You’ve passed your test, got the keys to your very own car, and have the freedom of the open road in front of you. You make a note in your diary to book in the annual service and of course make sure you don’t forget to take it in for its MOT in time.
Thinking about the condition of your car just once a year isn’t ideal though, as so much can happen in 12 months, especially if you are covering lots of miles.
Knowing some basic car maintenance – the sort you can do yourself without help from a professional – and keeping your car in tip top condition all-year round will help reduce the likelihood of any faults developing. This is good for your purse or wallet, and will also mean you are driving a safer and more efficient car.
Here are our top tips for some basic car maintenance you can carry out yourself. Remember to do your checks when the car is cold, so at the start not end of a journey!
It’s really easy to keep an eye on your tyres, and easy to spot potential problems. But lots of people don’t give them much attention, which is probably why tyre faults are one of the most common reasons for MOT failure.
If you’ve not checked the pressure for a while, it’s worth making sure they are as full of air as they should be – some places, particularly supermarket garages, still provide free air or it’s usually about 20p or 50p. You can find the correct pressure for your car in the manufacturer’s guide and often on a sticker just inside the driver’s door. You can also search easily online by entering your registration number on one of the many sites offering a free look-up.
Cars with underinflated tyres use more fuel and are potentially less safe to drive, so it’s important to stay on top of their maintenance. If you’re having to fill one or more tyres regularly, there could be a puncture or problem with the seal that you need checking professionally.
Not monitoring the tread on your tyres could be a costly mistake; worn or bald tyres are not only potentially illegal, and could lead to a fine up to £2,500 and three penalty points, but are also a hazard to be driving around on.
A tyre tread depth gauge is a cheap and handy tool to keep in the car, but if you don’t have one to hand, a 20p piece can also be used – the minimum required depth of 1.6mm (across the central three-quarters of the breadth of the tyre, and around the entire outer circumference of the tyre) is about the same as the outer band on the coin.
You should also keep an eye out for any cuts or bulges, and of course if you’ve picked up something sharp like a nail, which could cause a slow puncture.
You have various tanks under the bonnet that contain liquids vital for maintaining the car. Checking these regularly is a great habit to get into as any leaks or low levels can cause potentially big problems between annual checks.
Engine oil is really important as it not only helps to lubricate moving parts, it also keeps the engine cool and clean – without it, a car would be in serious trouble. You can check your oil level using the dipstick that is inside the tank – remember to wipe it clean before dipping it in, so you know where the true level is. Changing and topping up the oil and keeping an eye on when the filter needs changing need to be done correctly, so professional help may be more appropriate, but at least knowing when the level is getting low is a good start.
Coolant, in case it isn’t obvious, is in the car to stop the engine from overheating. The correct coolant is needed to ensure it functions properly – helping to extend the life of the car’s insides, but also to make sure it doesn’t freeze in the system in low temperatures, as water alone would.
You can buy pre-mixed coolant, which can be added straight into the tank, or use a concentrated mixture with water – the antifreeze component is what is crucial. As well as checking the level (it should be between the minimum and maximum markers) under the bonnet, you may also notice overheating problems if the car’s temperature warning light comes on, you smell burning or the engine fan is running particularly loudly.
It’s sod’s law that as soon as you run out of windscreen wash your windscreen becomes blurred with a salty, dusty covering that leaves dirty smears obscuring your view. Keeping it topped up will avoid potential visibility problems, which is especially important before a long journey or those horrible winter mornings when the low sun makes it even harder to see.
You can use water as a quick fix when you’re desperate, though it won’t do as good a job as a proper mix, and can freeze in the tank in very low temperatures.
You will usually notice if there are problems with your wiper blades as it will show in their performance. Wipers working properly will clear water from the windscreen easily, but if you notice gaps in coverage or streaking, they need a closer look. If they are worn or broken, you may also hear unusual, laboured noises, or see irregular movement.
Looking at the blades themselves, you may notice tears or bits starting to peel away. Remember to have a proper look by gently lifting the whole arm and not just looking at the tops. Wiper blades are easy to replace, but if you’re not sure, the shop or garage you buy from will usually be happy to do it for you for free or a small charge.
It’s not always obvious if one or more of your lights has stopped working from the driving seat, so it’s important to make regular checks. The easiest way to do this is to park up, switch on all the lights and walk around the car. Testing the brake lights requires help as you’ll need someone to press the pedal while you look, or you can use the reflection in a door or window to check.
If there is a light out and you’re not comfortable changing the bulb yourself, you can usually have it fitted for a small charge or for free with the purchase of the replacement.
The first sign you get that something is wrong with your battery is usually that the car won’t start, or struggles to start. Batteries can be particularly sensitive to low temperatures, as anyone who has not been able to start their car on a cold winter’s morning will know. You may also notice things like dashboard lights dimming or a clicking noise as you turn the ignition.
To keep a battery from going flat, try and avoid doing lots of very short journeys – this doesn’t give it a chance to recharge – and make sure you switch off functions that drain battery power, e.g. check you’ve switched off your lights if they aren’t automatic. If you go on holiday and can’t start the car for a while, it can help to have someone do it for you, and if you can put the car away in a garage during particularly cold weather, this can help preserve it, too.
While you may see something like obvious like corrosion when you look at the battery, the best way to find out its state of health is to get a battery check from a garage, which you can often get for free.
There’s not much you can do once you have a flat battery, so carrying an external charger or jump leads in the car to get help from another driver, are also crucial to not getting caught out.
Leaving behind freezing cold weather for the heights of summer, if you have air con in your car, it’s about the sweetest feeling there is to have cold air blowing in a heatwave. However, if you leave it off for the 50 weeks of the year we don’t have nice weather, you could find it doesn’t work when the sun reappears.
This is because your air con is a lubricated system and, without use, the rubber seal can dry out, shrink and leak. Running the air con regularly, even if just for a few minutes, will always be easier and cheaper than paying for a repair.
As well as making these basic checks that you will of course now be thinking about regularly, it’s also important not to ignore other warning lights or unusual noises – any suspect sounds from squeals and squeaks to grinding or banging should be checked out properly. Some of the most expensive car repairs can be prevented if major problems are spotted and acted on quickly.