Keeping Your Car Out of the Shop

Keeping Your Car Out of the Shop

A visit to your local mechanic or dealership for maintenance and repairs on your car is an inevitability. All cars are machines, and mand-made machines are flawed, thus sooner or later something will go wrong. Depending on where you live, you may also be mandated to take your car in for checks on its emissions levels and general roadworthiness.

Prevention is the Best Maintenance

The best policy you can hold is one that helps you to keep the car out of the auto shop as much as possible. This means you taking key steps both before you acquire a new car and when you use it. The following is advice on how to minimize repair and maintenance costs on your car, so you’ll only have to visit the shop when you have to.

1. The Most Reliable Car Brand

A good starting point for minimizing visits to the auto shop is getting a brand and model of car that won’t require repairs in the first place. According to, Honda is currently top of the pile, with four of their models placed in the top-20 most reliable cars overall, namely: Honda HR-V, Fit, Civic, and Accord.

RepairPal’s ratings out of 5.0 are based on three key factors: the average annual cost of repairs and maintenance to a particular make and model, the probability that any issue you have with your Civic will be a severe/major issue, and the frequency with which you have to visit a mechanic annually. The most reliable cars usually find both of these numbers to be very low. The Honda Civic, for instance has a 4.5 rating, an annual repair cost of just $368 and a shop visit frequency of just 0.22 times per year. Better yet, there’s only a 10-percent chance of whatever problem you experience will be severe (and therefore expensive).

Compare the strong rating of a Honda Civic with the much weaker rating of the BMW 535i xDrive. It only has a rating of 2.0, an annual average repair bill of $1,123, a shop-visit frequency of 1.36 times per year, and a 16 percent chance of any problem being severe. The odds are not exactly in your favor when it comes to this BMW, despite the fact you will have certainly paid a lot more for it initially than you did the Honda Civic.

2. Look at Simple Jobs You Can Do Yourself

In the age of the Internet, there is plenty of simple maintenance that you can do for yourself if you take the time to use the resources around you and then apply yourself to get it done. There’s probably more you’re capable of than you think. You can save hundreds of dollars a year on bills by not assigning every little thing to a mechanic. Things such as:

Air Filter

The air filter is a key piece of equipment, but changing it is much easier than you imagine. The first thing you do is locate the filter, which shouldn’t take long since it has a prominent place in the engine compartment. It’s likely either a large rectangular box near the front, or a big, round and metal air cleaner. You may have to unscrew the fastenings that are holding a cover in place.

Once you can see the filter, it’s just a question of pulling out the old one and putting the new one in place. The only thing to be careful of is making sure that you put the new filter in facing the same way that the one you pulled out. Take note as you remove the old one of which parts and faces were pointing where, and the place the new one in exactly the same position.

Windshield Wiper Blades

Depending on your car’s age, it is most likely in possession of wipers that attach via a J-hook. There are two different holding mechanisms, one being the J-hook, and the other clips. The J-hook needs you to first lift up the old wiper arm so it’s standing up away from the windshield. This makes accessing the blade clips easier. Pivot the blade, and then push the clip back toward the wiper arm before sliding the blade down toward the windshield. Now take the new blade and slide it in where the old one was, you should hear a nice, satisfying click sound when the blade locks in place. Put the wiper blade back down on the windscreen, and then repeat for the other blade.

For clip blades, release the clip either by pressing the side tabs or depressing the button on top — depends on specific brand/design — to remove the old blade. Then you slide the new one in place until you hear that same reassuring click to confirm that the wiper blade is now in place.

Topping Up Fluids

Two key areas you can top up yourself include the windshield washer fluid, which is easily visible under the hood. Top up with your washer solution to ensure you can maintain visibility. Another one is the radiator and its coolant reservoir. For this one, the main thing is to remember not to do it right after you’ve used the car because the radiator will likely be too hot.

When you are sure the radiator is cool, take a pre-mixed coolant that you can purchase at almost any auto parts store, or the auto goods section of a bigger store. If you buy pure coolant, then you’ll have to dilute it with water before putting it into the radiator. Just follow the instructions as indicated on the specific product you purchase. Locate the radiator cap, remove and check the levels. There should be lines in both the main radiator and the coolant reservoir, so you can top up as you observe the need.

Another tip here is not to top the coolant reservoir with just water as the contaminants in the water alone can accumulate in your coolant system. If you are below the minimum level, however, and with no access to coolant, then water is still better than nothing in the short term. More information on coolant types can be found in your owner’s manual.

Oil Check

You might not want to change the oil yourself, but regardless of your confidence with car maintenance, checking the oil is simply a question of removing the dipstick and knowing what to look for. Your oil dipstick should be easy to spot in the engine compartment, but don’t confuse it with the transmission fluid dipstick. First, pull it out and wipe it off with a rag. Next, put it all the way back in, wait a moment, then pull it back out again. Finally, observe the level as indicated.

Different car model dipsticks will indicate oil level in different ways. Some use two holes, others may use lines marked with ‘L’ for low and ‘H’ for high. Needless to say, it should be comfortably between those two lines.

Level isn’t the only thing you’re looking at, however, but also the color and consistency. This is the really important part. The color should look brown or possibly black, but should also appear to be smooth and free of grit or other contaminants. If you notice a lighter, almost milky color in the oil, then there’s a possibility that there’s coolant leaking in there. That’s certainly a point to take it to the shop, but if everything else looks normal, then you’re good to go.

You check for grit and other solid contaminants because the presence of these in your oil suggests that the filters are no longer doing their job and therefore need changing. A buildup of grit is a normal part of the operation of an internal combustion engine, and it gets into the oil. The filters are there to remove it from the oil so as not to hinder engine lubrication.

3. Extend the Life of Key Car Components

Another key strategy to keeping the mechanic at bay is to ensure that you take extra special care of parts and components that will be especially expensive or problematic to fix, such as the clutch, brake rotors, camshaft and more. Here are some driving tips that will help you safeguard and prolong the lifespan of your key components.

Don’t Ride the Clutch

When we say “ride the clutch,” we’re referring to the common practice in manual transmission cars where drivers keep the clutch partially depressed as they drive, not quite releasing it entirely. It’s especially common in heavy traffic, where it can feel a bit of a pain to constantly be depressing and fully releasing the clutch only then to immediately need to press again as you brake. Cutting this habit will help preserve your clutch in a stick-shift car.

Check Transmission Fluid Regularly

Your transmission fluid has a dipstick just like your oil does, allowing you to check the levels and the consistency. Catching fluid problems early can be the key to preventing more expensive and lasting damage to your transmission. As one of the most expensive components overall to fix, keeping it in good working order for as long as possible is important, especially if you’re outside the warranty period or your warranty has expired for another reason.

Remove the dipstick and touch it with your index finger. Press your index finger and thumb together and get a good look at the fluid. It should appear pink in color. Potential problems are indicated either by a burnt smell, or the presence of solid particles. If you detect either of these things, then you will need to drain and change the fluid. Doing this at the right time may cost you something in the short term, but not allowing degradation to go further might have saved you a much bigger bill otherwise.

Change Brake Pads on Time

The brake rotors are the part that hold your brake pads in place. If your brake pads get too worn down, indicated by squealing or squeaking noises when you apply the brakes, then it means the rotors are entering the potential danger zone. With many modern alloy wheels, the brake pads should be visible through the rims, you can also check the level of the pad. If the thickness is a quarter of an inch or less, then you’ve already started to approach the danger zone.

Replacing the brake pads on most cars should cost under $300 even at the higher end, but if your rotors need to be resurfaced after becoming warped due to brake pads being overly worn, then that cost figure rises to around $500, and it will take longer to do.

Be Careful with New Components

When you decide to install or replace smaller components in your vehicle either as a part of basic maintenance or as some kind of performance-enhancing or cosmetic modification, it’s essential that you check compatibility. A badly placed component could damage one of the critical (and expensive to repair) components that we mentioned at the beginning of this section, such as the camshaft.

Camshaft failure is often caused by drivers installing valve springs with incorrect spring pressure. For the four main types of camshaft, here are the valve spring pressures that you should be installing:

  • Radical street flat tappet cam: 105-130lbs
  • Street-type flat tappet cam: 85-105lbs
  • Street-type hydraulic roller cams: 105-140lbs
  • Mechanical street roller cams: max. 150lbs

Remember that the high valve lift in race roller cams makes them unsuitable for street use. The lack of oil splash onto the cam when travelling at low speeds is the main reason for this. Always follow your manufacturer’s recommendations when it comes to installing valve springs correctly.

Take Signs of Problems Seriously

When things go wrong in your car, sometimes it might just be bad luck and you can restart and everything will be running fine. The thing to be mindful of are repeated issues, regardless of how small, strange noises and smells, as well as activation of warning lights on your dash. If you wan to prolong the life of your key engine components, then it’s critical that you take seriously all potential threats to the car engine’s integrity.

4. Spotting Tire Defects

We’ve talked a lot about various engine components and systems, but we can’t make a list like this one today without including a section on your tires. Your vehicle’s tires are arguably the most critical component for keeping you secure and stable on the road as you drive along. They provide balance and traction on differing surfaces both on- and off-road. It’s critical, then, that you keep your eyes open for the following things:

Reduced or Uneven Tread

The easiest way to check the treat on your tires is to use a penny and do the famous ‘penny test.’ Place the wording “In God We Trust” down into the tire tread and see how deep it goes. If you can see any of the words, then the tread is getting too low and it’s time for a change.

Reduced tire tread means uneven traction, which at any time of year is dangerous, but especially in the winter months when on-road traction is reduced anyway in snowy or icy conditions. Whenever you get new tires, you should take a photo of the tread, too, so you can get a full picture of how the tread changes over time.

Another good practice for tires is to get a rotation done every 3,000 to 5,000 miles. Some may tell you that it’s best just to do a tire rotation once a year, but the key is mileage, not time. If you only drive 3,000 miles in a year, then once a year works. If you’re an Uber driver, on the other hand, then you need to rotate more frequently. Rotation means wear is spread more evenly, which then makes a set of new tires better value and safer as all tires are equally worn and ready for replacement.

Cracks or Tears in the Rubber

Check the sidewalls of your tires for any signs of tearing or other damage. It may start as something small, but as with any damage to a car, what starts as something small easily balloons into something more serious. The key thing is to try to observe how deeply the crack in the tire goes. If it’s very shallow, it’s not so serious right now, probably just regular wear and tear. If it runs deeper, however, then you should seek assistance.

Tire Pressure

Many modern cars are built with a tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS), which should warn you when your tire pressure is getting close to crossing a line that it shouldn’t. Ideal tire pressure also depends on weather conditions, too. When you check your car’s manual for the recommended tire pressures, they typically refer to regular cold tires. You may have to adjust when dealing with more extreme weather, however.

In the winter, you should consider that tires lose 1-2PSI for every 10 degrees Fahrenheit decrease in temperature. In summer it’s a 1-2PSI increase for a 10-degree increase in temperature. You may have to compensate for this wherever you live in the country. Remember that having under-inflated tires can lead to increased stopping times, poor fuel economy and an overall decrease in your tires’ lifespan. Too high a pressure increases your risk of a dangerous blowout while you’re on the road.

Check your owner’s manual for proper pressure, but also get advice from local mechanics who know well about the local conditions and exactly how they affect cars in the area.

Other Signs of Trouble

On your tires, you should also be mindful of the steering pulling to one side, strange noises or vibrations being felt through the wheel when you’re driving, and reduced fuel economy. All of these things can point to issues with tires, wheel alignment and related issues. As with other minor car problems, if allowed to balloon into something more serious, it will only mean a more lengthy and costly trip to the auto shop later on.

5. Being a Better Driver

Finally, one more thing you can do to keep your car out of the shop is to develop better, safer driving habits that will reduce wear and tear on your car. Even something really simple like the habit of resting your hand on the stick-shift when you’re driving along can increase the rate at which key components and systems wear out. Here are some other bad habits that could be damaging your car and hastening your next appointment with the mechanic:

Switching into “Reverse” Before You’ve Stopped

When we’re in a hurry and feel comfortable in our car, we tend to get more slapdash with the controls. One common habit that people indulge in is shifting the automatic transmission shifter from drive into reverse before the car has come to a complete stop. Each single time you do it may only cause a very minute amount of wear, but when you think about how many times you make that switch in a day, in a week, in a month, it starts to become clear that you’re doing more harm. Don’t forget, as we mentioned above, the transmission is among the most expensive components to replace, should it come to that.

Not Avoiding Obstacles

You bought the car with the heavy-duty suspension and advanced parts so it should be able to handle potholes and speed bumps at any speed, right? Wrong. Your tires and suspension, regardless of their quality, are poorly served when run through the gauntlet of potholes, speed bumps and similar obstacles without proper care and attention.

Overloading the Car

If you have a habit of keeping multiple heavy objects in your car, or use it as an extension of the garage, then you could be adding strain to the vehicle. Even when you are within its limits, you should remember that limits are a maximum that it can withstand at any one time, it doesn’t mean it’s okay to make it the habit of a lifetime. Think about it before you go lugging heavy tool boxes, golf clubs, suitcases and other heavy objects into your car, especially a family car that frequently gets filled with passengers, too.

Ignoring Warning Lights

Finally, another bad habit is making the assumption that a warning light — especially “check engine” — has come on because the engine is just being overly sensitive or a sensor has gone wrong. Sometimes the reasons are these, and there may be no problem, but it’s better to be sure about that. The technology behind these sensors has improved greatly in recent years, and it means that when the tech is saying something is wrong, we should at least treat it as right unless we have a very compelling and mechanical reason to say otherwise.

Conclusion: The Mechanic is Inevitable, but Frequency Isn’t

Sooner or later, you will be taking your car to the auto shop and you will see the mechanic. The main thing within your power is the frequency and seriousness of the visit. Employ good driving habits and take care of the most important components in your vehicle, and it will serve you longer and better, all the while reducing your overall running and maintenance costs. Never forget that investing in a little key maintenance now is always better than being forced to pay for expensive repairs later.

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