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Engine Tune-Up Basics 101

Like most places in California, the hot topic around the water cooler at our office is the rising cost of gasoline.

Staff
Aug 6, 2002 SHARE

Like most places in California, the hot topic around the water cooler at our office is the rising cost of gasoline. We have seen a drastic increase in gas prices over the past several months and we haven't even reached the summer yet. There has also been talk of premium unleaded costing three bucks by the time summer exits. Thank god my commuter is a Miata (stop laughing) and it gets a gas-sipping 30 miles a gallon on the highway, unlike my other four vehicles, which are only able to muster 20 or so miles per gallon. Keeping them in top shape is a major priority. As many of you might already know, a well maintained vehicle not only saves you money at the pump but can also increase performance. Everyday commuters can easily perform some of these tips while some require skills and specialized technical equipment. We will rate each task on a one to 10 scale so you can decide for yourself whether you can perform these tasks or if you should have a hired mechanic perform them for you.

1 One of the easiest and simplest preventative steps you can take is checking tire pressure. If a vehicle's tire is not inflated to the proper specifications, it can cause additional drag on asphalt, slowing the vehicle down. Not only can the situation waste gas, but it may also lead to hazardous driving conditions. First check the manufacturers pressure rating on the tire's sidewall. It should read something like "maximum tire pressure xx". With that information, inflate the tire pressure of all four tires to two or three psi below the maximum pressure. Never inflate the tire past the maximum pressure! Difficulty: 2.

2 If you love your car you must be religious, not it the sense of believing in God, but religious in the sense of changing your oil. Oil and filter changes should occur every 3000 miles or even more frequently depending on driving conditions. Changing your oil can be as easy as going to the nearest Jiffy Lube or similar establishments. If you are a do-it-yourselfer it can be as cheap as $10 if you buy all the parts from your local parts store. Dirty old oil can easily turn into sludge, hindering moving parts from moving freely, causing performance loss, poor fuel economy and increased wear. Difficulty: 1 or 3 for the do-it-yourselfer.

3 Another cheap upgrade is your spark plugs. Not necessarily with high performance exotic alloy units, but just new factory replacements. An average conventional spark plug has a lifespan of about 30,000 miles. Anything past 30,000 miles, and the spark plugs electrode has probably worn off. Spark plugs should be checked every 10,000 miles for wear on the electrode and if needed, replaced with new ones. Difficulty:: 2 to 4 depending on vehicle.

4 Air filters are used on all vehicles for obvious reasons of course. However, over time and depending on driving conditions, the filter can easily be clogged with dirt and debris. If the engine utilizes a panel filter, it can easily be tapped gently on the floor to remove the large debris. Pressurized air can remove the smaller debris (office duster works great). Make sure you blow the opposite direction of the air flow intake tract to prevent particles from being further imbedded into the filter. Cone filters can also benefit from spring-cleaning and there are cleaning kits available to clean the filter. Air filters should be inspected every 10,000 miles and cleaned or replaced when necessary. Difficulty: 3 to 4.

5 Depending on what type of ignition system your engine utilizes, some incorporate an ignition cap and rotor for transferring amplified ignition charge to the plug wires. After several hundred thousands transfers of ignition charge, the cap and rotor can wear, which can lead to misfires. The cap and rotor should be checked every 20,000 miles and replaced when the wear is too excessive. Difficulty: 4 to 5.

6 Although plug wires rarely go bad, an intermittent ignition misfire can keep you scratching your head for weeks. One of the easiest ways to check if the plug wires are still good is by checking the resistance in each wire. By using a digital meter check the resistance of each wire by connecting one lead on one end and the other lead on the opposite end. With the leads connected lightly stretch and twist the plug wires to see if there is any drop in resistance. Using the same process, check the rest of the wires. If there are discrepancies in the plug wires, replace them. Difficulty: 4 to 5.

7 Ignition timing is crucial to performance. Over time, the ignition timing can change due to timing belt stretch. Unfortunately, checking ignition timing requires specialized equipment. The vehicle's optimum ignition timing at idle should be posted on the underside of the hood or engine compartment lid. Difficulty: 8.

8 Last on the list of tune-up basics is finding out the condition of the powerplant by checking the compression. Although checking the compression does not help increase performance or gas mileage, it does give you an idea how well the engine is doing. Like checking ignition timing, checking the compression on an engine requires specialized equipment. Most factory vehicle manuals will give you an average of what the compression reading should be and the minimum compression each cylinder should make. Checking the compression is not easy and if you don't know what you are doing, we recommend leaving it to the pros. Difficulty: 9.

Just because gas prices are drastically increasing doesn't mean operating costs for your ride should follow suit. Incorporate these easy tips and you can easily increase fuel economy and performance, without taking out a loan to pay for your next trip to the pump.

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