Rotating the Tires
(Photo/Derek Mau)

Vehicle Maintenance Checklist: DIY Projects Anyone Can Do

Doing essential maintenance on your car may seem intimidating, but not everything requires advanced mechanical skills.

Since a vehicle is a hefty investment, here are some simple maintenance tasks that are straightforward, inexpensive, and will help extend the life of your car.

Inspecting the Car’s Battery

Inspecting the Car's Battery
(Photo/Derek Mau)

Corrosion on the battery terminals can add stress to the vehicle’s charging system. Even minor deterioration can reduce alternator output up to 30%. Eventually, it could lead to troubles with one of the many electronically controlled systems present in modern cars. Hence, cleaning the battery terminals is suitable insurance against future electrical problems.

Cleaning Corroded Battery Terminals

Tools required for cleaning the battery terminals:

If the battery terminals have minor corrosion, disconnect and clean them. Take precautions not to arc the positive leads to avoid short-circuiting and potentially causing damage to the electrical system. Use a wire brush to clean the terminals and battery posts if corrosion buildup is excessive.

Baking soda has a thousand and one uses, one of which is a baking soda and water solution that will neutralize the battery acid. Or buy a can of battery terminal spray cleaner.

Whichever one you utilize, wipe the terminals and posts clean with paper towels or a rag afterward. Then add acid-neutralizing felt pads to the posts and reconnect the battery terminals.

Apply an anticorrosive material to the battery terminals to prevent future corrosion. If the old plastic guards are done, install new ones. Plastic or rubber battery post caps are about 5 dollars.

If the battery terminals and posts are badly corroded, replacing the cable terminals is likely necessary. Installing new terminals isn’t too difficult and the topic for another article. Generally, it takes about an hour of labor and less than $20 for replacement parts.

Changing Windshield Wipers Is a Breeze

Changing Windshield Wipers is a Breeze

Windshield wiper blades are typically made of natural rubber or a synthetic compound with the elastic properties of rubber. This helps the blades conform to the curved glass and is soft enough to squeegee the water off.

Some parts of the country have extreme weather conditions, and recommended replacement is about once every 6 months. If you live in milder climates, wipers will last approximately a year before they begin streaking or squeaking annoyingly as they work back and forth.

Fortunately, learning how to replace windshield wipers is a snap by following these steps:

  • Measuring your wiper blades (driver side, passenger side, and rear)
  • Removing the old wiper blade
  • Attaching the new one
  • Testing them out

How to Remove Windshield Wipers

Measure your wipers: Windshield wipers come in several sizes; use the wrong ones, and they either won’t fit or won’t work correctly. To find the right size windshield wipers for your car, measure the current blade length and read your owner’s manual. You can also look up the correct size using the reference guide found next to where they sell wiper blades at most auto parts stores.

Remove the old wiper: Carefully pull the arm away from the windshield, and then squeeze the small tab under the wiper where it meets the arm. The wiper blade should then slide off the arm when you pull downward.

How to Install Windshield Wipers

First, confirm that the new wiper blade uses the same hooks as the old, and then attach it to the arm. A clicking sound signals that the new blade is locked in place. Lower the wiper arm to the windshield before repeating the process on the opposite side.

Test Them Out

Don’t wait until a downpour to see if you did this right. Use the vehicle’s windshield cleaner system to spray fluid and ensure that the wipers make a clean sweep of the windscreen without coming loose.

Changing Out the Engine Air Filter

engine air filter

In a similar fashion to the way humans need oxygen to live, a vehicle needs clean air for the combustion process. The air filter inhibits dust, sand, debris, and insects from reaching the engine and ensures a good mixture of air and fuel. Over time, the filter element can become clogged, preventing the engine from working at peak efficiency.

The filter is usually housed within the airbox and is often inspected or replaced with few to no tools. If the filter looks extra dirty, then it’s worth the few bucks to change it for having the peace of mind that your engine can breathe easier.

Replacing the Cabin Air Filter

Replacing the Cabin Air Filter
(Photo/Derek Mau)

Often the cabin air filter is overlooked for many reasons. Ultimately, people neglect to replace it because they don’t understand its importance, or the service center is overcharging for swapping it out.

However, that filter blocks a lot of pollutants and drastically reduces the load of allergens that can potentially get into your vehicle. If you can’t recall the last time the cabin air filter was replaced, now is an excellent time to install a fresh filter.

Thankfully, installing a new cabin air filter takes only a few minutes and no tools in a majority of cases. Not to mention saving about $30 if you do it yourself.

Buy a New Cabin Air Filter

Cabin air filters are available at any auto parts store or Walmart; you don’t have to purchase one from a dealership. Find the specific part number for your vehicle by either searching online via Google or — what I prefer to do — ask the person behind the counter to look up the part number for your specific make, model, and year of the car.

Pinpoint the Cabin Air Filter Compartment

The vehicle’s cabin air filter location is somewhat tricky to find but is often easily accessible. Typically, it’s somewhere in the dashboard, either underneath it or behind the glove box. In some cases, it’s situated in the engine bay.

The compartment holding the element is hidden from sight, so your best method of finding it is reading your car’s manual or searching YouTube videos. Often, accessing the casing involves twisting or removing some fasteners by hand.

Remove the Old Cabin Filter

After establishing how to access the air filter compartment, open it up by pinching the cover and sliding it open. Examine the air filter and note its condition. A clear indication of a neglected element is a dark color to the fabric and lots of debris embedded in between the pleats.

As you pull it out, remember the direction of the airflow arrow marked on the side of the filter. Matching this orientation is relevant when installing the clean filter. If there is any debris in the compartment, take a moment to vacuum or take a dry rag and wipe it out.

Slide the Clean Filter In

Insert the fresh cabin air filter, so it doesn’t stick out or hang up on anything. It should fit comfortably in the chamber, facing the same direction the old one did.

Close the Access Cover

Reverse the removal steps and reattach the panel to its original position. Reinstall everything the way it was, and check that nothing is loose.

The cabin air filter is an essential part of your car’s climate control system, blocking harmful allergens and debris from entering the vents and subsequently to the vehicle interior. Thus, set a reminder to perform this exercise at least once a year.

Hand Washing Your Car

Hand Washing Your Car
(Photo/Derek Mau)

Washing your car will save you money that would otherwise go toward paying for an automated car wash and puts you up close to filthy areas that need more attention. Moreover, commercial car washes use abrasive materials that may scratch or damage your car’s paint, so handwashing will help keep it in the best possible condition.

To clean your vehicle by hand, you’ll need a flat, shady patch of concrete, a hose, and access to plenty of water. It usually takes an hour or two to wash and dry, depending on the size of your vehicle and how dirty it is. Car wash shampoo is highly advised because it’s specifically formulated for automotive paint and won’t compromise wax protection.

Preparing to Wash the Vehicle

  • Park out of direct sunlight (full shade is optimal)
  • Check that all windows and sunroof are closed
  • Retract the antenna
  • Collect your supplies: bucket, hose, tire/wheel brush, car wash shampoo, wash mitts, drying towels
  • Fill a bucket with water and mix in car wash soap
  • Fill a second bucket with water for rinsing towels and brushes if your vehicle is heavily soiled

Washing the Car

  • Soak the tires and wheels first, as they are usually the dirtiest part.
  • Rinse off the loose dirt, and then follow up with a brush for scouring the sidewalls and the brake dust off the wheels. If they’re in poor shape, spray on your favorite rim and wheel cleaner, let it dwell for 2 to 5 minutes, and then scrub off the brake dust, road grime, and other nasty stuff stuck to the metal — follow up with a thorough rinse.
  • Wash your car using a wash mitt or microfiber towel.
  • Wash one section at a time, starting at the top and working your way to the bottom.
  • Refrain from using a brush on the car body, as this will leave micro scratches on the paint
  • If the car is filthy, let the soap and water do the work. Make multiple passes and avoid excessive scrubbing, as this could scratch or damage the paint.
  • Keep the wash mitt clean by rinsing it often. The risk of marring or damaging the paint increases by letting the dirt and grit build up in the wash mitt.
  • Rinse each section after cleaning it. Don’t allow the soap to dry on the paint to prevent stains, which may prove difficult to remove.
  • Keeping the entire car wet as you progress through the wash process will prevent water spots.
  • Scrub the lower body sections last, as this is typically the dirtiest, grimiest area.

Drying and Waxing Your Car

Dry the vehicle with fresh microfiber towels to evade micro scratches on the painted surfaces. The cool aspect about microfiber towels is that they’re reusable. Just wash them with like materials to avoid picking up extra lint. Air dry or use the delicate cycle when tossing them into the dryer.

Another drying technique, which doesn’t even involve touching the vehicle, is to use a blower —  even a leaf blower can work well.

For that extra shine and protection against the sun, apply a coat of wax. If you think the exercise of rubbing on a thin coat of your favorite carnauba wax is laborious and time-consuming, look at hybrid ceramic spray waxes.

Now it’s as simple as wetting the car, spraying on the hybrid ceramic wax, waiting a few minutes, spraying off the excess with a hose, and then toweling it dry. The ceramic coating is tougher than regular car wax, has a deep shine, and lasts 4 to 6 months.

Vacuuming for Hidden Treasure

Vacuuming for Hidden Treasure
(Photo/Derek Mau)

In a similar fashion as washing your car, use a top-to-bottom approach when vacuuming. Use a brush attachment on the dashboard, instrument panel, and center console to avoid scratching the surfaces. A crevice attachment is perfect for getting into tight spaces between the seats.

When you get to the floor mats, remove them and slide the seats forward to suck up all the junk underneath. You’ll be surprised by what you find. We found an assortment of pens, McDonald’s fries, Lego pieces, and enough coins for several vending machine snacks the last time our family car was cleaned out. After vacuuming the seats, remove the mats and clean the carpet.

How to Change Engine Oil

Changing the Engine Oil
(Photo/Derek Mau)

With gas prices creeping up into the uncomfortable range and the thought of expensive engine repairs haunting you, it makes sense to have your engine running at peak efficiency and ward off any potential breakdowns with regular oil changes.

Sure, some manufacturers say their engines can go 10,000 miles between oil services, but have you looked at and smelled engine oil after that many miles?

Because oil is one of the most vital fluids your car uses, conducting regular oil changes is favorable for the engine — and your wallet. The gearheads in the office typically do oil services every 5,000 to 7,000 miles. Over time, motor oil gets gritty and breaks down due to heat from the engine, which in turn causes it to lose viscosity and its ability to lubricate the cylinder walls.

Draining the old motor oil and replacing the filter routinely help keep the engine clean and protect other engine parts. A more noticeable effect is better fuel economy, as uncontaminated clean oil has less friction without the dirt and grime adding extra wear over time.

Why not do it yourself? It’s easier than you’d imagine, and it’s a prime opportunity to check under the hood and see if anything else needs some attention, such as checking the fluid levels or the battery’s condition.

What You Need

  • Ratchet/open-end wrench
  • Oil filter wrench
  • Oil drain pan
  • Funnel
  • Latex or nitrile gloves
  • New oil filter
  • New engine oil
  • New drain plug crush washer
  • Clean rag

Before You Begin

  • Read the owner’s manual to learn the correct oil viscosity and engine’s oil capacity.
  • View a couple of YouTube videos for the year, make, and model of the vehicle to get an idea of what’s involved, the location of the oil filter, the easiest way to access it, and any tips that will make the process more straightforward.
  • Allow the car time to cool down enough after driving to prevent burning yourself on hot oil.
  • If you need the space to get underneath the vehicle, use a floor or bottle jack and jack stands to raise the car for better access.

Changing the Oil and Oil Filter

  • Find the oil filter and drain plug. Position the drain pan below the drain plug at a slight angle to account for the stream and any possible breeze. Taking off the engine oil cap will improve the flow as it drains. Remove the drain plug with the correct size hex end of a wrench or socket, and then let the oil drain oil into the pan.
  • After emptying the oil from the engine, replace the drain plug paired with a new crush washer, and tighten to the proper torque spec.
  • Using the oil filter wrench, loosen and unscrew the oil filter. If the filter is at a horizontal angle, removing it will get messy, so get ready to soak up the drips with a clean rag or shop towel.
  • After removing the filter, drain its contents into the pan, too.
  • Wipe the clean rag to clean excess oil away from the filter sealing surface, where the new oil filter will go.
  • Lubricate the new filter’s O-ring by smearing some clean oil on it, and then screw it on using the oil filter wrench or your hand. Do not overtighten.
  • Recheck to make sure everything is fastened tightly and secured before refilling using the amount specified by the manufacturer.
  • Replace the oil filler cap and start the engine long enough to circulate the oil. After turning the engine off, check for leaks. If everything appears to be dry underneath, check the oil level one more time with your dipstick after the car is level again.
  • Properly dispose of used engine oil or take it to a hazardous waste collection center. Another option is to ask your local auto parts store if they recycle used oil.

How to Rotate Your Tires

Vehicle Maintenance Items Anyone Can Tackle
(Photo/Derek Mau)

If you have the jack stands out for an oil change, it’s also a good time to rotate the tires. Coincidentally, recommended tire rotation falls right in line with oil changes at approximately 5,000 miles.

If you think about it, the front tires of most vehicles wear more rapidly than the back tires — unless you love doing Ken Block impersonations. Factors affecting wear and tear — for drivers less inclined to do smoky burnouts — include turning, braking, and supporting the weight of the front end. Front-wheel-drive cars add the burden of transmitting power to the front wheels.

In contrast, rear-wheel-drive vehicles typically have more balanced wear, as the rear tires are responsible for propulsion while the front tires handle steering duties. In the case of RWD drivetrains, the rear tires are predominantly driven in a straight line; thus, they wear a lot less than the front tires.

Regardless of whether your vehicle is FWD, RWD, or AWD, rotating the tires at regular intervals will get you the maximum miles out of them.

What You Need

Tire rotation doesn’t require a full-size car lift or air tools. What works best is the following:

  • A hard, flat, and level work area
  • A jack rated strong enough to lift your vehicle
  • At least two jack stands
  • Wheel chocks to prevent the car from rolling
  • A torque wrench
  • A standard set of hand tools
  • Enough muscle to lift the tire and wheel

Steps for Rotating Tires

  • Use a socket wrench large enough to break loose the wheel’s lug nuts
  • Lift the car off the ground and remove lug nuts using a socket wrench or cordless drill
  • Dismount tires due for rotation
  • Thoroughly examine each tire for tread or sidewall damage
  • Measure tread depth
  • Rotate and mount tires
  • Reinstall lug nuts and lower the vehicle until the tire touches the ground
  • Use a torque wrench to tighten the lug nuts to half the recommended torque spec. The owner’s or shop manual will have this specification.
  • Lower vehicle all the way and tighten each lug nut in a star pattern to the specified torque
  • Check the air pressure using a quality gauge to get an accurate reading

It’s strongly advised to use a torque wrench to tighten the lug nuts. Overtightening is the primary cause of warped brake rotors and broken wheel studs.

How to Change Your Car’s Spark Plugs

How to Change Your Car's Spark Plugs
(Photo/Derek Mau)

Small and simple in design, your car’s spark plugs play an integral role in the combustion process. This crucial automotive part uses the electrical current from the ignition to ignite the compressed fuel and air mixture while containing combustion pressure within the engine. It’s a hardy design, but nothing lasts forever.

Fortunately, spark plugs are easy to replace if in an accessible location — this varies widely between vehicles.

Tools Needed

Work on a cold engine. A hot engine also means hot spark plugs. Thus, it’s a sound idea to cool the engine before removing the old spark plugs.

Another tip is to clear the engine of any dirt and debris that could fall inside the engine cylinder during replacement.

Locate the position of all the spark plugs before starting.

The biggest challenge for this task is reaching the parts and stubborn components that won’t come loose, such as when removing spark plug wires or ignition coils and unscrewing the spark plugs.

There are situations where spark plugs are difficult to reach and require dismantling the upper plenum or intake manifold. If this is the case, a new plenum gasket is necessary.

Remove the Old, Worn Spark Plugs

An ignition coil attaches directly to the spark plug and has a long rubber insulator boot. First, disconnect the electrical connector to the ignition coil by releasing the locking tab and then pulling off the ignition coil. Use a small screwdriver to depress the locking tab if your fingers aren’t successful.

After removing the connector, unscrew the hold-down bolt and carefully twist the coil back and forth about a quarter turn until it breaks free from the spark plug. Then carefully pull it straight up and out.

Inspect for damage and extreme wear. If the boots are damaged, consider replacing them immediately. Replacement is strongly recommended for components older than 5 years or with more than 100,000 miles of use.

Use a spark plug socket, preferably one with a magnetic or rubber insert that holds the plug firmly in place, to remove the spark plugs. Begin with blowing compressed air into the spark plug well to remove debris and grit.

First, loosen the plug about a half turn. If you feel a lot of resistance, squirt some penetrant fluid onto the base area of the spark plug threads and let it dwell for a few minutes. Repeat if too much torque is needed to unscrew the spark plug.

Install the New Spark Plugs

Check each spark plug for the following:

  1. Ensure the threads are clean and straight
  2. Make sure the tips aren’t bent or damaged
  3. Double-check the gap, so it matches your engine’s plug gap spec

Apply a small amount of anti-seize compound to the threads. Then insert and tighten each new spark plug to the correct amount of torque, taking precautions not to cross-thread or ruin the cylinder head threads.

Reattach ignition coils and cables to the correct spark plugs. To keep out moisture, apply a small amount of dielectric grease on the rubber boots, where the ignition coil attaches to the spark plug.

Do not use it on the mating surfaces where the pins and sockets meet. Dielectric grease is an insulator and doesn’t conduct electricity. Voilà! You’re done!