There are two types of drivers out there – ones who see cars as a piece of machinery that gets them from point A to point B, and those whose interest in cars goes deeper than that. Both will use cars extensively on a daily basis, but cars belonging to the latter, last longer on average than cars driven by the former group. Why is that?
Today we are going to talk about car maintenance. We’ll cover a range of topics, including why routine car maintenance is important, what falls within the realm of routine car maintenance and more. We’ll even talk about what happens when you fail to maintain your car and miss those maintenance cycles. By the time we’re done, you should have a good idea of how to keep your car running longer and better.
Depending on who you ask, cars are either simple machines or highly complex mechanical systems. Nowadays you can add a sprinkle of high-tech digital systems in there as well. The fact of the matter is that cars, like most other machines, are full of moving parts. All of these systems work together to make the car go.
Whenever there is movement in a mechanical system of any kind, there will be friction. As it just so happens, most of the maintenance you will do to your car is going to be aimed at reducing that friction to a minimum. The only place where this isn’t the case is with the brake system. You definitely want friction to happen between your brake pads and brake rotors and lots of it.
If you were to open up your engine, transmission, or differentials, you would find a lot of metal-on-metal action going on. Left to their own devices, all of these systems would eventually fail due to nothing more than friction. Have you ever wondered how far you’d manage to go if you were to dump all of the oil from your car? Not very far. Your engine would seize up before you reached the edge of town most likely.
With all of that said, let’s break the car down to its main subsystems and see what kind of maintenance needs to be done. More importantly, let’s find out what would happen if you were to completely neglect them. First up is the engine.
Basics of Engine Maintenance
Car engines are probably the most important invention in the history of mankind. That hunk of precisely machined steel, aluminum, plastic and rubber sitting under your hood is responsible for the advancement of human civilization. The moment we’ve mastered the ability to harness literal explosions to propel us forward, we’ve become the masters of this planet.
What Makes the Engine Run?
Internal combustion engines have a lot of moving parts. At its core, you’ve got a set of pistons sitting in individual cylinders. As the fuel is injected into the cylinder and ignited either by a spark plug or pure force of compression as it is the case in diesel engines, each piston is propelled down.
This mechanical motion is transformed into rotating motion by the crankshaft that sits below the cylinders and connects all of the pistons. A crankshaft leads further to the flywheel which is the point where the rotational force of the engine is transformed into a propelling force by the transmission system.
Here’s the thing. Pistons and crankshaft aren’t the only things moving in the engine. You’ve also got one or more camshafts that open and close the valves. All of these things and more, are linked by a timing belt system.
We have to add a little disclaimer here. Different cars use different solutions to keep everything connected. Some use chains and some even use a system of interlinked sprockets. However, most modern cars use timing belts.
Why is it called a timing belt? Because everything inside the engine follows a specific timing pattern. As you probably know, modern combustion engines found in automobiles are what are called 4-stroke engines.
That means that there are four different actions that happen inside the engine. Intake, compression, power, and finally exhaust stroke make up the actions. Each of these steps happens in every cylinder of the engine at different times. Maintaining the timing of these events is crucial, hence we have timing belts.
How to Properly Maintain an Engine?
The key to engine maintenance is to keep the friction to a minimum and keep the engine working in perfect timing.
To reduce friction to a minimum, every engine utilizes oil. Motor oil is used as a lubricant to keep various moving parts going. Your first priority is to find out what your car’s oil change intervals are and stick to them. You can find this information in your car’s user manual.
This single piece of information is one of the most important things you can know about your car. It’s also different for most cars. Not all engines are the same nor do they use the same type of oil. Therefore, you must find out the info for your specific car model.
Motor Oil – Keeping Everything Lubricated
Motor oil has a life span. Once poured into an engine and run for thousands of miles, it will be worn out from high temperatures as well as temperature differentials. Oil also gets contaminated over time. After thousands and thousands of miles, motor oil starts to degrade and break down to a point where it is no longer capable of serving its purpose and protecting the engine.
Changing the oil for a fresh batch will keep the engine protected and reduce the risk of friction causing damage to the internals. There are different types of engine oil out there, but that’s a topic for another time. For now, use what your manual recommends and you’ll be fine. Also, every time the oil is changed, you’ll have to change the oil filter as well.
Oil changes are the most frequent type of engine maintenance you’ll be doing. In other words, you’ll want to change the oil every 6,000 miles or so depending on your car’s specs and recommendations. Changing the timing belt is done every 50,000 to 100,000 miles depending on your car.
We’ve already mentioned that timing belts hold all of the engine components in sync and ensures that power from the engine is reaching all of the secondary systems.
Over time, timing belts tend to stretch and lose their flexibility. Because of that, you’ll need to change them. The same goes for timing chains, however their replacement intervals are much longer. Once the timing belt is ready for replacement, you’ll also be replacing all of the tensioners as well as the water pump, but more on that later. While prolonging an oil change is something your car most likely will survive, you definitely don’t want to risk going past the timing belt change mileage.
What Happens When You Neglect Engine Maintenance?
Here’s a question. What would happen if you were to simply neglect your engine from the moment you get the car? No oil changes, no timing belt changes, nothing. How long would it survive? Let’s say that your oil change interval is approximately 6,000 miles.
At around 10,000 miles the oil in your engine would start to heavily degrade. Around this time, you’ll start seeing much more friction inside the engine as the oil loses its main properties. This is also where the internals of the engine start to suffer permanent damage. At this point, it’s anyone’s guess how long the engine will continue to run. There are cases of engines seizing up after 15,000 miles on a single batch of oil, but there are also cases of engines going 50,000 miles without an oil change. One thing remains for sure, once you go past a certain mileage, you’re starting to inflict permanent damage to your engine.
As metal starts rubbing together, metal shavings and all kinds of other debris start circulating the engine along with the oil, causing more friction and more damage.
Either way, none of that will matter much if your timing belt fails.
Timing belt failure is the easiest way to brick an engine. If you were to look at the pulley system the timing belt sits on, you’d find that each one has a timing mark. These marks are used to keep the engine perfectly timed when you decide to change the belt. Misaligning these marks can cause all kinds of trouble in the engine. Now imagine what happens when you remove the belt altogether?
The best-case scenario is that your pistons will run into intake and exhaust valves, bending them. This is still considered a critical failure that requires you to open the engine, but it’s not the worst thing that can happen. The worst-case scenario includes damaged cylinder heads, camshafts, broken pistons or even cylinder wall damage. In other words, all of the things you want to avoid ever having to deal with. We’re talking about very expensive repairs that can end up costing more than the car is worth in some cases. This is why proper engine maintenance is imperative.
Next up is the transmission system. Modern automatic gearboxes are fairly robust and reliable. However, they still require maintenance. Fortunately for most of us, transmission maintenance is pretty straight forward. Just like with engines, you have to keep an eye on the transmission fluid. As far as changing intervals go, most manufacturers will give you an interval of around 100,000 miles. However, there’s a good deal of evidence that automatic gearboxes can benefit from a 50,000 ATF fluid change.
The deal with ATF fluid is similar to engine oil in a sense that it degrades over time. Although changing transmission fluid is harder on average than changing motor oil, it’s still pretty cheap and something you DIY at home.
As far as manual gearboxes go, they use transmission oil and have different maintenance intervals. Since they lack all the delicate components an automatic gearbox has, manual gearboxes are much more resilient to negligent maintenance than automatics.
Failing to change transmission fluid can lead to an increase in average temperature in the gearbox. It just so happens that excess heat is the number one killer of automatic gearboxes.
Since transmission fluid change intervals aren’t something you have to worry about every day, most people tend to relax and forget about this system altogether. That might cost you in the long run. One thing you’ll want to do is check the fluid levels every now and then. Repair leaks and keep the fluid topped off. One thing worse than old, burnt ATF fluid is no ATF fluid at all.
The cooling system is one of the most important subsystems in any car. It’s easy to keep an eye open but can lead to catastrophic consequences if neglected.
Every car’s engine needs a cooling system. With all those explosions happening in the cylinders as the car runs, excess heat starts building up. One way to get rid of the heat is to coolant through the engine block and cylinder head.
Regular maintenance of the cooling system comes down to flushing the coolant periodically and making sure that the coolant levels are where they need to be. Every engine has a specific amount of coolant anf flow it needs in order to run at optimal operating temperature.
Additionally, every car requires a specific type of coolant as there are several different types to choose from.
Things you definitely don’t want to do with the cooling system are run it with low coolant, add too much coolant, or run water instead of coolant. Running the car with not enough coolant can introduce air into the system or cause overheating. Running the car with too much coolant in the engine will cause overpressure issues. Lastly, using plain water instead of an antifreeze/distilled water mixture will corrode the components of the system over time which is not something you want to deal with. Regular water will also freeze in the engine during the cold weather months causing engine components to crack.
In case your car loses coolant, it will start to overheat. An overheating engine often tends to blow the gasket that seals the head from the engine block, thus allowing the oil and coolant to mix. A byproduct of head gasket failure is often a warped cylinder head. Once a cylinder head gets warped, it needs to be machined into spec which is a costly process in most cases.
Because of all this, it’s best not to drive an overheating car. If you see that needle start moving past the middle, pull over and shut the engine off. No matter how expensive it is, a tow truck is a much cheaper option than a complete engine rebuild.
Modern cars are full of all kinds of safety features. However, the most important safety feature on your car are the brakes. Being able to safely stop the vehicle is arguably more important than being able to accelerate quickly.
Brake system maintenance comes down to several things, most of which you can do on your own. As a matter of fact, DIY brake jobs are the most popular type of wrenching that car enthusiasts do. It’s straight forward and it saves money.
Here are the main components of the brake system that you need to monitor:
Brake pads – Brake pads are the one braking component you’ll be changing most frequently. These last anywhere from 40,000 miles to 60,000 miles depending on the type of pad you use. It is recommended that you use quality pads with proven braking compounds. Not only will your braking distances be within spec but you will also prolong the lifespan of your brake discs.
Brake Discs – Brake discs are the other part of the friction equation in a braking system. Although they are perfectly capable of lasting over 60,000 miles or more depending on what your car uses. They do wear out at some point and need to be replaced in pairs. There is also an option to machine them back into spec on some vehicles but your mileage may vary, no pun intended.
Brake Hydraulics – The last part of the braking system that requires your attention is the hydraulics. Making sure that there is enough brake fluid in the system is essential. The brake fluid should be changed once a year to keep it clean and pure. Brake fluid attracts water which is the leading cause of failed components in the brake system. Brake lines rot and calipers seize. You’ll want to check the brake lines from time to time as they are known to spring a leak.
You probably know what happens if you neglect the brakes on your car. Loss of braking is a serious issue that can be extremely dangerous. Losing power or dealing with an overheating engine can be a pain in the butt, but it won’t put your life in jeopardy. If there’s one system you don’t want to neglect, it’s the brakes. Take care of your brakes!
Car maintenance is an important part of car ownership. Just like any other piece of machinery, a well-maintained car will run for a long time and be reliable. Once you start missing maintenance intervals, you’re risking all kinds of mechanical failures that will add up to a hefty bill over time.
One interesting thing with cars is that one failing part tends to drag a number of other parts down with it. Playing catch-up with this chain reaction is a tedious process that is anything but painless.
Do yourself a favor and maintain your car, especially if you’re depending on it every day.