If you’re reading this, chances are you own a car. Most motorists understand the concept of car maintenance, but fewer grasp the reasons behind why parts wear, and which are the most likely to cause catastrophic damage if neglected.
Today’s vehicles are engineering marvels, requiring teams of the brightest engineers to bring concept to conception, and they often depend on complex software to keep them functioning properly. Unless you drive a flying DeLorean, the fundamental systems that keep a car rolling have remained a cornerstone despite tremendous technological advances.
Understanding how a car’s components work in unison, and how they wear during normal use will help you avoid costly and perhaps dangerous car troubles down the road. Let’s look under the hood to see just what makes your vehicle tick, and why it’s an important consideration when planning for the costs of car maintenance.
Simply put, oil is the lifeblood of your car. It helps stave off heat and reduce friction between vital internal components. It is also one of the most commonly neglected parts of car maintenance, largely since the damage caused by unserviceable oil isn’t immediately noticeable. Oil changes are an unavoidable part of car ownership, and the backbone of car maintenance. Many cars notify the driver when it is time to change the oil. This indication is typically based upon miles driven and doesn’t take into consideration driving conditions (heat and high-RPM driving will degrade oil faster.) If your car tells you that it’s time to change your oil, there’s generally still a bit of headroom before it requires immediate attention. Still, it’s best to schedule an appointment with a service professional at your earliest convenience. The costs of repairing a vehicle damaged by neglected oil can be staggering, and in the case of older or higher-mileage vehicles, can sometimes exceed the cost of purchasing another vehicle altogether.
Tires are another critical focus of car maintenance and driver safety. They’re responsible for maintaining traction, expelling water, and providing responsive feedback to driver input. Unlike oil, tires can often be visually inspected at a glance. The classic “penny trick” gives some indication of overall tire health. Stick a penny (with Abe’s head facing downward) into the tread, and if any of his head is obscured, you’re good to go – maybe. This is hardly an exact science though, and such measurements are best left to a professional. Even if the tire is still legally serviceable, worn or near-limit tires can diminish stopping distance 100 feet or more. Rotating your tires is important for maintaining uniform tire wear, and often comes at no charge. Perhaps you’ve noticed a small leak in an otherwise healthy tire. Many small holes on the tread can be patched without the need for replacement. However, if the hole is on the sidewall, replacement is usually the only option. If you suspect tire damage or excessive wear, consult with a service pro immediately.
Oil and tires are familiar concepts for many drivers, but timing belts may be murky waters for the less mechanically-inclined among us. Imagine this: a piston moves up and down inside the engine’s cylinder, and that piston is connected to a crankshaft which converts the piston’s reciprocal motion to a more usable rotary motion (ultimately making its way to your car’s spinning wheels.) At the top of the cylinder sits the engine’s valves. These valves open and close to allow the intake of fresh air and fuel, and the outlet of exhaust gases. As the piston moves upwards, it’s essential that these valves not be in its way or else they’ll collide. The timing belt spins a camshaft, which controls when and how far the valves are open relative to the piston and ensures the two don’t make contact. At best, a broken timing belt will result in poor performance, although costly damages ($2000 or more isn’t unrealistic) are a far more likely outcome. On many vehicles, the timing belt also spins the water pump which is responsible for maintaining the flow of coolant throughout your car’s motor. Should it fail, the motor will soon overheat. The location of the timing belt can contribute to the overall cost of replacement, but regardless of what you drive, scheduled timing belt service is an absolutely critical component of car maintenance.
If you’ve ever looked under your hood and seen a long belt snaking its way around the side of the motor, then you’ve seen the serpentine belt in action. Depending on your vehicle, this belt provides power to multiple systems including the alternator, AC compressor, and power steering pump. Without it your car would quickly become inoperable. Additionally, because the serpentine belt typically powers your steering pump, you would lose power steering if it breaks. Next time you park your car, leave the vehicle running and turn your wheels side to side. Now turn off your engine and try again. Hard, right? This gives an indication as to how your car would steer in the event your serpentine belt broke, which underscores the element of safety involved in this vital area of car maintenance.
Spark plugs ignite the mixture of air and fuel inside your engine. Without them, your car would cease to run. The engine depends on a crisp, consistent spark every time, and fouled plugs will degrade performance. Worn spark plugs will typically decrease fuel economy, costing you more at the pump and increasing your vehicle’s carbon footprint. Additionally, your vehicle may feel week or sluggish when running with fouled plugs. Because dirty or worn spark plugs aren’t as efficient, unburned fuel is more likely to escape down your tailpipe. This can prematurely wear your catalytic converter, which depends on super-heated precious metals (like platinum) to scrub the exhaust of pollutants. Because of their contents, catalytic converters can easily run $1000 or more.
Brakes are one of the first things to come to mind when taking into consideration your car’s maintenance. Let’s face it: your life depends on them. The term “brakes” collectively refers to several systems working together to make your car stop, but in the context of normal car maintenance usually means rotors, pads, and sometimes calipers. In short, when you step on the pedal, the calipers pinch metallic discs affixed to your wheels and stop the vehicle. The pads sit between the calipers and the discs and take the brunt of the heat. These two components are consumable, and most manufactures indicate the typical mileage one can expect before needing replacement. Driving habits heavily influence how they wear, and a scraping or grinding sound is a common indicator of worn braking components. Some cars feature drums and shoes in place of pads and rotors, which are functionally identical in that they are responsible for stopping the vehicle. If you hear any type of grinding or notice shuddering or vibration when braking, it’s best to have it inspected by a service professional. When properly maintained, brakes are one of the less-costly areas of car maintenance – but if neglected, the consequences can be dire.
Scheduled Maintenance and the Cost of Neglect
Yearly car maintenance costs linger around $550 for the average vehicle but can easily skyrocket should routine maintenance be overlooked. A neglected $40 oil change can turn into a seized motor on the side of the freeway and leave you in search of a new motor – or worse. Most car manufactures list the intervals (usually in years or miles) in which service of the vehicles various components is recommended. Keeping up with these maintenance schedules will help keep costs to a minimum. If you’re unsure whether your vehicle is due for service, it’s best to make an appointment with Good Care Auto, where ASE Certified and trained technicians have years of experience diagnosing and repairing nearly all makes and models. Call Good Care Auto today at (734) 285-1188