Car Maintenance Checklist

The best way to keep your vehicle healthy is to keep it clean and lubricated. Maintenance "musts" include changing filters and oil on a regular basis. These basics are the most important part of any maintenance regime and they're also relatively inexpensive. If you do these things regularly, you can help maximize your vehicle's life.

Important filters include:

  • oil filter
  • engine air filter
  • fuel filter
  • automatic transmission fluid filter
  • PCV/Breathers
  • cabin air filters

Most vehicle manuals recommend that you service your vehicle more frequently if you drive in "severe" conditions. Most drivers are surprised at what counts for severe driving. In fact, for most drivers, "normal" driving habits are actually "severe"!

"Severe" driving conditions include one or more of the following:

  • driving in stop and go traffic
  • driving in extremely hot or cold temperatures
  • driving at prolonged higher engine speeds
  • taking multiple trips averaging 5 to 10 miles in length
  • frequent cold start-ups and shut downs
  • extensive engine idling
  • towing and/or hauling heavy loads
  • driving in dusty or muddy conditions
  • driving in mountainous terrain

Protect your car with proper maintenance to counteract the effects of severe driving.

Tire Tread & Pressure Check

Under- or over-inflation of tires can:

  • cause uneven tread wear
  • weaken your tires
  • reduce traction
  • impact gas mileage
  • reduce the number of miles you get out of your tires

Eventually, you could have inconvenient flats or even dangerous blowouts. Over-inflation means the weight of your vehicle is not distributed evenly across the entire tread but is instead concentrated on a thin strip in the center. Under-inflation means the tire is soft and the outside edges work harder than the softer center. The extra rolling resistance makes your vehicle work harder to move and it can reduce gas mileage.

Be sure to check your tire pressure regularly and maintain the recommended pressure listed in your vehicle's owner's manual. You can usually find this recommended pressure on a sticker posted in the trunk, on the door pillar or in the glove compartment.

Each of your tires will wear differently due to its position and the type of vehicle you own. So tires will wear evenly, remember to balance and rotate your tires according to manufacturer's recommendations.

To check tread wear, use "the penny trick:"

  1. Insert a penny into the tread groove with Abe Lincoln's face showing, but with his head upside-down.
  2. If you can see all of Abe Lincoln's head, it's probably time to replace your tires.

Oil and Filter: Time For a Change

To keep your oil clean and your engine healthy, it's important to follow your vehicle manufacturer's maintenance recommendations.

Also check your oil level with the dipstick, if applicable, every time you fill up with gas. Check your oil for:

  • bubbles or foam
  • a milky appearance
  • a strong smell of gasoline

These signs could mean you have water or fuel contamination or your oil level could be too high.

If you change your oil yourself, be sure to dispose of the used motor oil in an environmentally responsible manner.

What Does Oil Do Anyway?

Oil keeps everything lubricated, cool and clean - which is why it gets dirty.

When you start your vehicle, oil begins lubricating your engine. Numerous additives within the oil help it cool and reduce friction between internal moving parts. Oil also cleans away dirt and contaminants, preventing premature engine wear.

For example, for every gallon of gasoline that is consumed, about one gallon of water is generated. Most of this water turns to steam and exits through the tailpipe (which you may notice on cold mornings when that water actually drips from the tailpipe). Some of this moisture does get into the dead air space of your engine. There, it mixes with other chemicals and forms sulfuric and nitric acid. Dirt and residual fuel will also find their way into this dead air space. The motor oil must continually keep this area clean so it sweeps away the dirt and absorbs the acids and fuel.

As a result of all the dirt and contaminants it picks up, motor oil needs to be changed regularly. Also, when motor oil becomes old and dirty, you're no longer getting the full benefit of the additives it contains. The motor oil becomes less effective at cooling and lubricating your engine. What's worse, the increased friction and chemical buildup in used motor oil can deteriorate your engine's moving parts.

Motor Oil: Synthetic vs. Regular

Synthetic motor oils are designed to excel at extreme temperatures. Regular motor oils are mineral-based: they come from crude oil that is taken out of the ground and run through a refinery. Synthetics, on the other hand, are man-made in a chemical plant. They tend to be more consistent in viscosity over various temperatures.

While synthetics can improve your engine performance, they don't' eliminate the need for regular oil changes. Synthetics can handle heat better than regular motor oil, but additives can only work for so long and the engine will still contaminate the oil.

Viscosity Simplified

You see those cryptic combinations of letters and numbers on motor oil bottles everywhere. What do they mean?

To decipher them, you have to understand viscosity. Viscosity measures how much the motor oil can resist flow. In other words, if you tip a motor oil bottle over, how fast it spills out indicates its viscosity. The more viscous, the slower it moves.

To indicate viscosity, the SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) developed a standard scale.

0W is thinnest ("W" stands for winter)
5W
10W
15W
20W
25W
20
30
40
50
60 is thickest

The recommended multi-viscosity oil you use in your vehicle is usually good all year round because it can respond to a range of temperatures. That's why you see two numbers on most oils.

For example: 10W30

This means the viscosity is at 10W when the engine is cold and 30 when the engine is hot. Low viscosities are good for cold temperatures (hence the "W" association) because the oil is thinner. Thinner motor oil flows more easily and moves quickly. When you start a cold engine up again, motor oil needs to travel to the top of the engine, where it trickles back down. Since motor oil is vital to lubricating your engine, it needs to move quickly and low viscosity helps it do just that.

When your engine heats up, higher viscosities mean the motor oil won't thin out too much and will keep parts separated by a film of oil. So your motor oil is always maintaining a delicate balance: it needs to flow well when the engine is cold but also retain enough body at higher temperatures to keep metal parts lubricated and separated. To find out what motor oil grade is right for your vehicle, check your vehicle's owner's manual.

Knock, Knock. Wrong Octane!

Octane. You see the word every time you visit the gas station but what does it mean? Octane ratings measure fuel's ability to resist engine knock. Engine knock is caused by fuel being ignited by something other than the spark plug.

If you are using an octane grade that is too low for your vehicle, something other than the spark plug can ignite the fuel in the engine. The engine could even get hot enough where the fuel explodes by itself.

What octane does your vehicle require? Check your vehicle's owner's manual. Don't upgrade to more expensive octane ratings unless your manufacturer recommends it.