codes checked to determine the cause of the check light coming on. The computer will log the fault and keep it in the memory data section.

My engine is running rough and is shaking badly at idle speeds. What can be the problem?

This is generally the symptom of one or more cylinder not firing. This is most likely a problem with the ignition system such as a broken lead or faulty spark plug.

My engine won't start but the radio works. When I put the headlights on they are dull. Why?

This sounds like a battery problem. Check the battery posts for corrosion. Failing this, have the battery tested. (put a link to RACV battery here)

I turned my heater on this morning to warm up inside the car but the fan does not work. Why?

You may have a faulty or broken wiring connection in the heater circuit, a blown fuse or dirty fuse holder, faulty switch or a faulty fan motor. Seek advice from an auto electrician.

I hear a grinding/knocking noise coming from the front of my car when I am turning corners. Why?

If your car is front-wheel drive, your CV joints may be worn. If your car is rear-wheel drive, you may have a steering or suspension problem and you will need a repairer to check this.

My heater only blows cold or cool air into the cabin. What could the problem be?

The thermostat may be stuck open so the water in the radiator does not reach a warm operating temperature. Also, the heater core may be blocked and will need to be checked by a specialist.

There is a heavy knocking noise coming from the engine at certain speeds and when I accelerate. What is the problem?

The big end bearings inside the motor could be worn and will need to be replaced. The engine will need to be inspected by a qualified motor mechanic.

My indicator, stop lights and headlights bulbs are constantly blowing. Why does this happen?

The alternator voltage is too high, and an auto electrician will need to repair this.

When I rev up the engine there is a loud squeaking noise. This is worse when the engine is cold. Why?

This sounds like a slipping belt drive on the engine. Have a mechanic check the tension of all the belts.

The outside edges on my tyres are much more worn out than the centre. What causes this?

Either your tyre pressures are too low or the wheel alignment is not correct. Check that the tyre pressures are correct, otherwise you will need to have a wheel alignment done.

I recently had a wheel alignment and all tyres balanced but, on the freeway at 100km/h, I can feel vibration at the steering wheel. Why?

Have the tyres checked for run out (run out is a measure of how round the wheel is); it is not possible to balance an out of round tyre.