If the modern automobile had a status on Facebook, it would undoubtedly be “It’s complicated.” With their computer-controlled fuel-injection systems, continuously variable transmissions and three-phase four-pole AC induction motors, the days when every Tom, Dick or Harry could wrench on their ride seem long gone. So let us help — especially with the seemingly mundane stuff that if not done properly, your dad and/or his favorite mechanic vowed would ruin your car forever. Because when it comes to cars — and this column — no question is too dumb.
My car could use a little TLC. Problem is, I’m in California under strict instructions not to leave the house while this coronavirus crap rages outside. Is there anything I can do at home on the cheap? After all, I’ve got nothing but time on my hands.
I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: Just because you’re stuck at home doesn’t mean you should neglect your car. In fact, now might be the best time to give your ride some much needed TLC, considering that a little DIY maintenance can definitely break up the Groundhog Day-esqe monotony of your daily routine. Not to mention that you’re bound to save a few bones putting the “Y” in DIY, and who doesn’t like saving a little money in the midst of a pandemic-induced global economic meltdown?
Better yet, there are a number of basic (and surprisingly cheap) fixes even someone who doesn’t know a socket wrench from a garden hose can do themselves. Such as…
Replacing Your Air Filter. According to RepairPal.com, replacing your car’s air filter can cost up to $105 when the guy at your local Quickie Lube does it. But if you order it off the internet yourself, it’s more like 15 bucks. Once you have it in hand, pop your hood and look for (generally speaking) a black box with a big hose sticking out of it. That’s your air filter. Undo the latches that secure the housing, pull out the old, nasty filter and stick in the new one. Snap the latches back and viola! Shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes.
Flushing Your Radiator Fluid. Your radiator should be flushed every one to three years, or between 24,000 and 36,000 miles. Unfortunately, according to Angie’s List, that’ll cost you upwards of $150 if you take it into the shop. But again, doing it at home is a cinch: Buy your car’s recommended coolant online, use your owner’s manual to locate your radiator’s drain plug under your car (wait until the engine is cool to do any of this!) and place a bucket below it. Unscrew the plug, drain the radiator completely, return the plug and add radiator flushing liquid and distilled water to the radiator through the cap on the top. Turn on the car, run it for 10 minutes and then turn the car off, letting it cool completely. Remove the cap, drain the water/flushing liquid completely through the drain plug into your bucket again, add your new radiator coolant and you’re done! Shouldn’t cost you more than $25 or take over 30 minutes.
Touching Up Your Paint Job. You can’t, unfortunately, fix the door of your car where that guy T-boned you back in 2015, but you can fix minor paint blemishes and chips you get from parking too many times in the compact spots at your local supermarket. To do so, call up your car manufacturer’s local dealership and ask them if they have touch-up kits available for your model. Assuming the answer’s yes, go down there and pick up a kit or two.
In most cases, the paint kit works like a pen — simply shake it up, press the applicator tip in small chips or scratches and color in the spot (just remember to wash your car first so that it’s clean). Bigger spots or spots with rust may require more advanced tools like paint syringes, micro applicators and sandpaper, but little divots shouldn’t take you more than a few tedious minutes.
The best news is, touch-up kits generally cost less than $50, while taking it into the shop could cost you thousands of dollars.
Checking Your Battery. When you popped the hood earlier to change your air filter and flush your fluids, did you notice any crud around your battery’s terminals (white or otherwise)? If so, it’s super easy to clean up those suckers. Simply remove your terminal clamps (negative first), and next, with a mixture of water and baking soda, scrub the terminals with a wire brush. Wipe off with a clean rag until dry, and you’re done.
Everything Else. And that’s just scratching the surface. There’s also numerous other fluid flushes (brake and power steering come to mind), swapping out your fuel filter (slightly more advanced) and even changing your own oil (requires a jack and the courage to be under your car for a brief period of time).
Not to mention, the much, much, much simpler maintenance jobs that only really require reading the back of a product label or a quick Google sesh — such as replacing your windshield wipers, shampooing your mats or swapping in new headlights, brake lights and turn signals. As is often the case, YouTube is THE best place to start any maintenance project, if only to learn that what you’re trying to do is slightly out of your depth. Along these lines, try reading through your car’s service manual. There’s a ton of information in there about what needs to be replaced and when.
None of this will turn you into a mechanic overnight — or mean that you’ll never have to see yours again — but it will make everything a lot less painful (and ideally, cheaper) the next time you do enlist their help.