Get in tune to tune-ups


Jamie Nicely, 42, checks the air filter on a Honda Civic at Tires and More, located at 1556 South Water Street. “Keep an eye on stuff,” Nicely said, noting that college students can easily check basics things such as lights, wiper blades and tire pressure to make sure their car is working properly. Nicely has worked at Tires and More for 14 years. Photo by Matt Hafley

Rachel Jones

We were out of milk. That was my motivation to take my 2001 Mazda 626 out that rainy Wednesday afternoon. That was also how I discovered my car would not start.

After asking my neighbor for a jump and calling my dad for advice, I decided to call AAA. About two or three hours later, I finally got a call that a tow truck was outside my house.

Going out to meet them in the rain, I told the two men I had a problem with my battery. They looked at it and ran a few tests that determined I know nothing about cars.

My battery was fine. It was the fuel tank preventing my car from starting.

The man told me my car needed to be towed and asked where I wanted it to go. Since I’m from near Pittsburgh, I had no idea. He offered to take it to his shop, but I got nervous and finally caved.

“Um, can I call my dad real fast?” I asked. The one with the mustache laughed. “Yeah, that’s what they always say.”

I smiled to myself, knowing I wasn’t the only driver on the road who was clueless to what was under the hood.

“She needs to talk to daaaa-dee,” he said to his coworker in a squeaky, Disney-character-like tone.

That’s not how my voice sounds. Also, I’m sorry I don’t want to get screwed out of hundreds of dollars because I am young and a woman.

When I finally got my dad on the phone, he asked to speak to one of the mechanics to get the full details of what was wrong. The man who volunteered to answer any questions gave me shifty eyes like, “Why is your dad asking so many questions?”

Why? Because he doesn’t want to see someone take advantage of his youngest daughter. Because I am from Pennsylvania, so I don’t know or trust any mechanics around here. Ultimately, because I don’t know anything about cars or car repairs.

And I know I’m not alone.

We’ve been driving cars since we were 16 years old, but most of us don’t even know how they’re supposed to work. I’m a prime example. If automobile ignorance was a crime, I would probably be serving 25 to life right now.

So to ensure no one else does time with me, here is a survival guide to handling an estimate from a mechanic and doing the minor things independently.

When Ignorance is Not Bliss

It’s comforting to know I’m not the only one in the “I don’t know anything about my car” club, but Cheryl Fritz, the co-owner of Fred’s East Main Automotive in Kent, said joining me could lead to more expenses and embarrassment than bringing your car to an auto repair shop alone. Sometimes, she has potential costumers announce that they know nothing about cars.

“I’ll tell them, ‘Please don’t say that to anyone in this business!’” Fritz said. “It just makes them a big target, and they will get taken advantage of.”

One time a mechanic even tried to trick Fritz, who knew exactly what was wrong with her car, into getting more, unnecessary work done. She thought it was kind of funny at first but then it escalated to insulting.

But women aren’t the only ignorant ones in the shop. Fritz said a lot of men come in just as clueless.

“But they don’t want people to know they don’t know what’s going on,” Fritz said with a laugh.

Avoiding Car Troubles

The best way to keep your car in good condition is to do routine maintenance to prevent any problems in the future. Mike McCallister, the manager of Main Street Auto Center in Kent, said people who fail to do so usually end up in his shop.

“I would say probably 30 percent of the repairs we do here on a day-to-day basis are because of neglect,” McCallister said. “They are things that could have been avoided.”

While every car is different, Mary Woodyard, the service adviser at Tires & More in Kent, said the owner’s manual will list what scheduled maintenance services should be done based on time passed or miles driven.

With his own cars, McCallister makes a habit of checking his fluids under the hood and the air in his tires every time he fills up with gas.

“If anyone could get in a routine of doing that, they could save themselves a tremendous amount of money in repairs,” he said.

And after getting bigger work done, such as new tires or spark plugs, McCallister suggested drivers mark down the date. That way they don’t get coaxed into getting replacements before it’s necessary.

Transmission Impossible

It may sound intimidating, but the transmission is really just the Wal-Mart of preventative care — you can get a lot done in just one place. McCallister said the main reason transmissions fail are because of a lack of maintenance.

“I think the No. 1 thing that causes transmission trouble is the car owner does not check the fluid levels,” he said. “If you drive them low, it does damage.”

Transmissions vary between automatic and manual cars, but they both do the same thing: make sure your car can go in different gears and speeds. Automatic and manual cars do differ, but these fluids are the same. Check your owner’s manual for how often your fluids need changed.

The most popular fluid in the transmission is — believe it or not — transmission fluid. It’s sometimes called transmission oil, but it’s not the same as the oil in your engine. Transmission fluid’s main purpose is lubrication. Just like other types of lube you may be familiar with, if there’s not enough, your car may not be able to increase speeds without things getting rough.

Changing Transmission Fluid:

  • Look for a plastic loop near the back and possibly under hoses
  • Unscrew the loop and pull out the dip stick
  • Wipe it off with a rag and put it back in all the way
  • Pull it out again and note how high the oil comes up

(There are two notches on the stick: If it’s too close to the bottom notch, you need more fluid.)

  • Pour in new fluid slowly with a funnel
  • Check the level again to ensure you didn’t add too much

Another fluid to check for is antifreeze. Your car gets hot after driving around for a while. Antifreeze acts as a coolant to ensure your car does not get overheated.

You know you need antifreeze when the reader on your dashboard is closer to the H than the C. Fritz said there are 13 different types of coolant, so check your manual to be sure you’re using the right one. Just because it works fine in your roommate’s car doesn’t mean it won’t mess up yours.

Changing antifreeze:

  • Unscrew the cap that’s probably near the front side
  • Pour in your car’s required antifreeze until it nears top
  • Screw on the lid

The last fluid to keep an eye on is brake fluid. Obviously, it’s used for braking, but it makes sure when you slam on them, your car will actually stop and not hit the freshmen who haven’t figured out how to time using the crosswalk to get to the Rec.

Changing Brake Fluid:

  • Open the rectangle near the middle of the car
  • Dip in a pinky or just look to see if less than half of the container is full

(If it is really low, a red brake light will shine.)

  • Pour your car’s required brake fluid, stopping one-half inch below the top

All of those fluids can be easily checked and changed, but McCallister recommends students who need the oil in their engines changed go to an auto repair shop.

“A lot of cars sit so low to the ground that it’d be difficult do get underneath it to take the drain plug out and change the filter unless they had the equipment to lift the vehicle safely,” McCallister said.

But Fritz said it’s OK to pay to have this done. The procedure is one of the least expensive and most important ones your car can get, especially since the oil filter keeps contaminants from your fuel out of your engine.

Luckily, the air filter under the hood can be changed without ramps or other special equipment. In fact, it’s probably the easiest maintenance for the transmission. This may be obvious, but air filters catch dust or other air particles that could swoop in and damage parts of the transmission or engine.

Changing air filters:

  • Open the latched box toward the left
  • Take out the filter and shine a light on one side

(If you don’t see light through the other side, you need a new filter.)

  • Toss out the old one and put in a new one
  • Latch the box back up

Losing the Spark

The time my car got towed in the rain, I was told, “Your spark plugs are shot.” I had no clue what that meant.

Basically, it starts the combustion of the engine. It creates a volt of electricity that shoots as a little arc and is the reason your engine starts up – hence the name “spark.” Each car has four of them standing front and center under the hood.

If they don’t work, they force the ignition coil, which connects the spark plugs to the engine, to work twice as hard. Just like a human, if it works too hard it will become too stressed and eventually crack. In fact, that’s exactly what I did to my car on that rainy day.

But this isn’t something you should change as frequent as oil or filters. McCallister said those only need changed when there is a problem or it has been a while since your car received new ones. Marking down when you got new spark plugs and comparing it to when your owner’s manual said you need new ones allows you to get the most out of them without wearing them down and causing problems.

Assault and the Battery

While spark plugs bring the electricity to your car, batteries help regulate electric currents and protect the car from damage. It gets the motor running, and as long as it has enough voltage, your car will continue to drive as long as it’s running. But you can wear down the battery by leaving your car on when you’re parked or overusing the air conditioner or radio.

In this case, you will need a jump. Your car may also need a jump if you turn the key but don’t hear any noise. Most jumper cable kits come with instructions, but basically, you only need cables and another car with a working battery.

Jumping a Car:

  • Turn off both cars, unplug anything inside the car and turn both cars’ lights off
  • Attach the negative clip to one nub of the dead battery
  • Attach the positive clip to the other nub
  • Repeat these steps on the good battery
  • Turn on the good battery car and let it run a few minutes
  • Try starting the dead battery car

If things don’t start up, stop and try again. If it still won’t start after multiple tries, either your battery is fine and you have another problem, or you need to call a tow truck. McCallister said the only way to see if you have a dead battery is to charge it then test it.

Tired of Tires

Woodyard said tires should be looked at every 3,000 to 5,000 miles or whenever you check your fluids. You should check for signs of general wear and tear as well as the tires’ pressure.

Seth Grates, a parts sales manager at AutoZone in Kent, said if the pressure level gets too low, it creates more surface area that touches the road. This drag can decrease your gas mileage, and with gas prices as high as they are now, that’s something you’ll definitely want to avoid.

To do so, all you need is an air pressure gauge from an auto parts store. It looks like a pen with a ball on top.

Checking Air Pressure in Tires:

  • Unscrew the air valve
  • Stick in the gauge
  • Compare the number on the little white stick that pops out to your manual’s recommendations

Woodyard said tires can get to 2/32nd of an inch by law, and you can test that by checking the wear bar at the top of the tire. However, that is sometimes hard to read, so I suggest the penny test.

Checking Tire Tread:

  • Put a penny in one tread with Lincoln’s head facing down
  • Can’t see his head? Good!
  • Can see his head? Get new tires!

As far as rotating tires, Woodyard said new tires can be registered online, and the manufacturer can email you when that or other maintenance work needs done.

At Tires & More, Woodyard said the most common problems she sees are damaged rims or flat tires caused by potholes. “A lot of people call us because they don’t know what to do or where to go,” Woodyard said.

To change a flat tire, you need a spare tire, tire iron and jack.

Changing a Flat Tire:

  • Park the car on a level place with the emergency brake on and the car off
  • Pop off the flat tire’s cover
  • Loosen – but do not remove – the lug nuts with the tire iron
  • Jack up the car, so the tire is off the ground, turning the crank clockwise
  • Remove the lug nuts by hand – don’t lose them!
  • Take off the flat tire
  • Put on the spare tire
  • Replace the lug nuts with your hand
  • Tighten them with the tire iron

(Use a star pattern for evenly distributed tightness)

  • Lower the car by turning the jack’s crank counterclockwise
  • Tighten the lug nuts with the tire iron
  • Replace the cover
  • Get a new tire soon – spares only get you so far!

Don’t Pass on Gas

One of the first things you probably learned how to do for your car was fill it with gasoline. And if you paid attention in science class, you know gasoline is a fuel that internally combusts to release a gas to propel the car.

Usually, gasoline only causes problems if there’s not enough in your tank, but McCallister said fuel tanks can sometimes crack.

“If it’s leaking, it’s usually a product of rust,” he explains. The rust is caused by road salt that gets to the tank.

If you get too low on gasoline, that annoying light will come on, reminding you you need to spend more money you don’t have or you will break down.

In reality, McCallister said most cars can drive 50 miles after the fuel light starts to glow. But it’s not something he recommends.

“That’s actually the No. 1 cause of fuel tank problems: People driving on a low tank of gas,” McCallister said. “That’s a big time no-no.”

To avoid that, he recommends filling up when you hit one-quarter of a tank.

A Checkup Before Checking Out

Although you now know a ton of preventative practices, Woodyard suggests getting a full checkup with the mechanic you know and trust at home before you come up to school. It’s just like when you used to go to the doctor before school started.

“You want a nice safety inspection, so you can catch anything before coming here,” Woodyard explains. “That way, if something happens while it’s here, it’s usually something minor.”

Make sure whoever’s doing the check knows how long you’ll be up at school. If you plan on bringing it up and parking it at Dix Stadium, you should still probably drive it around a little bit once a week so your brakes don’t rust together.

Tires also lose pressure if they sit for too long. Woodyard also suggests another inspection before winter or summer break to make sure you get home safely.

It’s definitely easier to take care of your car to prevent problems than it is to take care of your car’s current problems. This knowledge will keep your car safer on the road and you more confident behind the wheel.

McCallister even said car trouble “varies from car to car and student to student.”

“Some people are a little smarter about their cars than others,” he said. “But sometimes, it’s not the student’s fault at all — things just break.”

Contact Rachel Jones at [email protected].