For many working and stay-at-home parents alike, a car really is a must to get around the metro. However, it’s interesting to note that a lot of people don’t seem to know the basics of keeping a car running well. Most of the brands sold in the Philippines are known worldwide for making vehicles that are tough as nails, but it’s still a good idea to have the basic car maintenance techniques down pat to make sure your ride runs as well as it really should. Here, a rundown of the most common things a smart car owner should know how to do.
1. CHECK YOUR GAS CONSUMPTION
The amount of gas your car consumes is a very good indicator of any issues it might have. Car manufacturers usually have baseline consumption numbers for their cars. According to Mady Rivera, former service adviser for a leading multinational car manufacturer and currently part-owner of a full-service auto repair and maintenance shop in Imus, Cavite, comparing your consumption against the baseline can tell you if it’s time to bring your car to the talyer for a tune-up, or to have a mechanic check it for any problems.
• Remember: consumption = kilometers per liter. Reset your odometer or trip meter every time you fill up.
• Take note of how many kilometers you’ve traveled. Ask for a full tank (set it on automatic; topping your gas tank off is actually wasteful, as most of the excess gas just spills out of the filling port).
• When filling is done, note how many liters you car took in.
• Divide your trip meter reading by how many liters you got, and you have your km/L consumption number. Don’t forget to reset your trip meter after calculating.
2. CHANGE A FLAT TIRE
Most drivers have very little experience in this matter, and would rather wait for a cop or passerby to help them. Instead of relying on the goodwill of others, why not do it yourself? Almost all of today’s cars have the tools required to make short work of this task.
• Look for the tire wedge (a triangular piece of metal) in your tool kit. Stick this in the opposite direction under the tire diagonally opposite to the one you’ll be changing. (For example, if your passenger-side front tire needs to be changed, stick the wedge under the rear driver’s-side tire from the back.) This ensures that the car won’t roll away when you jack the car up. If a wedge can’t be found, a good-sized rock will do. Make sure your car is in park (if automatic), and the handbrake is up.
• Get your tire wrench. A car’s tire wrench is usually L-shaped, and is the largest piece of metal in a tool kit. Loosen the wheel bolts by turning the wrench counterclockwise. Remember to loosen the bolts before jacking the car up.
• Use the jack. A car’s owner’s manual will usually indicate the points where the jack should be placed. Find the appropriate spot and get jacking. Most small cars and sedans will have a scissor jack, which is a long device with hinges on both top and bottom halves plus a slot for the handle to slip onto. The jack handle is a long, S-shaped metal bar, and may be in two pieces for easy storage. Rotate the handle to lift (clockwise) and lower (counterclockwise) the car. For hydraulic jacks (metal cylinders with a short tube on one side), it’s even easier; just stick the handle (a straight rod) into the tube and pump. Jack the car up enough for you to remove the wheel nuts and slip the wheel off without ground contact.
• Line up the spare wheel’s holes to the wheel bolt, ensuring that they all pass through the holes without any problems.
• Put the nuts back on. Rivera suggests starting with the bottom ones. This ensures the bolts and nuts are lined up properly. Tighten the nuts a few turns at a time, and follow an opposing sequence. If you start at the bottom, the next one should be the one opposite it, then the one beside the first nut, etc. Tighten them as best as you can, then lower the car.
• Put the jack and its parts away properly, and then re-tighten the bolts (while the car is on the ground) in the same sequence.
Naturally, this assumes that your spare tire is inflated properly. So try to get your spare tire topped up at the same time as your four other tires. It only takes a few minutes, and serves as insurance for untoward incidents. Two or three more PSI (pounds per square inch—the common unit of measurement for tire pressure) than the other four tires should ensure that your spare is always ready for use. And if you do replace a flat tire, make sure that you get that tire repaired or replaced as soon as possible.
3. REFILL COOLANT
The Philippines’ tropical conditions, not to mention the horrible traffic that metro dwellers must go through, takes a heavy toll on a car engine’s cooling system. Therefore, topping up your engine’s coolant occasionally is really a must.
• Most cars today have coolant reservoir tanks. Open this rather than the car radiator’s cap, which can wear out easily with constant opening and closing.
• Mix distilled water with concentrated coolant, available at most gas stations. Jun Dimasalang, an auto mechanic based in Muntinlupa who specializes in radiators, recommends distilled water. Distilled water doesn’t have the sediments present in tap water, which can build up and clog the cooling system over time. Just add enough coolant to the mixture to give the water some color. A half-and-half mixture is too strong for most radiators, and can actually induce more rust to form than plain water can.
• Fill the coolant reservoir tank only up to the “full” mark. Liquids expand with heat, and reservoir tanks leave enough space to accommodate that expansion without a large amount of coolant spilling out. Close the reservoir cover properly after filling, with the spout facing the right direction. Do this once a week, and your car should be running coolly through the city traffic without frequent overheating incidents.
4. REPLACE WIPER BLADES
Wiper blades are consumable items, and should be replaced once windshield smudging or streaking is noticeable even after cleaning. There are two options available at most auto supply or hardware stores: plain rubber blades or blade and metal frame assemblies. Although the plain rubber blades are cheaper than the assemblies, replacing entire frames may save you the hassle and extra cost of scratched windshields. Rivera notes that replacing the frame is easier than fiddling with rubber blades too.
• Check your owner’s manual for the proper lengths and lock types (bayonet, hook, etc.) your car needs. Once you have the appropriate wiper blade assemblies, follow your car manual’s instructions. It’s often just as simple as loosening a lock, putting the new blade assemblies on, and locking them in.
• A few drops of Rain-X (available at major auto supply chains and hardware stores) or any anti-water buildup solution on your windshield ensures visibility in rainy weather. It makes rain travel down your windshield faster, helping your wipers keep your view of the road clear.
• Keep your wipers clean and free of stuck twigs, leaves, and the like.
5. CHECK ENGINE FLUID LEVELS
Just like your engine coolant, the other fluids in a car’s engine, transmission, and braking systems must be kept at the proper levels to keep your vehicle moving happily. The main fluids that should constantly be observed, says Rivera, are the engine oil and the steering, transmission, and brake fluids.
• Engine oil and transmission fluid levels can be checked using the built-in dipsticks. These sticks are often easily identifiable through bright colors, and use full and empty marks or notches to indicate levels. Refer to your car’s owner’s manual to find out how to add oil or transmission fluid if needed.
• Brake and steering fluids usually have their own external, easy-to-see reservoirs. These have their own built-in markings, and sometimes have different maximum and minimum levels for cold and hot engine conditions. As a general rule, an engine that has been turned off for about an hour is considered cold.
• When adding engine fluids, maximum levels should strictly be observed. Most hydraulic (liquid-based) systems in a car operate using rubber hoses under specific pressures. Adding too much fluid to these systems can cause the hoses to break.
Occasionally, these fluids will have to be replaced completely. This kind of servicing is best left to professionals, since it often requires special tools and a good amount of available parts and space. Rivera suggests that mineral engine oil and filters be replaced during every tune-up (every 10,000 to 15,000 km for new cars, and every 5,000 to 10,000 km for older vehicles), while cars with synthetic motor oils can wait longer (approximately 16,000 to 24,000 km) between oil changes. However, even with synthetic oil, Rivera still recommends the replacement of filters after 15,000 km at most.
6. START A CAR WITH A DEAD BATTERY
There is no easy way around a dying or dead battery; it must be replaced. However, there are some things that can be done to get your vehicle home or to your neighborhood car battery dealer.
• The easiest way to start a car with a dead battery (and the only way with an automatic transmission) is by using jumper cables. These are thick cables with alligator clips on both ends and are sold in pairs of various lengths. Getting the longest cables available is a good move. When using these, you will need another vehicle, preferable with a perfectly working electrical system. Line the dead and working cars’ batteries up with each other as close as possible. Connect one cable to both batteries’ positive poles, and the other to both their negative poles. These cables are usually colored black and red for easier identification. Don’t be afraid of sparks; it’s normal considering electrical systems are being connected. Just make sure you don’t smell any gas around!
• Having the “donor” vehicle rev up to about 2,000 rpm to ensure that that car’s alternator is working hard, and start the dead vehicle up. If there are no problems with the starter, the dead vehicle should start immediately. Disconnect the cables, and get the dead battery replaced right away.
• The classic tulak method can only be done with manual transmission vehicles. With a driver in the front seat depressing the clutch pedal, the key in the “On” position, and the gear lever in second gear, have two or more people push the car until it gets up to about 20 kph. At that point, the driver should “pop,” or suddenly let go of, the clutch. The car should shudder as the starter tries to catch and start the car. If the car does start, the driver should depress the clutch and shift to neutral, while braking to a stop if necessary. If it doesn’t work, repeat the whole process. Once the car starts, head to a place where the battery can be replaced as soon as possible.
Andrew A. Asuncion is a former associate editor of Top Gear magazine.