You may wonder if you're being taken for a ride every time you fork over a wad of cash for a car maintenance procedure that only took the mechanic two minutes. If you're also someone who can't make toast without a fire extinguisher at hand, however, you may think there's no way around it.
But truthfully, there are some maintenance tasks that are simple enough for even a novice, so why not save the dough instead? Here are five simple tasks that require only a little time, a little knowledge, and a few specialized tools.
Change Your Windshield Wiper Blades
Don't you hate the screech of worn-out windshield wiper blades or the streaks they leave behind on your car's windshield? Well hate no more, because changing them is a snap.
Usually there's no cost for the labor involved in changing a windshield wiper blade, but that's because you buy the blades at the auto shop. By replacing them at home, you can scout around for a deal first. And lo and behold, Kmart currently cuts 50% off a selection of Windex wiper blades, with deals starting at $4.49.
Tools You'll Need: A flathead screwdriver. This Craftsman set ($8.25 with in-store pickup, a $13 low) includes both flathead and Phillips-head.
Parts You'll Need: New windshield wiper blades (obviously), but don't forget the rear window blade if you have one. Be aware that the two front windshield blades could be different sizes. Know your make, model, and year of your car before buying. (Amazon frequently offers discounts and price lows online.) Also, you might as well buy a gallon of windshield wiper fluid as well, while you're at it.
The Fix: Most windshield wiper blades snap on and off. First, pull the blade upright, so that it stands clear of your windshield. At the midpoint, you'll see where it hinges into a crook. There should be a release pin or clip there that you can push or pry up; use the screwdriver if you have to pry.
Once you do this, the blade should slide out and free of the crook. Insert the new blade into the crook the same way the old one was oriented, then push until it locks. Lower the blade assembly to the windshield and you're done. It's that simple.
Then fill your windshield washer reservoirs. There will be one in the engine compartment, usually near the rear. If you have a rear window wiper, there may be a separate reservoir that you will need to fill in the back of the vehicle.
Replace Your Fuses
The electrical system in a car has numerous fuses designed to burn out when the current spikes, protecting more expensive systems in your car. If something on your car abruptly quits working, such as your car radio, headlights, or wipers, you may have a blown fuse. Luckily, these are usually a snap to replace.
Tools You'll Need: A pair of pliers or, even better, a plier-like device known as a fuse puller. A flashlight ($4.99 with $2.99 s%h, a $2 low) might also come in handy.
Parts You'll Need: Replacement fuses are dirt cheap. Check your owner's manual for the correct type for your car. (Most use blade mini-fuses.)
The Fix: First, make sure the car is turned off before you begin. Then, consult your owner's manual to locate which fuse controls the system that's not working properly. Unfortunately, the fuse box is often positioned under the dashboard, requiring some yoga-like contortions to view.
Once you locate the fuse you suspect is bad, pull it and examine it closely; if the wire running through the center of the fuse is broken, it's bad and you should replace it with one rated for the same amperage. But regardless, when in doubt, replace it; the per-unit cost of the fuses is negligible.
Replace Your Air Filter
A dirty air filter is to your car what pneumonia is to your body. It robs your car of air and reduces your mileage. Replacing it is a very cheap way to make your ride more efficient.
Tools You'll Need: A flat-blade screwdriver and an adjustable wrench. This Craftsman 3-Piece Adjustable Wrench Set ($18.75 plus in-store pickup, a low by $31) includes several good all-purpose tools for working on cars.
Parts You'll Need: A replacement air filter for your make, model, year, and size of engine.
The Fix: Check your owner's manual for the location of your filter. It may be covered with a plastic shroud that is held down by a few plastic clips that you can flip, or it may be held in place with a nut on a long screw. Either way, remove the cover and you should find the filter lying loose. Simply pick it up and place the replacement filter in the same position. Then replace the cover. Job done. Did we mention these were simple tasks?
Replace Your Battery
Many companies such as Autozone will test your current battery free of charge (no pun intended), so you have no excuse if you're stranded on a cold February night because you put off testing and installing a new one.
Tools You'll Need: A wire brush and an adjustable wrench.
Parts You'll Need: A new battery. Your parts store will help you select a battery that matches your car's requirements. Check to see if you can drop off the old one for recycling when you've finished replacing it.
The Fix: Turn off your car. Pop the hood and, using your car's manual, locate the battery. It may be under a plastic housing, but most likely it will be conveniently placed.
There are two cables connected to your battery: a black one (the ground, or negative) and a red one (the positive pole). Using the adjustable wrench, loosen and disconnect the black one first and pull it away, then disconnect the red one. Lift the battery out of the housing and set it aside. Keep it oriented upright, especially if it's not a sealed unit.
Using your wire brush, clean the metal terminals of the black and red cables, both inside the clamp and outside. If they're corroded or dirty, clean them with a solution of baking soda and water.
Then, lower the new battery into position. Once secure, attach the red cable to the positive pole of the battery, then the black cable to the negative pole.
Change Your Oil and Filter
Changing your own oil is not difficult and can save you a little cash to use on your next night out.
Tools You'll Need: An adjustable wrench, an oil filter wrench, an oil drain pan, a funnel, and perhaps a car jack and jack stands.
Parts You'll Need: Motor oil (check how much your car holds), an oil filter, and drain plug gasket.
Before you begin, can you reach the oil pan drain plug without jacking up your car? The oil pan will be hanging off the bottom of your motor, and the drain plug will be located at the lowest part of it. If you can reach it without jacking your car up, it makes an oil change much easier (and you won't need the aforementioned jack stands).
Start by running your car for a few minutes to warm the engine oil; this will allow it to drain more completely and quickly. Park your car on a level surface and engage the parking brake. Then, if necessary, begin by jacking your car up and placing jack stands on either side of the car. Never work under a car supported only by a single jack. Place the oil drain pan beneath the drain plug, then turn the plug counterclockwise with the adjustable wrench until it comes free. Be careful; the oil that comes gushing out will be warm. Let the car drain until it stops.
Next, locate the oil filter. Using the oil filter wrench, loosen and remove the filter. Keep it tilted upright until you can empty any oil into the oil pan. Then replace the gasket on the drain plug and screw it into place, taking care to not over-tighten, which will cause the plug gasket to distort, allowing oil to leak out. Rub the rubber gasket on the oil filter with a little clean oil for a better seal, then screw into place. If you have a good grip, hand-tightening should be enough. If not, snug it up with the oil filter wrench. Again, don't overdo it.
Once the plug and filter are in place, locate the oil filler cap on top of the motor, remove it, and add oil to your engine using a funnel to prevent spillage. When done, use the jack and remove the stands, lowering the car to the ground. Run the car for a couple of minutes, then turn it off and check your dipstick to make sure it's filled to the height indicated. Also check for leaks under your car. Lastly, dispose of dirty oil properly; many oil change shops will accept it for recycling.
If you've mastered these simple tasks, you may be ready to take on even more complicated ones, such as flushing and filling your coolant system or replacing your brake shoes. Who knows, maybe you've even tapped your inner grease monkey, and that alternate identity will emerge to save you a lot of money on car repairs.