Sounds like a strange article for a tow truck service to have on their website, right? The thing is, nobody ever wants to use a tow truck. We’re proud of the service we offer and enjoy being able to help people get home safely. Still, that doesn’t mean we want to see your car on the back of one of our tow trucks when it could have been avoided.
So many of our breakdown towing jobs were from avoidable maintenance issues. So, we’re going to run through six beginner-friendly car maintenance steps you can take with basic tools. Especially if you have a longer drive coming up over summer, it’s a good idea to do these sooner rather than later. A quick, low cost service now could save you hundreds or even thousands of expensive repairs later, not to mention the $99 or more on a tow truck.
Note: This is by no means an exhaustive list and many things that should be checked regularly have been left out of this post. By no means should you substitute regular servicing with this advice. These are purely some basic checks you should do periodically, especially before a long drive.
Key Vehicle Maintenance Checks
- Tyre Pressure and Tread Wear
- Wheel Nuts
- Air Filter
- Engine Oil
- Brake fluid
Check Your Tyres
The condition of your tyres is one of the most important safety aspects of your car. They contribute to how your car rides, handles and stops and blowing a tyre on the highway can easily end in disaster.
Let’s start by looking at three elements of your tyres to make sure they’re in great shape.
Even if you’ve never used one before, you’ve seen the air line at your local servo. Most service stations these days even have an automatic pump to basically do it for you.
All you need to do is take the dust cap off the valve on each wheel, set the pressure on the pump’s screen then attach it to each wheel, one at a time. A modern, automated pump will inflate your tyre to the pressure you set then let you know when it’s done. It doesn’t get easier than that!
As for what pressure to use, you’ll find this in your owner’s manual or on the tyre pressure placard (most commonly found by opening your door and looking just below the latch, though it depends on the model).
For most passenger cars, 32 PSI is perfectly fine. If you’re towing a trailer, carrying a heavy load or have low profile tyres, all of these can alter the preferred pressure. That said, please check your owner’s manual for the ideal pressure — getting this wrong could see your tyres wear out much faster.
Don’t forget to check the pressure in your spare tyre! You wouldn’t believe how many cars end up on the back of a tow truck because they got a flat tyre then found out their spare was also deflated.
Tip: Always check and inflate your tyres after absolutely minimal driving (preferably before you drive). Recommended tyre pressures are based on the pressure of a cold tyre. As soon as you start driving, your tyre will heat up which increases the pressure inside.
By inflating your tyres while they’re hot, you’re actually setting them to a pressure that’s too low!
There are a number of things that can effect how your tyres wear over time — mostly wheel alignment and tyre pressure.
While you’re checking the pressure in each tyre, take a moment to look closely at the tread on each one as well. In the deepest grooves, you’ll find wear indicators (small, raised sections) which indicate how much wear you have left before you need to replace them. If your tread has worn down to the height of those markers, you need a new tyre(s).
Make sure you check several places across your tyre from one side to the other. Alignment and incorrect tyre pressure can both cause your tyres to wear unevenly — just because it’s okay in one spot doesn’t mean you have safe tread across the whole tyre.
General Tyre Condition
Last but not least, take a moment to look closely at the overall health of your tyres. Are they dry and cracking? Is there a big chunk missing from the sidewall? Anything else out of the ordinary?
Noticing something minor now could save you from ending up stuck on the side of the highway waiting for a tow truck. It’s safer to find out you need a new tyre while you’re on your driveway than cruising along at 110km/h.
Ever seen those videos where a rogue wheel goes rolling down the side of the road and thought “how can you let your wheel just fall off?” The thing is, you’re probably making the same mistake they are, you just haven’t been as unlucky as they were.
For most people, checking that the lug nuts on your wheels is something you just never think about. Although it’s admittedly rare, they can work their way loose over time, especially if they weren’t installed correctly.
Since it only takes seconds, it’s a good idea to check them every now and then, especially before a long drive. If there’s one common thing we’ve noticed about every type of car on the road it’s that they work best when all four wheels are attached.
If you have a torque wrench, check your owners manual then make sure each of your lug nuts are tightened to spec — typically between 110 – 120 Nm.
If you don’t have a torque wrench, at least use a wheel brace to make sure each one is on there tight. That said, don’t go standing or jumping on it or you’ll over-tighten them which can be dangerous in itself.
A clean air filter lets your car’s engine breathe clean air efficiently. This keeps the inside of your engine healthier and also improves fuel economy.
All you need to do is open your air box, take the filter out and have a look at it. Does it look like a dirty filter? If you bang it against your hand, does a cloud of dust come out of it? If so, it’s time to drop a new filter in there. Some models start as low as $25 so it’s well worth doing.
If the filter looks clean, check the air box underneath the filter for any more dirt, put the filter back in and latch your air box closed. You’re done.
Unsure what an air box looks like? It should look like a black box with metal clips around the outside. It can be square or rectangular depending on your car’s make and model. If you can’t find it, your owners manual will have a diagram.
Check Your Oil
If you’ve never done any type of maintenance on your car, this one might sound intimidating but it’s not difficult at all. Really, if you can open a bottle of OJ, can you check your car’s engine oil too.
Here’s how to do it:
- Get a clean cloth or paper towel
- Look for your oil dipstick. It’s usually a yellow, circular handle located on one side of your engine
- Grab the dipstick handle and slowly pull it all the way out
- Wipe the oil off then place it all the way back in
- Pull it back out again and look for the markings toward the far end of the stick.
You should see notches or other markings which indicate the High and Low oil levels. So long as you’re within this range, you’re okay. If it’s getting close to the Low marking, consider adding a small amount of oil (usually around 200ml at a time), wait for it to settle then check again later.
It’s also worth taking note of the colour of your oil on the stick. Brand new oil has a similar colour to honey and you can see through it. With use, it’ll naturally get darker and that’s okay. If your oil looks thick and jet black though, it might be time for an oil change. These are typically done every 10,000km if you drive your car regularly.
Note: You should leave your car to sit for around 30 minutes or so before checking your oil level. If you check the dipstick immediately after turning your car off, the oil won’t have settled yet and you’ll get a low, inaccurate reading.
Scorching hot oil can also be dangerous, though it’s a good idea to check when it’s still warm.
How many times have you seen a car pulled over on the side of the highway with the bonnet open, steam pouring out? There are a number of things that can cause this but the most common culprits are failed radiator hoses or low coolant.
Running out of coolant can cause your car to overheat quickly and this can lead to major engine damage — in extreme cases, it means engine replacement.
To check your coolant, pop the bonnet and find the reservoir. It’ll typically be a translucent container on the driver’s side of your engine bay. For easy confirmation, it should say “coolant” on the lid. If you can’t find the reservoir, check your owners manual for more info.
On the side, you’ll find “full” and “low” markings. If your coolant level is close to or even below the “low” line, top it up to the “full” mark to be safe. Check your owners manual to make sure you’re using the right type of coolant.
While you’re at it, take a quick look at the condition of your radiator hoses. You want to make sure the hoses aren’t dry and cracking and the fittings are still in good condition.
Note: It’s best to check your coolant while the engine is cold so you can be sure there’s no remaining heat or pressure in the system.
Never open the radiator cap on a hot engine. This could lead to severe burns to your hands and face!
Your car’s brakes rely on hydraulic pressure to slow you down. No brake fluid, no brakes. Obviously, it’s important to check your brake fluid every now and then too.
To do this, open the bonnet and look for the brake fluid reservoir. It’ll be on the driver’s side, roughly in front of the steering wheel. It’ll be a small translucent container with “min” and “max” markings on it.
If it’s close to or below the “low” marking, it’s a good idea to top it up to the “max” line. There are different types of brake fluid so make sure you check your owners manual for the right type before you go adding any to the line.
If you haven’t had your brake fluid replaced in a while, you might want to think about getting that done, too. That’s a more advanced process so we won’t go covering it in this article.
These 6 simple checks will help improve the safety of your car, especially before you head out for a long road trip. Remember, there’s no substitute for regular servicing and vehicle maintenance!