Car Care

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is heat coming out of my air conditioner?

If your air conditioning system is blowing hot air instead of cool, the refrigerant gas may have leaked out, you may have a clogged condenser, or the air conditioner's blend door may be stuck. Whatever the cause of the problem, the air conditioning system needs immediate service. Turn the system off. You can cool the vehicle interior by putting the ventilation control in the "vent" position and/or opening the windows.

How can I tell if my coolant is OK?

It is impossible to determine the condition of the coolant in the radiator just by looking at it. Coolant, a mixture of ethylene glycol and water, breaks down with age, picks up contaminants that cause sludge, and becomes acidic. When this happens, it can cause corrosion within the radiator and cooling passages of the engine. To determine its condition, coolant must be checked with coolant test strips that measure PH balance. Coolant is an environmentally hazardous substance. It pollutes the water table and is poisonous to people and animals and therefore must be disposed of as a hazardous waste. Your mechanic has special tools and procedures for testing and changing coolant.

How often should I have my oil/filter changed?

According to automotive experts, regularly scheduled oil/filter changes are the single most important item for prolonging engine life. Most new vehicles have recommended oil/filter change intervals of 7,500 miles and some new vehicles have recommended oil change intervals of 11,000 to 15,000 miles under normal operating conditions, with "normal" operation described as the operation of the vehicle for at least 20 minutes at a medium speed, with a steady throttle and in a clean driving environment.

Short hops to the store, stop-and-go rush hour driving, driving on dirt roads and inclement-weather operation are all considered severe operating conditions that can cause impurities to build up quickly in the oil, resulting in increased wear and tear on internal parts. That is why most owner's manuals and mechanics recommend changing the oil and filter every three months or 3,000 miles (whichever comes first) to assure that maximum engine lubrication occurs while a minimum of impurities are suspended in the oil. To find out what the recommended oil change frequency is for your vehicle, check your owner's manual or talk with your automotive service professional.

How often should I change my wiper blades?

For vehicles that are parked inside, car care experts recommend that the wiper blades be replaced at least once a year or when the wiper blades start streaking – which ever comes first. On vehicles kept outside or in areas where the wipers receive excessive use, changing the blades two or even three times a year is recommended for clear vision.

What’s the correct tire pressure for my vehicle?

The correct tire pressure for a vehicle is determined by the size and weight of the vehicle, the type of tires it uses, load hauled, and the type of driving the vehicle is intended for. The vehicle manufacturer places a tire inflation placard in each vehicle that gives the proper tire inflation pressures for that vehicle. This placard is located on the inside of the glove box door, inside the fuel-filler door, or on the driver's side doorpost (depending upon manufacturer). Most manufacturers also list tire inflation levels in the owner's manual.

Does your car need a tune-up?

In the '60s the average car required tune-up every 5000 to 10,000 miles. Nowadays, if your car has less than 100,000 miles on it you may have never done it. Do you need to have it tuned? What's different between the older cars and the new ones, and what's involved? Good questions.

The differences boil down to better management of the engine's fuel and ignition systems. Older cars had fuel delivered to the engine through a carburetor, and spark delivered through a distributor. New cars are fuel injected and computers control spark. Newer cars' ability to infinitely adjust fuel and spark has led to better performance and economy plus removal of some components that once needed considerable maintenance.

However, this doesn't mean new cars no longer need maintenance. Though much has changed, newer cars do truly run and last longer and are cheaper to drive than older ones. The higher cost of maintenance can be misleading to some.  Relative to the price of cars today, maintenance is no more than it was in the '60s.  Back then, a maintenance tune-up cost about $35 to $40, while cars cost only about $3000. Today a maintenance tune-up runs about $350 to $400 dollars and cars can easily cost $30,000.

So what's involved in a tune-up for the 21st century and how do you know when you need one? Spark plugs, PCV valves, air and fuel filters still must be serviced. Newer cars also need to have fuel systems cleaned. Mass air flow meters should also be cleaned to maintain performance and economy. Spark plugs now usually last from 60,000 to 100,000 miles. Fuel filters should be changed every 40,000 miles; a clogged fuel filter can overwork the fuel pump and cause it to fail. The cost of most fuel pump replacements is $600-$800 and the fuel filter replacement about $70 – a good reason to "a good example of how preventative maintenance can save you money in the long run.”

Fuel systems also need to be cleaned of the carbon that builds up due to combustion, recommended every 50,000 to 75,000 miles. The computer, in order to calculate the fuel needed to maintain optimum air fuel mixture, may use an airflow sensor, which can also get a build up of dirt, causing it to read incorrectly. Cleaning it during a routine tune-up can help restore mileage and performance.

In today’s tune-ups, the computer may need an occasional software update, and the shop may reprogram the computer. There are also many drivability problems corrected with reprogramming the computer. This is a relatively new service and a big step toward fixing many hard-to-solve problems. We must constantly change and adapt to the new technology in order to stay on top in the 21st century.

Do I really need to do the factory-scheduled maintenance?

Don't they just do this to get money? My car runs fine. It's easy to think this with cars running as well as they do, but the answer is yes you do need to do it. These machines we drive are a far cry from the cars of the '80s or even the '90s. First of all they are designed and fully capable of providing safe and reliable service for over 250,000 miles. Maintenance schedules for these cars are designed differently to allow this. However if you maintain them with a schedule you would have used for cars of the '80s that only lasted 100,000 to 150,000 miles, that's just what you will get. Secondly if scheduled maintenance is not done it can void warranties. That's not just the standard new car warranty but emissions and extended warranties as well. This can be a costly mistake. Emission warranties, which often cover you for 8 years or 80,000 miles which ever comes first, cover very expensive parts such as catalytic converters, which can cost $1000 and up. Extended warranties or service contracts will often require you to prove all maintenance has been done, not just maintenance for the part that has failed.

Doing maintenance protects your investment – for most people their vehicle is the second largest investment they will make in a lifetime, second only to their home. It not only helps to ensure long life and dependable service, but doing maintenance and having the records to prove it makes your car worth more to you and potential buyers when the time comes to sell or trade it.

Another myth is that while under warranty all service work needs to be done at the dealer. This is not true. If the work costs money, that is, if the dealer is not doing it for free, you have the choice of where you have it done. This will not jeopardize the warranty in any way.

Buy your next car because you want to not because you have to, doing your scheduled maintenance will allow you to do this.

Does my transmission ever need service?

Most car care experts advise having an automatic transmission's fluid and filter changed every two years or 24,000 miles, to keep it in good working order. This is especially important if the vehicle is more than five years old. Many vehicles newer than five years old may need scheduled service less often and some new vehicles have transmissions that need no scheduled service for the life of the car.

By-the-book service, however, may not be adequate if your vehicle is driven hard, tows a trailer, goes off-road or carries a camper. Under these conditions, the fluid and filter may need to be changed more often – every 12 months or 12,000 miles – because dirt and moisture buildup in the fluid can cause internal damage. Heat buildup can also be a problem. The harder the transmission works, the hotter the fluid gets and the quicker the fluid breaks down. To find out the recommended service schedule for your vehicle's transmission, check the owner's manual or talk with your local automotive service provider.

Manual transmissions generally need no regularly scheduled service, but may need service due to worn clutch and throw-out bearings and broken synchromesh gears. Check your owner's manual for specific information on manual transmission service or talk with your local automotive service provider.

Why are my brakes making noise?

If you hear a grinding or squealing sound when the pedal is applied, you probably need new brake shoes or pads. Brakes shouldn't make any noise as they operate. Even if the actual problem turns out to be something minor, the only safe assumption is this one: noisy brakes are unsafe brakes. Postponing service is unsafe and could raise the cost of repairs later. If your brakes are making noise, get them inspected or serviced right away.

How often should my car get a tune-up?

The term "tune-up" actually applies only to older cars without electronic ignition (before 1981). On these vehicles a tune-up would generally be required every 15,000-20,000 miles and consisted of replacing the spark plugs, ignition contact points, rotor and distributor cap and adjusting the ignition timing as well as the carburetor.

On modern vehicles equipped with electronic ignition, fuel injection and computer controls, the term "engine performance maintenance" is a more accurate term. A "tune-up" for these newer vehicles is an orderly process of inspection, computer diagnosis, testing and adjustment to maintain peak engine performance, maximum operating efficiency and low exhaust emissions. During this process, spark plugs, plug wires, sensors, and modules may be replaced. The frequency at which a newer vehicle needs a tune-up is dependent more upon driving conditions than mileage and recommended tune-up frequencies vary between 30,000-100,000 miles, depending on the manufacturer. To learn how often your vehicle needs a tune-up, check your owner's manual, contact the dealer, or speak with your local automotive service provider.

What can I do if my car overheats?

If you are driving at normal highway speed and the vehicle starts to overheat, turn off the air conditioner, turn on the heater and immediately pull over to the shoulder. Odds are if the vehicle starts to overheat at highway speed, there is a problem in the cooling system such as low coolant, a clogged radiator or a broken drive belt or burst hose. Once at the shoulder, shut off the engine, open the hood and let the engine cool down – 20 minutes minimum. Once any overboiling stops and the engine has cooled, look for obvious signs of trouble. DO NOT attempt to open the radiator cap unless the engine is off and the top of the radiator is cold. If there is no noticeable problem such as a broken drive belt or burst hose, you can then add a coolant/water mixture to the radiator or overflow reservoir, start the vehicle and drive slowly to a service facility.

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