11 MIN READ
Fix Your Ride: 7 DIY Car Maintenance Tasks That Will Save You Money
The other day, my truck's windshield wipers turned on for no reason and would not stop. The problem turned out to be the switch, which seemed like a simple replacement — except the quote said $400!
Unfortunately, this kind of quote is far from unusual when dealing with vehicle maintenance, and often it’s not because of expensive parts. I've often heard from mechanics that their labor is rated at $80 to $100 per hour!
After working as a pizza delivery driver for three years, I know the only way to drive cheaply is with good, regular maintenance. Keeping your vehicle in good shape is cheaper than paying for car repairs or buying a new one. However, paying $45 for a lube shop to put bottom-shelf oil into your engine isn’t going to help matters.
If you really want to save money, enough that even a delivery driver making $5 an hour can run synthetic oil, you'll need to learn do it yourself. Here are a few simple DIY car maintenance tasks that will help you save money on your ride. You’ll need a couple of tools, like a socket wrench set and a drain pain, to get started.
1. Changing Your Oil
This is the most essential maintenance task for your vehicle. If you want your engine to last, oil is the key. Although some newer vehicles user manuals specify longer intervals between oil changes, I always try to play it safe and pretend it's 3,000 miles anyway. (This is personal preference, though — you may want to follow your car’s owner’s manual.)
You’ll need to pick up new oil, as well as a new oil filter. Be ready to get a bit dirty; you’ll want to change into coveralls or older clothes before beginning. Use car ramps (recommended) or a jack to give you room to climb under your vehicle.
There will be a single bolt under your engine. Put your oil drain pan below it and undo that bolt. You can replace the bolt once it stops draining, but this can be a 10-minute process, so feel free to crawl back out from under the car while you wait.
Locate your oil filter. The old one may be a different color than the new one you've purchased, but they should be roughly the same, cylindrical shape.
Reposition the oil drain pan beneath the filter as it will have some oil trapped in it. Depending on your vehicle, it may be easier or necessary to unscrew the filter from the top of the hood. Use an oil filter wrench to give yourself more torque if it's on too tight.
Apply a thin film of oil to the new filter and screw it on according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. Many filter manufacturers recommend tightening by hand, though some advise using a wrench. Overtightening can damage the gasket and cause an oil leak or strip the threading.
Now that you’ve replaced the drain bolt and oil filter, simply pour in the new oil. It shouldn't leak, so long as everything was tightened properly.
You can use the newly emptied oil jugs to store the dirty oil from your drain pan. Simply take it to any parts store and let them know you have some oil to recycle. If they won't do it for free, go to the next store over — this is usually a free service.
DIY Cost: $15 to $40
Service Center Cost: $20 to $55
2. Replacing Spark Plugs
The difficulty of this procedure varies wildly depending on your vehicle, so expect a lot of conditionals in this section.
You’ll reach spark plugs from the top of inline engines and from the side, at an angle on both sides of V-engines. Typical, single-core engines will have a number of wires equal to the engine's number of cylinders. Some rare vehicles, such as my Ranger, are dual-core — each cylinder has two spark plugs to it, meaning my four-cylinder truck still takes eight plugs. This is basically a back-up for the first set, so full replacement is up to you in these cases.
Each of these wires will lead you to a spark plug. Never have more than one disconnected at any given time, unless you're willing to keep track of every single wire — their order is very important for engine performance and a mix-up may even prevent the car from running.
The wires will typically have a thicker, curved texture near the engine. That side is a cover for the spark plug. Simply pull the wire out, with a little wiggling if it's stuck.
The hole you just uncovered is home to a spark plug. They screw right in and have a standardized width. Any decent socket wrench set should have a deep “Sp. Plug” socket which you will need to get the old plug out.
This may be a good time to check the gapping on the new plugs. A specialized measurement tool is a popular keyring addition and your engine's gap specifications can often be found on a sticker somewhere under the hood, usually on top of the radiator. Most plugs are pre-gapped, but a single bump to the box can undo that minute measurement.
Screw the new, properly gapped plug into the exposed cylinder by hand until the threads catch. The engine will hold it in place for your wrench. Tighten it reasonably but not excessively, and push the wire back onto the plug. Repeat this process for each cylinder until the job is done.
DIY Cost: $3 to $7 per cylinder
Service Center Cost: $40 to $150
3. Putting In a New Battery
Every battery has a positive (+) and negative (-) terminal. Non-intuitively, electricity runs from the negative to the positive terminal, so it's wise to first disconnect the negative side.
Whether your posts are top or side-mount, you should see a wire running to each of them, usually red (+) and black (-). Check the symbols on the battery just in case, especially if you drive an imported vehicle.
Each wire will be held in by a bolt or perhaps tightened by a nut. They can usually be removed with a wrench or pliers.
Touching the metal of the wrench is not dangerous, as long as you don't touch both terminals at once. Also avoid any exposed copper on the wires as, unlike the metal you just unscrewed, they do conduct electricity. Once you’ve unscrewed the bolts or nuts, simply lift out the old battery by its handle.
Place the new battery in the vehicle. Grab the positive wires by its rubberized portion to guide it onto the post, then tighten. Do the same with the negative side — again, this order is important. Don't be alarmed by any sparks you see or hear when connecting the second terminal; they just mean the battery is alive and well.
It's difficult to estimate the savings on this one as many shops will install batteries for free. However, purchasing from a shop rather than a mechanic helps ensure you're getting the best battery for your money.
DIY Cost: $90 to $170, depending on the battery you choose
4. Checking Your Fluid Levels
Once you know where to put each fluid, this process isn't much harder than filling your own gas tank (sorry, Oregon and New Jersey drivers).
Every dipstick process is the same: pull it out, wipe it off with a paper towel, dip it back in, pull it back out. The second time you will be reading the correct level. There should be markings to indicate the proper levels for your vehicle directly on the dipsticks.
We've already covered how to put oil into the engine, but don't forget to use the dipstick to check its level and color in between oil changes. Just look for a skinny stick near the engine, often labeled “engine oil”. Also check the color of the oil, which should range from a deep amber to black. The blacker, the older.
A similar dipstick will allow you to check your transmission fluid. This dipstick usually slides into a much larger tube as that tube is the only access point for fluid. Most vehicles will require a narrow funnel for adding transmission fluid.
Power steering fluid may go into a reservoir farther from the steering wheel than one would think, but that cap is normally clearly labeled, as is the windshield wiper fluid cap and radiator cap. There's no trick to finding or removing these caps, but the radiator cap can be dangerous — do not attempt to remove it while hot.
Most of the year, especially in warmer parts of the world, such as Florida, a pre-diluted 50/50 water-coolant mixture can be a good way to save money. During the winter or in colder climates, it's safer to use straight antifreeze.
DIY Cost: Cost of fluids
Service Center Costs: Fluctuates wildly, but is considered one of the five most overpriced car repairs
5. Flushing the Radiator
The engine coolant cap is typically near one of the headlights and is perhaps the most dangerous cap to remove. If you unscrew it while the radiator is still hot, you may get scalded with high-pressure, high-temperature jets of steam. Wait until the car has cooled down and remove the cap slowly, using a rag instead of your bare hand.
To flush a radiator, wait as long as it takes for the radiator to cool down. I've accelerated this process by taking a garden hose to the radiator, spraying each section until it quit creating steam. However, you may want to let it cool naturally.
Once the radiator has cooled down, get under the vehicle. You should be able to find a drain bolt, screw or valve somewhere along your radiator’s bottom side. Use a large drain pan as there will be a lot of fluid to drain. It’s potentially fatal to pets, so many sure to capture all the fluid and clean up any spills.
When the fluid has all drained, replace the valve, screw or bolt. Fill the radiator with a jug of radiator flush solution and distilled water, which will prevent calcium deposits and corrosion better than tap water. Yes, you’ll have to spend a few bucks on the water, but this small extra cost helps prevent major repairs down the road.
Turn on the engine, allow it to run until the vehicle reaches normal operating temperatures, then turn the heater on the highest setting for 10 minutes.
At this point, the flush solution has run its course. Now it’s time to repeat the cool-off and drain process. You can use the same drain pan if there's still room. Replace the drain bolt, screw or close the valve and fill the radiator with coolant or a 50/50 mixture of coolant and distilled water, depending on your climate.
DIY Cost: $10 to $50
Service Center Cost: $40 to $200
6. Replacing Your Air Filter
This is arguably the easiest of all maintenance tasks, short of adding fluids. Simply search for a large plastic housing under your hood, usually along a side. It may be held in with bolts, screws or even clips that can be detached by hand.
Pull out the old filter and slide the new one in, facing the same direction. Replace the housing and you're done.
No mechanic should charge for this simple task, but it’s an easy one to DIY.
7. Maintaining Tire Pressure
Low tire pressure can poorly affect handling, safety and fuel economy. You can easily keep an eye on your tire pressure with a pen-style pressure gauge. They’re about $1 at any parts store.
Simply remove the valve cover, place the valve within the gauge and bend it a little to the side, just enough to let a little air out. The gauge will give you a reading within a fraction of a second. If in doubt, look closely at the side of your tire. It will have the normal pressure range written on the side.
If your tire pressure is lower than recommended, it’s time to head to a nearby gas station to add a little air.
Handling these simple maintenance tasks yourself helps you save money on car repairs and keeps your vehicle in better shape for longer.
Your Turn: Do you do your own car maintenance? How much have you saved?
Between Papa John’s, Domino’s and several local restaurants offering delivery options, Jack Linhart has over 4 years of delivery work that has, somewhat unintentionally, led to extensive DIY mechanical experience. He’s now in management, but still finds the best way to keep his family’s budget within reason is to cross off the mechanic bill as often as possible.