Car maintenance tips and tricks: how to check your brakes, tyres, fluids and more

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Car maintenance
Tyres
Lights and oil
Filters
Spark plugs, coolant and filters
Everything else
Animals
Electric cars
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Car maintenance

So you’ve bought your dream car. 🚗 It looks great and it drives even better. Now what? Well, if you want to keep it running smoothly, you’ll need to keep on top of things. Car maintenance is key so we’ve put together a handy guide for you.

While the MOT test ensures all cars on the road are safe and legal, doing car maintenance checks at home can help you avoid costly repairs, stay safe, and even spend less on fuel.

You only need to get your car serviced as often as your car owner’s manual recommends. For example, once a year, or every 10,000 miles you drive. But there are lots of things you can do in between services to keep your car running smoothly.

TL;DR
Doing at-home car maintenance can avoid costly repairs down the road. As a minimum, always check your tyre pressure and liquids and never ignore warning lights or unusual sounds or car behaviour.

Tyres

It’s illegal to drive a car if its tyres don’t meet certain standards. For example, if their tread doesn’t meet the legal limit or they have tears or bulges.

So it’s a good idea to check them regularly – say, every few weeks and before long journeys.

You’ll want to check:

Tyre pressure

Cars built after 1st November 2014 have an in-built ‘tyre pressure monitoring system’ (TPMS). This means you’ll get a warning light if your car detects a problem with tyre pressure.

If your car has been parked up for a long time you might get a TPMS warning light even if your tyres are fine.

You’ll just need to reset the TPMS by holding down its reset button. This is usually found under the steering wheel. Check your owner’s manual for exact instructions.

If your car was built pre-2014 you can check tyre pressure easily at home using a pressure gauge (you can get them online and in DIY shops). You can also go to a petrol station to do it.

Your car’s owner’s manual will tell you what pressure your tyres need to be. If you find that the pressure is too low, head to a petrol station to inflate them with an air pump.

Tyre condition

Watch out for uneven wear, cuts and bulges on your tyres. And always make sure your tyre tread depth is within the legal limit – that’s no less than 1.6mm.

Tyres without the minimum tread depth need replacing. (Although you might want to think about replacing them when they get to about 2-3mm, just to be safe. 👍)

You can check your tyre tread depth with a tool called a tyre tread depth gauge. Some tyres also have little markings on them so you can see by looking at them if the tread is too worn. You might hear tyres with a very worn tread get called ‘bald’.

There’s also a test you can do called the 20p test. You just need to place a 20p coin in the main tread grooves in the tyre – if the outer raised band on the coin disappears, the tread is fine. If you can still see it, it’s too worn.

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Lights and oil

Lights

Turn on your car and have someone walk around to make sure all lights are working.

Make sure to check the registration plate lighting too. You can be fined if your registration can’t be seen.

It’s possible to change lightbulbs on your car at home. You’ll need to check your car manual to see what kind of bulbs you need to get, and how to replace them.

If you’ve lost your manual you could ask someone at an auto-parts shop. They should know what you need if you tell them the make, model and year of your car.

If you’re not feeling too confident about doing this at home, you can take your car to a mechanic to have the bulbs changed.

Our car maintenance tips could save you money and a headache Oil

Keeping an eye on your car engine oil levels can save serious damage from happening to your car’s engine.

Your car should give you a warning signal on the dashboard if the oil is running low. But you can also check it manually. You do this using your car’s dipstick, which can be found under the bonnet. It’ll have a brightly coloured plastic handle. It’s a long, thin instrument, with two marks showing the maximum and minimum oil levels are.

All you need to do is wipe it clean, dip it back into its tube, and pull it out again. You’ll be able to see if your oil level is between the minimum and maximum marks.

When your car is serviced, its oil will be checked and changed. But it’s also a good idea to check your car’s oil levels yourself every few weeks (and before long journeys).

Oil keeps everything running smoothly (literally) because it stops metal parts from grinding against each other. So if you drive a car without enough oil, its engine could get seriously damaged.

Filters

Diesel Particulate Filter

Today, most diesel cars are fitted with a diesel particulate filter, which makes them less harmful to the environment. Diesel particulate filters catch and store soot.

They have a kind of self-maintenance technique, where the soot is cleanly burned off when you drive at higher speeds. This is called passive regeneration.

If your car doesn’t get a chance to carry out passive regeneration, it’ll try something called active regeneration. This is where it automatically injects extra fuel into the engine to help burn off soot.

If you get a warning light on your dashboard, it means passive regeneration or active regeneration hasn’t been possible.

This usually happens when you only use your car for a lot of slow, stop/start driving. Active regeneration might have started but you might not have driven for long enough for it to finish.

If you do get a warning light, it’s important to take your car for a drive for at least ten minutes at a speed higher than 40mph. This should clean the filter.

If you don’t, the filter will keep on getting clogged up until your car goes into ‘restricted performance mode’ to prevent damage.

Engine air filter

If your car’s engine air filter is too clogged up, your car won’t be as fuel-efficient. This can end up meaning its engine loses power.

You might need to change your engine air filter if:

  • Your fuel isn’t going as far as usual
  • Your car ignition doesn’t sound or feel right
  • The filter looks grey and clogged up

It’s easy to check your engine air filter. You can find it under your car bonnet – it’s usually in a black box.

If you think it needs changing, you just need to take the old one out and put a new one in, before closing the black box again. Make sure you check exactly how the old filter is fitted.

Spark plugs, coolant and filters

Spark plugs

Spark plugs are used in a car’s ignition process. They erode over time, so will need replacing eventually.

Your car owner’s manual will tell you how often yours will need replacing. This could be anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 miles.

If you leave it too long between changing spark plugs, they can seize in the cylinder head. Basically, it becomes way harder to remove them – which can be costly.

Signs your spark plugs need replacing include:

  • Your engine is misfiring (an engine misfire might create a sputtering sound, a sudden loss of power, or violent shaking)
  • Your fuel isn’t going as far as it usually does
  • You’re having trouble starting your car
  • Your car is slower at accelerating than usual
  • Your car is making rattling, knocking or pinging sounds when its idling (where the engine’s on but you’re not moving)

Coolant

Cars need coolant (a mixture of water and antifreeze) so that their engines don’t overheat. Most modern cars have sealed coolant systems that don’t need topping up.

But if you’re interested in taking precautionary steps to keep your car in good shape, it doesn’t hurt to check its coolant level.

Check your car owner’s manual to see where under the bonnet your car’s coolant filler cap is. When you’ve found it, check to see whether the liquid inside comes to between the minimum and maximum markers.

If the coolant needs topping up, you’ll need to wait until the engine is cold. Otherwise there’s a risk of getting scalded by a sudden release of hot water that’s been pressurised. Be careful.

By the way: make sure you don’t randomly mix different types of antifreeze when you top your coolant up. Some types of antifreeze don’t mix well together. If you’re not sure what to use, ask for advice from a professional.

Make sure your car is in top condition before hitting the road

Everything else

Wiper blades

You’ll know when your blades need changing because they’ll start to stick to your screen and squeak when you use them. And they might leave streaks on your windscreen.

You can also check them by looking at them. If they’re showing splits and cracks, it’s definitely time to replace them. You can do this at home.

Your car owner’s manual will explain which type of wiper blades you need.

Screen wash

Newer cars will give a warning signal on the dashboard when the screen wash is running low.

For older cars, you can check by looking at the screen wash level in the tank under the bonnet.

To do this, look for your car’s washer fluid cap (it’s round, made of rubber, and can be easily popped open). Open it and look inside to see if the fluid is up to the marked level.

Always top your screen wash up with a quality screen wash additive or pre-wash. You can find these in petrol stations and they’ll have instructions for how to use them on the bottle.

Animal visitors

If your car’s been out of use for a while, it’s worth checking for signs of animal nesting before you fire it up again.

Be sure to check ‘cosy’ nesting spots like air filter boxes, the space under fuse boxes and battery trays, and the space below the windscreen.

You should also check around wheel arches.

Signs of animal nesting include:

  • Droppings
  • Gnawed wiring, pipework or plastics
  • Signs of bedding
  • Signs of food being gathered

You should be able to move on any unwelcome animal visitors yourself. But if they’re too tricky to reach you might need to get help from a mechanic.

It’s really important to tackle the issue, though, because rodents can cause a surprising amount of damage if left to their own devices 🐀😧.

Cuvva’s top five car maintenance tips

To sum everything up, here’s our top five car maintenance tips:

Always check your car’s owner’s manual It’s there to give you all the technical information you need about replacing parts, servicing and general maintenance.

Never ignore warning lights on your dashboard Checking things as soon as a warning pops up could save your car from serious damage.

Regularly check your tyre pressure It’s so quick and easy to do, and keeping them at the right pressure will make them last longer.

Regularly check your liquids (oil, coolant, screenwash) Again, it’s really easy to do and can save serious damage from happening to your car (or you from getting into a tough spot on a long journey).

Don’t ignore strange sounds or unusual car behaviour If your car’s making unusual noises or behaving differently (like not accelerating as quickly), getting things checked straight away is the best way to keep damage to a minimum.

Maintenance tips for electric cars

There’s less maintenance involved with electric cars because they involve fewer parts and processes than petrol/diesel cars.

One recent study said they cost about 30% less to maintain than their petrol and diesel equivalents.

Electric cars do still need servicing in line with the manufacturer’s recommendations though.

And some of the same stuff maintenance stuff from petrol/diesel cars applies, including:

  • Tyre maintenance
  • Wiper blade replacement
  • Brake maintenance

Most electric cars now come with a battery guarantee of about 100,000 miles.

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Updated on 8th March 2022