TEACHING YOUR TEENS THE BASICS OF AUTO MAINTENANCE
When our two daughters started driving, I helped them practice. We began in empty parking lots at five miles per hour, moving slowly and taking plenty of time to get accustomed to the experience. Most parents go through the process of teaching their kids to drive, but don’t necessarily take the time to teach them how to care for their cars.
Each maintenance step is important for the longevity of the vehicle. And knowing how a car works is an essential part of car ownership—plus it helps keep repair costs down. So, here are some basic tips to prepare your teenagers for circumstances that could arise once they’re driving solo.
Rotating your tires—do you really need to do it? The simple answer is yes. Rotating your tires helps ensure that the wear patterns are even. Not doing this can cause your car to pull to one side. Uneven tires may not have correct traction during bad weather, putting your teen at risk of an accident, and may even require you to purchase new tires more often.
Do It Yourself: The easiest and safest thing to do, unless you have relevant experience in this, is to take your car to a certified mechanic.
Frequency: Tires should be rotated every 3,000 to 5,000 miles.
Checking the tire pressure on all four tires is an important step in car maintenance. Having inadequate tire pressure can negatively impact fuel economy and cause braking issues and even tire failure.
Do It Yourself: It’s simple to do. Make sure your tires are “cold”—don’t check them right after the car has been driven. There’s a sticker inside your driver’s side door that tells you what your tire’s psi should be. Take off the top of each tire valve, push the gauge into the valve until you hear a “pssst” sound, and note the tire pressure reading on the gauge.
Frequency: Tire pressure should be checked once a month.
Low tread on your tires can lead to a loss of air pressure, steering issues, and tire blowouts that could cause your teen to lose control of their vehicle. Tread is what helps the tires stay in contact with the road. When the roads are wet, this can lead to hydroplaning. If you’ve ever had this happen to you, then you know how scary and dangerous it can be.
Do It Yourself: All anyone needs in order to check their tire tread is a penny! Take the penny and insert it into the tread with Abe Lincoln’s head facing upside down and toward you. If you can see only part of his head, you’re good. If you can see his entire head, your tread is completely worn and your tire needs to be replaced. Be sure to check this on all four tires since each tire’s tread could be completely different.
Frequency: Tire tread should be checked once a month.
Having a dirty windshield can make driving hazardous since it can impair the driver’s vision. Many things can cause a dirty windshield, including pollen, sea salt, bird droppings, and dirt. Making sure your wipers blades are not cracked or worn will also help keep your windshield clean.
Do It Yourself: Check your car’s user manual for instructions and to determine the correct wiper size. Some car’s wipers are trickier to change out.
Frequency: Change your wiper blades every six months to a year, depending on use. A best practice is to check them when washing your car, just in case. Note that if you live in an extremely hot climate, your wipers can deteriorate and crack in the heat more quickly than in other climates.
Wiper Fluid Levels
Another part of keeping your windshield clean is ensuring there’s wiper fluid available when you need to clean them. Remind teens that they should only turn on the wiper fluid feature while they’re parked or at a stoplight. Doing it while driving is dangerous for the driver and annoying to anyone who is driving behind them (who wants to be sprayed?).
Do It Yourself: It’s an easy process to check wiper fluid levels, most vehicles have a clear reservoir that holds the wiper fluid. If it looks low, add more until it reaches the top.
Frequency: Wiper fluid isn’t something that’s used all the time and, unlike other fluids, not having enough won’t damage the internal parts of the vehicle. Checking every few months is okay.
Inspecting the exterior lights of a car isn’t a practice that people often remember to do. Having a turn signal that doesn’t work or brake lights that don’t operate can cause an accident, endangering teen drivers and anyone else on the road. All lights, including headlights, brake lights, hazard lights, turn signals, and parking lights, should be checked regularly.
Do It Yourself: Teens should start the car, leave the car in “park,” and ensure that the parking brake has been activated for safety purposes. Your teen should activate all the lights (turn on the headlights, step on the brake, turn on the turn signals, etc.) as you’re walking around the car to ensure they’re all working. If any lights need to be replaced, check your owner’s manual for detailed instructions and types of bulbs to use—some lights are easier to replace than others.
Frequency: Once a month during the car maintenance check is a good timeline to use.
Checking to make sure the car’s oil levels are accurate could prevent the oil level lights from going off. Having too little oil in your car can result in engine failure, but having too much oil can cause your oil to overheat (which can also result in engine failure).
Do It Yourself: Checking the oil is a simple thing—all your teen needs is a clean rag and the owner’s manual if they’re not sure where the oil dipstick is located. After taking the dipstick out, they should clean it with a rag and reinsert it into the oil well. Remove the dipstick again and look to see where the oil line is. There should be a minimum/maximum line on the dipstick—anything in between those lines indicates an adequate oil level.
Frequency: It’s good practice to check your oil levels every time you get gas or every other week (whichever comes first). If your change oil light appears, this is not an emergency, but heed the warning and make an appointment to change the oil.
Coolant lives in your car’s radiator and helps maintain the temperature of your engine. The coolant in the car is necessary to help the engine maintain a steady temperature. If your coolant light appears, it means that your car is overheating which can result in a cracked cylinder head, broken head gaskets, or other engine damage (which could mean very high-cost repairs).
Do It Yourself: The coolant each vehicle needs depends on many factors, including the age of the car. Check your owner’s manual for exact specifications of the type of coolant needed for your make and model. Most coolant reserves are see-through, so you can view the levels without removing the cap. Make sure that the coolant doesn’t have anything floating in it or isn’t oily; both are indicators that something could be leaking. If you see them, have a mechanic check your car.
Frequency: Check your owner’s manual for recommendations on how often the coolant should be checked and/or flushed.
Air Filters (Engine Air and Cabin Air)
There are two types of filters in a vehicle: the engine air filter and the cabin air filter. Both function the same way your home’s air conditioner filter does: catching dust particles. Having an engine air filter that is dirty interferes with how your engine operates and balances gasoline and air. Having a dirty cabin air filter can affect how your car’s HVAC system works (and can trap stinky smells inside your car).
Do It Yourself: Most filters can be replaced fairly easily by opening a compartment and replacing the old filter with a new one. Check your owner’s manual for more information on filter locations and the type of filter required. Be sure teens wear gloves and dispose of the filters correctly.
Frequency: Both sets of filters should be changed every 15,000 to 30,000 miles, depending on how often your teen drives and the driving conditions. You can tell if you need new filters by looking at them.
Check Engine Light
The car’s check engine light comes on when the computer in the vehicle thinks there’s something affecting the emissions of your car. If this light goes on, the car needs to be taken to a mechanic immediately. The mechanic will hook the car up to their computer reader to determine the reason behind the error. Pro tip: Once the check engine light goes on, make sure that your gas cap is on tightly. The check engine light in modern cars is programmed to illuminate if the gas cap isn’t put back on or isn’t firmly in place.
Your Teen Should Be Well Equipped
These are just some tips on teaching your teen the basics of auto maintenance. Practicing these on a regular basis will help them keep a well-maintained, smooth-running vehicle. And, be sure to get your teen their own roadside assistance membership so you know they’ll always be safe on the road, even when you can’t be there!