Do-it-yourself auto maintenance tips

You may be going on vacation, but your car has plenty of work to do. Make sure it is ready for the long road-trip ahead by following these pretrip maintenance tips.

DIY maintenance
Keep your car on the road with these do-it-yourself checkup tips:
1. Check the oil 
Check the level and condition of the car's motor oil.

"Change the oil every 3,000 to 5,000 miles or follow what's in the owner's manual," says Lauren J. Fix, a consumer auto expert and an ASE certified engineer. If it's time for an oil change, be sure to get it done before your trip.

2. Inspect the battery 
Make sure your car's battery and cables are securely attached and free of corrosion. Car batteries typically last three to five years.

"If you're in that three- to five-year window, you may want to consider replacing the battery," says Bill Csogi, a 22-year ASE certified master mechanic and owner of the Car Critic in Naples, Fla.

3. Try the lights 
It's important that you're able to see and be seen on the road. So check headlights, brake lights and turn signals and replace any burned-out lights.
4. Kick the tires 
Take a close look at your tires. Good, well-maintained tires are critical to braking and steering.

"Make sure the tread is OK and there are no gouges in the sidewall of the tires," says David Bennett, manager of automotive programs at AAA. "Sometimes someone may hit a curb and it may pierce the sidewall of the tire."

You'll also want to watch out for bulges and bald spots on your tires. If you find anything that looks suspicious, it may be time for some new tires.

"If it looks funny, ask a professional," Fix says.

Compare the pressure in your tires with the recommended pressure listed in your owner's manual and on the placard in your car door. Inflate or deflate your tires as needed.

Be sure to check tire pressure when your tires are cold. A good time is early in the morning after your car's been idle overnight.

Driving with under-inflated tires is a common mistake.

"Tire pressure is really important," Csogi says. "Low tire pressure has been attributed to a lot of problems from accidents to premature wear, and even low gas mileage."

If your tires are under-inflated, your car won't handle or respond the way it's designed to.

"If you have low tire pressure, it's going to feel like you have four flat tires," Csogi says. "It's going to be real unresponsive."

So make sure all four tires and the spare are inflated to proper tire pressure.

"Check the pressure in your spare tire. A lot of people neglect that," Bennett adds. "If the spare is under-inflated, you may not be able to drive on it."

5. Check wiper blades 
Do your wipers give you a smear-free view when it rains? If not, replace them before your trip. Don't forget to top off your wiper fluid. If you'll be traveling in cold weather, be sure to use wiper fluid that doesn't freeze.

Check the level of coolant or antifreeze. Top off with a 50-50 mix of antifreeze and water as needed. If the coolant level is too low, your car could overheat.

Other important fluids to check include brake fluid, power steering fluid and transmission fluid. If you don't feel confident checking these on your own, take your car to a mechanic.

6. Tighten the gas cap 
If this cap is not secure, gas will evaporate from your tank as you drive.

"The gas cap on your vehicle needs to be on tight, and you need to have the right one," Fix says.

Loose, missing or damaged gas caps cause 147 million gallons of gas to evaporate each year, according to the Car Care Council.

7. Check your brakes 
It's critical that your brakes are in tip-top shape before you take off on a long road trip. When in doubt, have your brakes inspected by a mechanic.

"If they're making noises, or if you're feeling vibrations when you hit the brakes, take it in," Bennett says.


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