Easy DIY car maintenance jobs

Moving Well | Nick Platt | Posted on 06 April 2020

Step-by-step instructions for basic car care – plus those you should leave to the experts.

Spending more time at home presents an ideal opportunity to do some basic checks and maintenance on your car

Regular checks will give you a good picture of the car’s condition, and any sudden change can be a warning of developing problems. Catching the problem early may prevent serious and expensive damage.

What you can and cannot do really depends on your skill and qualifications, but there are some jobs on a car most people with average skills and minimal tools should be able to do. We’ve put together a list of simple maintenance jobs you can do at home in your driveway.

Checking the car oil


Car care you can do yourself


Check tyre pressure (Level of difficulty: Easy)

All car makers recommend an ideal pressure for the tyres on their cars. These are listed on a placard on the car and usually found on the door jamb, fuel filler flap or glovebox lid. 

It’s good to get into the habit of checking pressures regularly. The most usual problem is running tyres at too low a pressure, which causes heavy wear, poor handling and braking, and potentially blowouts. 

For those without an air compressor at home, most service stations have free air lines with in-built gauges situated away from the petrol pumps, ideal for social distancing.  

  • Remove the valve screw-on dust cap situated on the outer rim of the wheel. 
  • Place the tyre gauge, which is integral to the airline, squarely on the valve and check the pressure.
  • Inflate the tyre as necessary and check again.
  • Refit the dust cap, making sure no dirt gets in, as this can cause leaks. 

Some service stations have automatic systems that fill to the pressure you enter. These are great but be aware they are sometimes not well maintained. 

Watch this RACV video on checking your tyre pressure.

Tyre wear (Easy)

All tyres have inbuilt indicators to show when they are worn too far. These are little rubber blocks that protrude from the low point in the tyre channels. When the surface of the tyre has worn down to be flush with the blocks, it’s time to replace the tyre. 

If there is uneven wear, the wheel may need rebalancing or alignment. Either way, a specialist should check take a look at it.

Tread on a new tyre

Good tyre


Tread on a worn tyre

Worn tyre


Lights (Checking is easy; changing lights is more difficult, depending on globe)

Good lights on a car are essential and are a roadworthy item. The easiest way to check them is with another member of your household – one to work the lights, one to check them. If you can’t find a helper, do it on your own by switching on each light and walking around the car. To check the stoplights, position the car so you can see the lights’ reflection on a wall or the garage door.

There are several different types of globes and fittings used in a car. Your car’s handbook should tell you how to replace blown globes and what type to use. Bear in mind some simple tools such as screwdrivers and pliers will be needed to change globes.

It is good practice not to touch headlamp globes, since some may be susceptible to damage from skin oils. Use a tissue or gloves when handling them.

Windscreen washers (Easy)

Everyone should check their windscreen washers regularly, particularly if you’ve been using them a fair bit. The reservoir is usually under the bonnet in a well-labelled and accessible area.

  • Top reservoir up with clean water and add some windscreen cleaning solvent as well to cut down greasy road film on the glass.
  • Ordinary washing detergent is not suitable. It plays havoc with your wiper blades and paintwork, and can leave streaks and cause rust.
  • The water jet 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 jets can be cleared gently using a fine needle or pin. 
  • 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 the life of the wiper rubber.

Replace windscreen wiper inserts (Mostly easy)

The rubber blades of wipers wear through use and exposure to sunlight. They should be checked frequently but it’s wise to fit new blades at the start of winter – blades that have had little use over summer may have deteriorated to a point where they’re next to useless anyway. Fitting new ones is easy.

The correct wiper inserts should be available at your local dealer or auto store. Instructions will be in the owner’s manual. It’s usually a variation on unclipping the old ones and sliding them out. 

  • 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, cut the replacement rubber refill 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, pull back the rubber and refit under the retaining clip.
  • Lower the blade back onto the windscreen and repeat the process for the other wiper.
  • Wiper rubbers should always be replaced in pairs.
Person putting oil in a car
Checking the windscreen wipers on a car

Engine oil level (Mostly easy) 

Checking engine oil is straightforward and something everyone should learn to do. If you have to do it too often there may be a more serious problem. 

  • Park the car on a level surface with 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 indicating 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’s 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. 
  • Put the dipstick back. 

Watch this RACV video on checking your engine oil.

Brake and clutch fluid levels (Some care required)

Cars with manual transmission usually have a hydraulic clutch which uses a similar set-up to the brakes. You can check brake and clutch fluid levels at the same time.

The same type of fluid is used in both. Refer to owner’s manual for specification.

  • Most cars have see-through plastic reservoirs with level marks to guide you. They are usually located on the rear of the engine bay. Simply check to see the fluid is up to the correct level. 
  • Don’t remove the caps unless you have to. If it does need topping up be very careful. 
  • Before removing the reservoir cap, clean around the area. Dirt and other materials will contaminate the fluid. Brake fluid also absorbs water from the atmosphere which will reduce the brakes’ effectiveness.
  • Keep the cylinders and caps clean and replace them firmly as soon as you’ve finished. It’s also advisable to only use freshly opened brake fluid. 
  • Brake fluid is very damaging to paintwork. When topping up reservoirs be careful not to splash it. 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. 

Watch this RACV video on checking your car’s brake and washer fluid.

Coolant level (Easy to moderately difficult on older cars – care required)

A car’s cooling system can be very dangerous and should be treated with respect. Whenever you check the coolant levels, be sure the system has cooled right down before touching anything.

  • Before you check the system, look in the handbook and read any warning labels. Undo only those caps that are indicated in the handbook.
  • 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 of the reservoir.
  • If the level is frequently low, check with your mechanic for possible causes.

Watch this RACV video on checking your car’s cooling system.

Automatic transmission fluid level (Some care required)

Automatic transmissions are fairly reliable and shouldn’t need much attention but it’s still worth checking the fluid level which you can do yourself.

  • Your owner’s handbook will tell you how to find the dipstick, the checking method and the grade of oil required.
  • 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 the oil is a dark colour with a burnt or sugary smell, take the car to a dealer or transmission specialist.

Power-steering fluid level (Some care required)

While it’s a fairly straightforward operation to check the level and top up if necessary, it’s 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 avoid coming into contact with moving parts.

Watch this RACV video on checking your car’s steering and transmission fluids.

Check radiator and heater hoses (Some care required)

Radiator and heater hoses can leak and occasionally burst.

To check they’re in good shape, make sure the engine is cold, then go over all the car’s hoses and squeeze them to check for any soft spots or signs of cracking or splitting. If in any doubt, have them replaced.

...And the jobs you shouldn’t tackle yourself at home

While some people may be perfectly comfortable doing everything on a car, most of us should avoid certain, jobs which could be extremely dangerous. And, if you're working from home, now might be the ideal time to get your car serviced. RACV members save five per cent on servicing, repairs and parts when they book in at an RACV Accredied Auto Care Centre.

Do not attempt: 

  • Air-conditioning degassing.
  • Anything involving the fuel system.
  • Cooling system work other than level checking and topping up, done with caution.
  • High-tension ignition system maintenance, especially while the engine is running.
  • Suspension work.
  • Brake system other than fluid-level checking. 

As with anything, common sense and caution is the key. If you’re not sure, consult an expert.


 
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