Car Maintenance You Can Still Do Yourself

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by Eric Peters

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Is it harder — or easier — to work on “new” cars?

Many people have been intimidated into submission — and don’t even check their car’s fluids anymore. This is too bad — because while it’s true new (and recent vintage) cars are more complex than cars have ever been, in some ways, they’re actually easier to work on.

The bottom line is you can still do a lot yourself — and save yourself both time and money. For instance:

Serpentine belt

Many late-model cars have just a single “serpentine” belt that drives accessories like the air conditioning compressor, the power steering pump, the water pump, alternator and so on. In the not-so-good-old-days, it was common for each accessory to be driven by its own belt. Many engines had at least two and more often three belts to deal with. Not only that, but each belt had to be tensioned correctly by manually applying leverage, then tightening the bolts that held the item in place. It was actually harder to change/adjust belts in the old days than it is today. Because today, if your car has a serpentine belt, you only have one belt to change — and the tension is taken care of for you by an automatic tensioner. Typically, the job involves nothing more complicated than using a wrench or socket to apply some force to the tensioner, in order to release the tension on the belt — which can then be slipped off the pulleys. To install, just work the belt around the pulleys (follow the diagram on the sticker under the hood — most cars have these) and then, using your wrench or socket to leverage the tensioner, slip the belt over/around the tensioner pulley — and release. The correct tension will be set automatically — and you’re all done. This is a job that can still be done by an average person — with basic tools — by the side of the road, if need be. Don’t be afraid. It’s actually simpler than it used to be in the days of multiple drive belts. Serpentine belts can last a long time — 50,000 miles or more — but it’s a good idea to check annually for signs of pending problems such as cracks, which indicate the the belt material is beginning to deteriorate.

“Air box” (filter) replacement

Checking (and replacing, if need be) your engine’s air filter is still more or less the same as it was 30 or 40 years ago. The difference is getting at the filter. In the past, there was (typically) a round housing with a lid held in place by a wingnut. You spun loose the wingnut, removed the round lid — and removed the also-round air filter. Easy. It still is today — only now there is (typically) a box held in place with snaps or large plastic screws — and the filter inside is flat. It can look intimidating — but it’s not. In most late-model cars, the snaps can be undone without any tools — and if there are plastic (or similar) screws, these are usually easy to turn out with a basic screwdriver. You should not need more than that in the way of tools. So, undo the snaps — or back out the screws — and pull off the top. Now you can pull out the filter. If it’s obviously dirty, it probably should be replaced. If it’s not so obvious, you can try holding it up to a bright light (or sunlight). If you can see light through the filter, it is probably still ok. If you’re in doubt, lean toward chucking and replacing. Air filters are cheap. A dirty one that strangles your engine — or lets it suck in abrasive particles — can lead to expensive problems. Typically, a filter is good for about three years/30,000 miles — though this varies depending on such things as whether you drive down dusty roads a lot (more frequent filter changes) and so on. It’s a good idea to check once a year, regardless.

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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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