The DIY Winter Car Repair and Maintenance GuideOctober 31st, 2016
A few years ago, a bunch of DIY’ers were asked about how much they save by doing their own repairs. They told researchers they save hundreds or thousands of dollars each year on regular maintenance and car repairs. Not surprising! While some jobs are best left to professionals, there are certain things you don’t need to lean on the shop to do for you. However, trickier jobs that involve work on the engine, exhaust system, shocks or suspension might not be manageable without a lot of experience or a buddy you trust. Regardless of your experience level, we’re approaching the end of fall, which means this is a great time to learn a few tricks to get your car ready for the months ahead.
With true/meteorological winter about a month away, a lot of people will be flocking to their local auto shops for some basic tune-ups, fluid checks, brake/wheel work, etc. If you live in a warm-to-moderate climate, you may still face the occasional cold front or winter storm. Winter, as you know, is unpredictable. Case-in-point: the winter of 2014-15 produced an unprecedented weather report for the country, with the West experiencing unusually warm temperatures while the East got blasted by cold and snow. Parts of Southern Canada and the U.S. were hit by an ice storm that took out the power for hundreds of thousands of residents. The year before, most of the country found itself chilled at one point or another. Snow and freezing temperatures remain possible in Florida, Texas, California, etc. Therefore, we think winter car checks should be considered non-negotiable for just about everyone.
Even knocking off a few items on this list at will save hundreds in costs at the shop. While some definitely require more experience than others, here are a few basic home maintenance jobs and repairs that you can do yourself, just in time for winter.
Tires, tires, tires
We put tires first on this list because it affects most winter drivers—less so if you live in warm-weather states. In general, tire pressure drops 1 psi for every 10-degree drop in temperature. Because under-inflated tires heat up during use and put undue stress on the tire structure, visually inspect your tires whenever the temperature changes significantly. As a rule of thumb, take an official pressure reading at least once a month. If you notice the telltale bulging at the sides of the tire, the cold weather may be causing your tire to deflate. Inflating your tires isn’t really a “repair,” per se, but it’s necessary preventative care.
If you’ve been driving around on your tires for a while, and especially if they’ve been under or over-inflated for an extended period of time, the old penny trick is a good test for tire wear. If you stick a penny in the tire tread and can see all of Honest Abe’s head, your tread is worn and your tires won’t be reliable in adverse weather. All-weather or cold weather tires are always advised for the winter months ahead.
When a mechanic changes your air filter, you’re paying a premium for cheap parts and easy labor that you can do yourself quickly and efficiently. Even if they tell you during a routine winter tune-up and inspection that your filters need to be changed, you’re not going to break your car by waiting a few days to order and install the part yourself. Tire and auto shops will often boast that they can change your air filters in less than 10 minutes. Sure, but so can you for about 10 dollars. This step-by-step guide on changing your air filter is useful, but don’t be intimidated if you don’t have compressed air. If you don’t have a ton of accumulation in your air filter housing, wiping it down or even washing it with soap and water will do the trick. Just make sure the filter housing is dry before putting it back in your car.
This one has people split in terms of ease-of-handling. While vehicles like the Jeep Wrangler and Toyota Tacoma make the DIY experience a lot friendlier, Porsche, the Ford Fusion and a number of other muscle/sport cars (to reference a few) have reputations for being time-consumers when it comes to oil changes. There’s a nice thread on easy/difficult vehicles to do oil changes on that is especially useful if you’re looking for a good DIY car-buying guide. Generally, if you’re ready for a bit of a mess and have all the right materials, you’ll get through your oil change without much fuss. By the way, if you’re new to vehicular DIY jobs in general, consider a Wrangler for your first fixer-upper.
The downside to doing your own oil changes is that you might not save much buying your oil filter and oil, and for some people, it’s not worth the time and hassle. If you really don’t like the idea of doing your own oil, don’t fret. No one will blame you for outsourcing the work. Our advice: oil changes shouldn’t cost more than $40 – $70 (the upper range for high-performance synthetic oil), so be sure you don’t overpay if you get your oil changed at a shop.
Adding Coolant / Radiator flush
Adding coolant is easy: open the coolant reservoir cap when your car is off and cool, and pour in the coolant. We’ll get to the more involved radiator flush in a minute. Especially as winter approaches, everyone needs to make sure their coolant has the right mixture of antifreeze, but too much can cause problems with fluid circulation and over-heating. A 50/50 ratio of coolant-to-water is most common. Extreme cold weather may call for a 70/30 mixture, but the added antifreeze makes it more difficult for your engine to cool. Conversely, more water helps the engine cool but reduces vehicle efficiency in cold weather. Your engine sensors are likely calibrated to give readings at the 50/50 mixture, so don’t mess with that unless you contact your vehicle’s manufacturer and find out if it’s safe.
We’re rating the radiator flush “medium,” but that’s more due to safety precautions you need to take rather than the actual difficulty of the task at hand. Every couple of years, your radiator will need a good flushing. The process is similar to an oil change, in terms of the draining that takes place. Car and Driver put together a great video that covers the basics, but we have to say… if you’re putting out a DIY guide, safety first! He should be wearing gloves. And so should you, if you’re flushing your radiator.
If you have two hands, 30 minutes, $50 and recently put another 30,000 miles on your vehicle, you qualify for a DIY spark plug change! (Note: some spark plugs are rated for more mileage.) The trickiest part about this job is that spark plugs need to be replaced in the right order. Only change one at a time, and reattach the wire to each before moving on to the next. This is one of those great repairs to do at home because of how easy it is and how cheap the parts are relative to what you’ll pay in a shop. Shops charge between $115 – $240, so it’s a real head-scratcher why people pay for something so cheap and easy to do themselves.
Difficulty: Medium – Hard
This is the most difficult DIY cost-saver on our list because a lot can go wrong if you don’t know what you’re doing. There are more steps involved, including jacks and stands or a car lift. Brake pad changes require a serious understanding of your vehicle. You need to be able to look at your brake rotors and see if they need a resurfacing, which requires a professional brake lathe machine. Of course, you could always buy new rotors at $25 – $40 per rotor, which isn’t terribly expensive. The steps involved in this repair take the lingo to the next level, so if a phrase such as, “Compress the brake piston. Get out your C-clamp and put the end with the screw on it against the piston with the other end on the back of the caliper assembly,” has you flummoxed, don’t even bother. Take your brakes to the shop. With the money you saved doing the other repairs on this list, you’ll still be looking at one of the lowest repair totals of your driving life. Still, brake pads are not too difficult once you know what you’re doing, and you’ll save a lot of money changing them on your own; put this on your personal to-do list and set a goal, something like, “By next Christmas, I’ll be able to change my own brake pads.”
If you have questions or an article you’d like to see, drop us a comment! In the meantime, check out our shop equipment if you’re getting serious about taking your DIY skills to the next level or want to expand your shop’s capabilities with the best auto service equipment in the business.