Automotive enthusiasts stand out from the rest when it comes to devoting passion, time, and money to cars. Efforts can range from a simple car wash to investing in an upgraded suspension or making more power under the hood. However, some of the misguided or misinformed enthusiasts find themselves unwittingly guilty of cutting critical maintenance corners that can affect performance. Some of these are more basic while others are far more critical. The good news is these can be addressed or inspected by the DIY enthusiast, leaving no good excuse for neglected maintenance items. Let's look at the first six-pack of items of which everyone should be conscientious. Why not get maximum return from your ride?
1. Clean Bill of Health
Clean Engine Bays, Drivetrains
Benefit: Identify leaks and other issues, prevent costly or catastrophic repairs
Keeping your engine bay and undercarriage clean isn't just for show points. Doing so makes it easier for you to identify leaks or other issues before they become big problems. A leaking valve cover, worn camshaft seals, and tired gaskets are just a few of the issues you might uncover when you see fluid where you shouldn't. The same goes for the undercarriage. Oil and other fluids cannot defy gravity. Therefore, if you see puddles of fluid under your car, checking from below is not a bad place to start. Keeping everything clean makes pinpointing the problem much easier.
2. Attention to Details
Benefit: Prevent unnecessary repairs or parts replacement
Parts clearance is such a no-brainer and costs you nothing but a few minutes of your time, yet many cut this corner and potentially cost themselves more in the long run. Double-check to make sure each component you come in contact with (both old and new) does not encounter interference with another part—fixed or moving. Take time to adjust the position of your hardware or remove extra material for proper clearance. Doing so can save you hundreds if not thousands in replacement parts or repair bills. For example, a poorly routed oil feed line that unintentionally encounters a pulley could result in loss of oil pressure and a potentially damaged engine. Ensuring good clearance is also a safety issue, as a poorly installed brake line that interferes with the suspension could wear or rupture, resulting in lost hydraulic pressure to your brakes, resulting in a collision or worse.
3. Where Rubber Meets Road
Inspect Your Tires
Cost: Nothing, unless you need an alignment
Benefit: Identify irregular wear, alignment, and inflation, and improve handling and tire life
Your tires are truly the only thing between your car and the road, so taking care of them is paramount. Neglected tires won't hesitate to tell you exactly what is going on with the car...if you're paying attention to what they're telling you. If the inner shoulders of the tread are wearing faster than the outer, or vice versa, there could be an alignment issue with camber and/or toe settings. (Stanced car owners, expect this condition to be normal.) If there is cupping (the tread is not wearing evenly or shows scalloping of the tread) then there could be an issue with the dampers, suspension bushings, or even something simple like the tires are out of balance or not rotated often enough. If the middle of the tread is worn more than the shoulders, the likely cause is underinflation. In addition to keeping up with regular rotations and periodic inspection of the suspension (to ensure the tires are wearing evenly), don't make the mistake of downgrading tire quality. Tires provide mechanical grip to your car. Sure, cheaper tires might offer longer tread wear due to a harder tread compound, but they often exchange longevity for performance, weight, safety, efficiency, and comfort. Thus, downgrading tire quality will typically result in poorer ride quality and handling, longer braking distances, and worse mileage.
4. Don't Wait for the Indicators
Check Your Brakes
Cost: Nothing, unless you need to replace your pads, rotors, or calipers
Benefit: Identify irregular wear, prevent damage to rotors, improve braking performance
Your brakes serve an obvious and especially important role for both safety and performance. In the case of a street car, optimal braking could make the difference between avoiding a collision and causing damage and injury. On a racetrack, a proper brake setup can mean improved lap times. Unfortunately, most street car owners fail to proactively inspect their brakes with regularity. Instead, they react once the brake indicator light on their gauge cluster, the squealing sound of a pad wear indicator or, in the worst-case scenario, the grinding sound of the pad backing against the brake rotor occurs.
Reading the Signs
Regular inspection of the pads and rotors will also let you know if the brake system is functioning properly or not. In the case of a sliding caliper, if the outer pads are wearing more quickly than the inner pads or the pads show signs of tapered wear, it could be an indication of seized guide pins and/or slides. If the inner pads are wearing more quickly, it could indicate the piston or pistons are not retracting due to corrosion, a worn seal, or piston damage. This could in turn could cause the pad to drag against the rotor, resulting in excessive and accelerated wear, and reduced efficiency.
5. Don't Hose Yourself
Use Coolant With Deionized or Distilled Water
Benefit: Avoid costly damage or repairs to cooling system and engine
Maintaining your engine's operating temperature requires a proper coolant mixture in a 50/50 ratio with deionized or distilled water. The coolant (typically ethylene glycol based) enhances the heat transfer properties and temperature range of water to give your engine a wider operating range. Coolant also contains additives that help lubricate the water pump and offer a degree of corrosion resistance to the cooling system. So, why is it important to mix coolant with deionized or distilled water? Deionized water has been treated to remove the mineral ions that naturally occur in tap water. While these minerals are beneficial to humans, they will chemically react within your engine by way of electrolysis, causing corrosion on everything from the coolant passages to your radiator and heater cores. Leaks and/or overheating will eventually follow, leaving you with an expensive repair bill.
Ideally, stay away from your garden hose and only use deionized water. Distilled water is an acceptable alternative, even though it still contains some mineral ions. In an emergency situation, tap water works fine if you need to top off your coolant when you're nowhere near a gas station, Walmart, Target, or AutoZone. Just be sure to flush your cooling system and refill with the proper 50/50 mixture of coolant and water as soon as you can. You can also use deionized or distilled water in conjunction with corrosion-inhibitor additives as an alternative. This is a popular option for the track enthusiast, since a 50/50 coolant mixture is often prohibited at racetracks (it's slippery and takes a long time to clean up).
6. Just Right Is Right
Don't Overfill/Underfill Engine Oil
Cost: Nothing (if done correctly); failure could cost you an entire engine
Benefit: Everything runs right and lasts for hundreds of thousands of miles
When it comes to the fluids that keep your car running strong, more isn't always better. Automakers specify exactly how much oil you should fill the engine with for proper operation. Obviously, underfilling will leave you with too little fluid for proper lubrication. On the other hand, too much fluid will leave you with different and potentially expensive consequences. Some engines are particularly sensitive to the oil level in the crankcase. If the oil level is too low, air can be drawn into the oil galleys and leave your bearings unlubricated for a brief moment, resulting in metal-on-metal contact, spun bearings, and an expensive engine repair bill. Interestingly, overfilling your engine can yield similar results, since overfilling the crankcase could raise the oil level to a point where it encounters the crankshaft. If this occurs, the oil can become aerated by the crankshaft, creating air bubbles that get pumped into the oil galleys. Follow the manufacturer's recommendations, use the engine dipstick to check the oil level, and remember, just enough fluid is just right.
A Little Extra Effort Goes a Long Way
These six maintenance items address common and preventable misconceptions and mistakes that have cost enthusiasts many thousands of dollars. Take the time to maintain your ride, and it will give you back years of reliable service. These important fundamentals of maintenance will ensure your vehicle doesn't end up costing you more than it should to maintain, while providing you with enjoyment for many years and thousands of miles to come. Next month, we'll address the second half of The Dirty Dozen, exploring six more categories that shouldn't be neglected or overlooked.