3 March 2016

Basic car maintenance part one: coolant, wipers, screenwash, lights + oil

Turning the ignition on March, this week on The Root is all about car maintenance, which may sound pretty boring, but knowing how to do little tasks yourself can result in a warm, fuzzy feeling. Staying on top of car maintenance will keep you safer, ultimately more ‘in pocket’ and will even make your life slicker, free from some potentially rather annoying delays.


Basic car maintenance - check engine oil


What does it do?

Engines work best when they are hot, but if an engine overheats, it can result in quite a lot of damage. Most cars therefore use coolant, which is a mix of water and anti-freeze, to keep the engine cool after assisting it with getting upto its optimum temperature in the first place. The coolant that flows around the engine absorbs some of the excess heat and takes it to the radiator at the front of the car, where air sucked in through the front grille cools the coolant down before it gets pumped back towards the engine to absorb more excess heat, in a continuous loop.

How to check and top coolant up

  • Antifreeze comes in different colours, so refer to your car’s handbook, ask your local car parts store or do an online search to identify the correct one for your car, along with what percentage of water and antifreeze the manufacturer recommends
  • Find the ‘expansion tank’, which is usually a transparent plastic container with a brightly-coloured cap and min/max levels
  • It is extremely important that you only unscrew the expansion tank’s cap when the engine is cold, otherwise you could get seriously scolded
  • Unscrew it slowly and use a rag to mop up any coolant that splashes onto the engine, bodywork and your skin
  • Generally, a 50:50 mix of half water and half antifreeze is fine for most cars. Ideally use bottled water, not tap water
  • Checked weekly, the level should always be in the middle, between mix and max

Windscreen wipers

Basic car maintenance - replace windscreen wipers


Why important?

Not only is it mighty annoying when wipers leave a greasy smear across the windscreen, dangerously reducing visibility especially in rainy or sunny conditions, but it’s also a legal requirement for windscreen wipers and washer jets to be in good working order.

Signs you need new wiper blades include:

  • If your windscreen looks like someone’s spread butter over it after activating the wipers
  • The blades are visibly split or cracked
  • You can hear creaking or other unusual noises when they are activated

Top tip: Fair enough, it’s not glamorous, but it’s good practice to gently lift your wipers and run a cloth along them every couple of weeks, to keep them clean.


Basic car maintenance - windscreen wiper screenwash young drivers


What’s it for?

When you pull the windscreen wiper stalk towards you and liquid is sprayed onto the windscreen, it will contain screenwash, not just water, helping keep your windscreen extra clean. It’s not much good if your windscreen wipers are in fantastic condition but your car’s screenwash reservoir has run dry, and topping it up is one of the easier parts of car maintenance

How to top screenwash up

  • Screenwash can be bought cheaply from most supermarkets, fuel stations and car parts stores
  • Your car’s user manual will tell you where to find the windscreen washer bottle, which is typically made of clear plastic with a blue-coloured cap on top which sometimes has a windscreen symbol
  • Using a funnel to minimise spillage, pour in a mix of water (ideally from a bottle, not the tap) and screenwash
  • In cold weather the mix should be around 50% screenwash, give or take, but in the spring and summer, 20% screenwash is fine, the rest made up with water
  • If your car’s washer bottle doesn’t have min and max marks on it, just fill it up generously so that you can see the level but it’s not too close to the cap


Basic car maintenance - lights


Why they matter

To avoid the risk of being issued with a fixed penalty notice or a Roadside Prohibition Notice by the police, plus to keep you and other road users and pedestrians safe around you, it’s important to check your lights on a regular basis, ideally once a month.

How to check them

  • If your car’s dashboard doesn’t provide some kind of warning that a lightbulb has blown, walk around your car when it is safely parked up
  • Switch the ignition and lights on, but not the engine
  • Visually check that the headlights, sidelights, taillights and fog lights all light up suitably brightly
  • Also check that none of the plastic covers are cracked
  • To check brake lights, ask someone to watch as you press the brake pedal whilst sat in the driver’s seat
  • If you’re on your own and concerned about your brake lights, find somewhere safe with reflective windows or other surfaces such as a garage door, and observe the brake lights’ reflection
  • The same principle applies with indicator lights
  • Also check your car’s interior lights, including the dashboard

Engine oil

Basic car maintenance - check engine oil dipstick


The reason it’s vital

As important as blood is to the human body, oil keeps an engine lubricated and helps prevent wear and tear. Engine oil is typically replaced once a year during a car’s annual service and shouldn’t pose a problem in the meantime. Most cars will display a warning if engine oil has dropped to a dangerously low level, but if you are concerned, you can check it yourself.

How to do it

  • Your car’s handbook will show you where to check the engine oil using the dipstick, which usually has a yellow pull top
  • Only check oil when the engine is cold or has been switched off for at least ten minutes
  • Pull the dipstick out, wipe it with a rag and then slide it back in
  • Pull it out again and look for the min and max markings
  • If the oil level is somewhere in the middle of the markings, it’s ok, but if it’s close to the min level, it needs topping up
  • Find the oil cap, which is usually yellow and labelled with an oil can symbol
  • Slowly pour in small quantities of the oil specified by your car’s handbook
  • Repeatedly check it with the dipstick until the level sits between the min and max markings

We hope you’ve found the first instalment of car maintenance tips on The Root useful. Stay tuned for the next part, which will look at how to check the condition of your car’s tyres, how to tell if your car’s battery needs replacing, what to do if you’re concerned about its brake fluid levels, and what to look for in terms of bodywork. If you have any questions on the car maintenance topics covered in this week’s post, just ask us on Twitter or Facebook.

Oliver Hammond

Written by Oliver Hammond

Oliver is an established freelance motoring writer, published journalist and automotive copywriter based in Manchester. He regularly reviews cars and covers events and launches as editor of petroleumvitae.com and his articles appear in various magazines each month. No relation to Richard from Top Gear, he’s got a weakness for luxo-barges, proper 4x4s and oddball cars.