By: Tony D
As an auto technician and PREPPER, I would like to share some of my expertise in the automotive field. I have been “turning wrenches” for over 25 years, and have amassed quite a bit of knowledge. I often see vehicles in my shop that are in such poor shape, I can just imagine them clogging the roadways in a SHTF situation. I think that some folks just don’t care. But I also think there are other folks who don’t know what is necessary and what is just a line of bull. Unfortunately, the auto repair business is full of folks that turn customers into victims. After becoming a victim, most customers find it hard to trust any repair shop, or the services they recommend. Ask friends and family about repair shops that they use, look to the Better Business Bureau, I promise there are good repair shops out there. Another misconception is that the dealership mechanics are better than an independent shop’s mechanics. Vehicle manufacturers don’t breed their own mechanics. In reality, the technician working on your newer vehicle is probably fresh out of trade school. The only difference is that the dealership mechanics have the advantage of factory technical support. Since the internet that advantage has disappeared. Most shops subscribe to technical information services that put independent shops on a level playing field.
The average person has no idea of what makes their vehicle operate, what maintenance items need inspection and up-keep, and when they are being ripped-off with unnecessary services designed solely for the profit of the repair shop. The truth is that maintenance is paramount. Fixing an engine oil leak is cheaper than replacing an engine that blew up from a lack of oil. I’ll try to explain things in plain English, and give the whole truth as to what is needed and what is not.
Vehicles today are very sophisticated; numerous onboard computer systems monitor every aspect of the vehicles’ operation. The truth is, vehicles have changed more in the last 5 years than they have in the last 75 years. I will outline the major systems from bumper to bumper, and from roof to tires to describe system operation, needed inspections, and any maintenance that should be performed, as well as unnecessary operations offered by service centers that offer no benefit to your vehicle. I guess we’ll start from the front and work our way to the back covering the major systems.
HEADLIGHTS: Believe it or not, your headlights are computer controlled. Some vehicles, as early as model year 1999 had the headlight operation controlled by a computer called the body control module (BCM). The BCM can operate the lights with sensors that monitor the ambient light outside and turn them on or off as it sees fit. Using higher wattage or hotter bulbs can draw more amperage that the system is designed to handle and in the long term can damage the BCM. You see these bulbs advertised in magazines and on TV. Although the newer, hotter replacement bulbs do provide some better light, they also draw more current and have a much shorter lifespan than a direct replacement bulb. You should avoid the sales pitch of blah-blah brighter, blah-blah safer. Stick with the bulbs designed for your vehicle by the manufacturer. Chances are if your lights seem to be less efficient it’s because the headlight lenses themselves are getting cloudy and oxidized due to UV damage. There are simple restoration products that will remove the oxidation and return the lenses to near new clarity for a fraction of the cost of a replacement lens.
RADIATOR: The radiator is responsible for cooling the engine, cooling the transmission fluid and is also part of the heating system, for this reason we’ll cover all of these here. The radiator is a heat exchanger. The engine block is hollow. This hollow area called a water jacket is filled with anti-freeze/coolant. The friction of the pistons in the cylinders and the combustion that occurs within the cylinders generates heat. That heat is absorbed through the cylinder walls into the coolant within the water jackets. The coolant is held in the water jackets of the engine by the thermostat. A thermostat is a temperature controlled valve that opens and closes mechanically at a predetermined temperature (195°). When sufficient temperature is achieved, the thermostat opens, and the coolant is pumped from the engine to the radiator. The coolant that was in the radiator is pumped into the engine. The radiator dissipates the heat of the coolant to the air and holds this lower temperature coolant until the process repeats itself. Located within the radiator is another heat exchanger for the transmission fluid. Transmission fluid is pumped through this chamber and back to the transmission to dissipate heat to keep the transmission fluid from overheating. The transmission cooler is a sealed system within the radiator, meaning that transmission fluid and engine coolant do not mix. The vehicles’ heating system uses another small radiator (heater core) located inside the vehicle that also dissipates heat, but this time, into the vehicles’ cabin. Air is blown through this heater core absorbing heat, and forces that heat to the ductwork under the dashboard to the heater vents and defroster. The maintenance for all of these systems is much simpler than it sounds. Have the cooling system flushed every year. This prevents the coolant from turning into an acid due to chemical breakdown and corroding the radiator, heater core, water pump, head gaskets, and transmission cooler. This process is cheap insurance that will prevent major damage. By the way, there is NO 100,000 mile coolant. I have replaced engines and transmissions due to clogged and rotted cooling systems at only 50,000 miles. Radiator and heater hoses as well as the thermostat should be replaced every 3 years to prevent failure from age. No special additives are needed for the cooling system to operate; just a good quality antifreeze/coolant is all that is needed.
BELTS: Most vehicles use what is known as a serpentine belt. This means that instead of individual belts to operate individual accessories such as the alternator, water pump, air conditioner, power steering, etcetera, one belt serpentines around and drives all the accessories. This belt is very durable and most are self-adjusting. The rule of thumb is to inspect the belt at every oil change looking for cracks in the belts’ ribs. Three or more cracks per inch indicate that replacement is due.
BATTERY: Your battery has a limited service life. The batteries job is to start the engine and to also balance the entire electrical system. During its’ service life, the lead plates break down and become less efficient. Have the battery and charging system tested with each oil change and replaced as soon as testing shows signs of fatigue. Modern testing equipment can show the percentage of remaining life in a battery.
ENGINE ACCESSORIES: Alternators, power steering pumps, water pumps, starters, and such are serviced on an as needed basis.
ENGINE MAINTENANCE: This section will address the mechanics of the engine itself. Engine sensors, fuel and ignition systems will be covered separately. Aside from routine oil and filter changes there is one other item that needs periodic maintenance, the timing belt. Not all engines have timing belts, some have chains. Timing belts are prone to the same wear and fatigue as the serpentine belt, just not as often. This belt should be replaced every 50,000 to 60,000 miles. This belt times the opening and closing of the intake and exhaust valves in relation to the position of the pistons. When a timing belt breaks, the pistons can hit the valves causing catastrophic damage. This is one area where an ounce of prevention is worth ten pounds of cure.
FUEL SYSTEM: The fuel system has several components. Keeping just a few things in order will prevent major issues from developing. The fuel pump is the main failure in most cases. The main reason for fuel pump failure is pump burn out. The fuel pump is located in the fuel tank and is cooled by the fuel in the tank it is submerged in. Constantly running below ¼ tank leaves the pump sitting out of the fuel and allows it to run hotter. Keep the tank above ¼ and you’ve prevented a potential problem. The fuel filter also needs to be changed regularly for a few reasons. One reason is that a partially clogged filter forces the fuel pump to work harder and wear out prematurely. Another reason is that a dirty fuel filter allows some debris to get to the fuel injectors. Fuel filters are not expensive and should be changed every year. Doing this will eliminate the need for any type of fuel injector cleaning service (expensive). The last thing is the air filter. It has been proven that the standard replacement air filters do just as good of a job as the high dollar performance type filters, don’t waste your money. Under normal driving an air filter is good for two years. There are many shops that offer fuel system services under different names (induction service, fuel injector cleaning…), don’t waste your money. Once a month put a bottle of fuel system cleaner in the tank, I have seen totally clogged injectors cleaned out in one treated tank.
IGNITION SYSTEM: Basically this boils down to spark plugs and spark plug wires, and not every engine has spark plug wires, some have the ignition coils mounted directly on top of the spark plugs and rarely require service. Most manufactures recommend changing plugs at around 100,000 miles. The main problem with this is that by 100,000 miles, the spark plugs are seized into the cylinder head and either break off or strip the threads when being removed. Have them changed out at 50,000 miles or so along with the timing belt, and you’ll avoid paying upwards of $2,000.00 to have the cylinder heads removed and repaired.
ENGINE SENSORS: The engine computer (PCM) uses many sensors to read what is going on with the engine, and uses this information to determine how to control the fuel, ignition, and overall performance. Usually whenever a problem is detected the PCM will turn the CHECK ENGINE LIGHT on. Use this as a signal to have the system scanned, and the faulty sensor replaced. Continued operation under these circumstances, can be detrimental to safe operation, and in some cases can cause expensive damage to other systems.
TRANSMISSION: Since transmissions have been computer controlled (late 1980s) most have no adjustments since the computer is constantly adjusting pressures and clutch volume. The only thing that needs to be done is a fluid/filter change every 30,000 miles. The reason to change transmission fluid is to replenish the chemical properties of the fluid. Transmission fluid contains several chemicals, each doing a different job. There are detergents, anti-foaming agents, seal conditioners, friction modifiers, and such. These chemical properties break down and allow varnish to build up, seals to harden, and premature clutch damage. The best procedure involves removing the transmission pan, not a power purge. Removing the pan allows for an inspection and removal of any debris. A small amount of debris is normal. There should not be enough debris to clog the filter. A transmission is a sealed unit, and is not open to any outside elements. Filters clog for one reason, the transmission is breaking down. Either clutch debris from clutch pack failure, or metal debris from gear train failure. Avoid additives; most of them are nothing more than some type of brake fluid which will damage the seals. Keep tabs on the fluid level and watch for leaks. Most transmission damage occurs when the transmission is run low on fluid. Common areas for leaks are the cooler line fittings and axle seals. These are pretty simple to repair, and do not require removal of the transmission. If left unchecked though, will result in internal damage of clutch packs and gear train parts which require an overhaul to repair. For those of you that tow or haul, an auxiliary transmission cooler is a great idea. This type of cooler is an add on that connects in series with your factory cooler and reduces the transmission fluid temperatures associated with the demands of harder use. A do it yourselfer can install one in a couple of hours or a good Trans shop can do it for around $150.00 (worth every penny).
EXHAUST SYSTEM: For the most part the exhaust system is not a maintenance item. The main component is the catalytic converter. This part is designed to help control emissions by reburning the exhaust that comes directly from the engine. Catalytic converters go bad from a poorly running engine, avoid this by following the steps above and avoid this major expense. Catalytic converters can cost $1,000.00 each, and most vehicles have at least two.
BRAKES: This is the last place that you want to skimp on. Buy the best and have the rotors replaced, not resurfaced. Resurfacing the rotors makes them thinner and less able to properly dissipate heat which leads to warping (vibration while stopping), and brake fade (overheated brakes). Otherwise don’t approach anything any faster than you are willing to slam into it. Fortunately, brakes last a pretty long time (around 40,000 miles or so). Have them inspected every few oil changes and change them at around 15 to 20 percent service left.
TIRES: For the most part tires have come a long way. Most will dry rot and crack long before the tread wears out. Keep the pressures in spec, have them rotated every other oil change, and when the time comes, replace them all. This is crucial for any all-wheel drive or four wheel drive vehicle. Replacing one or two tires on one of these vehicles will destroy the AWD or 4×4 systems. The reason for this is simple: The AWD and 4×4 vehicles need all of the tires to be the same circumference. Newer tires will have a larger circumference than older ones, and will travel further in a rotation. This will cause a bind in the system and destroy the transfer case. Mixing brands is also a no no. A new 225/75/15 BF GOODRICH will have a different circumference than a new 225/75/15 GOODYEAR. A difference of ½” or more is enough to do serious damage. While it sucks to buy four at once, it will be much cheaper than repairing the drive train.
As I am sure you have noticed, I really believe in preventative maintenance. Replacing wear prone items before they break is the difference between getting from point A to point B, without a tow truck assisted detour. While I can’t guarantee that you won’t have a mechanical breakdown by following this guide, I will guarantee that unexpected break downs will be few and far between, and your vehicle will be better able to serve you when you may need it most.
Keep the faith, Tony
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