It is no secret that modern cars are pieces of complicated, high-tech machinery that require the use of multiple computers just to operate. Open the hood on any vehicle built during the past 15 years and you’ll see a maze of sensors, vacuum hoses, computer modules and wiring that require a trained professional for just about any kind of service.
That’s why most of us don’t do our own car repairs; we think our modern automobiles are just too complicated. When it comes to doing complex repairs on brand-new cars, that’s right. However, just because you aren't a certified and trained technician doesn't mean you can't to some of the regular preventive maintenance and perform minor repairs. Now, I’m not suggesting you rebuild the engine or even give it a tune-up. Special skills are required for that. But there is still plenty of under-the-hood work you can perform, from general inspections to maintenance and light repairs.
By doing your own work, you will learn more about your vehicle’s various components, gain a measure of self-satisfaction, save money over having the job professionally done and maybe even have a little fun. Here's what you'll need to know and what tools you'll require for performing basic preventive maintenance and light repairs:
Know your car
Before you can begin working on your vehicle, you need to know something about it. The best place to start is in the glove box. Get out the owner’s manual and read it. Most people barely look at this important publication, and that’s a shame because it contains lots of information about your vehicle. Read the section that covers where user-serviceable items under the hood are located and then peruse the maintenance section. It will tell you how to take care of the vehicle and maybe even what preventive maintenance (PM) tasks you can perform.
Next, open the hood and see if you can find user-serviceable items such as the oil fill, engine oil dipstick, transmission dipstick, power-steering reservoir, brake-fluid reservoir, coolant reservoir, battery and so on. Make sure the engine is off, the transmission is in Park (or Reverse if manual), and the parking brake is set before you venture into the engine compartment. You are now ready for a maintenance inspection.
Grab a clean rag or paper towel and pull the engine oil dipstick out of its holder, wipe it clean and re-insert it. Pull it out again and read the oil level on the dipstick. If the level is below the hatched area on the stick, you’ll need to add engine oil. Open the oil fill, and add an appropriate amount of the engine oil specified in your owner’s manual. You’ve just performed your first maintenance inspection.
Now check all the other user-service items as outlined in the owner’s manual, except the automatic transmission. This check needs to be performed after the car has reached operating temperature (10 minutes of driving) and with the car parked on a level surface and the engine running.
As good as the owner’s manual is, it won’t tell you everything. That’s why everyone should purchase a repair manual for their vehicle. Don’t buy an expensive factory manual from the dealer. These are intended for professional mechanics. Instead, go the auto-parts store and purchase a DIY (Do It Yourself) manual that covers your vehicle. There are a number of different DIY manuals out there but those produced by Haynes and Chilton are the best for beginners. Even if you never intend to lift a wrench, a DIY repair manual is a good investment. Not only will it explain how to do basic and even some complicated repairs, it will also have a troubleshooting section that describes symptoms so you can get an idea of what may be wrong with your car. That way, an unscrupulous mechanic won’t be able to cheat you on car repairs as easily.
Before you can actually begin working on your vehicle, you’ll need a few tools. By shopping around at auto parts, department and hardware stores it’s possible to buy a beginning tool kit for under $60.
Of course, for this kind of money, you won’t be buying professional-quality tools, but you will be able to buy a set of consumer-rated tools that carry a lifetime guarantee.
Here’s what you will need to do basic maintenance and repair work:
- Socket wrenches – For basic repair work, a socket kit with a 3/8-inch drive is adequate. Get a kit that has both American Standard and metric sockets, a 3-inch extension and a ratcheting handle. You’ll use these wrenches for removing battery terminals, removing air cleaners and for draining engine oil.
- Screwdrivers – You’ll need a total of six screwdrivers of various sizes -- three slotted screwdrivers and three Phillips head drivers. These will be used to remove radiator hoses, shrouds and plastic covers.
- Pliers – A standard pair of adjustable-grip pliers and a pair of locking pliers such as Visegrip are great for removing spring clamps on hoses and for working loose the terminals from the battery post.
- Allen wrench set – A small set of these L-shaped hexagonal wrenches usually contains about 8 wrenches. They are used to remove covers.
- Adjustable crescent wrenches – Get a 6-inch and an 8-inch adjustable crescent. These are great as a backing wrench when unbolting stubborn bolts with the socket wrench. Plus they will be handy around the house.
- Filter wrench – If you are planning on changing your oil, you’ll need one of these handy wrenches. It makes removing stuck oil filters easy.
- Bag of shop rags – These orange, lint-free rags are designed to absorb automotive oils and greases and are available at auto-parts stores. Use these instead of household towels to wipe up spills, keep tools clean and wipe your hands.
- Tire gauge – A quality gauge with a high degree of accuracy is necessary for checking the inflation pressure of the tires. Check the tires at least once a month for proper inflation. The sticker on the doorjamb of the driver’s door will tell you proper inflation levels for your tires and the owner’s manual will detail the procedure.
- Black vinyl electric tape – Great for making emergency wire and hose repairs. Every toolbox should have at least one roll.
- Toolbox – No, you don’t need a fancy Snap-on or Craftsman tool chest. An inexpensive plastic tool box with a locking lid should hold all the basics.
- Other items – If you are planning to do any work under the vehicle, such as oil changes, it is also a good idea to purchase a floor jack and set of jack stands. These are available at auto-parts stores and usually sold as a set. Figure on spending about $60 to 80 for a jack and stands able to support up to three tons.
Once you are familiar with the vehicle and have the DIY manual and a set of tools, it is time to open the hood and get to work. So what can you do without a lot of car knowledge? Actually, quite a bit. Among the repairs and maintenance a first-timer can perform are air-cleaner replacement, battery replacement, cooling and heater hose replacement, and belt replacement. Once you’ve got some experience under your belt, you might want to try more advanced procedures such as replacing a starter or alternator. How far you go depends upon your skill levels and interest. Either way you’ll start saving big over the cost of professional repairs.
Peter duPre has been writing about cars and car care for over 30 years. He has authored automotive technical manuals and been published in numerous automotive magazines.