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Zen and the Art of Automobile Maintenance

Posted in Car Tech, Emissions, General by Vito Rispo | July 18th, 2008 | 6 Responses |

Hypermilers are dangerous nutcases and should be sent to Australia with the rest of the deviants. This is a universal, undeniable fact. A quick aside: If you’re a hypermiler, I’m obliged to tell you that the opinions expressed by the current writer do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ridelust staff as a whole.

To the rest of the sane and healthy minded readers, I’ll explain. Hypermilers are people who, in the name of increased gas mileage, overinflate their tires; take turns at 50 mph so they don’t have to brake; keep detailed notes of gas station fill ups and number of miles driven; turn their engines off going down hills; and draft big rigs (drafting is when you get right up close to the back of a semi truck so you can benefit from the decreased wind resistance). A full tank of gas is useless when you’re flattened out underneath the rear end of big rig that stopped short. These people are the fad dieters of the auto world. Calorie counting, juice drinking, carbohydrate avoiding freaks. There is a better way.

I can sympathize with them though. Gas is expensive, I’d love to get 60 miles per gallon, I love saving money, but there is a better way. If hypermiling is fad dieting, then car maintenance is exercise. If you want to lose weight, the only real way you’re going to do it is through exercise. It’s harder than drinking special juice and counting calories, but it works. And not only does it work, it has other benefits as well, like increased overall health and happiness. This applies to car maintenance. If you keep your car running well, you’ll not only save money on repairs, but you’ll drastically increase the eventual re-sale value of your car.

For seven years I worked in an auto repair shop with real honest to goodness ex-convicts and lunatics. Everyday I worried about one of those freaks shattering the back of my skull with a pig femur like some pre-human gorilla from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was stressful, but while there, I learned a few things about cars and how they break down and therefore, how to prevent them from breaking down.

A lot of it boils down to changing the way you think about your car. You need to appreciate it. Realize that this selfless hunk of precision machinery lugs you around every day in the heat and the freezing cold and the rain and anytime you feel like it. You need to remember that, and start loving your car. Most of all, listen to it.

Here are a few of the biggies:

1. Change the Oil

If you do nothing else, do this.
To check your oil, shut your engine off, let it cool down for about 10-15 minutes and then pull out the dipstick, wipe it off with a cloth, reinsert it and then check the level on the stick. This simple act can have the most profound impact on your car. If you have a newer car, your manual probably says you only need to change the oil every 5000 miles, maybe even more. Your manual is an idiot. Change it every 3000 miles at most, that’s it, no exceptions. Like I said, you have to change the way you think about your car. You have to worry about its welfare.

2. Transmission fluid

If you feel like your transmission is slipping or shifting late or just not acting right, you need to check the transmission fluid first. It’s usually the likely culprit. Unlike with checking the oil, you can only check your trans fluid when your car is running. Oil is usually the yellow dipstick near the front and trans fluid is generally the red one further back. The trouble with filling the transmission fluid is that there is no separate fill hole for it. You need to pour the fluid directly into the dipstick hole, so you’ll need a funnel. Remember, for both oil and trans fluid, if you have to fill them up often, you have a leak, get that checked.

3. Belts and Hoses

The belts and hoses on your car can make a big difference, they keep all the pumps and ancillary bits running together and direct all the air and fluid to the right places; so if one snaps or breaks, it can do a lot of damage under the hood. Every time you have that hood open, make sure you check them. To check your belts, make sure the car is turned off. Just eye them up first to see if any are frayed or cracked or dry-rotted. Then check their tension, most belts should give about a half inch when you push on them, they shouldn’t be too tight or too loose. And while you’re under there, look at the hoses and try to spot any problems with them as well, dry rot, cracks, dislodged hoses. Replacing hoses and belts is super cheap compared to the damage they can do when they break, so it’s well worth it to take some time to inspect them.

4. Brake fluid

Brake fluid is another easy thing to check, and it’s important since it affects your ability to stop the car. The fluid container is usually a smallish translucent yellow container with a cap located with the master cylinder right up against the back of the engine compartment, on the drivers side.

Here’s a picture:

It shouldn’t be low unless it’s leaking, which is rare, but it’s always good to check. You don’t need to open the cap, just look at the bottle and see if the fluid is to to the “fill” line. Easy Peasy Japanesey.

5. Spark Plugs

Spark plugs are, pound for pound, the most important part of a car. They ignite the gas and air in the combustion chamber, in other words, they make the car go. Spark plugs usually only need changing after upwards of 50,000 miles or more, but its always a good thing to check, since they can make a big difference. Most people have never changed or even considered their spark plugs, and a lot of mechanics don’t think to replace them unless they’re not working at all. They’re wrong. Combustion gunk accumulates on the business end of the spark plug, “fouling” the plugs. Putting in a new set can do wonders for a car; they can increase mileage, drastically cut down emissions, and just keep the car running more smoothly. It’s hard to visually inspect your spark plugs since the working end is inside the engine, but a good way to at least tell if they’re leaking is to examine the exposed part of the plug, if there is oil or black residue, that means its leaking oil from the chamber. That means change them.

6. Air Filter

The air filter is a straightforward thing, it filters the air that comes into your vehicle. On newer cars, the air filter is about as easy as changing the station on your car radio. It involves opening the hood, popping open two plastic clips, pulling out the old one, and putting in the new one. If you can make coffee, you can change an air filter. You’re air filter should be changed every 10,000-20,000 miles, depending on what kind of area you live in. As far as biggest impact on performance per least amount of work, the air filter probably wins. So go change yours.

7. Tires

Overinflating your tires by double digits like hypermilers can not only destroy your tires, but it can make the car lose tons of traction. The correct tire pressure should be printed on a sticker on the inside part of the drivers door, under the latch; or in the glove compartment. Take that as a suggestion. Figure you can go a few psi higher max. If it says 32, go to 34, but no more. Make sure to check them regularly.

Extra Credit

Aside from those 7 major components, there are tons of little things you can do to help put the pepper back in your cars step, like using the parking brake. If you have a manual transmission, you do this already; but even if you have an automatic, you should still be applying the parking brake every time you park your car. It helps keep strain off the transmission, and the automatic transmission is one of the most costly parts of a car to get fixed. Trust me. Replacing auto transmissions is the bread and butter of small auto repair shops. They are constantly going bad. You can add literally years of life to your automatic transmission by simply applying the parking break when you park. Just remember to take it off before you start driving around again.

And then there is the argument about not letting your fuel tank get down to EMPTY. This is a sticky subject. There’s a bit of a debate in the car community about this. Some are adamant that letting your fuel get that low can cause the sediment and gunk to get sucked into your system and eventually foul your injectors. Other people say it doesn’t matter since the fuel draws from the bottom of the tank anyway. I tend to agree with the latter, it’s not really a big deal for the injectors, but I still always tell people to avoid getting down to E. It goes back to the change in mindset. You need to appreciate your car, love it. I mean, you don’t wait until your pet’s half dead from starvation before you fill up his kibbles and bits, you keep him healthy and feed him daily. I’m not saying you need to fill up your tank everyday, but try to pretend like the line above the E, the 1/4 or 1/8 line, is the bottom. Fill it up when it gets to that. It’ll strengthen the bond with your car and it’ll make sure you never run out of gas in a traffic jam or on a desolate highway.

Basically, you just need to get more in touch with your car. Listen to it, I mean really listen to it. Get to know the sound of your car when its running well. Get to know the feel of it. That way, when some odd knock starts coming from the engine, or some criggity-crank starts happening every time you turn a corner, you’ll realize it. You’d be surprised how often a mechanic can diagnose a problem from the sound. You can too if you know your stuff.

All of these things, even the 7 big ones I mentioned, you can do yourself. Not only will it save you money, it’ll give you a new appreciation for your car and automobiles in general. There is a tremendous boost in confidence a person gets when they change their oil or replace belt for the first time. It’s your car, get to know it.

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6 Responses

  1. lawrence says:

    I for one have noticed that the finest things in the world from guitars to cars require daily maintenance. I love checking the air in my tires and changing the oil- it reminds me of the lengths I go to please my girlfriend, who incidentally is very high maintenance and I wouldn’t have it any other way. So the next time you’re giving your significant other a massage, think about how good your car will look and sound if you wash it once a week and check the fluids when you’re at the pump.
    PS- drive safely.

  2. Terry says:

    This is a great and thoughtful article. A pal of mine who is a machinist is a hyper-miler par excellence. He has parked his Chevrolet half-ton, save for occasional trips to swap meets or the dump. His daily driver is now a 1966 Volkswagen Beetle, he bought off of eBay. He tracks the mileage, from home to the shop he works at, weekly. He claims to have gotten as much as 30 miles-per-gallon.

    The car runs radials; however, he is thinking about buying some bias ply tires from Coker Tires (makers of new old stock, vintage tires) to get lower rolling resistance and a smaller contact patch. His thinking is that while he will give up something in handling, since he is mostly using the freeway to get to work – in the far right hand lane, doing 60 mph – it is worth what he believes he can achieve in terms of mileage. I believe he is aiming for 35 mpg. – Terry Parkhurst

  3. Ryan says:

    Interesting thought of the day… if electric cars become the norm … how many of these aspects of car maintenance will become obsolete?

  4. […] your spark plugs. According to Vito Rispo over at Ridelust, “Putting in a new set can do wonders for a car; they can increase mileage, drastically cut […]

  5. […] a safe thing to do at stop lights. What do you guys think? 7. Check your spark plugs. According to Vito Rispo over at Ridelust, “Putting in a new set can do wonders for a car; they can increase mileage, drastically cut down […]

  6. azazalam says:

    thats better