These new habits mean automobiles need attention, and more people are opting to do their own car maintenance to avoid COVID-19 risks and save money.
A recent survey of 1,000 U.S. adult car owners by Wakefield Research for SimpleTire found that 65 percent of respondents have performed maintenance on their own cars since the pandemic, rather than heading to a garage.
"Cars are an essential part of our lives, so we have to take care of them, much like we take care of ourselves,” says David Bennett, 52, manager of repair systems at the American Automobile Association's national office in Heathrow, Florida.
Now's the perfect time to get your car primed to safely hit the road. For DIY car maintenance, all you need are a few tools, some basic knowledge and a little patience. Here's how to get started.
1. Take a virtual class
Many drivers have no idea how their cars work, says Chaya Milchtein, founder of Mechanic Shop Femme, an automotive education platform. Milchtein, who lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, offers online classes about car ownership and maintenance.
"During the pandemic, people became more interested in doing repairs on their cars,” says Milchtein. “I give people permission to believe in themselves and trust their guts.”
Leah Strock, 62, a nurse practitioner in New York City, took Chaya's class about a year ago. “I've been driving since I was 16 – I even drove a taxi – but I knew nothing about cars; I'd look at my owner's manual and feel completely overwhelmed,” says Strock. The class taught her to change her air filters, check oil and tire pressure and determine when to get new tires. “I found it incredibly empowering."
In Chilmark, Massachusetts, Deb Dunn, 53, recently returned from a road trip to Georgia. Dunn says taking a hands-on class before the pandemic with Andrea Dello Russo Campbell, owner and auto technician at Andrea's Auto in Edgartown, Massachusetts, was a great investment.
"Knowledge is power; I learned how brakes, axles and spark plugs work, and how to inspect the underbelly of a car,” says Dunn. “Most important, I learned how easy it is to change the oil."
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2. Use technology as a guide
While you can look up most things online, watching a random video of someone changing their brakes in the driveway is not always the wisest choice. Instead, it’s worth exploring technology designed to connect car owners with professionals.
For example, the ProTip app offers on-demand access through one-on-one video calls with automotive specialists who can walk you through the task at hand for as little as $5.
“Most people just need a little guidance to make sure they’re doing the right thing,” says Sean Klongerbo, a diesel mechanic in Grand Marais, Minnesota, and one of the automotive experts available to video chat about car maintenance or repairs. “When you’re talking on the phone, you have to be really descriptive and sometimes people don’t always understand. With video, it can be a lot of point and touch.”
Another new online service, SimpleTire, helps car owners find, research and order the right tires for their vehicle without having to physically visit a retailer.
“Buying tires is a complicated and sometimes convoluted process for the average consumer,” explains Rick Cornillie, senior product catalog manager at SimpleTire in Indianapolis, Indiana. The site allows consumers to access hundreds of independent tire distributors.
More than 400 brands of tires in hundreds of sizes are available, and tires are then shipped directly to any home or garage for installation.
Every week or two, check all the lights in your car, suggests Bennett.
"Turn on your headlights, check your brake lights and your turn signals to make sure they're in good operating condition,” he says.
You'll need someone to watch the taillights as you test them. You can change burned-out bulbs yourself. Take the old bulb to an auto parts shop to make sure you purchase the right one. Don't touch the new bulb with your bare hands, because the oils from your fingers can react with the light and cause it to burn out prematurely.
Since the pandemic, many cars are sitting idle. Check tire pressure once a month to prevent uneven tire wear, especially in the winter, says Cornillie.
"The general rule of thumb is every 10 degrees that the temperature changes outside, your tires are going to lose a pound of air pressure,” says Cornillie.
Under-inflated tires can cause excess heat when driving, which will damage tires.
"Properly inflated tires help you save money at the pump, an average of $200 to $500 a year,” says Milchtein, who suggests keeping a tire pressure gauge – which costs under $15 – in your glove box.
Also, learn the proper inflation specs for your tires by looking in your owner's manual or inside your driver's door, adds Bennett.
"Do not go by what's listed on the sidewall of the tire,” he cautions.
It's vital to check the tread levels on your tires, whether they're all-weather or snow tires, says Klongerbo.
"During the summer, we might not notice our tires starting to wear, but when winter comes, the road's going to tell you your tires are worn – by putting you into a spin or into another vehicle,” he says.
You can buy a tread depth gauge for about $3, or simply insert a penny upside down into the tire's groove, says Cornillie.
"If you see the top of Abe Lincoln's head, that means they're legally bald,” he explains. “Also, look for any cosmetic damage, bulges or abnormalities on your tires.”
Every month, while your car is sitting on a flat surface, make sure all your fluids are topped off, advises Bennett.
"Check your engine oil, power steering fluid, brake fluid and windshield washer fluid,” he says. “To check your transmission fluid, your vehicle has to be running and up to operating temperature."
With some vehicles, you can see the tanks containing the liquids, but most have gauges or dipsticks that pull out so you can check the levels and color. Always look in your owner's manual for instructions, and look around and under your car to check for fluid leaks, which could signal a problem with the car.
Driving safely requires good visibility, so check your wipers to see if they are lying flat or standing up, advises Bennett.
"If they're laying down, that indicates they're worn,” he says. “Also, lift them up from the windshield, and make sure they're not torn. Take some windshield washer fluid or a wet rag and clean them so they're not streaking on you, and don't forget your back wiper."
Swapping out wiper blades is fairly simple: After pulling the wiper away from the windshield, press the small tab underneath and slide the blade off. Line up the new wiper with the arm and slide it down, pulling it tight until it clicks.
Over time, engine oil filters get dirty and clogged with debris, decreasing your fuel economy and swapping them for new ones isn't hard. Milchtein posted a video of herself changing her air filter, which takes just a few minutes.
"The filter costs between $10-$15 at a parts store or online; if you go to an independent garage to change it, you'll probably pay $40-$50, and $75 at the dealer,” says Milchtein.
Your owner's manual will recommend when to change your engine air filter, but depending where you live, you may need to change it more often, she adds.
"When I lived in Brooklyn, New York, I changed my air filter at 10,000 miles because it was disgusting. Here in Wisconsin, I changed it at 28,000 miles – there's a drastic difference in the air quality of those two places,” she says.
Anytime you turn on your heat or air conditioning, the air blowing through your vents is going through a cabin filter, says Campbell.
"Those filters are often gross, so it's very satisfying to put a new one in, and know you're breathing fresh air,” she explains.
Cabin filters are often behind the glove box, which pops out fairly easily to reveal the access panel behind it.
Before a road trip, be sure your battery is fully charged, says Campbell, who suggests purchasing a volt meter or a battery tester.
"Battery testers also test the alternator and the charging system, but a simple volt meter costs less than $20; put one wire on the positive terminal and one on the negative terminal and it can tell you what the battery voltage is,” she says.
Clean off any mineral buildup on the battery contact terminals, and make sure they're tight, adds Bennett.
Most batteries last three to five years. To change it yourself, you'll need an adjustable wrench or ratchet set to loosen the positive and negative battery cables and the clamp holding it in place. Then, switch out the old battery for the new one and reconnect.
To learn more about preventive car maintenance, AAA's auto repair section offers resources and videos.