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Our cars oftentimes become so part of our lives, that we take their running for granted. It is important to remember that these machines do require some vital TLC from time to time, to keep their engines happy. When we neglect to take care of our cars, they may become a danger not only to ourselves, but also to other motorists.

Generally, it is advised that you take your car for a professional service either every six months, or 10 000 km. These are only rough guidelines, however, and so it is worthwhile checking in your owner’s manual for directions appropriate to your specific car.  

Although it holds a lot of value having your car examined by an expert, there are a few things you can already do at home on a far more regular basis, to ensure that you aren’t damaging your vehicle, and that you are as safe as possible whilst driving.

Why should I worry about maintenance?

One of the most essential reasons for consistent vehicle care is for safety.  Although maintaining your car does not guarantee the prevention of accidents, it does lower the risk of your vehicle failing whilst on the road or you having poor visibility (due to faulty headlights, or broken windshield wipers), and can also aid in situations where you have to respond quickly e.g. performing an emergency brake in anticipation for a possible collision.

Additionally, checking simple things in your car regularly, can help avoid being stranded on the side of the road due to things like an overheated engine or a flat tyre. Landing in this position is incredibly frustrating, uncomfortable, and in some cases, unsafe. Many roadside emergencies can be prevented just by performing routine inspections at home.

In terms of economics, tending to your car by following the guidelines provided in your owner’s manual will allow your vehicle to function at optimum capacity – using fuel as efficiently as possible for the model, and enhancing overall performance. This also puts your car in a good position should you wish to sell it – buyers pick up on small details, and a well-maintained car will be sure to catch their attention.

Another important consideration is saving money. Filling up your oil and water, checking brake fluid, and maintaining the air filter, can curb severe damage to the engine, the costs of which may not be justifiable in relation to the value of the car. Thinking long-term is key when it comes to realising the importance of maintenance.

Simple checks

Here are a couple of things you yourself can take a look at in your car, in between visits to the specialists (if you are making lots of long-distance trips, it would be beneficial to perform these more regularly):

·         Oil

The oil in your car is vital, as it keeps everything in the engine running smoothly. If these levels run low, parts will start grinding against each other, potentially leading to expensive damage. 

Before checking your oil, ensure that you are not parked at an angle (as this will compromise your reading) and let the engine cool off properly; wait about 10 minutes minimum. Open the bonnet and find the dipstick – this usually has a loop type shape for you to put your finger through, so you can avoid getting oil on your hands, and is often brightly coloured in red, yellow, or orange. Pull it out and wipe it clean with an old cloth or paper towel. Push it back in all the way and lift it up, holding it horizontally right away. At the tip of the dipstick, there are usually two markings; a good oil level should be closer to the higher line. If it is too near to the lower marking, you should add oil. 

Do this at least once a month, and more often if possible. This will help you pick up on any unusual oil consumption, which may be the result of a slow leak, or the burning of oil (in which case you should take your vehicle to a garage ASAP).

·         Engine coolant level

The water levels in your car keep the engine from overheating. These should be checked as regularly as oil.

To start, locate the clear bottle with a screwed-on cap under the bonnet. Usually, there are two lines indicating minimum and maximum levels; your water level should be somewhere in between. In some older cars, you may not be able to see these marks, in which case you can open the bottle, dip your finger in, and if you have water on the tip of your finger, the levels are fine. To top up the coolant, add a mixture of equal parts water and antifreeze. This liquid helps prevent the water from freezing in colder weather.

·         Brake fluid

To secure a connection between the mechanical action of your brake and the friction encountered by the tyres, you need to have sufficient brake fluid in the engine. If this starts running low, you risk the danger of not being able to stop the car when you want to.

The brake fluid reservoir will always be situated on the driver’s side of the vehicle. First inspect that the cap is strong and tightly turned (a loose cap is something to get replaced if necessary). Next, take a look at the minimum/maximum markers on the bottle. If your brake fluid is too close to minimum or below, it needs refilling. Before adding any new fluid, first check the colour. A golden-brown is what you want; anything darker may require complete replacement during your car’s next service.

Check your owner’s manual regarding which fluid to buy. Break the seal of the product and pour the liquid into the bottle (once this seal is broken, the remaining fluid will lose its strength and should not be used again). Wipe everything clean and screw the cap back on.

·         Battery

One of the things you can do at home to preserve your car battery and minimise poor electrical connections, is to check for any corrosion around the battery terminals. You should be able to clearly see if there is any build up, which can be removed using a wire brush (old toothbrushes are also useful for this job) and a mixture of water and baking soda, which neutralises battery acid.

·         Air filter

The air filter extracts dust and debris from the air, to prevent these from entering the engine. As time goes on, this filter will start to become quite clogged with dirt, weakening its function. Take a moment to inspect it each time you check your oil and water. Your owner’s manual will show you where to find the air filter and how to open it up (its location depends on the model of your car). If your hand gets dirty after running it over the filter, you’ll know it needs replacing.

Some, advise that the filter be changed once a year – consult your owner’s manual for more direct guidelines on this.

·         Windshield-wipers

Because we don’t always use our windshield-wipers, they tend to get forgotten when doing simple checks. They do, however, play an important part in ensuring good visibility and should not be excluded when carrying out your home inspection.

To make it easier to have a look at your wipers, first get them in an upright position (by turning them on, and switching the ignition off once they are in place). Carefully pull the wipers off the windshield and run a finger along each blade. If you notice any grooves, cuts, or pieces missing, it’s a good idea to replace them (in the long term, damaged wipers can weaken the strength of your windshield).

Replacing windshield wipers is a simple procedure. Make sure you purchase the correct size, by consulting your owner’s manual or someone at an auto-parts store. Once you have your new wipers, remove the old ones – take a look at how they are attached and get a sense of the unlatching mechanism (your manual should also be helpful with figuring this out). Secure the new wipers and make sure they are fitted properly; you should hear a click when they are firmly in place. For a final test, switch on the ignition and see that the blades don’t come loose.

This should usually be done every six months, depending on the kinds of weather conditions you are driving in, as these are the main actants wearing out windshield wipers.

·         Tyres

Your tyres are the only part of the car that come in contact with the road, which makes it crucial that you carefully maintain them. Tyre-tread and possible sidewall damage are the two key areas to look out for when doing your check.

In South Africa, the minimum legal tread for a tyre is 1.6 mm. Anything below this, will drastically decrease its grip and will make your car unroadworthy and unsafe (it is important to note, that this minimum depth applies to the whole tyre – if any one edge is under 1.6 mm, the whole tyre must be replaced). If you find that the tread is worn in certain places, and not others, wheel alignment could be part of the issue, as could tyre pressure (you can usually find the recommended pressure for your tyres on a sticker in the car door or in your owner’s manual). If you suspect wheel alignment, rather have it professionally examined and adjusted.

Checking your tyre pressure will give you an opportunity to look for any visible sidewall damage like a cut, or a bulge. These could either mean that the tyre has been impacted by something like a pothole or that the inner structure has been affected. Whatever the case, it is best not to drive with compromised tyres and to rather have someone take a look at them.

Taking care of your car is vital for your safety, the safety of others, and the prevention of permanent damage. The time it takes to do these checks is minimal compared to the possible losses involved in neglecting your vehicle.  If you feel that you are someone who may forget to do routine inspections, pop a reminder on your phone, or write one in your calendar. The more often you do these checks, the easier they will become to do.

We at Tow Truck Services acknowledge that accidents and breakdowns are not completely preventable. Whilst this list will lower your overall risk, other drivers may still be negligent. If you do find yourself in a sticky situation, give us a call. We strive to provide useful information and efficient assistance, sure to get you out of any trouble you may have landed in.