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Self-Sufficiency Skill: Basic Vehicle Maintenance

Learning basic care car is a skill everyone should learn as part of being frugal and becoming more self-sufficient.

Maintaining my vehicle is my least favorite thing to do.  I tend to procrastinate on it way too long.  I justify my procrastination by telling myself that there are a million other more pressing things I need to get done today and the car can wait.  In the summer, I added the very good excuse that it was a waste of water while we were in the midst of a terrible drought here in California.  Now that it’s winter, I tell myself that there’s no point in it because…actually, I don’t really have an excuse.  Then I take it to someone else to do it for me.

According to my very unscientific pole of my female friends and family, none of us know much about cars.  We know how to put fuel in them and a few of us have actually checked our own oil (Yay!  Go, me!).  I began to realize that I was going to have to hand over my I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar card and couldn’t really continue to ignore this lack of knowledge and still call myself prepped.  The following are the things, while in no way complete, that I’ve learned so far…

The Owner’s Manual & Other Literature

You’ll probably find this in the glove box where it has sat undisturbed since acquiring your vehicle.  It’s loaded with information you didn’t know you needed to know.  If you have a question about your vehicle, read it first.

If you want to know in-depth information about how to repair something on your car, there are Chilton Manuals designed specifically for your make and model.  You can order the paper copy of the book or look it up online.

Wash, Dry, Wax, Repeat

Prior to the 1980’s, vehicles had a basecoat finish and the color of the vehicle was actually in the topcoat.  Today, the color of the vehicle is in the basecoat which is covered with a clearcoat.  The clearcoat helps to protect the finish, but only if you take care of it.

Road dirt, acids in rain, dust, salt, snow, and mud- these all take a toll on the finish.  Even accidentally brushing against a dusty car can leave small scratches in the finish.  For reasons I haven’t been able to discover, you’re not supposed to wash a hot vehicle.  If someone can explain why, please tell me the answer in the comments section below.  Also, don’t use dish- or laundry soap when washing your vehicle.  They strip the wax and dry out the finish.  To protect the finish, it’s best to use approved car washing soaps.

Once you’ve washed your vehicle, you shouldn’t let it air dry.  Water accelerates corrosion and hard water is the worst.  Dry the vehicle with a towel or a chamois.  Chamois are made of sheep skin and are super absorbent, but shouldn’t be used dry because they’re too hard and abrasive.  Instead, dampen the chamois prior to use and wring it out as needed.

Once your vehicle is completely dry, it’s time to wax it.  Again, don’t wax a vehicle in direct sunlight or while it’s hot.  Wax is to a vehicle finish what moisturizers are to freshly shaved legs.  It also helps to remove oxidation and keeps the finish (the clearcoat) shining.  Carnauba, a natural wax, has the tendency to shed water by making it bead and run off a finish.  Some synthetic finish waxes have added slickness and help shed water even better.  The important thing to remember is to get the right wax for your type of finish.  Some waxes aren’t safe for both basecoat and clearcoat finishes.  Clearcoat type waxes usually have fewer abrasives.

Cleaning the Inside

I am not proud to say that when my children were young, no matter how well-kept I tried to keep the interior, the inside of my car probably smelled like Ronald McDonald threw up and lost control of his bowels in it right before he died.  Even the protective seat covers were no match for two children in car seats and one in a booster at the same time and their exploding diapers, occasional upchucks from becoming carsick, and a few (ok, more than a few) lost French fries between the seats.  I could have hung a daisy chain of those pine scented car air fresheners and it still would have smelled like pine and puke.

In an attempt to air it out, I left all the windows down overnight during the summer.  That night a neighboring tom cat climbed into my car and sprayed everywhere.  Grossest.Smell.Ever.  The next night I left the windows down, but only a little so that cat couldn’t get back in, but the stench could get out.  It rained so much that night that the next morning my floor mats were floating a little.  True story.  I’ve never left my windows down, even a fraction of an inch, since.

Cleaning the inside of the vehicle helps preserve the fabric of the material in car seat covers and carpeting in much the same way that vacuuming the carpets in your house does- dirty fabric will wear out quicker than clean fabric.  Dirty windows can lead to unsafe driving. At night, windows that have a film over them glare.  Vinyl and rubber have a tendency to dry out and need to be conditioned, so be sure to use a specially formulated interior cleaners are safe for most types of vinyl and rubber parts and especially the dash, which is often exposed to the most direct sunlight.

So Many Oils!

I had no idea vehicles used so many different types of oils and fluids.  There are more than I’m going to list here, but these should get you started:

Engine oil

  • The most common weight of engine oil is 5W30, but refer to your Owner’s Manual for your vehicle’s recommendations. To get an accurate reading it is best to check the engine oil when the engine is cold. The caps of most of the places you’re going to put oils or fluids are pretty clearly marked, but if you have any doubt about which hole the engine oil or any other oil/fluid goes in, check your Owner’s Manual.  Never pour the right thing in the wrong hole.
  • Park on a level surface for the most accurate reading. I like to wear driving gloves to keep my hands clean and protect my hands from hot or sharp edges, but in a pinch medical gloves will do.
  • Remove the engine oil dipstick and wipe it off with a clean cloth. Put it back in the dipstick hole all the way, pull it out, and take the reading.  The dipstick should be clearly marked with where the oil level should be.
  • If the oil is low, use a clean funnel to help pour the oil in without dripping it on your engine. If you drip it on the engine, it will smell awful while it burns off the next time the engine gets hot.  If you don’t have a dedicated funnel for oil, a paper plate folded into a funnel shape will do.

Transmission Fluid (automatics)

  • Check transmission fluid when the engine is hot by driving the vehicle around for about tem minutes to get the transmission hot. Again, you should park on a level surface for the most accurate reading.
  • For automatic transmissions, leave the engine running with the parking brake on and the transmission in park
  • Open the hood and find the transmission oil dipstick. Again, unless you’re absolutely certain, refer to your owner’s manual to get the right dipstick.
  • Check the transmission fluid the same way you checked the engine oil: pull, wipe, dip, pull, read.
  • The automatic transmission fluid should be between the full cold and the full hot marks. If low, use a clean funnel to add the necessary fluid by pouring the fluid directly into the tube. Don’t over-fill.

Coolant (anti-freeze)

  • Ethylene glycol, which is used in standard and extended life coolants, is a toxic substance. Antifreezes that are propylene glycol based are safer in case of spills or accidental ingestion. When checking coolant level, the engine must be cool.
  • Check the level in the coolant recovery tank. The recovery tank is usually translucent with a “full cold” and a “full hot” mark. If adding to this tank, remove the cap and add a 50% water to 50% antifreeze mixture.
  • Check the level in the radiator. This requires removing a cool radiator cap and looking into the radiator. Never remove a hot radiator cap.  The coolant should be near the top, and if not, add the 50/50 mixture until it is.  Replace cap securely.

Tire Care and Safety

Maintaining the recommended tire pressure and tread is critical to minimizing tire wear and optimizing handling stability and safety.  You should check your tire pressure often using a tire pressure gauge.  If you don’t know how much air should be in your tires, you can find out by looking at the sidewall of the tires on your vehicle or by referring to your driver’s side door for a tire placard that lists the correct tire pressure.You should also periodically check the amount of tread remaining on your tires.  Some tires come with wear indicator bars that provide a visual way to inspect the tread depth. The wear indicator bars run perpendicular to the tread. New tires are needed when the tread wears to the same level as the indicator bars.  I’ve never felt confident that I was reading the wear indicators accurately and instead rely on an inexpensive, simple-to-use tread depth gauge.  Be sure to check all four tires as they can sometimes wear differently and replace your tires when the reading is less than 1/16th of an inch.


Learning basic care car is a skill everyone should learn as part of being frugal and becoming more self-sufficient.  By protecting and maintaining the exterior and interior of the vehicle and maintaining proper engine fluids levels and air pressure and tread levels on tires, you’ll get better performance, better fuel mileage, longer use, and retain better resale value on your vehicle.  And remember…keep those windows up!

This article was originally published at Ready Nutrition™ on February 22nd, 2016

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