Regular vehicle maintenance isn’t just an important safety measure, it can also prolong the life of your vehicle and help maintain its value. If you’ve never so much as checked your oil, the thought of looking under the hood can be intimidating, but performing basic car maintenance yourself isn’t as daunting as you might think.

The first step to performing routine maintenance yourself is getting acquainted with your car manual. Flip to the maintenance schedule section, which will list out the intervals of maintenance, and use the manual as a reference for the different car parts and functions. Performing routine maintenance yourself is no substitute for having your car serviced regularly, but keeping an eye on these key areas will help prevent road trouble and could save you from needing costly repairs in the future.

Tires

Tire pressure and tread should be checked once a month on all four tires; it’s a good habit to check your spare on a regular basis as well.

Tire Pressure
Besides risking a blown tire on the road, driving on under-inflated tires forces your car to burn through fuel faster. For the most accurate reading, check tire pressure when your wheels are cold and your vehicle has been parked for a few hours. The correct tire pressures for your vehicle will be listed in PSI (pounds per square inch) in your car manual and on a sticker inside the driver’s door.

Investing in a quality tire gauge is recommended, as cheaper models can be inaccurate. Once you know the correct pressure and have your tire gauge ready, remove the valve cap on the tire, press the tire gauge into the tire and wait for the pressure reading. If your tire pressure is low, you can refill on free or cheap air at most supermarkets and garages.

If you overinflate your tire, simply push on the metal stem in the centre of the valve to release air. Check the pressure again and replace the valve cap once the pressure reading is correct.

Tire Tread
Checking tire tread is important, as driving with less than 3.5 mm is illegal on most highways in British Columbia during the winter. Luckily, checking your tire tread is also extremely straightforward.

The best and most accurate way to measure your tire tread depth is with a tread depth gauge. However, if you don’t have one on hand, you can use spare change to approximate your tread depth by inserting a quarter into the tread. Make sure the Queen’s head is upside down and facing you. If the tread touches her head, you have at least 4/32 inch of tread remaining, and your tires are in good shape. If you do the same thing with a penny and her entire head is visible, your tread depth is less than 2/32 inches and it’s time for a new set of tires.

Under the Hood

Engine oil 
Engine oil keeps the engine cool, clean and running properly. You can use petroleum-based or synthetic oil, and for most vehicles, it shouldn’t matter which one. Remove and wipe the dipstick inside the oil tank clean so you can see where the oil level is. Push the stick in all the way and remove. If the oil level is between the two marks, then you’re good to go. If it’s below the line, you need to top up your oil. Always remember to consult your vehicle’s manual for recommended service intervals and products.

Transmission Fluid
Most vehicles need to be left running while the transmission fluid is checked, but consult your car manual beforehand to make sure. If the car is running, be careful to watch out for hot or moving parts around the engine. Park your vehicle on level ground and engage the emergency brake before popping the hood, and then check the transmission fluid the same way you would your engine oil — wipe the dipstick clean before inserting it in all the way and removing, taking care as the fluid may be hot.

If the transmission fluid does not reach the ‘warm’ line, you will need to add automatic transmission fluid in small increments using a funnel until it reaches the line.

Coolant 
Coolant stops your engine from overheating, helping to extend the car’s life and ensuring it doesn’t freeze in low temperatures. To check your coolant level, remove the valve cover and make sure the coolant level is between the minimum and maximum levels. If it needs to be topped up, you can refill it with premixed coolant, or mix water with antifreeze in a 60:40 to 50:50 ratio.

Brake fluid
Your brake fluid reservoir can be found under the hood of your car on the vehicle’s master cylinder. The fluid level should be between the maximum and minimum lines on the exterior of the cylinder. The colour of your brake fluid is also a good indicator of whether your fluid needs changing, as old fluid tends to have a dark colour that resembles motor oil. If your fluid level is on the low end and/or has a muddy colour, it’s probably time to get it serviced.

Windshield wiper fluid 
If your windshield looks worse after using the windshield wipers, you might be low on wiper fluid. In a pinch, you can substitute wiper fluid with water as long as temperatures are well above freezing, but it’s best to check your wiper fluid before setting off on a long drive.

Windshield wipers need to be replaced every few months depending on use, and it’s usually pretty obvious when they’re shot. If you notice they’re no longer doing a good job of cleaning your windshield, causing streaks, have irregular movement or make unusual noises, it’s time for a new set. Blades are easy to replace but your body shop will likely replace them for free or for a small price if you’re hesitant about doing it yourself.

Belts and Hoses

A vehicle’s serpentine belt controls various systems in the car, including the alternator and air conditioning, and is made out of rubber. Consequently, it wears over time and should be checked periodically for separation, cracks and bulges. If any of the above appear, it’s time to have your belt replaced.

Hoses keep the car running smoothly and ensure each fluid is carried to its designated location. Check them periodically for signs of cracks, leaks and bulges and replace if necessary.

Whether you’re performing vehicle maintenance yourself or having someone else do it, make sure your car is being serviced according to its recommended schedule.