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Automotive Preventative Maintenance Tips

by Sam Dillinger

Preventative maintenance is a sore subject for a lot of vehicle owners. We’ve all been through this scenario before: you take your vehicle to the local repair shop of your choice, and even though all you wanted is an oil change, they come back to you with an estimate of several hundred dollars, or more, for “preventative maintenance” items. You didn’t go there today expecting to spend $1,000, or even more, and your vehicle was running great when you got there anyway! So what’s the big deal? Why do they try so aggressively, every time you go there, to get you to pay for all of these things that, as far as you can tell, you don’t even need?

There are a few answers to these questions. First, there is a widely held concept that mechanics try to sell you all of this maintenance stuff just to line their pockets. It’s true that basic maintenance repairs are easy money makers for your mechanic, however this isn’t the only reason these repairs/services, are recommended by honest mechanics. The emphasis for that last sentence is on HONEST. An honest mechanic will recommend a lot of these same repairs/ services because they actually do help you to keep your car running in it’s best condition, for a long time. Almost everyone has heard of that guy with a vehicle that has 200,000 miles or more on it. It still has the original engine and transmission and never seems to give the guy problems. How does he do that?? Preventative maintenance. It really is the key to longevity for your vehicle.

OIL CHANGE

Let’s start with the basics. We all know that you need to have the oil changed in the engine. The reason for this is because the oil loses it’s ability to protect your engine after time. It breaks down from the heat and stress of driving. This breakdown occurs faster in harsher driving conditions such as: living in a hot climate, extended stop and go driving, and a lot of hard acceleration, to name a few. As you drive, there is always going to be dirt and small particle debris that gets into the engine’s systems. There’s no way to stop this from happening permanently. Engine oil companies advertise their synthetic oil and tell you that you can drive for longer mileage intervals without changing the oil. This idea appeals to a lot of people because it’s always inconvenient to have to spend your saturday off, getting the oil changed. It’s definitely true that synthetic oil will last longer and protect better, the problem is, the longer that oil stays in your engine, the more dirt will accumulate in the oil. The longer you drive with this contaminated oil, the more likely it is that some of this dirt will start to wear on your internal engine components. This type of wear on your internal engine components will cause everything from oil leaks, to bearing damage, to premature engine failure. If you stay within the 3,000 to 3,500 mile range for your oil change, your engine can last indefinitely. You can go to 5,000 miles with synthetic oil, but I strongly recommend not going any further than that. Some manufacturers of vehicles and synthetic oil, will say that you can comfortably drive for 10,000 miles before changing your oil and filter. This is a terrible idea and your vehicle will suffer from it.

TUNE UP

This one is one of the few that will make you nervous when your mechanic explains to you why you need it. It can be pretty difficult to replace the spark plugs, spark plug wires, distributor cap and rotor, for your vehicle. Most of the vehicles that are less than 4 or so years old, don’t have spark plug wires, and a distributor cap and rotor. They use a system where the ignition coil sits directly on top of each individual spark plug. These coils don’t ever need to be serviced unless there is an actual malfunction with one of them. The spark plugs though, are a different matter entirely. They are an item that wears out over time, and the best case scenario for having worn spark plugs is a significant decrease in fuel efficiency. Worst case scenario would be internal engine damage. The aftermarket parts industry is absolutely saturated with different types of spark plugs that claim to work miracles on your engine for horsepower increases, and fuel efficiency increases. What they don’t tell you is the amount of problems these novelty spark plugs generate. Your engine is not designed to run with a spark plug that burns hotter than normal. If you get a spark plug that does burn hotter, it can and will cause misfires, loss of power, and poor acceleration. So these spark plugs that have more than one electrode, or that actually advertise as being hotter than the manufacturer spark plug, aren’t going to do you any good. On top of that, the spark plugs that are made specifically for your engine, are cheaper than these novelty item spark plugs anyway. On the other hand, I definitely don’t recommend buying the cheapest spark plugs available for your engine, either. These really cheap spark plugs aren’t made with the exact specifications that your engine needs. So they will cause the same problems as the novelty plugs I was just describing. Your best bet is to buy the high line spark plug that’s recommended for your vehicle, or just to go to the dealer and buy the manufacturer plugs for your vehicle. A lot of engines now use platinum tipped spark plugs. This concept actually does make the spark plugs last way longer. If your engine doesn’t call for platinum plugs, you shouldn’t use them. Most aftermarket parts stores will try to sell you platinum plugs for your engine but they can cause performance problems for your engine if it’s not supposed to have them. As you can see from all of this, the best thing you can do when you change your spark plugs, is to just use the ones specifically for your vehicle. For non-platinum tipped spark plugs, you should change them every 30,000 miles. For platinum tipped spark plugs, you should change them every 80,000 miles. When you change them at this interval, they won’t look like they’re bad, but don’t forget they’ve got at least 30,000 miles of wear so they’re not as good as they were when brand new. By doing this, you can ensure that the combustion part of your engine stays as fresh and trouble free as possible.

COOLING SYSTEM FLUSH

This is something almost everyone has had pitched to them, but what is it and why do you need it? We would all agree that not having your vehicle overheat is a pretty important part of driving a car. The engine coolant is the main component to accomplishing this task. It siphons off the heat of the metallic components of the engine, transfers it to the liquid coolant, then runs it to cool air via the radiator, and expels the excess heat. The coolant will circulate back through the system on an endless cycle and keep the whole system at a temperature that won’t cause any damage to the engine. So, as you can imagine, if there’s something wrong with the coolant, or especially if there isn’t enough of it, your engine can and will overheat very quickly. The overheating can cause total engine failure if left unchecked. If you live in a place that experiences really cold winter temperatures, the coolant will help protect your engine then, too. When water freezes it expands. If you have just water in the cooling system of your engine, and the outside temperature drops low enough, that water would freeze and crack the engine block. So how do you know if something is wrong with the coolant? There are tools you can buy to measure the ability of the coolant to stay liquid in the extreme cold temperatures but that’s about it for any type of tool to help. Other than that, you just look at it and see what the condition is like. If it stays the same color it’s supposed to, then it’s good, right? Not always. The coolant also has lubricant qualities to it to help protect the water pump and thermostat. It also travels through some pretty tight spaces, so if there is any debris in it at all, it will clog very quickly and cause an overheating problem. The manufacturers of coolant are selling coolant that can go to 100,000 miles before a recommended fluid change. By the time you’ve gone that many miles, your coolant will have deteriorated before this, and it will have begun to slowly damage the components it’s supposed to be protecting. Every 50,000-60,000 miles, or every 3 years if you don’t put a lot of miles on your vehicle, is when the coolant should be changed. For vehicles that live in a very cold climate, you’ll want to do it even sooner. Even if you changed the coolant once a year, average price is about $120-$140, that’s way cheaper than replacing the engine. For a used, small engine, and labor to install it, you’re still looking at a minimum of $3,000. So not every time you go to the mechanic do you need a cooling system flush, but it definitely should be done as part of a preventative maintenance plan, to help keep your vehicle on the road for as long as possible.

FUEL SYSTEM SERVICE

Here’s another service that is being sold to people almost every time they enter the repair shop or oil change shop. It’s usually about $150 and we have no idea why it’s necessary because the car is running fine right now. This service, when done correctly, will include a cleaning of the throttle body, an additive for the fuel tank that will help keep the engine valves clean, and a cleaner that is pressurized directly into the fuel system to clean the injectors. Your throttle plate is set at a slight angle when at rest, to allow a very small amount of air passed it. This, along with the Idle Air Control system, keeps your engine running when you’re sitting still. If the throttle plate gets covered in carbon deposits, it’ll choke off this supply of air, sometimes to the point that it will stall your engine. There is a filter in the liquid part of the fuel system to keep any debris from making it to the fuel injectors. The hole in the bottom of a fuel injector is really, really, small. Like so small that you wouldn’t be able to fit the tip of a needle through it. So realistically, a piece of sand can clog a fuel injector. The pressurized cleaner that goes through the injectors will break up even these really small particles and blow them out so your injectors can function as efficiently as possible. When an injector is clogged, you’re going to end up with a problem. Whether it’s a full misfire for that cylinder, or if it’s a decrease in fuel economy, it’s not something any of us wants. The same goes for a heavy build up of carbon on the intake valves. If this happens, the valve won’t close as completely as it should and will cause the same conditions as a clogged injector, or much worse, it will eventually lead to needing major engine repairs. Again, this is something none of us wants! With all of that being said, how do you determine when and how often to get the fuel system serviced? Quite honestly, the importance of this service cannot be overstated. I strongly recommend that you have this done every 15-20,000 miles. If you keep up with this, and change the fuel filter on your vehicle once a year, you will find that you have a much better fuel efficiency, and significantly fewer fuel system related problems on your engine.

BRAKE FLUID FLUSH

This is something that every oil change shop out there will try to sell you if your brake fluid is even slightly off colored. The truth is, it’s not nearly as big of a deal as the automotive service industry wants you to believe it is. They will tell you that as brake fluid ages, it will collect moisture and start to internally rust the components that it travels through. This is actually true, but only to a point. If you take a container of brake fluid and set it out with no lid on it, it will absolutely draw moisture right out of the air and will gain liquid volume. It sounds crazy but it’s true. The thing is, the system that your brake fluid travels through is completely sealed. It has service points in it, but under normal conditions, the system is closed and doesn’t have access to outside air to draw this moisture from. So if your brake fluid system doesn’t have any leaks or hasn’t ever been opened for a repair, it’s not going to get any moisture in it. Brake fluid doesn’t move very far either. The whole braking system is designed on the principle that you can’t compress a liquid. The harder you squeeze any liquid, the harder it resists being squeezed. When you press the brake pedal, you’re not sending a stream of brake fluid down to the brake calipers, the fluid is already there along the entire pathway, you’re just making it move about 3-5 millimeters. That’s not very much. When your vehicle uses the ABS system, the fluid will move more, but this is something that only happens during an emergency stop. I sincerely hope none of you are experiencing an emergency stop on a daily, or even monthly basis! The bottom line is that unless you plan to keep this vehicle for well over 100,000 miles, a brake fluid flush really isn’t going to be necessary. If you do intend to keep the vehicle for over 100,000 miles, then I’d recommend getting this service done right around 100,000 miles and then not again until another 100,000 has gone by.

AIR FILTER

This is a quick and easy one. You’re air filer does exactly what it sounds like, it filters air. Specifically, it filters the air that your engine draws in. This is to keep as much dirt, sand, and other particle debris, from entering your engine, as possible. If the air filter is torn or missing, it can’t stop all of the debris from going right into the engine and this will absolutely cause major problems. When you don’t change it for a long time, it will get really clogged and make your engine work harder to draw the air it needs to run. This will cause a decrease in fuel efficiency (AKA more money towards gas) and will also cause the intake part of your fuel system to get a lot of carbon deposits. Having these carbon deposits, is going to cause major problems, as I mentioned in the section about the fuel system service. The good news is that the air filter is usually pretty cheap and also pretty easy to replace. You can normally do it yourself and only have to spend around $12-$15 and about 10 minutes of your time. The air filter should be changed at every other oil change. It may not look dirty when you replace it, but that’s the point. If it’s really dirty, then it hasn’t been protecting your engine as well as it should be.

POWER STEERING FLUID FLUSH

Here is another service that is greatly exaggerated in it’s importance. The fluid in your power steering system does circulate continuously, and it’s responsible for protecting the moving parts in your power steering pump, and the steering rack, but it doesn’t take all that much of a beating. The power steering fluid in most modern vehicles is chemically the same as transmission fluid. The difference is that it won’t have to work nearly as hard as your transmission fluid does. This is basically the same idea as a brake fluid flush. If you intend to keep the vehicle for over 100,000 miles, then I recommend getting this fluid serviced once you get that far. Other than that, it’s not a necessity to change this fluid regularly.

TRANSMISSION SERVICE

This one is near and dear to my heart because I’ve spent over 10 years being a transmission specialist for a major car dealership. I’ve repaired literally thousands of transmissions that could have been saved from failure by regular servicing. When you consider that the average cost of a transmission service is $180, and the average cost for a transmission overhaul is $2500, you can see why you might want to do whatever is necessary to stay out of the transmission repair shop. A standard transmission service will include removing the transmission pan, replacing the transmission filter, replacing the transmission pan gasket, and replacing whatever fluid is lost from this process. A transmission service is NOT having all of the fluid flushed out of the transmission and completely replaced. This transmission fluid flush is a complete scam and I recommend as strongly as possible that no one EVER pays to have this done to their transmission. This flush will take any accumulated ash and minor debris in the clutch packs, and put it right into the transmission pan. From there this debris will go right into the transmission filter and clog it up solid. If your transmission filter gets clogged for any reason, your vehicle will not move very far, or at all. I can’t even count how many times I’ve overhauled a transmission that had a flush done to it within the last 2 weeks. Unfortunately, after the flush is done, and the vehicle is driven for those 2 weeks, the transmission has been starving for fluid the entire time, and it’s already caused internal damage. A little known fact about transmission fluid is, it’s a high detergent cleaner. So if you’ve driven your vehicle for 85,000 miles, and then your local mechanic tells you the fluid is dirty and needs to be serviced, you’ll be adding brand new fluid to a system that’s already weakened from not being serviced regularly. Most commonly, this will cause the torque converter clutch to come apart and plug the transmission filter. This will require the transmission to be overhauled. If you’ve driven for 85,000 without servicing your transmission, I recommend saving your money for a transmission replacement or overhaul, because if you service it at this point, it’s extremely likely that you will need to have the unit overhauled, shortly thereafter. So how do you avoid this seemingly unavoidable problem of having to overhaul your transmission, and in the process spend thousands of dollars you don’t want to spend? Easy. Just service the transmission on a regular schedule, just as you do with changing your engine oil, it’s every bit as important. I recommend servicing the transmission every 30,000 miles without fail. A lot of manufacturers are using transmissions in their vehicles now, that they claim are filled for life. Meaning that you never have to service the transmission. This is misleading at best, and downright untrue at worst. The transmission must be serviced. If your vehicle is one of the ones that says it’s filled for life, it doesn’t have to be serviced at 30,000 miles. You can comfortably wait until 50,000 miles and that will be fine. As far as the type of fluid to use, it’s really important to use the correct fluid for your particular transmission. The wrong fluid will have different friction modifiers, detergents, and additives. What that means to you as the consumer is, if you use the wrong fluid, your transmission will start acting differently. It can even cause an internal failure. Some vehicles don’t have a serviceable transmission filter. In these cases you still need to make sure the fluid is serviced regularly. When you follow these guidelines, you can easily be on of those people that has 200,000 miles on the vehicle, and still running with the original transmission.

DIFFERENTIAL FLUID SERVICE

This service is pretty basic, but not less important. The differential fluid is significantly thicker than the other lubricants in your vehicle, so it can stand a lot more abuse. It’s sole function is to keep the gears of the differential lubricated as they spin together. It will start to break down and deteriorate just like any other petroleum based fluid will, with time and heat. It’s generally recommended that you have the differential(s) serviced at 45,000 mile intervals. Your vehicle will have 2 differentials and a transfer case, if it’s 4 wheel drive, or all wheel drive. Differential repairs are just as expensive as transmission repairs, so not to be taken lightly. The main reason a differential will fail after the first 20,000 miles of use, is the fluid becoming contaminated. So in the interest of saving money, servicing the differential every 45,000 miles will help keep you away from these type of repairs. In some applications, the differential will have clutch packs in it, for positive traction engagement. Your owners manual will tell you if you have one of these type of differentials, and if you do, you have to make sure you use the correct fluid. If you have the wrong fluid it can cause a chattering on hard turns and can damage the clutch discs. With all of this in mind, it’s well worth it to have the differential serviced regularly and avoid any problems altogether.

These are the most common preventative maintenance items that mechanics will try to sell you. If you keep track of your maintenance, you can see that you will only need one, or possibly two, of these items, aside from regular oil changes, serviced per year. That little bit of extra money far outweighs the costs for major repairs to they systems effected. That’s the most important idea behind preventative maintenance, preventing a failure in one of these systems. You won’t need this whole laundry list of things done every time you visit your local repair shop for an oil change, so by keeping up to date on your maintenance records, you can save yourself a lot of money, and prolong the life of your vehicle by a wide margin, all while keeping major repairs to a minimum. If you visit a shop and ask for one of these maintenance items and they advise you that this particular fluid is still clean, or for spark plugs that they’re not worn, ask them to do the service anyways, providing you know that it’s due by the mileage you’ve driven. Now you know which services are actually important and which to avoid. With this information, you can become that person everyone knows, that has a vehicle with 200,000 miles on it and it’s still going strong. Thoughts? Comments?

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