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Sticking to your vehicle’s maintenance schedule is the best way to keep it in great shape. While regular trips to the shop keep it up to date with certain inspections, there are things that even the least car-savvy drivers can do to make sure their daily driver is ready for the road.

In the spirit of National Car Care Month, we’ve listed down some of the easiest maintenance checks you can do in your own garage.

10 Car Maintenance Tasks You Can Do at Home

Some maintenance tasks don’t require technical expertise or complicated equipment that you’ll only find at a repair shop. Here are some of the most common ones:

1. Checking the Engine Oil

Getting an oil change is probably at the top of your list when it comes to sticking to your vehicle’s preventive maintenance schedule. While there are manufacturer-recommended intervals for oil changes, your driving conditions may cause the engine oil to deteriorate at a faster rate.

Knowing how to check your engine oil can help you determine whether it’s time to top up or head to the shop for an oil change.

Inspecting the engine oil level and condition begins with pulling out the dipstick and checking whether or not the oil reaches the right markers. A caramel or tan color that falls below the markers means that you need to add more oil.

Meanwhile, a grainy or milky consistency means you need to drain the old oil and flush the reservoir before adding the new oil.

visible oil residue after oil filler cap removed
It’s not a bad idea to remove the oil filler cap to see what the oil residue looks like. If you see evidence of moisture, such as in the photo, either inspect the PCV system or have it done. Typically, if the PCV system isn’t working, there will be oil in the breather or intake tube because blowby will travel in that direction if the PCV or its vacuum source are clogged or disconnected. | Image Source: Richard McCuistian.

According to the Ford Motor Company, if a 5 quart engine is driven with only 4 quarts of oil, the oil can break down in as little as 1,500 miles. So keep your oil topped up but make sure you check your oil when the engine is cold so that you’ll get an accurate reading. If you check the oil with the engine hot, some of the oil may be on its way back to the oil pan and you may think the oil level is low when it’s not. Overfilling the crankcase can cause problems.

2. Inspecting Coolant Levels

Having enough coolant in the reservoir reduces the risk of dealing with an overheating engine. So make sure the coolant level sits between the “low” and “full” indicators.

If your coolant reservoir is stained to the point that you can’t determine the coolant level, replace the reservoir. Usually engines with thick plastic surge tanks will have the coolant fill cap on the surge tank.

Always check the condition of the coolant as well as the coolant level. Keep in mind to also add the proper mix of coolant (usually a 50/50 mix of distilled water and coolant). If you follow the owner’s manual for coolant change intervals, it helps keep the cooling system clean.

car cooling system is loaded with deposits
Once the cooling system is loaded with deposits like the ones in the photo (this is a GM system that uses the orange coolant), you’ll just need to have it flushed professionally. | Image Source: Richard McCuistian.
radiator or coolant reservoir cracks
With good light (strong flashlight or bright sunlight), look for visible radiator or coolant reservoir cracks, swollen hoses, seeping coolant leaks, etc. such as shown in these photos. | Image Source: Richard McCuistian.

The coolant temperature gauge will run in the center (about 210 F) on a healthy engine. An engine that runs too cool or is driven too often without being completely warmed up will develop sludge, so make sure you always warm your engine up completely whenever you start it.

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If you notice that your daily driver is low on engine coolant, you can use a clean funnel to add more to the reservoir.

Meanwhile, if you find your coolant low but don’t notice any visible leaks, make sure you check the coolant regularly. Coolant can be consumed by the engine and can even weep out through hoses over a long period of time.

CAUTION: Don’t ever open a hot cooling system under any circumstances. Coolant under pressure can cause life-threatening burns. A mechanic always feels the top radiator hose to see if it’s tight due to system pressure.

3. Replacing the Engine Air Filter

A clean engine air filter ensures proper airflow, which helps improve fuel economy, reduce emissions, and extend your engine’s lifespan.

Depending on your vehicle’s specifications, you’ll need to change the filter after a specific interval. In most cases, replacing a dirty air filter is a simple task that doesn’t require complex equipment.

The engine air filter is usually under the hood, secured by a couple of clips or screws. Once you’ve located the filter, simply take out the old one and place the new filter in the same orientation.

dirty engine air filter on top of car hood
A dirty engine air filter | Image Source: Richard McCuistian.

Additionally, make sure your air filter housing is installed correctly and isn’t cracked. If it is cracked or damaged, replace it. While a new housing can add to the cost of maintenance, it’s still a more affordable option than replacing a damaged engine.

Don’t try to fix an air filter housing crack with duct tape or anything. Dust that enters the engine between the air filter and the throttle body will eventually destroy the engine. Make sure that the filter is new, a good brand, and installed correctly.

4. Checking the Battery Condition

The battery supplies current to nearly all electrical components in your vehicle. It’s a must to check its condition from time to time.

The battery hold-downs or brackets can loosen because of excessive vibration, which can damage the battery altogether. Make sure these brackets are secured before going for a drive.

Corroded connections can also affect the battery’s performance. Luckily, a mixture of baking soda and distilled water usually resolves this issue. But if too much corrosion is present, it might be time to get a new battery instead.

car battery with cables needing replacement
In cases like the battery in this photo, replacement cables may be in order. Properly cleaning the battery terminals means removing the terminals and cleaning the inside of the terminal and the battery post, because that’s where the current flows. The chalky acid paste either comes out of the battery vents or seeps up from within the battery around the terminals. Those felt washers that go around the base of the terminal will help. | Image Source: Richard McCuistian.

5. Inspecting Belts and Hoses

Serpentine belts don’t usually break, they just slip. Serpentine belts are designed to have traction and evacuate water, vaguely similar to the tread on a tire.

When a serpentine belt wears to the point that the ribs are contacting the bottoms of the groove or are worn enough to move around, the belt may still look okay but may be slipping. 

Belts always need replacing eventually. Even if a belt isn’t cracked, it can still need replacing. Since the belt tensioner can have internal wear that you can’t see, it’s a good idea to replace the spring loaded belt tensioner with the belt, particularly if the tensioner is bouncing while the engine is running. 

Tensioners have an internal damper and bushing you can’t see that always wears out over time. A bouncing tensioner is hammering every pulley and bearing associated with the belt.

visible cracked or swollen hoses of car
Also, look for cracked or swollen hoses. If you see a hose swollen like this on a hot engine, get away from it and shut off the engine, then let the engine cool. Replace the hose. | Image Source: Richard McCuistian.

6. Rotating and Replacing Tires

Keep your tires checked for pressure, wear, and age. Tires expire after 6 years even if they’ve been stored in a warehouse. That means there’s no warranty on the tire after that, but expired tires can separate suddenly even if they look good.

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expired tires of blazer
Notice that all the tires on this Blazer except the one that came apart look good, but they were expired. The Blazer was totalled, but the driver was wearing his seat belt so he was not injured. | Image Source: Richard McCuistian.

The tire date code is usually easy to find on a tire unless the tire is mounted so that the code is facing inward.

car tire shown is dated 0405
The tire shown is dated “0405,” meaning, it was built the fourth week of 2005. If your tire date code looks slightly different, you can search the tire date codes on Google to make sure you’re reading it right. | Image Source: Richard McCuistian.

If you’re only replacing 2 tires on any vehicle, tire manufacturers say to always put the new tires on the rear to prevent skidding on curves. Some old-timers may argue with you about that, but all tire manufacturers recommend that the tires with the best tread be placed on the back even during tire rotation.

checking proper tire information
Check the tire information decal on the door for the proper tire size and inflation pressure and pay close attention to tire wear. The tires in the photo came from the front of the same vehicle and because of the difference in diameter due to tire wear, the driver was experiencing a steering pull even though the wheel alignment angles were within specs. | Image Source: Richard McCuistian.

7. Checking for Worn-Out Bulbs

Dim lights won’t necessarily affect your vehicle’s drivability, but you might have a hard time navigating through low-visibility areas if you don’t replace them. So check your headlights, tail lights, and brake lights regularly to see whether it’s time to install new bulbs.

One often overlooked lamp is the high mount stop lamp. Government studies in the 1980s found that a vehicle with a high mount center stop lamp is 40% less likely to be rear-ended than a vehicle without one. Taking that to its logical conclusion, a vehicle with the high mount stop lamp out is 40% more likely to be rear-ended.

Tag lights are important, too. Most states require the tag lights to be operational and you can be pulled over because of tag lights that don’t work.

If you’re planning to change the bulbs on your own, be sure to get the right replacements, tools, and vehicle-specific instructions. Sometimes replacing the bulbs with the wrong ones, even if they fit, will cause bulb out warnings on the vehicle message center.

8. Installing New Windshield Wipers

Installing new wiper blades is one of the most DIY-friendly maintenance tasks. In most cases, you won’t need anything else other than the replacement wipers and the set of instructions they come with.

When installing new wipers, make sure to spread a towel big enough to cover the windshield to prevent it from breaking in case you accidentally drop the wipers’ bare arms.

9. Topping Up on Washer Fluid

The washer reservoir is under the hood, and similar to the engine coolant, you’ll only need a clean funnel to put more fluid in the reservoir. Use a good grade of washer fluid and don’t mix types, because mixing different kinds of washer fluid can cause gel to form that clogs the nozzles.

You might also want to avoid putting plain water inside the reservoir, especially if you live in an area with freezing temperatures. Water freezes and expands under extremely cold temperatures, which can cause the reservoir to break. There are wiper fluids formulated to prevent freezing, and these also work well to clear frost from the windshield.

10. Applying Wax to Your Vehicle’s Body

Proper vehicle maintenance also involves keeping the body paint looking neat. Applying wax every six months can help keep the paint looking new and reduce the chances of rust build-up.

10 Trunk Essentials to Keep Your Vehicle Road Trip-Ready

It always pays to stay prepared in case of road emergencies. Here are 10 things you might want to keep in your trunk whenever you’re going out for a drive.

1. Lug Wrench

A lug wrench can come in handy when replacing a flat tire. Be sure to keep one in your trunk in case of emergencies.

It might seem like a crazy thing to do, but think about going through the process of changing a tire in your driveway. You’d be surprised how much difference that can make when you have to change one on the road. Also, get a good four-way lug wrench and make sure one of the four sides fits your lug nuts.

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asian woman using lug wrench on car to replace tire
A lug wrench can come in handy when replacing a flat tire.

2. Tire Puncture Sealant

Nails and sharp rocks can puncture one or more tires during your road trip, especially when you’re driving over rough terrain. Having a tire puncture sealant, preferably with a screw-type connector valve, can get you out of this dilemma.

3. Jumper Cables

Aside from having a flat tire, a dead battery is another common problem drivers face on the road. A pair of jumper cables is a must-have for many drivers because it’s faster to call for help from a passing vehicle than wait for a tow truck.

Note that it’s very important to have good quality jumper cables because bringing a poor pair on the road is almost like having no cables at all. Get some good jumper cables and you’ll be glad you did. There are also those small power pack jumpers you can buy that will jump the vehicle off and they work very well if a dead battery is all that’s wrong.

4. Spare Key

Having a spare key hidden somewhere in your car can come in handy if you often misplace small objects. It might be best to keep the spare key in your purse or wallet though.

5. Reflective Triangles and Flares

reflective triangle set up with white car in background
Be sure to have a couple of reflective triangles and flares to warn other drivers that your vehicle has broken down.

There might be problems with your vehicle that will require the assistance of a tow truck to get it off the road and straight to the nearest repair shop.

Be sure to have a couple of reflective triangles and flares to warn other drivers that your vehicle has broken down.

6. Flashlight

A flashlight (and spare batteries) can come in handy when you’re working on something under the hood at night or in other low-light conditions. You might even consider one of those lights you strap around your head so you can work hands-free.

7. Duct Tape

Duct tape is a strong adhesive that can provide quick fixes to problems like a dangling side mirror or molding. Duct tape will also enable you to temporarily seal a leaking coolant hose if the leak is a minor one. However, keep in mind that duct tape only provides a temporary solution to such issues, and it’s still advisable to drive to the nearest repair shop to resolve them.

8. 72-Hour Kit

driver checking medicine kit for emergency
A 72-hour kit is a survival pack that contains essentials like personal medicines, blankets, spare clothes, and water.

A 72-hour kit is a survival pack that contains essentials like personal medicines, blankets, spare clothes, and water. It can come in handy when you’re stuck in a deserted area, and it’ll take some time before road assistance can get to you.

9. Extra Cash

It’s a good idea to keep some cash in your car whenever you’re out for a drive. In case you forget your wallet at home, you’ll have some emergency funds to pay for parking fees or even road assistance.

10. Candy Bars

Candy bars can give you a quick boost if you’re feeling tired or sleepy while driving. You may also opt for chips since they don’t raise your blood sugar as much as a candy bar. High blood sugar can make you sleepy on the road.

About The Authors
Written By Automotive and Tech Writers

The CarParts.com Research Team is composed of experienced automotive and tech writers working with (ASE)-certified automobile technicians and automotive journalists to bring up-to-date, helpful information to car owners in the US. Guided by CarParts.com's thorough editorial process, our team strives to produce guides and resources DIYers and casual car owners can trust.

Reviewed By Technical Reviewer at CarParts.com

Richard McCuistian has worked for nearly 50 years in the automotive field as a professional technician, an instructor, and a freelance automotive writer for Motor Age, ACtion magazine, Power Stroke Registry, and others. Richard is ASE certified for more than 30 years in 10 categories, including L1 Advanced Engine Performance and Light Vehicle Diesel.

Any information provided on this Website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace consultation with a professional mechanic. The accuracy and timeliness of the information may change from the time of publication.

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