Car owners enjoy their rides and the benefits they offer, one of which is reliable transportation. The way to keep that reliability is to do the regular, scheduled maintenance for the car. The owner's manual for most cars has specifics for the vehicle in question, but as a general rule, knowing the service intervals for most vehicles helps at least keep your calendar updated, especially in multi-car households. Below is a fast checklist of service intervals and maintenance requirements followed by a more in-depth look at each item and brief information for those interested in doing some of this maintenance themselves.
Photo by Ryan Stone via Flickr cc.
To be Checked at Every Fill-Up
These are items that can be quickly checked while pumping gas at the service station.
- Exterior Lighting
- Tire Inflation Level
- Condition of Tires
- Windshield Washer Fluid Level
- Engine Oil Level and Condition
- Brake Fluid Level
- Dashboard lights
Common 3,000-mile Maintenance Items
Every 3,000 miles, which is roughly every three months for the average driver (12,000 miles/year), the following should be checked and may be up for maintenance or replacement. Check your owner's manual for exact intervals on individual items for your specific vehicle.
- Automatic Transmission Fluid Check
- Battery and Cable Condition
- Engine Air Filter
- Engine Oil and Filter Replacement
- Exhaust System Check
- Engine Hoses Check
- Lug Nuts/Bolts
- Power Steering Fluid Check
- Serpentine/Accessory Belts
Common 6,000-mile Maintenance Items
Every six thousand miles, or every six months, whichever comes first, the following items should be checked and may be up for service interval in addition to the items on our 3,000-mile list. Again, check your owner's manual for exact intervals for your specific car.
- Cabin Air Filter
- Chassis Lubrication
- Engine Coolant Level, Condition
- Spark Plug Wire Inspection/Replacement
- Tire Rotation
- Wiper Blades
Common 12,000-mile Maintenance Items
At the 12,000-mile or one year interval, all of the three-month and six-month items should be checked. In addition to those, the following are also common. Check your owner's manual for specifics.
- Air Conditioning System Check
- Brake System Check
- Recall Check
- Spark Plug Inspection/Replacement
- Steering and Suspension Check
- Timing Belt Check
- Wheel Alignment Check
Why Checking is Important
Most of the items on our list above are checks rather than maintenance or replacements. That's because intervals could vary and are often dependent not only on condition of the item in question, but also how it's been used. Cars driven in rougher conditions or in harsh climates may see some of their service intervals become more frequent whereas vehicles driven in less stressful situations may have longer intervals. Keep in mind that all of the intervals we give here are common suggestions and may not apply to some vehicles, where manufacturer recommendations may be more or less frequent. Also note that these intervals assume that the vehicle is driven regularly and does not sit for long periods of time.
These intervals are important for the car's longevity and its reliability. A recent survey by the Car Care Council found that a large number of vehicles on the road were in need of maintenance beyond what the owner assumed when visiting a repair shop. About 22 percent had low or dirty engine oil, for example, and about 12 percent needed accessory belts changed, the survey found.
Our own informal survey of four mechanic's shops located in four different parts of the United States found similar results. Many vehicles come to a mechanic for things like tire changes or oil replacement only to have had other maintenance requirements ignored by the owner. All agreed that most of the major failures a vehicle had when it was towed to their shop were avoidable had the vehicle had its scheduled maintenance and checks, which would likely have noted the problem before it became catastrophic.
Skimping on or missing maintenance intervals can become costly for the car owner when the inevitable breakdowns occur. They may not cause serious damage to the vehicle, but breaking down on the side of the road is always a costly venture in terms of time and money.
How to Perform Checks Yourself
Nothing is more empowering and money-saving than doing it yourself. Most of the maintenance interval checks we have listed can be done by the driver without need of visiting a shop unless something untoward is noted. Many of these checks should be part of the routine care done by any reputable mechanic during standard maintenance work. The rule of thumb for the DIY maintenance person is always "When in doubt, ask a pro." Most professional shops do not charge to do simple checks on things like brakes, chassis, or fluids.
Exterior Lighting This is a simple, quick check that requires only that you turn on the lights and hazard (four-way) lamps, then walk around the car to be sure they're functioning. When you have more time, such as when warming up the car in the morning or waiting for someone, you can turn the turn signal switch to the left and then right, walking around each time to check the lamps. Also try the bright switch to be sure the bright lights come up. A broken or non-functioning light is an easy replacement that usually requires only a replacement bulb (a few dollars at any auto parts store) and a screwdriver to fix.
Tire Inflation Level Check the inside of your driver's side door for a label showing the proper inflation levels for each of your vehicle's tires. It is usually in the 32-35 pound range for passenger cars.Using a tire air gauge, which should be standard equipment in your glove box, simply check the level of each tire. Not only is it safer to have your tires at the proper level, but every two pounds of pressure can equate to a loss of up to one MPG. If your tire is very low, take the car to a safe parking space and check the tire for punctures.
Condition of the Tires So long as you're checking the tires for proper inflation, also look at the tires themselves quickly to assess their tread depth (the indicators should be below the "meat" of the tire) and wear patterns.
Uneven wear is a sign of something wrong with the suspension and should be checked quickly. Proper tire rotation is also important – we'll discuss that in a moment. During these checks, you're also looking for deformities, tears or cuts, especially in the sidewalls, and other issues that could indicate a bad tire. Replace ASAP if there are any problems.
Windshield Washer Fluid Level When stopped to fill with fuel, opening the hood to check fluid levels is also a good habit to have. Look at the level of the windshield washer fluid (usually a clear bottle with blue or green fluid). If it's getting low, refill as soon as you can. Most service stations sell washer fluid for just a couple of dollars a gallon and you can keep unused fluid in the trunk.
Engine Oil Level and Condition If you aren't familiar with your engine's dipstick(s), you should be. There is always one for oil and sometimes another for transmission fluid. It doesn't hurt to check both, but always check the oil. Nothing ruins a car's longevity and reliability like bad or low oil. Simply pull the stick, wipe it on a paper towel from the windshield wash station, re-insert it and pull it again to look. The oil should be dark brown in color, but not black, and should be at or near the "full" mark on the dipstick. If it's black, especially "gritty," it should be changed. If it's low, add some. Most service stations sell motor oil by the quart. Be familiar with the "weight" used in your vehicle (usually 5w20 or 10w30). Keeping a quart in your trunk is also not a bad idea. See below for changing oil.
Brake Fluid Level The final check under the hood is brake fluid. Since your brakes are your primary safety device, you should always be sure they're in top condition. The brake fluid reservoir is usually located on top of the brake master cylinder ahead of the brake booster, generally on the driver's side of the engine compartment, against the firewall. Fluid levels should be visible through the reservoir and should be at or near the "full" mark. If fluid is low, add some and then ascertain why it was low at the earliest opportunity. Leaks tend to become failures if not taken care of quickly.
Dashboard Lights Before starting the car to leave the pump, turn the key to "on" and watch the dashboard lights come up. Make sure they're all functioning and do a quick check of turn signals, four-ways, and so forth to be sure all indicators are working properly.
If not, you may have a burnt bulb or blown fuse. Check the fuse box (usually in the passenger cabin on either the driver's or passenger's side, low or below the dash. If you aren't sure of your fuses, consult your owner's manual or talk to a technician.
Automatic Transmission Fluid Check Transmission fluid is a type of oil used to lubricate the delicate parts of an automatic transmission. It's usually red in color and any discoloration should be treated with alarm. Flushing the fluid and (possibly) replacing filters is in order if the fluid has any discoloration at all. This is not a simple job for those who don't know how to do it, so have a professional do it if you aren't sure. With your transmission, when in doubt, always have it checked out. Better safe than sorry.
Battery, Cable Condition Your vehicle's battery can last several years if taken care of. The primary thing affecting a battery is loose or corroded cables and connections. Check your battery's cables for frays, loose connections, and the white "powder" of corrosion. Clean the connections regularly with a cable connector scrubber (available at any parts store) and connect everything tightly. Check the other cables of the starting circuit as well, including the power cable to the starter solenoid and its ground. These are often overlooked when checking battery connections. If your battery is nearing its replacement point, consider getting a new battery to keep in the trunk or store on a shelf so that you're ready to replace it as soon as it shows signs of losing charge.
Engine Air Filter The engine air filter needs to be changed every few thousand miles. On most cars, it's every other oil change interval (roughly 6,000-10,000 miles). These filters are easy to replace yourself and often require no tools to do so. Simply purchase a new filter, open the filter box, pull out the old one and put in the new one. Every three thousand miles, however, you should check your air filter for cleanliness. Some owner's manuals or types of filters may be "dusted" at this point (have the loose particulates gently knocked loose) in a well-ventilated area.
Engine Oil and Filter Replacement On many vehicles, the engine oil replacement interval is 3,000-3,500 miles. At this point, the old oil is drained out of the car, the oil filter is removed, and a replacement filter and new oil are added. Changing oil is often the first DIY mechanic task a person learns to do on their own and requires only basic hand tools. Consult your owner's manual for intervals and learn the proper procedure for both changing out the oil and filter and disposing of the used engine oil when you're done. You should also learn how to measure the amount of oil your car "uses" between changes and to keep maintenance records for oil changes and the like. Always use oil of proper weight and the right amount for your vehicle.
Exhaust System Check This is a relatively simple check done in two parts. The first is to simply have the car running and listen for the tell-tale "putter" of exhaust with no muffler. Any hint of this could indicate a leak in the exhaust system. The second half is to inspect the exhaust system while the car is on a lift or you can otherwise get underneath it. Simply look at the exhaust system and note any heavy rust. If you can, scrape that rust off and spray the area with rust-killing formula.
Engine Hoses Check First, inspect the hoses off the radiator and other components in the engine compartment for cracks, visible leaks, and so on. Radiator and power steering hoses are the most susceptible to these problems and will most likely leak at connection points. Make sure to also check the hoses leading through the firewall into the heater core inside the car. Radiator fluid (anti-freeze coolant) is usually bright green or orange in color. Finally, with the engine running and warm, squeeze the radiator hoses (top and bottom) with your hand. If there is a lot of give or a "soft" feeling, the hoses are wearing down and will need to be replaced. Replacement now is easier than later when the've burst on the side of the road. See below for fluid check and replacement steps.
Lug Nuts / Bolts Check the torque level on your wheels' lug nuts or bolts (depending on your vehicle's configuration). They should be at the specified tightness in your owner's manual and any loose or missing bolts should be tightened or replaced.
Power Steering Fluid Check Your car's power steering pump, if it has a hydraulic steering assist system (most cars do), will be an accessory on the front of your engine. Usually towards the bottom at one side or the other. On top of it will be a small reservoir to hold the power steering fluid, which is basically hydraulic fluid, a type of oil. With the engine off, open the cap on top of the reservoir and check levels. There is usually a "dip stick" attached to the cap. Anything below "full" should be topped off and then leaks should be located as soon as possible.
Serpentine / Accessory Belts Some cars have one, others have two or even three accessory belts. These run from the crankshaft of the engine to turn accessories that provide electricity (alternator), power steering assistance (p/s pump), air conditioning (a/c compressor), and more. The belt(s) will be at the front of the engine and are made of a rubber compound. Check these belts for cracks, frays, or other signs of wear. Worn belts should be replaced regardless of interval. Otherwise, they should be replaced at specific intervals, usually 12,000 to 20,000 miles, depending on the vehicle. Replacement is a relatively straight-forward job that many DIY mechanics can do.
Cabin Air Filter This one is simple and on some vehicles, vital. A small filter cleans the air going into the passengers' cabin for air conditioning or ventilation. These filters can be located in several positions – some cars will have one, others will have two or three. Consult your owner's manual, but they're usually readily accessible and can be serviced by the owner easily. They should be changed at regular intervals that will be determined by how "dirty" the air you drive through on a regular basis might be. Dusty or smog-prone areas will likely require more frequent changes.
Chassis Lubrication Many late-model vehicles do not require chassis lubrication, but others might and most pickup trucks and the like will for sure. These lube points are underneath the car and will be detailed in the owner's manual, with intervals for adding lubrication. You will need specific tools for this job, but they are readily available at most parts stores.
Engine Coolant Level, Condition Do not open the radiator cap when the radiator is hot. Check the coolant level when the engine and radiator are cool to the touch. The level should be near the top of the filler cap or overflow hose on the radiator. If it's low, you can add distilled water or 50/50 pre-mix antifreeze. If the coolant is at its service interval for change, flushing the radiator is a job most DIY mechanics can do, but given the disposal requirements and the laws of some states, it's generally better to have a professional shop do the job instead.
Spark Plug Wire Inspection / Replacement This is a simple visual check of the spark plug wires that run from your distributor/controller to the plugs themselves. Any breaks, tears, kinks, etc. should have the wire replaced – they're usually sold in sets, so replace all of them at once. Many wires also have limited lifespans, even those which claim to be "lifetime." Make sure they're replaced within those intervals.
Tire Rotation Your owner's manual and the manufacturer of your tires will have rotation intervals they suggest for your vehicle and its tires. These are usually in the 6,000-12,000 mile range, however. Tire rotation can be done at home, but if you purchased the tires at a shop that gives a warranty, they will often do rotations free of charge.
Wiper Blades Your windshield (and back window, if equipped) wiper blades should be checked twice a year, at minimum.
The rubber should be fully intact and have no rips or breaks. The blades should easily clear water from the windshield without requiring multiple swipes. When the blades become worn or ineffective, it's time to replace them. This is an easy job that anyone can do themselves, often without any tools required. Many auto parts stores will replace your wiper blades as a free service when you purchase new ones from them.
Air Conditioning System Check You're looking for two things. First, you want to make sure that your A/C works. This can be checked by just turning it on and waiting for cold air. Your other check is for leaks. If there are leaks, your A/C likely doesn't work and that will be your best indication. It's illegal to service your A/C system without a license, however, so have a professional do it if you need a repair. When checking your A/C system, also check your defrost system. Make sure it blows air through all of the defrost vents and "on high" when you turn the fan up. Problems here are a safety hazard.
Brake System Check This annual check should be done with the vehicle accessible from underneath (on a lift, in a pit, etc). Inspect the brake lines from each tire to the master cylinder. Any leaks, problem areas, etc. should be noted and repaired immediately. As we said before, your brakes are your car's primary safety system. They should always be in top shape. Once you've checked the lines, check the brake pads/shoes on each of the four wheels. If they are looking worn or if the discs or drums show signs of wear, have a professional check them. Most brake shops inspect for free. To check the shoes inside brake drums, you'll have to remove the wheel to pull off the drum.
Recall Check You can find out if you have an open recall on your vehicle based on its unique indentifier, its VIN (vehicle identification number). You can sign up for a free CARFAX recall alert at recall.carfax.com. Dealerships are required by law to tell you if any outstanding recalls on your vehicle have not been performed. Recall work is free of charge at representative dealerships, so get your recalls done quickly.
Spark Plug Inspection / Replacement Spark plugs may or may not require replacement at one year or 12,000 mile intervals. Check your owner's manual and the plug manufacturer's guidelines. At the very least, however, they should be inspected. To do it yourself, you'll need a few tools and a little know-how and, depending on the vehicle, some knowledge of how to remove items to get to the plugs. Pull each and inspect them for carbon buildup and possible signs of oil or gasoline on the plug, an indication of other, more serious problems in the engine. Also check the gap between the plug point (center electrode) and the spark spindle (ground electrode) and for any other signs of wear or breakage. Replace as necessary.
Steering and Suspension Check This should be done by a professional, but the vehicle's owner can also check for basic problems. If the car is "listing" to one side while you drive and it's not attributable to the road or wind, have your alignment checked (below). If the steering is "sloppy" or non-responsive, you should have it checked. Finally, if anything feels awry while your drive or if your shock absorbers show signs of leaking, have things checked.
Timing Belt Check This is another one of those jobs that should be done by a pro if you aren't sure what you're doing. It involves removing one of the covers and visually inspecting the visible portion of the timing belt on the car. This belt keeps all of the engine's mechanical operations in tune, so it should be checked annually and replaced upon its interval (usually 60,000-100,000 miles, depending on the vehicle). One of the most common skipped intervals is the timing belt and it's also the most common reason a car's engine "blows" and becomes inoperable. Replacing the timing belt is expensive, since much of the engine must be torn down to do so, but it's vital to the long-term operation of your vehicle. When inspecting, look for wear or fraying, broken teeth, a belt that is too loose, etc. If there is any question, have a professional inspect it.
Wheel Alignment Check At every or every other tire rotation interval, have your alignment checked. Many shops do this for free as part of a rotation service, but even if not, it's usually inexpensive. Any alignment issues translate directly into faster tire wear, less vehicle control, lower fuel economy, and higher wear and tear on chassis components. Any discrepancy should be re-aligned immediately. Specialized tools are required to both precisely check and re-align a car's wheels, so a professional will have to do it.