How To Avoid Expensive Damage

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Maybe you are thinking about doing some of the upkeep your car needs yourself. It’s a great way to save some money – and can be very satisfying, too. But it’s important to know what you’re doing – and do the job the right way, with proper tools and proper procedures. Hurting yourself – or hurting your car – will quickly turn you off to the idea of DIY maintenance.

Here are a few tips to help keep it fun – and keep you (and your car) from becoming one of the walking wounded:

Never scrape, grind or drill without wearing eye protection

There’s nothing like a metal shaving in the cornea to focus one’s attention on the true value of a $5 pair of safety goggles. Wear them whenever you are working with power tools – especially grinders and saws – or lying on your back underneath the car fiddling with something above you. Gravity just loves to drop loosened crud directly into your eyes. It’s no fun, son – and it can cause permanent damage.

Wrong tool for the job

A classic mistake born of cheapness – or laziness. Using wrong-sized or too short/too-long tools can and will cause skinned knuckles and much frustration. The upside is you will probably have busted whatever you were working on, too. To prevent the pain – and ruined parts – figure out before you get to work what tools you’ll need to do the job you’re thinking of undertaking. For example, installing brake shoes requires special tools to seat the springs that hold the friction materials to the backing plate; without them, you’re stuck with pliers and vise-grips – neither of which works especially well even if you have them (and you probably don’t).

You don’t necessarily have to buy the full monte NASCAR mechanic’s tool set to do a job. In fact, many auto parts stores will let you rent or even borrow for free some specialized tools (such as gear pullers, etc.) that you may only need to do this one job – and which you may not need to use again for years. This is much more cost-effective than buying a tool you may only need to use every 10 years or so.

The shocker

Your car is a mini-electricity plant, with its very own generating system (the alternator) and power amplification tower (the primary and secondary ignition circuits). The coil turns the 12 volts ginned-up by the battery and alternator into 30,000-50,000 volts to fire the spark plugs. It won’t kill you because the amperage is low but the jolt will definitely get your attention if you are foolish enough to stick your fingers where they shouldn’t go. The more serious danger is that you’ll accidentally short/fry-out your wiring harness while trying to install something. To avoid this disaster, always disconnect the negative cable at the battery (ground) before doing anything that invloves your car’s wiring/elctrical system. Reconnect the negative cable when you’re done working and you should be ok.

While we’re on the subject of electricity: Jump-starting any late model computer-controlled car can be a risky thing. The power surges/spikes that occur can damage sensitive electronic components. Be sure you exactly follow the specific procedures recommended in your vehicle’s owner manual. Don’t connect the cables in any way except the way – and in the order – recommended by the owner’s manual. The safest thing to do in the event of a dead battery is remove it, have it recharged or replaced and then go about your business. A few hours’ hassle is worth it if it means you skate by $1,800 worth of damage to your multiplexed wonder wagon.

The Force Fit

When some part doesn’t seem to want to go where it’s supposed to, it’s easy to get angry – and start pushing and twisting and hammering. Don’t do it! If something isn’t happening the way the repair book says it should, step back, grab a beer (or coffee, whatever) and ponder it for awhile. It’ll come to you. Examples include bolts that won’t turn in (caused by dirty threads), “press fit” components that aren’t budging (likely needs some light Lithium grease or Vaseline or removal of slight surface rust with emory cloth/light sandpaper) – that kind of thing. Force that nut and you’ll strip the threads or (much worse) snap the stud off in the hole. Bang on something that’s supposed to pop in pretty smoothly (wheel bearing races, steering wheels) and you can cause seriously expensive damage.

Sharp things

Watch how you handle knives and razor blades. A locking blade (preferably housed in a scraper) is the safest way to avoid arterial bleeding and a trip to the emergency room. This is just common sense but it’s amazing how many of us only get it after we hurt ourselves once … or twice.


Want lung cancer? Diminished mental capacity? How about kids with flippers? Then don’t spray paint (even if it’s in cans) work on brakes or sand anything, etc. without wearing a face mask/breather that will keep dangerous particles and vapors from getting into your lungs and from there to your bloodstream. You can buy disposable-type masks for less than $10 a pack at Sears. A good filtered respirator face/mask with replaceable filters costs about $50. Much cheaper than an oxygen tank.

Gas is not delicious

If you need to check whether a hose is clogged don’t stick one end in your mouth and inhale. Use a mechanical siphon/vacuum pump and your stomach will be happier.

Follow the instructions

Don’t improvise – or ignore a procedure because it doesn’t seem important. It usually is. For example, adhering to such things as bolt-tightening sequences on cylinder heads and looking up the torque values (how tight a bolt should be) rather than simply strong-arming stuff into place. On newer cars with lots of aluminum parts it’s especially important to not over-tighten bolts. That includes wheel lug nuts, otherwise you risk warping the disc brake rotors. Do that once – and face the bill – and you’ll never do it again.

Ask someone

If something has you flummoxed, maybe someone else has a better idea. Online, you can scout Forums and bulletin boards (for the make/model vehicle you’re working on). Often, someone else has dealt with the same issue you’re dealing with – and figured it out. Even better, you may know someone who knows cars. Give them a call. People at auto parts stores can be helpful, too. Just confirm they know what they’re talking about before you actually do anything.

And, finally – and most important of all:

Don’t rush

The scenario here is beginning a complicated project Sunday afternoon, not taking into account that the car must be operational come Monday morning to get you to the office. Before you know it, the clock on the wall says 11:30 and and you’re hip deep in grease and just discovered you need a part you don’t have to get the car running again. Always budget sufficient time to do the repair carefully and correctly; to get what you need – and to deal with the unexpected, which if you work on cars long enough you will learn to expect. If you don’t get finished as the deadline draws near, relax. There’s always a ride to be bummed from friends or family – and failing that, a taxi.

Reprinted with permission from

Eric Peters [send him mail] is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities and Road Hogs (2011). Visit his website.

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