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We rely on our vehicles to get us from A to B, and safely at that. If they aren’t functioning optimally, or have encountered some unforeseen impact, we may be left with a lot of frustration, and a car that is unsafe, or unable to do what we need it to. In this article, we will walk you through the steps for noticing signs of an unhealthy engine, and getting yourself out of trouble should you have landed up with a flat tyre or a dead battery.

How to tell if something is wrong

One of the clearest signs telling you that something is not quite right with your car, is if one of the warning lights on the dashboard is flashing. Every car is different, and so the symbols might vary slightly in appearance – generally, there will be a signal for oil pressure, tyre pressure, the engine temperature, your battery, and fuel. In cars with more automated functions, there are several other lights to look out for, which should all be explained in your owner’s manual, along with information on what to do if you see one of them blinking. Take some time to acquaint yourself with these, so that you know how to help your car when needed.

Besides its built-in warning system, your car may alert you of a problem in a less elegant way – either by leaving behind oil stains after parking, or by emitting unusually coloured fumes when driving. A vehicle with a healthy engine and well-maintained parts should not be releasing either of these.

Smoke coming out of the exhaust pipe can flag a number of possible issues, depending on the colour:

–          Grey or bluish smoke, often accompanied by a burning smell, may indicate that oil has somehow gotten into the fuel system. This can happen if your car has been overfilled with oil after a service (in which case the excess is burning off, meaning it should stop after a while), or there may be a weak seal around one of the valves. If you notice this colour smoke, take your car to a garage to get the problem taken care of before any permanent damage is caused.

–          Black smoke is a sign of too much fuel being burnt. This could be happening for a number of reasons, with the most common being a clogged air filter or blocked fuel injectors. Again, it would be best to have this examined by a professional.

–          In terms of white smoke, there are two kinds, which are usually quite easy to tell apart – thin, almost translucent smoke; and thick, cloud-like smoke. The lighter smoke is just water vapour, which usually becomes more visible in colder weather, and is therefore no cause for concern. Thick, grey/white smoke, however, is something to watch out for. This indicates a leaking head gasket, which could result in an overheated engine. Do not wait to take your car to the specialists – driving with a car in this condition could have you stranded on the roadside.

As mentioned, noticing a puddle under the engine after parking is another way of spotting some trouble. Examine the substance left behind, which may either be transmission fluid (red in colour), coolant (green or orange) or oil (brown). There are some suggestions for home-repairs of leaks, including using specialised products to seal them up. If you are feeling unsure, however, rather have an expert take a look.

Sometimes, we receive very little warning – in situations where our cars are impacted unexpectedly. Sudden punctures or battery failure may leave you stuck in an inconvenient position. Knowing how to tell what is wrong, and what you can do about it, could save you a lot of money.

Changing a tyre

A tyre puncture can be caused by almost anything, from a sharp stone in the road, to large potholes. These tend to result in a slow leak of air, making them difficult to detect from the start. A flattening tyre, however, will make for an uncomfortable ride and should be replaced as soon as the problem has been noticed. An abrupt tyre blowout is less common, but often takes place due to under-inflation, which heats up the tyre and causes it to explode. These may be quite frightening and could lead to accidents if driving at high speeds. Always make sure that you inspect your vehicle at least once a month to spot any signs of low tyre pressure or rubber damage.  

If you have ended up on the side of the road with a flat tyre and have a spare, a jack, and a lug wrench, here is how to go about changing it yourself:

1.       Before you begin

Move your car to a safe place, off the road and out of harm’s way. If possible, try to park it on a level surface. Put your hazards on to warn other drivers that your vehicle is stationary and place an emergency triangle or cone at least 50m from the site. Pull up your handbrake and have all passengers get out of the car before you begin anything. And finally, take a moment to look through your owner’s manual, as there may be some valuable advice applying to your specific vehicle.

2.       Secure the car in position

To prevent your car from rolling whilst it is being jacked up, wedge wheel chocks under the tyres you are not replacing. Large rocks or bricks will also do the trick.

3.       Loosen wheel nuts

For this bit, you will need your lug wrench. Unclip hubcaps first (if you have them) and use your tool to loosen each nut, by turning it anti-clockwise, one full turn. This may be a bit tough, in which case you could try to carefully use your body weight to push the wrench (be sure that you are turning it in the correct direction and not tightening it further!).

4.        Get your car raised

Look in your owner’s manual to find where the jacking point closest to your punctured tyre is. Place the jack under the car and wind it until you have lifted the tyre about 5-10cm off the ground.

5.       Remove and replace the flat tyre

Further loosen and take the wheel nuts off completely, making sure you keep them in a safe place while you aren’t using them. Gently remove the flat tyre and lay it under the car – this will act as a support in case the jack releases. Take the spare and line it up with the wheel holes before mounting it. Replace the wheel nuts and tighten them by hand as far as you can.

6.       Let down the car and tighten wheel nuts

Pull the old tyre out from underneath your car and use the jack to lower the vehicle back to the ground. Remove the jack and use your wrench to tighten the wheel nuts fully. If you have a hubcap, clip it back on, or store it in your boot, along with the equipment you used as well as the old tyre (which may take up more space, if your spare is a space-saver).

7.       Final checks

Before you get going, it is important to check that the tyre pressure of your spare is correct. If you do not have your own pressure gauge, see if you are able to cautiously drive to a petrol station where you can use their gauge. Once this has been done, you should be good to go!

Make sure that you get your old tyre inspected as soon as possible after the incident to get some professional advice on whether it can be fixed, or if it needs to be replaced. Space-saver spares are not intended to be used for long periods of time, as they are really only designed for emergencies.

Jump-starting a dead battery

A car battery may die for various reasons, including leaving lights, the radio, or the air-conditioner on while the car isn’t running, becoming corroded due to poor maintenance, freezing in very cold weather, or standing for too long in storage.

Jump-starting is the most common way to get a tired battery going again, even if only temporarily. Here are two methods you could use, depending on your situation:

1.       Using jumper-leads

Investing in a set of jumper-leads will be useful not only for your own emergencies, but also in cases where others may need your help. If you have a set, you will need another person’s car for this operation.

–          To start, both vehicles should be in Neutral or in Park with the engine off. Make sure the handbrake in each car is pulled up.

–          There should be two black and two red clips on your jumper leads – attach one of the red clips to the positive terminal of the dead battery (look for the bigger terminal, with markings indicating “POS” or “+”). Connect the second red clip to the positive terminal of the other car’s battery.

–          Next, hook up one of the black clips to the negative terminal on the good battery, and secure the other black clip on an unpainted, metal surface that is not close to the dead battery – NEVER attach the black clamp to the negative terminal of a dead battery; this is dangerous and will cause sparks, or even an explosion.

–          Check that the cables are not in contact with any moving parts of the engine.

–          Now, everything is set for you to attempt a jump-start! Turn on the working car, and leave it running for about 3 minutes, before starting the engine of the dead car. Once you have managed to get the dead battery going again, it is crucial to avoid turning the car off for at least 20-30 minutes, so that the battery can sufficiently recharge itself.

–          In the meantime, you can unclip the jumper cables – the order of removal is imperative. It must be done in reverse order, and the clamps must by no means not touch each other during the process.

–          Reverse order: Remove the black clip from the metal surface of the car that needed jumping. Next, unclip the other black clip from the negative terminal of the good battery. Remove the red clip from the positive terminal of the good battery, and finally, remove the second red clip from the previously dead battery.

2.       Doing a bump-start (this only works for manual cars)

A bump-start is another option, in cases where you do not have access to jumper-leads, or a second engine. However, you will need the help of at least one other person. Here are the steps:

–          Get in the vehicle and turn off all electronic devices, including a connected phone charger.

–          Take off the handbrake and put the car into second or third gear. Keep your foot pushing down on the clutch.

–          Switch on the ignition and get the person/people assisting you to PUSH!

–          Once the car has got some momentum, take your foot off the clutch. The car should start!

–          Keep an eye on what is in front of you, and come to a stop, but keep the engine running for a little while, until the battery has had time to recharge.

If your car did not start with method 1, it could be that the jumper leads are not strong enough for your battery, and so it may be worth attempting method 2. If after this the battery still won’t budge, the problem could be more serious or may lie elsewhere. In this case, rather call a tow-truck and have the vehicle taken to a garage for a professional examination.

We encourage that you perform regular checks on your vehicle to prevent any avoidable problems, and to invest in a few key emergency items (like a safety triangle and jumper-leads) to prepare you for unforeseen circumstances in the future. In the meantime, we hope that you have found this guide useful in helping you through whatever car trouble you may have found yourself in and wish you all the best in getting your vehicle back up and running!