Nothing beats the freedom of an open road and a full tank of gas – until the check engine light comes on or your tire deflates. Routine car maintenance is vital to maintaining a healthy, reliable vehicle and it can reduce the need for, and cost of, repairs down the road. It also helps keep you, your passengers and other drivers safe.
There’s more to maintenance than tire rotations and oil changes, and it can be a lot to keep up with. Use the car maintenance checklist below to help you keep tabs on what your car needs and when.
Car Maintenance Requiring Immediate Attention
Warning lights on your car’s dashboard or damage to key components indicate an urgent need for maintenance or repairs. If you notice any of the following signs, it’s time for a trip to the auto shop.
Tire Pressure Light
Low tire pressure can cause reduced fuel efficiency and poor handling, and it may make your tire more vulnerable to damage. If your low-pressure light comes on, check the pressure in all tires, add air where needed and look for damage that could cause an air leak, like cracks or punctures. If your tire looks low and you don’t have a warning light or if your light isn’t coming on, most tire and auto repair shops offer free tire pressure checks and can help fill it back up.
Check Engine Light
The check engine light usually means there’s an internal issue, like failing sensors or engine misfires. However, if you fueled up just before the light came on, check the gas cap. A loose cap can trigger the light. If the light is still on after you tighten the cap, plan to have it checked as soon as you can. If the indicator light starts flashing, drive straight to a nearby repair shop (or have it towed to one).
Replace Windshield Wipers
Windshield wipers may not seem like a big deal, but they’re essential for maintaining the clear visibility needed to drive safely. If yours are worn, torn or over a year old, replace them. New wipers are relatively inexpensive and easy to find online or at your local auto part store. And they’re easy to install — no mechanic needed.
Replace Headlights and Taillights
Your headlights and taillights are crucial for safety, as they light up the road, make you visible to other drivers and signal where you’re going (like blinkers or brakes). If any of your lights are out, there’s also a good chance you’ll get a ticket. Replace them every 50,000 miles or when they fail, whichever comes first.
Maintenance to Check Monthly
While some car maintenance tasks should be taken care of when a need arises, the following tasks should be done on a monthly basis.
Many of your car’s fluids perform vital functions like lubrication and heat reduction. Others are necessary for functions like steering and braking. To keep your car safe and running well, check the following fluids each month:
- Oil – should be smooth and free of grit.
- Coolant – should be full. If it’s not, there’s a leak.
- Windshield wiper fluid – should be full.
- Power steering fluid – should be full and light in color.
- Brake fluid – should be full. Its quality can be tested with chemical strips.
Consult your owner’s manual to learn how to check for each of these fluids. Each fluid reservoir should have markings indicating appropriate levels. If your fluids seem off, have a mechanic inspect your vehicle.
Other car maintenance tasks should be checked every three months or 3,000 miles, whichever is sooner.
Check Belts and Hoses
Belts and hoses are vital to your car’s operation. Your serpentine belt, for instance, powers systems like your power steering, alternator and water pump. Hoses deliver fluids like coolant or brake fluid throughout your car. Consult your owner’s manual to learn where your hoses and belts are located and how to check them. Regular checks and replacement can help you prevent breakdowns and engine problems.
Tires are your car’s connection with the road. When they have enough air and tread, they allow for optimal steering and handling, which are needed to drive safely.
Check their tread by inserting an upside-down penny in each tire’s tread grooves, Lincoln-side out. If you can see all of his hair and forehead, replace the tire. Use a tire gauge to measure their pressure and keep them inflated to the PSI specified in your owner’s manual. If you notice splitting, cracking, warping or uneven wear patterns, replace the tire.
Check Air Filter
Engine air filters keep harmful debris out of the engine and should be changed every 30,000 miles or 12 months. Check yours every few months to keep tabs on its condition, replacing if it’s brown, black or torn.
Check Every 5,000 Miles
The following items should be checked or changed every 5,000 miles.
Check Engine Oil and Filter
Most standard vehicles require an oil and oil filter change every 5,000 miles. Vehicle age, model and mileage may affect this frequency. Refer to your driver’s manual for specific guidance regarding your vehicle.
Tire rotations ensure even wear and enhance tire lifespan. The front and back tires should be swapped, remaining on their original sides (i.e. don’t move the left rear to the right front). Some tires and wheels shouldn’t be rotated, so double check your manual and your papers for your current tires.
Check Every 6 Months or 6,000 Miles
Check the following every 6,000 miles or six months, whichever comes first.
The chassis, steering and suspension components need to be lubricated for the smoothest ride and driving performance, unless your manual says your vehicle is ‘lubed for life.’ In that case, it’s likely you don’t need to worry about lubricating unless you notice an issue.
Check Every 12 Months or 12,000 Miles
These components should be checked yearly or every 12,000 miles.
Check Your Brakes
Your brake system includes hoses, fluid, rotors, pads, calipers and linings, all of which are essential to stopping your car. Check them sooner if you notice any of the following when braking:
- Vibrating, shuddering or shaking.
- Squealing or grinding noises.
- Pulling to one side.
- Lurching or jolting.
- The pedal sinking to the floor or being hard to press.
Replace Cabin Air Filter
The cabin air filter cleans the air you and your passengers breathe. It should be changed once a year or sooner if you drive in dusty, hot or traffic-packed conditions.
Your coolant removes heat from the engine, keeping it from overheating. Replace coolant once a year. If your coolant levels are low at any time, there’s likely a leak and the system needs inspection.
Check Every 2 Years
In general, these items should be checked every two years or 25,000 miles, but models will vary so always consult your manual:
- Automatic transmission fluid should be checked at minimum every two years. It often needs changing every 30,000 or 60,000 miles.
- The transmission fluid filter should be changed when the fluid is changed.
- Brake fluid should be checked every two years for safety, but it typically needs changing every four years or 40,000 miles.