Using Your Senses... To Save Money on Car Problems

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by Eric Peters

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You don’t have to be a mechanic – or even much of a DIY’er – to save money on car-related expenses. For instance:

Use your ears

You can avoid costly brake problems by listening to your brakes. If you hear anything, it’s time to do something. Brakes should be silent. When they’re not, it’s a good bet there’s a problem. It might just be a squeak caused by glazed (or misaligned) pads, or slightly rusty rotors – which can happen when a car is left to sit for a awhile. But it might also be that your pads are on the verge of wearing out – and about to gouge your expensive rotors into expensive junk. Don’t go by mileage since your last brake job. Brake pads can – and do – sometimes wear out sooner than you expect them to.

Bottom line, if you hear something, get it checked ASAP.

Use your eyes

To watch – and keep track of – the dials in front you, in the instrument cluster. Gauges – vs. idiot lights – are great. If you’re paying attention. Idiot lights – which most cars used to have – only illuminated when it was already too late to do much but pull over and call for a tow. For example, the little light that said “oil” typically came on only when you had next to no oil pressure. It might as well have said “you lose.” Same with the other idiot lights: “Temp” meant the engine was already overheating. “Batt” meant the alternator just croaked.

Gauges – which most late-model cars have – give you much more information. If you’re paying attention to them. You will be able to notice, for example, abnormal or rising engine temperature before the engine actually overheats. This might give you time to get off a busy highway – or get to a service station – as opposed to being stranded by the side of a busy highway and far from help. A low or erratic oil pressure reading – noticed in time – might just save you a $5,000 engine replacement. A number of late-model cars (well, trucks mostly) are even blessed with a transmission temperature gauge. If you pay attention to it and see the fluid temperature rising and shut the vehicle down before the needle gets into the red zone, you will probably have saved yourself a $3,000 transmission job.

Bottom line: Get into the habit of regularly scanning your gauges – and becoming familiar with “normal” readings – so that you’ll immediately notice the abnormal ones before it’s too late to do much about it.

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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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