The word "maintenance" comes from the word "maintain," which means the act of keeping an object in a state of good repair. For the purposes of this column, the object in question will, of course, be an automobile, and the act of maintaining it will be covered in its most basic form.
Before we get started, we should point out that maintaining your vehicle with an occasional visual inspection and fluid level check requires almost no time, and even less effort. You don't have to be a mechanic, or even mechanically minded, to perform the following tasks. And although these activities cannot replace the suggested service schedule recommended by the manufacturer, they do offer increased protection for both you and your car in between dealer visits.
The following list describes basic maintenance tasks as well as a recommended schedule for how often they should be performed. These can be applied to almost any vehicle, past or present, which is driven on a regular or semi-regular basis. For vehicles that spend much of their time in storage, like sports cars in winter climes, a vastly different set of maintenance rules should be followed, and might even make a future How To... subject.
Visual Tire Inspection
This one is so easy that it could, and should, be performed on a daily basis. At its most basic level, a visual tire inspection can simply involve glancing at the tires while walking up to a vehicle that you are about to drive. While casual in nature, this quick look will tell you if any of the vehicle's tires are flat or excessively low in tire pressure. It will also point out any obvious major problems, such as a damaged sidewall or severely bent suspension piece. Check to see that the wheels appear upright. If one or more of them tilts in toward the vehicle or out, away from the vehicle, it could mean anything from a bad front-end alignment to a damaged piece of suspension. Have the vehicle inspected by a mechanic..
Recommended Frequency: Daily -- or whenever the vehicle is driven.
Tire Pressure and Examination:
Unlike the more casual visual tire inspection, a tire pressure and examination check requires you to get up close and personal with the tire. This one, as you might expect, requires a tire pressure gauge. However, you might be surprised however to learn that it also requires a penny. The pressure gauge is obviously used to check the tire pressure and assure that it is within manufacturer spec, which can usually be found inside the driver's doorframe or along the inside edge of the driver's door. Be sure to check tire pressure always when the tires are cold, which means the vehicle cannot have been driven in the previous hour. The penny's purpose is to check tread depth. While different tread depths are considered acceptable for different types of tires, a basic rule of thumb involves sliding a penny into the center tread with Lincoln's head pointing down at the tire. If you can see Lincoln's entire head, the tread is too short to be safe and the tire should be replaced. This is also the time to check for uneven tread wear, which could indicate the need for a front-end alignment.
Recommended Frequency: Once a week.
Oil Level Check:
Oil is the single most vital fluid for maintaining your vehicle's well being. If it drops below a safe level or deteriorates to a state of ineffectiveness, your entire drivetrain could be history. It needs to be checked on a regular basis and, since manufacturers know this, they try to make the process a simple, straightforward task. The oil dipstick will often be clearly labeled with words like "ENGINE OIL" or "OIL" written on a brightly colored plastic ring. Pull on this ring until the dipstick comes completely out, then wipe it with a clean rag. Reinsert the dipstick and make sure it goes all the way in or you will get a false reading. Pull it back out and look closely to determine the oil level. It should be between the two marks at the end of the dipstick, often labeled with "add" and "fill." You can also check the oil's color and consistency at this time to see that it does not contain any small metal flakes and that it has a clear or medium-brown color. If the oil has a black color, it should probably be changed.
Recommended Frequency: Once a week.
If oil is number one in the fluid pecking order, water, or coolant, ranks a close second because of its role as a heat regulator. Unless you have an older Volkswagen Beetle (or a not-so-old Porsche 911), you will want to check your coolant level as often as you check the oil. This should be done with the engine off and when the vehicle is cold, and must be done when the vehicle is cold if you are opening the actual radiator. Most late-model cars have an overflow tank (light-colored plastic with a rubber tube going into its cap) that can be checked to determine coolant level with no chance of scalding, but even these engines should be cold for an accurate reading. Once again, there will be marks on the overflow tank, often labeled "MIN" and "MAX," that will make identifying your coolant level a no-brainer. If you have an older vehicle with no overflow tank, open the radiator when the engine is completely cold and look inside to check for coolant. It should be visible just below the radiator opening.
Recommended Frequency: Once a week.
Miscellaneous Fluid and Battery Check:
With tires, oil and coolant out of the way, you've covered the most crucial aspects of vehicle maintenance. Now all that's left is a general fluid check and battery check. As with the overflow tank for coolant, many of today's vehicles make checking fluids a snap through the use of semi-transparent plastic reservoirs in the engine compartment. By simply looking at these containers, one can quickly see if they are low on brake fluid, power steering fluid, or windshield washer fluid. Older vehicles used mostly metal reservoirs in the engine compartment and these must be opened to check their level. Finally, a regular battery inspection is also a good idea and can help avoid that dreadful feeling of turning the ignition key and having nothing happen. Check the battery terminals and cables to see that they are free of corrosion. Also check around the battery for signs or leakage. If either of these conditions exist, you should have a mechanic look at it to see if the battery is damaged or just needs to be cleaned up.
Recommended Frequency: Once a month.
As stated earlier, these are extremely basic guidelines that apply to a broad range of vehicles. If you're serious about proper maintenance for your vehicle, a quick read of the owner's manual will provide tremendous insight on the location and proper frequency of maintenance tasks. For even greater in-depth coverage of vehicle care, a service manual direct from the manufacturer, or from an automotive publisher like Haynes or Chilton's, can provide detailed instructions on everything from checking a vehicle's oil to rebuilding the transmission. Point your browser at Haynes Repair Manuals to begin your search for your vehicle's service manual.
And good luck!