Common Car Maintenance How-Tos

diy car maintenance, how to jump a car, how to change a tire

Cars are great when they’re running properly, right? But even if you keep your vehicle up to date on oil changes and routine maintenance, things are bound to pop up that require your attention. And when they do occur, it’s important to know how to respond.

Even if you’re not the most mechanically-minded or car-savvy person around, there are some simple fixes that everyone can (and should!) learn. From jump starting a car, to changing a tire, to learning how to refill windshield wiper fluid, below are some car maintenance tips that can make you a more confident motorist.

How to jump-start a car

Car batteries die. It’s an unavoidable fact of car ownership. However, by always carrying high-quality jumper cables in your trunk, you mitigate the risk for an even worse situation.

First, you’ll need the assistance of a kind friend or stranger when jump starting a car. Make sure both of your vehicles aren’t running, the ignition is off, and parking brakes are engaged. Pop the hood of your car (if you haven’t already) and locate your battery. This should be pretty straightforward, as your battery is the black rectangular item with the red and black terminals on top.

Remove any plastic caps on the terminals so that the nodes are properly exposed and follow these steps to safely attach the cables (we promise, it’s easy and safe!):

  1. First, place the red clamp of your jumper cable on the positive terminal of the dead battery. A good mnemonic device to remember is, “red to dead.”
  2. Place the other end of the red clamp on the positive terminal of the good battery. While this may feel nerve-racking at first, know that attaching positive terminals is generally safe to the touch.
  3. Place the black clamp of your jumper cable on the negative terminal of the good battery.
  4. Finally, place the black clamp on an unpainted metal surface of your car, like a metal strut that holds your hood open. To ground this current and avoid any sparks, it’s important to keep this clip away from the battery, fuel system, or any electrical parts.

Now it’s time for the other driver to start their engine. Let it idle for a minute or two before you start your dead car. If it doesn’t start right away, don’t panic! Let it charge a few minutes and start it up again. Once you get your vehicle to run, let it run for five minutes. From there, it’s time to unclip the jumper cables in reverse order:

  1. Start with the black clamp on unpainted metal on your car
  2. Remove the black from the clip from the helper vehicle
  3. Remove the red clip from the helper vehicle
  4. Finally, remove the red clip from the dead car

After safely removing the clips (and saying your necessary “thank you,” of course), it’s lastly important to allow your car to run for a minimum of 15-20 minutes. While it’s not uncommon for car batteries to die in the cold, it may also be a sign of a failing battery. Be sure to consult your warranty and a service professional to confirm the life of your battery as soon as you can.

How to change a tire

Much like their batteries, car tires wear out over time. It’s just a reality of car ownership and maintenance. While there are some steps you can take to increase their longevity — including rotating your tires regularly and keeping an eye on their tread — accidents do happen. Knowing how to change a tire can seem daunting if you’re new to it, but it’s actually easy when you have the right tools and instructions. Whether you run over a nail, drive over a pothole, or puncture a sidewall, here’s our step-by-step guide on how to change a tire:

  1. Turn on your hazard lights and find a safe location. Safety comes first, so that’s why you should never hit the brakes or abruptly turn when you first realize you have a flat. Instead, slowly reduce your speed and find a level, straight stretch of road in a safe spot such as the shoulder of the road or a parking lot. It’s also important to be seen by other drivers, and hazards help indicate your presence. Do not change a tire near oncoming traffic. While driving on a flat tire is a risk to your rim, your safety is your top priority.
  2. Stop, apply your parking brake, and apply wheel wedges. To minimize the potential of rolling, it’s essential to apply your parking brake once you locate a safe, level spot. It’s also important to use wheel wedges if you have them, although bricks or large stones will suffice. If your flat is in the rear, place wedges in the front; if your flat is in the front, place wedges in the rear.
  3. Remove the hubcap and loosen lug nuts. If your wheels have hubcaps or wheel covers, remove them before you lift the vehicle with a carjack. Use the flat end of your lug wrench to remove the hubcap. Once you remove the covers — or if you do not have hubcaps — it’s time to loosen the lug nuts. Using your lug wrench (usually supplied in the trunk of your car), turn the lug nuts counterclockwise to break resistance. Do not remove them completely at this stage!
  4. Raise your vehicle with the jack. Locate your car jack and place it beneath the vehicle frame on the side of the flat tire. While many vehicles have a metal space for the jack on the frame, it’s important to consult your owner’s manual to confirm proper placement. To stabilize your jack, it helps to place a piece of wood beneath it before raising your vehicle. Once you have the jack properly positioned, it’s time to raise the vehicle. Be sure to never put any part of your body under the vehicle during this process.
  5. Unscrew the lug nuts and remove the tire. You’ve already loosened the lug nuts — now it’s time to remove them entirely. Once that is complete, you should grip the tire by the treads and gently pull it towards your body until it’s completely removed from the hub. Set it on its side and move to the next step.
  6. Mount the spare tire. Locate your spare tire (either in your trunk or underneath your vehicle) and carefully place it on the hub, being sure to line up the rim with the lug bolts. Gently glide it on to the lug bolts. Place the lug nuts back on the bolts and tighten them by hand. Like before, you’ll be tightening the bolts later.
  7. Lower the vehicle and tighten the lug nuts. Safely and slowly lower the vehicle so your spare tire rests on the ground. From here, tighten the lug nuts as much as you can with your wrench. Lower the vehicle all the way to the ground and remove the jack.

Once you have the spare tire safely attached to the vehicle, it’s time to replace the hubcap and clean up and store all your equipment. Be sure to grab your flat tire, as it may be repairable by a reputable mechanic. It’s also important to check the pressure of your spare tire. Know that temporary tires (also referred to as donuts) aren’t made to travel at high speeds or long distances. It’s recommended to travel straight to your preferred mechanic or dealer right away so they can assess the damage.

How to check your fluids and change them

Much like fuel, fluids keep your car running smoothly and are a key part of vehicle maintenance. While some fluids require regular changes, others need to be checked every 50,000 miles. Luckily, some fluids can be checked and refilled in the parking lot of your local gas station. For example, windshield wiper fluid is one of the first fluids to run low — but also one of the easiest to refill. Simply purchase a jug at your local gas station or auto shop, pour the fluid in the reservoir, and you’re on your way.

Fluids like engine oil require routine maintenance but are easy to check yourself. Oil keeps your engine components spinning smoothly. While the exact mileage is often debated, it’s generally recommended to change your oil somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 miles. Luckily, checking your oil is simple. Most vehicles have a dipstick that lets you check your levels. It’s essential to keep track of oil changes, as they’re an important component of vehicle performance.

While transmission fluid, air conditioning fluid, power steering fluid, brake fluid, and coolant require less frequent check-ups, they’re also central components of any modern vehicle and crucial for car maintenance. Generally speaking, these are fluids that should be inspected during any normal tune-up. However, it’s important to keep an eye on them. As usual, consult your manual to ensure you’re checking your fluid levels at necessary increments. And if you have any questions, be sure to consult a trusted mechanic.

How to change your engine air filter

You’ve probably been asked during an oil change or routine maintenance visit whether you’d like the mechanic to change your air filter for you. While this works, it can be expensive, and it’s really simple to change it yourself once you know how.

  1. Locate the engine air filter housing under the hood of your car. It’s a black plastic box that sits on top of the engine or to the side of it. You’ll notice a huge hose protruding from its side.
  2. Remove the old air filter by opening the air filter housing (use caution when removing the housing cover as it may have wiring harness and electrical components attached to it). Screws, clips, clamps, or wing nuts can be used to secure the air filter housing. Take note of the type of fasteners that have been used and use the proper tool to remove them. Simply remove the fasteners and the top of the air filter housing to release the air filter housing. Remove the air filter as well. Wipe out any dirt or debris that has accumulated in the housing with a rag.
  3. Examine the old engine air filter to see whether it is dusty and needs to be replaced. If you observe a lot of dirt inside the pleats, it’s time to replace the air filter. If dirt slips out when you touch the air filter, it’s past its prime and needs to be replaced.
  4. In the filter box, place the new engine air filter. It should be inserted with the rubber rim facing up. Make sure it’s seated properly.
  5. Replace the top of the housing and all of the fasteners, and you’re done!

How to change a headlight

Driving without a working headlight isn’t just dangerous, it’s also illegal. The reduced visibility (by you and other drivers) makes your car more prone to accidents, making the road you’re on less safe. It’s important to change your headlight as soon as it burns out to avoid being pulled over or causing an accident. Changing a headlight isn’t just routine maintenance, it’s necessary in order to drive on the road.

During this installation, you should use safety gloves and goggles to protect your hands and face. Make sure you’re protected because you’ll be handling sensitive bulbs and possibly reaching into some tight spaces.

  1. It’s a good idea to change both bulbs if you’re changing one. It will save you time in the long run and ensure that you are looking at the same illumination on the road.
  2. Although most vehicles have separate bulbs for high and low beams, certain vehicles employ a single bulb for both. The low beam bulb is normally on the outside, and the high beam bulb is usually on the inside, if your vehicle has two bulbs. To be sure, test this or consult a repair manual for your vehicle.
  3. This is where the most variation can be found. Some headlights are contained in easy-to-remove assemblies that are normally removed when a few screws are removed. Remove those, and you can reach the bulbs by laying the headlight assembly onto the fascia.
  4. The only way to get to the other bulbs is to go through the wheel well. To get to the bulb, pull the wheel arch back, remove and replace it, and then reinstall the wheel well cover. You may need some tools for this. Some casings are difficult to remove, but you can usually just reach behind the case and access the bulb with the hood up. But it isn’t always that simple. To get to one or more of the bulbs, you may need to remove something, in this case an air filter housing. In other vehicles, it may be a coolant reservoir or a battery. If this is the case, simply remove what you need, replace the bulb, and replace what you took out.
  5. A pocket screwdriver aids in the loosening of the clip when removing the bulb’s plug. These might be stiff at times, especially if the vehicle is older.
  6. Simply take the bulb case in your hand and turn it counterclockwise. You can pull it straight out after the tabs are aligned properly.
  7. It’s possible that your vehicle’s high and low beam bulbs have different part numbers. The lower beam is usually indicated by the greater number. If you forget, a mechanic can assist you in determining which is which.
  8. To install the bulb, align the tabs and turn a quarter turn clockwise until you hear a click. Install these one by one to avoid confusion about whether you’re replacing a high or low beam.
  9. Turn on the headlights and cycle through the high and low beams to ensure everything is working properly after installing the bulbs.

Roadside assistance coverage you can trust

While we hope these instructions are helpful, there are some car issues you can’t anticipate. And, let’s be honest — sometimes we simply forget our jumper cables or procrastinate on inflating our tires. After all, car maintenance is often required when we least expect it. That’s where Elephant’s modern Real-time Roadside Assistance coverage comes in. This coverage helps our customers get fast, safe, and high-quality maintenance service when they need it the most. Whether you need help with a flat tire, a battery jump, or a top off of fuel, we’re here to help. Visit our website to learn more about our Real-time Roadside Assistance and our other services, or log in to your online account to add it to your plan!

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