Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Car Care Basics for Women

Welcome to Care Care Basics - your 101 class on caring for your car. Here you can read all about how a car works, including brief overviews of the engine and major systems, maintenance tips, and information on how to handle emergencies and get back on the road.

I. Knowledge is Power: Understanding How Your Car Works

How Your Engine Functions, in a Nutshell

Cars are powered by internal combustion engines. That is, engines rely on combustion (fire) internally (inside). The fire inside the engine ignites very carefully controlled explosions that take place inside the engine thousands of times per minute. Those explosions--in which chemical power (some fuel, namely gasoline) is transformed into mechanical power (wheels going around and around)--are what make cars go.

That's really the long and short of it. Gasoline is mixed with air and with a tiny spark (ah, the spark plug!) to create ignition (the fire) and the explosion. The force of the explosion "pushes" an object (a piston), just like the force of an explosion sends fireworks cascading into the night sky. The difference here is that the piston remains in a controlled setting and its power and energy are harnessed. Inside the engine, the piston pushes another object (the connecting rod) which is connected to the crankshaft. Because of their shapes and the way they are joined, the up-and-down motion of the piston causes the crankshaft to turn around and around. As a result, the wheels turn and your car is propelled forward (unless, of course, you happen to be in reverse).

Just as you function (or don't, as the case may be) depending on the effectiveness and efficiency of your body systems -- circulatory, respiratory, nervous, etc.--your car depends on a number of systems to control the power being generated in the engine.

The Basic Engine Systems

The Fuel System

Gasoline is likely the liquid you are most familiar with when it comes to your car, but it's only one of the essential liquids your car needs to make it go — and keep going. Gasoline allows the engine to ignite and create explosions. Without gasoline, your car would be little more than a piece of furniture on wheels.

Oddly enough, gasoline is a very difficult liquid to ignite. Gas vapors though, light up quickly and dangerously. So, in order for gasoline to work as a fuel, it has to be transformed into a vapor, which means it must be mixed with a lot of air in just the right proportions.

The fuel system stores gasoline in a big tank (the gas tank). A fuel pump draws the gasoline up from the tank, through the fuel line, and into either the carburetor or fuel-injection system. (Older cars have carburetors; newer cars have fuel-injections systems.) Here the gasoline is mixed with air and vaporized. Finally, this vapor is then sent to the engine's cylinders (where the explosions take place, and the pistons go up and down…).

The Ignition System

For combustion to occur, you need three ingredients: a combustible material, air, and a spark. Once the gasoline vapor is in the cylinder, two of the puzzle pieces are in place. Now an electric spark must be delivered at exactly the right moment.

Your battery and alternator provide this electricity, sending it through the system to a distributor cap (in older cars)--which, you guessed it--distributes the electrical charge to the spark plugs (ta-da!) which shoot a small spark and ignite the vapor, creating the explosion that makes everything happen. (Newer cars rely on a computerized method of delivering the electric charge. Different style. Same result.)

Each cylinder has one spark plug, so a six-cylinder engine has six spark plugs and a four-cylinder engine has four. Engines are categorized by the number and configuration of these cylinders. A V-8, for example, has 8 cylinders (four on each side of the engine, angled to form a V). Similarly, an inline-6 has six cylinders, only they're all lined up in a row.

The more cylinders in your engine, the more power. Of course, there's a trade-off: more power also means you're using more gas and making more pollution.

As you can imagine, with all these explosions going on, those cylinders and the engine can get pretty heated up. Which brings us to the next vital system...

The Cooling System

When you get all steamed up, there are basically two things that can help you cool down: liquid (taking a cold bath, drinking a tall glass of iced tea) or air (loitering in front of a fan, sticking your head in the icebox, etc.). Same deal with your car.

In a water-cooled engine (which actually uses a mixture of water and other coolant chemicals), the coolant draws the heat from the cylinders. That is, the cylinder heat warms the coolant fluid which is then pumped away from the cylinders to the radiator, where it is cooled by a fan and then re-circulated.

An air-cooled system accomplishes the same task, but it does so by transferring the cylinder's heat to circulating air rather than to a liquid coolant.

The Lubrication System

The principle of friction is the same in all contexts: two objects rubbing together create heat… and wear. Your car has a bazillion moving parts that are constantly in contact with other moving parts. The lubrication system is the means by which this heat and wear are minimized, thus extending the life of your car.

The Exhaust System

Just as a giant bean burrito can produce a prodigious amount of gas in your stomach, your car's engine produces gases (not gasoline) that must be released. That's where the exhaust system comes in. The engine forces the gases through a manifold, which then sends the exhaust through pipes out into the air. The muffler reduces the amount of noise produced during this process; the emission control system reduces the extent to which these gases foul the environment.

The Transmission System

Your car's transmission takes the engine's power and transfers it through a series of gears to the drive shaft, or drive axle. When the drive shaft turns, it turns the wheels' axles and-- viola! --your car is set in motion.

A car's transmission operates on the same principle as that 10-speed Schwinn you used to ride to the pool on summer afternoons before you grew up and had to get a job. By using different gear ratios, the transmission adjusts for the most efficient transfer of your engine's power, depending upon your driving speed. (Unlike the Schwinn, though, you don't have to worry about your towel getting caught in the chain.)

There are two types of transmissions — automatic and manual. An automatic transmission automatically (clever, huh?) changes the gears and gear ratios, allowing your car to accelerate while you fiddle with your lipstick or your coffee or your cassettes. A manual transmission requires a little more work from you. The driver must press down on the clutch, disengaging the transmission so that a different gear can be manually entered with the stick shift as you accelerate.

The Electrical System

The electrical system in your car is actually two systems piggy-backed on top of one another. The basic electric system consists of a battery and a starter. When you turn your key in the ignition, you close a circuit (just like you do when you turn on a light switch). An electrical current travels from your car's battery to your car's starter, an electrical motor that triggers a series of actions, which result in the crankshaft turning and sending the pistons up and down. The spark plugs fire. The engine starts and the rest is history.

Once the engine has started, the battery and starter give way to the second part of the electrical system. The charging system takes advantage of the engine's power to recharge the battery and to provide the power necessary for all those things that you like about your car in addition to rolling forward — playing the radio, turning on the lights, cranking the air conditioner, etc.

The Steering and Suspension System

Imagine driving your sexy little convertible (or your rusty Chevy pickup) along a gorgeous mountain road. Feel the breeze in your hair, the tingling rush of air on your face. Don't you just love zipping around those hairpin turns? Now imagine that your car has no steering mechanism. Not as much fun, right? The steering system starts with the steering wheel, which is attached to front wheels (unless you have one of those all-wheel steering cars, which you probably don't). Thanks to ingenious ball-joint connections --which allow connected straight shafts to do something other than push or pull)--your turning the steering wheel results in the front wheels turning left or right.

Your kidneys owe special thanks to the suspension system, which is made up of various types of shock absorbers. As their name implies, they absorb most of the shock from bumps and holes in the road. Without the suspension system, you'd probably have a jarring headache every time you went for a drive, and you'd probably never make it those last 30 miles to the rest area.

The Brake System

You know what the brakes do. The question is, how does that little pedal manage to bring a very heavy object traveling at high speed to a full stop in such a short amount of time?

The answer is, fluids. Whenever fluids perform a mechanical function, we say it is a hydraulic system (that is, a system that uses fluids). When you press down on the brake pedal, small pistons in the master cylinder force brake fluid out into a series of small tubes called the brake line. This fluid exerts a pressure in the brakes (drum brakes or disc brakes) which then use friction to bring the rotation of the wheels to a halt. Simple.

Though you'd never know it while sitting in the air-conditioned comfort of your car, this friction makes your brake rotors get red hot every time you come to a stop from even a moderate speed. That's why it's a good idea to avoid slamming on your brakes unnecessarily. Most rotor damage occurs in wet conditions: you hit the brakes, they get red hot, and then water splashes onto them, causing them to warp.

The Five Fluids That Keep Your Car Running

Think of the lotions and liquids that you lavish on yourself to make your life bearable and beautiful, from wine to water, skin softener to lipstick, bath oil to perfume. Granted, some of these potions are superfluous--treats we give ourselves--but others are absolutely vital to our comfort and well being.

Your car is like you in this respect. The leather softener and Rain-X are swell extras, but there are five fluids (in addition to gasoline) that your car can't live without.


Oil is the lubricant that keeps your engine happy and moist (okay, moist isn't the right word for a cast-iron engine, but you know what we mean). Oil keeps your engine's moving parts friction-free. Checking and changing your engine oil is probably the single most important thing you can do for your car. (See "Checking the Oil Level" below for step-by-step instructions on what to do.)

Radiator Coolant

If you've already read "The Cooling System" above, then you know how important it is to keep your car's engine cool while all of those explosions are taking place in the cylinders. Radiator coolant is more than just water. It's water mixed with a chemical additive, either alcohol or glucose (but not glucose you'd want to eat). The additive raises the fluid's boiling point and lowers its freezing point, which is very important. As you undoubtedly recall from your fifth-grade science class, water boils at 232 degrees and freezes at 32 degrees. Well, your engine gets a lot hotter than 232 degrees when it's running, and it gets a lot colder than 32 degrees when it's sitting out on the street during the winter. Thanks to the magic of radiator coolant, your car's cooling system is able to keep your engine well within its comfort zone.

Transmission Fluid

If you've ever seen the terrifying assortment of gears inside a car's transmission, then you can imagine how much friction and wear is created there. Transmission fluid lubricates the constant changing and meshing of gears, allowing your car to ride smoothly whether you're driving uphill, downhill, or stop-and-go in the city.

Brake Fluid

Remember that your brakes work hydraulically. If that master cylinder isn't pumping out the brake fluid, your brakes won't work — and you won't stop.

Power Steering Fluid

Ever notice how even the biggest cars and SUVs can be maneuvered by the tiniest drivers? Once upon a time, steering a car or a truck was like riding roughshod over a team of wild horses. Now, thanks to the physics of hydraulics, any of us can steer a truck without breaking a nail. But to do so, power steering fluid must be present. Otherwise, making a simple turn would require a long history of afternoons in the gym.

II. Maintenance 101 (or How to Show Your Car that You Love It)

Your car may not be the primary relationship in your life, but like any other relationship, it demands time, effort, and attention. Sometimes you can be a little neglectful and still get away with it. But if you let your attention lapse for too long, you are liable to find yourself on the shoulder of a deserted highway some rainy night, wondering why your cell phone won't work. (Okay, that's a little melodramatic. Sorry. The point is, don't neglect your car and it won't leave you high and dry when you need it most.)

The Owner's Manual

The starting point in taking care of your car is your owner's manual. You remember your owner's manual, don't you? It's that book that you have never, ever even opened. The one in the plastic sleeve. That's right. In your glove box. The one that's always getting in the way.

As it turns out, you ignore your owner's manual at your peril. The manual contains a wealth of information about your car that will make your driving experience much more pleasant. In addition to vital information like how to set the buttons on your radio or how to adjust your clock and dashboard lights, your owner's manual can help you with Troubleshooting Hints — useful tips for anticipating and solving problems.

These hints can also save you a lot of time and embarrassment. Have you ever endured the disdainful smirk of a tow-truck operator when your car wouldn't start, only to learn that you had left the car in gear when you parked it the night before? Simply putting the car in either "Park" or "Neutral" would have allowed you to start the car, save the service fee, and avoid meeting the tow-truck guy.

In addition to the Troubleshooting Hints, your owner's manual contains another very important section — the Maintenance Schedule. Here, the maker of your car details exactly what maintenance tasks should be performed on your car and how often they should be done. Like pap smears, breast self-exams, and weekends at the spa, regular maintenance for your car is vital for its happiness and well being.

The Weekly Check-Up

Weekly maintenance of your car needn't take more than a few minutes. It's a small investment for such a substantial return. Basically, the weekly check-up involves checking the five basic fluids, the air in your tires, and your windshield-wiper fluid. (The windshield-wiper fluid is decidedly a Lesser Fluid--your car won't die without it. But do you really want to risk having bug guts obstructing your field of vision?)

If you've never checked your fluids, don't worry. We'll take you through it step-by-step (though you may want to have your owner's manual handy to help you locate the proper dipsticks).

Before you dive under the hood, though, you might want to start with trip to your local auto-parts store. Purchase a tire gauge and the following fluids so you'll be ready when you need them: oil, coolant, windshield-wiper fluid, power-steering fluid, brake fluid, and transmission fluid (if you have an automatic transmission). Check your trusty owner's manual for the specific types of fluid required by your car. It's also a good idea to buy some basic tools if you don't already have them. (For example, you'll need a flat-head screwdriver when you check your brake fluid.) And treat yourself to a $2 plastic funnel--it will make the whole experience easier and less messy.

Allow twenty or thirty minutes for your first weekly check-up. Once you get the hang of it, you'll be able to finish in ten minutes or so.

Checking the Oil Level

First of all, you'll need an old rag or two. Time to retire that T-shirt you wore at summer camp ten years ago. Also, as you check the fluids, be careful that the rag doesn't leave lint deposits on the dipsticks.

1. Make sure your car is parked on level ground with the engine off, gearshift in "park," and the parking brake applied.

2. Raise the hood. It's a good idea to do this when the engine is cool (for your general comfort, and to reduce the risk of burns.) If you must do your weekly maintenance after a day of driving, try waiting an hour or two for the engine to cool down. When you open the hood, make sure it locks safely in the open position, or that you prop it open with the bar located under the hood. (See your owner's manual for details on which hood apparatus is found on your car.)

3. Now locate the dipstick. You'll be able to recognize it because it is a thin rod with a curved handle sticking up on either side of the engine.

4. Carefully remove the dipstick and wipe it completely clean of oil.

5. Return the dipstick to the round metal sleeve you just pulled it out of. (Don't feel bad if this proves difficult--many a seasoned mechanic finds himself or herself unable to guide the rod into the sheath without using two hands.) Push down gently on the rod to be sure it is fully inserted.

6. Remove the dipstick again and inspect the thatched section at the flattened end of the rod. You should be able to see an amber-colored fluid on the end of the dipstick. That's oil. (If the color is reddish-brown, put the dipstick back. You've got the transmission fluid dipstick.) You will see the word FULL at the upper end of the flattened section and the word ADD near the bottom.

7. If the fluid comes up above the ADD line, your engine has enough oil in it. If the fluid is at or below the ADD mark, you will have to add up to a quart of oil to your engine.

8. To add oil, find the oil cap, which located on the top of your engine. On most newer cars, the word OIL will appear right on the cap. Remove the cap and position one of your trusty rags to catch any drips. (If you really want to be tidy, break out that plastic funnel.) Now all you have to do is pour the oil into the engine. However, it should be the same kind and grade of oil that you've already got in there. (If you don't know what kind of oil is in your car, check the paperwork from your most recent oil change, or check the little reminder sticker that the oil-change shop left on your windshield.)

9. Wait a little while for the oil to settle and then go back to step 4. Follow the steps until you have the perfect amount of oil in your car. Warning: Even if your car tends to leak oil, never over-compensate by filling the oil past the FULL line. Too much oil in the engine can create too much pressure, which can cause expensive damage.

Checking the Coolant Level

When it comes to checking the radiator level (where the coolant is located) you absolutely must make sure your car is cool. If you don't, you stand a very real chance of being scalded by spewing hot liquid. Not only is this messy, it is really, really dangerous.

The radiator is almost always located at the very front of the engine. Most newer cars also have an overflow tank attached to the radiator. The side of the overflow tank should be marked MIN (for minimum) and MAX (for maximum). If the fluid level is between these two lines, your job is done. If it is below the MIN line, follow these steps:

1. Slowly and carefully turn the radiator cap counterclockwise. Stop after about a quarter turn. This will allow any built-up pressure to be released. Count to three. Unscrew the cap the rest of the way.

2. Look inside. If the coolant is below the neck of the opening, add a mixture of coolant and water (_ water, _ coolant).

3. Open the cap to the coolant overflow tank and add coolant until the fluid level is somewhere between the MAX and the MIN lines.

4. Tighten the caps and wipe away any excess coolant that may have dripped onto the engine.

Checking the Windshield Washer Fluid

1. Find the windshield wiper fluid reservoir. It's usually a clear or white plastic jug that holds a pint to a quart of colored liquid (usually bluish).

2. Visually check the fluid level and, if there's room, top it off with windshield wiper fluid, which you can purchase at any auto-parts store and most gas stations. Don't simply use water. It can freeze up in the winter, and it doesn't do nearly so good a job as wiper fluid.

(Hint: when you fill the windshield wiper jug, put a little fluid on a rag or paper towel and wipe the blades themselves. They'll function better and last longer.)

Checking the Power Steering Fluid

Now you're getting the hang of this, right? Basically, you're just locating various reservoirs and checking fluid levels. Simple. The hardest part is finding the right reservoir. Once you've done that, you're home free.

Power steering fluid is located in a reservoir attached to the power steering pump. On most cars, the pump is powered by a fan belt located toward the front of the engine, so look there first. The reservoir sits atop the pump like a sentry on a stool. The cap usually has a dipstick attached on the underside.

Like all of the fluids we've discussed, and like the air in your tires, power steering fluid expands when it's hot. Some power-steering-fluid dipsticks have lines indicating FULL HOT and FULL COLD. This allows you to check the fluid accurately regardless of engine temperature. However, if your car doesn't make this provision, it is best to check the level when the car is cold.

If you find that you are low on power steering fluid, check your owner's manual for the proper replacement fluid. Go buy some and top off the reservoir, but once again, be careful not to overfill. Just bring the fluid level up to the FULL mark.

(Although you should check this fluid weekly, it shouldn't need to be topped off more than every couple of months. If you have to add fluid more often than that, you probably have a leak somewhere in the system.)

Checking the Brake Fluid

The master brake cylinder is usually located toward the back of the engine on the driver's side. On most cars, it is an oblong metal reservoir, usually clipped into place with a metal clip. (Some cars have plastic master cylinders that look like dual reservoirs with two lids.)

1. Clean off the top of the master cylinder before you open it. The last thing you want is dirt and grime mucking up your brake lines. You will need a flat-head screwdriver to pry away the metal clip so you can open the lid.

2. Visually check the fluid level.

3. If needed, add the correct amount of brake fluid. Again, your owner's manual will tell you exactly which DOT (Department of Transportation) grade of brake fluid to use.

Checking the Automatic Transmission Fluid

Unlike the other fluids, transmission fluid should be checked while it is warm. For this reason, you have to follow a slightly different routine. (Note: Checking manual transmission fluid is a lot more complicated and requires getting your car up on a hoist. If you drive a car with manual transmission, it's best to have a mechanic check the fluid.)

To check the automatic transmission fluid, find the dipstick handle toward the back of the engine. It may look similar to the oil dipstick so, if you've found the oil dipstick, the transmission fluid dipstick is the other one. Got it?

1. Put your car in either "neutral" or "park." Apply the parking brake (even if you don't usually use it.) Start the engine.

When the engine is warm (after a couple of minutes), pull out the dipstick.
Wipe the dipstick with a clean cloth.
Put the dipstick back in. Hold it there a second. Pull it back out.
Check the level.
If the fluid does not reach the FULL line:

Lay the dipstick on the clean rag and get a funnel that fits into the dipstick opening. Slowly pour in the appropriate transmission fluid (which is specified in your owner's manual.)
Re-check the fluid level.
One final check of your transmission fluid is the famous "touch test." Transmission fluid should be very smooth and clean, pinkish in color but nearly transparent. Touch the fluid on the dipstick. Does it feel gritty? Does it smell burnt or have a burnt color? If so, you should have a mechanic drain and replace the fluid.

Often, the symptoms that indicate serious transmission trouble are the very same symptoms of low transmission fluid. So check your fluid before some wise guy tries to sell you a new--and pricey--transmission.

Checking the Tire Pressure

Congratulations! You're finished under the hood. Take a deep breath. Use a rag to gently lift the hood in order to release the lock or to free the rod, and then close the hood until it latches securely.

Now it's time to check your tires. To do this, you will need a tire gauge (an inexpensive investment you already made during your trip to the auto-parts store).

Begin by visually inspecting your tires for cracks, signs of uneven wear, and embedded foreign objects. Now, go from tire to tire and follow these steps:

1. Unscrew the little black cap covering the air nipple. (If there is no little black cap, buy one. They keep small amounts of air from seeping out of your tire). Press the gauge tightly against the air nipple. Depending on what kind of gauge you own, a plastic rod will pop up or a dial will register the amount of pounds per square inch (PSI). The recommended PSI will be printed on the side of the tire.

2. If your tire is properly inflated, close the cap and move on.

3. If the tire needs air, drive to your local gas station. Most will have a free air hose (though some places may charge $25). And try to choose a nearby station, because if you drive more than five miles or so, your tires will get hot and you'll be unable to get an accurate pressure reading.

Apply the air hose to the tire nipple, allowing it to pump air into the tire. Check the pressure again. If you've added too much air, depress the pin inside the nipple to release some of the pressure.

4. Follow this procedure for all of your tires, including the spare (which may be hidden beneath a panel in your trunk). Remember, a flat spare is a worthless spare.

Quarterly (3,000 mile) Check-Ups

Quarterly check-ups are a bit more involved than weekly check-ups. After every 3 months or 3,000 miles, you should:

  • Change the oil and oil filter.
  • Check the battery and charging system.
  • Visually examine hoses and belts.
  • Change your windshield wiper blades.

There are some people who contend that changing your oil every 3,000 miles is unnecessary. They say you can wait and do it every 5,000 or 6,000 miles. These are the same people who're always amazed to hear you talk about getting 100,000 miles or more from your car. "Really? Our car just flat-out died at 75,000!" Yup.

Oil is the lifeblood of your car. Keep it clean and your car will love you. Let it get thick and goopy and you're stealing years from the life of your car. You decide how often to change your oil. But don't say we didn't warn you.

Changing the Oil and Oil Filter

Take your car to a mechanic, and an oil change will run you anywhere from $15 to $30. You can do the job yourself for a fraction of the cost, and it's a relatively simple procedure. Even if you eventually decide it's not worth the trouble to do it yourself, it's a good experience to have under your belt.

So, time for another trip to the auto-supply store! You're going to need a handful of tools to change your oil and oil filter:

  • Several quarts of motor oil and an oil filter. Be sure to get these items before you drain the old oil from your car, or you'll be very sad. Check your owner's manual to determine the quantity of oil and the recommended type of oil filter.
  • An oil-filter wrench. It ‘s true that some oil filters can be hand tightened and hand loosened, but it's still a good idea to have a wrench in case things get a bit too snug. Besides, it will keep you from getting your knuckles scraped.
  • An adjustable wrench. This tool will allow you to unscrew the oil plug so the old oil can drain out of the engine.
  • A bucket or tray to catch the oil. Make sure it's big enough to hold all of the oil, or you'll have a horrible mess on your hands. You can buy an oil tray at the store.
  • A funnel, which will allow you to easily and neatly pour oil into the engine. No muss. No fuss.
  • More rags. Oil is slimy, dirty stuff. You'll want to be able to wipe your hands off and wipe excess oil from the engine. (If you spill oil on the engine, it won't cause any damage, but it will produce a burning smell when the engine is hot.)
  • A work light. You know, those cute little lights that have a hook at the top and a bulb in a metal cage. These lights are handy when you're underneath the car.
  • An old towel to lie on while you're under the car.

Now follow these step-by-step instructions:

1. Start your car and let the engine run for two minutes. This will soften and thin out the gunky old oil so that it flows smoothly from your car. (Don't let the engine run too long, though. The last thing you want to do is work on a hot engine, or have hot oil drip onto you!)

2. Position your old towel under the front end of the car, then crawl under with your work light. You should see what looks like a small, metal tub upside down against the bottom of your engine. This is the oil pan. At the bottom of the oil pan, there will be a large nut or plug. This is your oil drain plug. Touch it. If it's hot to the touch, you've allowed the engine to run too long. Let it cool off a bit more.

3. Slide the bucket or tray under the car so that it is directly beneath the drain plug.

4. Using the adjustable wrench, loosen the plug until it is almost ready to come out. (You'll know it's just about ready when oil starts seeping out the sides.) Now, using a dirty towel or rag, finish loosening the plug and remove it. Pull your hand away quickly so the dirty oil doesn't start flowing down your arm.

5. Come out from under the car and unscrew the cap from the oil filler hole at the top of the engine. (This is the same cap where you add oil during your weekly check-ups. See "Checking the Oil Level" for more details.) Removing the cap will allow the oil to drain more quickly from the bottom of the engine. (It's the same principle that's at work when you put two holes in the top of a Hi-C can instead of just one.)

6. Unscrew the oil filter. It looks like a can attached to the side of your engine, and it's usually white or orange, depending on the brand. The filter is probably still filled with oil, so handle it carefully.

7. Empty the oil from the filter into the bucket or tub under the car. When you've poured out all of the oil, wrap the old filter in newspaper and put it in a plastic bag. It should go to the recycling place where you will take your old oil (usually a nearby service station).

8. Open a new bottle or can of oil. Put a little of the fresh oil onto your fingertip and lubricate the gasket (the rubber ring) around the new oil filter. Now screw the new filter into place. Don't over-tighten! If you're concerned that you can't tighten it enough by hand, use the oil-filter wrench, but only go about a quarter turn after it feels snug.

9. Time to go back under the car. How's everything look under there? The old oil should have finished draining by now. Use your rag to wipe the drain hole and then replace the oil drain plug. Use your adjustable wrench to tighten it. A little more than just snug, but again, not too tight.

10. Once the new filter is installed and you've replaced the drain plug, it's safe to pour the new oil into the engine. Use the funnel, even if you have a steady hand. Trust me. Pour in all but about one quart of the recommended amount of new oil. Then close the cap and run the engine for about a minute. While the engine is running, look for leaks under the car and around the filter.

11. Turn off the engine and wait five minutes or so for the oil to settle. Check the level with the dipstick (see, "Checking the Oil Level"). Add the remaining oil if you need it. If not, remove the bucket or tub from under the car. Drive around the block. Re-check the oil level. Now transfer the old oil into a portable container and deliver it, along with the oil filter, to a service station that accepts oil for recycling. (Keep in mind that motor oil is carcinogenic; you don't want it sitting around the house. And keep it away from your pets and relatives.)

Semi-annual (6-Month) Check-ups

Just because something needs to be checked only twice a year is no reason to neglect it. Mark the date on your calendar. Treat it like a semi-anniversary with your car.

Every six months, you should:

  • Rotate your tires. You'll want a mechanic to handle this. Your car will need to be up on a lift, and throwing around tires, well, it's just plain exhausting!
  • Adjust the brakes. Ditto the mechanic on this.
  • Change the air filter. This a job you can handle yourself, so next time the oil-change guy tries to sell you an air filter, Just Say No.

Replacing the Air Filter

As you may recall, in order to produce the explosions that power your car, the engine must mix air with gasoline. The air filter cleans this air as it is sucked into your car, ensuring that your engine isn't mixing lint and dust and insects with the gasoline.

Check your owner's manual to determine the location and type of air filter used by your car. Most air filters occupy a housing secured by wing nuts and/or clips. Think of it as an airtight sandwich, with the air filter snuggled securely between the upper and lower pieces of the housing. Some air filters are shaped like a giant doughnut. Others are shaped more like a brick. Whatever the shape, the process for replacing the filter is pretty much the same.

1. Turn off your engine.

2. Locate the air-filter housing and unclip the clips and remove the wing nut(s).

3. Lift off the top of the housing.

4. Remove the old air filter by simply lifting it up.

5. Wipe excess dirt from the inside of the metal housing.

6. Put in the new filter.

7. Tighten the wing nut(s) and re-clip the clips.

Annual Check-ups

Ah, another important anniversary for you and your car! Each year, you should have a mechanic:

  • Adjust ignition timing.
  • Replace drive belts.
  • Lubricate your car's chassis.

(If you're ready to tackle any of these jobs yourself, you shouldn't just be reading this website, you should be writing for us.)

III. Emergencies

Despite your best efforts, despite regular maintenance and tender loving care, you and your car are destined to experience some trying moments. Usually, they come at the worst possible time — when you're racing to meet a friend's plane; when you're on your way to an extremely important business meeting; when it's snowing; when you're wearing white.

Emergencies are, by definition, situations that force us to do things we might not otherwise feel prepared to do. The trick, then, is to be prepared, thus turning emergencies into mere annoyances.

You Locked Your Keys in Your Car

Okay, okay. We know newer cars have that little buzzer that goes off when you leave your key in the ignition. And some really thoughtful cars have a device that won't let you lock the doors if the car is shut off and the key is still in the ignition. But what if you don't have a car like this, or what if you left the key ON THE SEAT?

There once was a time when a bent coat hanger could save you from being locked out of your car, but thanks to internal locks, combination locks, and alarm systems, those days are over.

News flash! Right now, today, we beseech you to take your car key to the hardware store and have a copy made. Take that second key and stuff it into one of those deep pockets or crevices in your wallet. Then forget about it . . .

. . . Until you find yourself locked out, at which point you can bat away the cruel hand of fate. But if you didn't get that key copied, you're going to have to call a locksmith, and it's going to be a big waste of time and money. Or you could call the police, who are sometimes kind enough to jimmy open a door. Either way, it's plain embarrassing.

You Have a Flat Tire

Oh, the sinking feeling. Oh, the horror of coming out to your car and realizing that it isn't sitting quite level. Worse, the terror of a blowout while you're zooming along the highway.

But for you, prepared HerAuto motorist, there is a silver lining to the gray cloud of flat-tiredom--you can pat yourself on the back for keeping your spare tire properly inflated during your weekly check-ups. (If your spare is flat, please see "Checking Tire Pressure'.)

Assuming your spare is in good shape, you've got two options:

1. Call a tow truck (or call your auto club and have them send a tow).

2. Change the tire yourself. (This becomes a much more appealing option when the tow company tells you they won't be able to help you for 3 or 4 hours.)

If you've never changed a tire before, don't sweat it (emotionally and psychologically, that is), it's not that hard. But be prepared to sweat a little (physically), and be prepared to get grimy.

In addition to the tire-changing tools that should be located with your spare, you'll probably want to keep an old pair of gloves and maybe even an old apron or towel in your trunk. There's no way around it — changing a tire is dirty work.

1. Make sure your car is on a level, stable surface. A muddy or hilly roadside is not the place to change a tire.

2. Make sure your car isn't going anywhere! Put your car in "park" and apply the emergency brake. Stick a rock or big piece of wood behind one of the non-flat tires. If you are on a roadside, put your flashers on! Make yourself visible to oncoming traffic.

3. Open your trunk and take out the spare tire along with the jack and the lug wrench. The lug wrench will help you pry off the hubcap, and it will also function as the lever for the jack. Your owner's manual includes details specific to the type of jack in your car.

4. While the flat tire is still flat on the ground, pry off the hubcap (the fancy Frisbee-like thing on your wheel). Under the hubcap, you'll see the lug nuts that hold the tire to the wheel. Loosen (but do not remove) the lug nuts by turning them counter-clockwise. This might take some elbow grease. Lug nuts are supposed to be good and tight. You might have to step on the lug wrench to help loosen the nuts.

5. With the lug nuts loosened, jack the car high enough to allow you to take the flat off and put the spare on. (Check owner's manual to find out exactly where to place the jack for the safest and most effective lifting of the car.) You will be amazed at how easy it is for you to lift a whole car with the jack. Enjoy the feeling of strength and power. It's one of the few upsides of changing a tire. BE CAREFUL! Don't get under the car while you are jacking it up. Imagine what would happen if the jack collapsed and your car fell down.

6. Once your car is up in the air, remove the loosened lug nuts. Place them on the hubcap so they don't wander off. Now slide the tire gently away from the car. Place the flat tire on its side under the edge of the car between the jack and the wheel well, making sure there is plenty of room to put on the spare. The flat will help further stabilize the car.

7. Mount the spare. Fasten the lug nuts on the bolts and tighten them by hand, going from one to the other in a "star" pattern (rather than just proceeding clockwise around the wheel). As you do this, gently press the wheel flat, making sure it's firmly in place. Do not tighten the nuts with the lug wrench yet--a car on a jack is too unsteady for that.

8. Lower the car using the jack. Now finish securing the lug nuts with the lug wrench, using your body weight to get them good and tight.

9. Don't forget to remove the blocks from your tires. Now you'll want to drive to a service station and get the flat tire fixed as soon as you can. After all, if the fates are frowning on you, you could end up with another flat — with a flat tire in your trunk!

Jump-Starting Your Car

Okay, you KNOW your car isn't going to start if you're in a horror movie and Jason or Michael or Freddie is coming your way with a meat hook. But chances are, there will also be other less expected times when your car won't start, and depending on your schedule that day, you may still feel like you're in a horror movie.

Start by checking the troubleshooting tips in your owner's manual. Once you've ruled out the usual suspects (you're out of gas, the car isn't in park or neutral, etc.) you'll probably want to get a jump-start.

For a jump-start, you'll need two ingredients: another car and jumper cables. Have a friend or neighbor pull their car up in front of yours so that the two cars are facing one another. Then open the hoods on both cars and follow these steps:

1. Both cars should be in "park" or "neutral" with the ignition off.

2. Connect the cables to both cars in the following sequence:

First, attach one of the red clips to the positive terminal (the one with "+" or "POS" on it) of your battery.

Second, attach the other red clip to the positive terminal of your friend's battery.

Third, attach the black clip to the negative terminal (the one with "—" or "NEG" on it) of your friend's battery.

Finally, attach the other black clip to an unpainted surface on your car that isn't near the carburetor

3. Try to start your car. If it doesn't start, double-check that the cables are securely attached. Then have your friend start his or her car. They should let it run for a couple of minutes.

4. Now try to start your car again. Wow! How'd that happen? Basically, you used your friend's battery to start your car.

5. Keep your car running! Disconnect the cables. Thank your friend profusely. Drive your car for fifteen or twenty minutes to re-charge your battery. If it discharges again, then there's something wrong with the battery and/or electrical system that requires a mechanic's attention.

IV. Tools & Supplies

Preparation involves knowing what to do in an emergency, but it also involves having the right tools to do it. A well-prepared motorist should have a basic tool kit in the trunk at all times. A full set of tools gives you the most protection, but you can pick and choose from the following, depending what kind of emergencies you're prepared to handle yourself:

  • Screwdrivers, both standard and Philips head;
  • Combination wrenches;
  • Offset wrenches;
  • Socket wrenches;
  • Adjustable wrenches;
  • Hammers;
  • Pliers;
  • Torque wrenches…
  • Tire changing tools, jack, lug wrench, etc;
  • Tire gauge;
  • Screwdrivers.

In addition to tools, you should carry a well-stocked first-aid kit. Your car takes you far afield of your home and work. Band-Aids, aspirin, tampons, tissues, toilet paper--these are conveniences that take up minimal space but can make your life much easier.

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