How Does a Code Reader Work?

car speedometer with the check engine light illuminated

Source | Chris Isherwood/Flickr

When that “check engine” light comes on, many drivers start thinking about their bank accounts. They wonder if they need to immediately pull over and have it towed for an expensive repair, or if the issue is something minor that can wait a few days. The light sure gets your attention, even if you’re an expert DIYer. But what does it mean?

There’s a way to find out. Code readers are affordable DIY tools that provide valuable information about the state of your vehicle and, potentially, a solution to the problem.

Wait, why even have computers in cars?

Story time. Volkswagen and Bosch created the first electronic fuel injection system in 1968, but computer controls didn’t really catch on in the US until the late 1970s. With increasingly strict emissions standards, plus a couple of gas shortages, the new engine control unit (ECU) would reduce the car’s emissions and improve fuel economy. These initial computers were connected to just a few sensors. They could read the incoming data, compare that info against tables stored in permanent memory, and adjust the controls as needed for the ideal result.

It worked. Air pollution improved, fuel economy increased, and basic ECUs picked up more and more sensors. This was the first era of on-board diagnostics computers, later called OBD1.

Problems popped up when you tried to take your fancy new 1980 Ford Escort LX to your favorite local mechanics. They didn’t have the tools to diagnose your new ride, because they didn’t want to buy a $5,000 diagnostic tool just for Fords. See, each manufacturer built computers according to their own specifications, so a Ford diagnostic tool wasn’t going to work on a Dodge, and small shops couldn’t afford to buy a tool to service every brand.

Fortunately, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) got together with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to come up with industry-standardized diagnostics and connectors. Starting Jan. 1, 1996, OBDII became standard.

OBD-II engine code reader

OBDII Code Reader, Source | Flickr

How a code reader works

When an automotive sensor fails, its specific outputs change. For example, let’s say the air intake temperature sensor gets corroded over time and eventually fails to work. The ECU is looking for a specific signal range from that sensor, and will throw up a “check engine” light and store a code “P0113″ or similar if that signal fails to register to the ECU. When the ECU doesn’t receive a signal within normal operating tolerances, the ECU illuminates the “check engine” light to get your attention. In short, the “check engine” light alerts you to a problem, and the stored code tells you what the problem is.

The code reader connects to your 16-pin OBDII port, usually located under the steering column. The code reader and ECU use the same programming language and are able to communicate, so the reader understands that “P0113″ is a failed air intake temperature sensor and puts this on the display screen. With this knowledge you can take a quick trip to the auto-parts store and replace the sensor. If the code is still stored after replacement and starting the engine, you can manually clear the error code by setting the code reader to erase it from memory.


Pro Tip: To help you diagnose a vehicle problem, Advance offers free code reading at most store locations (see store for details).


How code readers help you

With industry-standard connection and software, the formerly expensive mechanic’s equipment quickly became affordable for the average motorist. The simplest and cheapest readers will only display the error code. Something like “P0300″ will show in the display window. Then it’s up to you and Google to decode it—in this case a misfire not tied to any specific cylinder.

Going up slightly in price, more advanced code readers usually have large display screens. These readers can display the error in plain language, or offer the ability to read and reset ABS brake codes or the SRS airbag light. Instead of just the displayed error code, you might see something like “oxygen sensor 1, bank 1.” And instead of spending time digging through Google’s search results, you can go buy the oxygen sensor and install it. This saves you time and hassle, and probably money, too. You can skip the dealership service bay and the aggressive upsell on services.

While more complex, these advanced code readers are still easy to use. If you can download and install a smartphone app, you have the technical skill level to use a code reader. People sometimes get intimidated by any product with the word “diagnostics” in the name, but this might be the easiest tool you can use on a vehicle. Literally, you just plug it in.

Skirting the system

Now, don’t just buy a code reader to clear your check engine light so you can pass the emissions test or safety inspection. It doesn’t work like that. Inspections technicians have advanced code readers that can detect when there is still an issue with your vehicle. Remember, turning out the light doesn’t make the issue go away. The fuel injector or oxygen sensor that triggered the check engine light is still malfunctioning, even if you temporarily cleared the code. The code-erase function should be used after the repair to validate that the issue is fixed.

Have any advice on using a code reader? Let others know in the comments below.

7 Tips to Help Your Vehicle Reach 200,000 Miles

the odometer of a vehicle at rest

Source | Peter Stevens/Flickr

Now it’s easier than ever to keep your car running smoothly for thousands of miles. If your vehicle has less than 50,000 miles on it today, chances are it still has 75 percent of its driving life ahead of it. That’s good news if you’re like the majority of Americans who are holding onto their vehicles longer than ever before.

It wasn’t that long ago that hitting the 100,000-mile mark on the odometer was a major milestone. Today, vehicles are built to last. With proper maintenance and attention, there’s no reason you shouldn’t expect to see that odometer roll right past 200,000 and keep on going. Here’s how to make it happen.

1. Read your owner’s manual

In addition to informing you on the basics, like what those buttons on the dash actually do, the owner’s manual contains vital information for your vehicle. You’ll find specifics about the various components that need to be monitored and replaced, when that needs to happen, and how owners can perform the checks.

Following the owner’s manual also helps prolong your vehicle’s life, because it specifies which fluids work best and provides vehicle-operation instructions that prevent damage and reduce wear.

2. Avoid short trips

The difference between driving short distances and longer distances is that the engine never has a chance to reach its optimal operating temperature on short trips. Here’s why that’s a problem. Water is a byproduct of combustion. When the engine is nice and hot and operating at its most efficient temperature, the water turns to vapor and is ventilated out of the engine. But on short trips, the engine never gets up to that optimal temperature. As a result, water can remain in the engine, collect in the oil, and settle in the exhaust system, where it causes excessive wear and tear.

a mechanic lays underneath a car during a routine maintenance check

Source | Mark Ittleman/Flickr

3. Find a mechanic you trust and like

Given the choice, DIYers would rather work on their own vehicles. We get that. Sometimes, though, having a mechanic you trust is worth its weight in platinum brake pads. Mechanics you get along with—who you believe have your best interests at heart—will give you the right advice and won’t BS you. They’ll be a partner in your quest to reach that magical 200,000 milestone, not interested only in selling you an expensive repair and never seeing you again. If they’re experienced, accustomed to working on the type of vehicle you drive, and convenient to your work or home, it could be the start of a beautiful relationship.

4. Follow the recommended vehicle-maintenance schedule

If you hate your vehicle and don’t want it to last through the next block let alone make it to 200,000 miles, then this is the one category you want to ignore. Nothing shortens a vehicle’s life faster than a lack of maintenance. Remember your friendly mechanic and the stimulating reading found between the pages of your owner’s manual? They’re both instrumental in knowing when to perform routine vehicle maintenance, based on either mileage or time increments, or both.

While you should keep up on all maintenance items, the most important step is far and away the oil change. In addition to lubricating vital engine parts, oil traps contaminants and prevents them from harming your engine. Changing the oil gets rid of all that gunk. Oil also breaks down over time, so it’s necessary to replace it at regular intervals.

Of course, don’t forget about these items as well:

  • Coolant, brake, power steering, and transmission fluids
  • Filters
  • Belts
  • Brakes
  • Windshield wipers

Follow your owner’s manual to develop and stick with a maintenance schedule.

5. Pay attention to your vehicle

We’re not talking about a date night or a conversation around hopes and aspirations, but rather an increased awareness as to how your vehicle looks, sounds, smells, and feels. Don’t just get in it and go, or park it and leave. Pay attention to anything new or out of the ordinary when it comes to your vehicle’s characteristics like:

  • Vibrations, rattles, or squeaks
  • Unusual smells
  • Fluid leaks under the hood or underneath the vehicle

Look at the dashboard gauges and indicator lights for signs of trouble. By paying attention to how your vehicle operates normally, you’ll notice when a mechanical problem is causing something out of the ordinary to happen, enabling your mechanic to make a minor repair before it becomes a major, vehicle-ending problem.

6. Follow up on manufacturer recalls

Don’t ignore vehicle-manufacturer-recall notifications, no matter how minor you think they seem. Manufacturers don’t issue recall notices on a whim. It has to be a serious, important issue that affects vehicle performance and/or driver and passenger safety, which means it’s something you want to take care of. Be wary of any upsells when you take your car in, though. It makes sense to do your research before blindly agreeing to any potentially costly repairs.

7. Make it shine

There are several reasons to keep your vehicle clean inside and out, aside from the most obvious one of looking good when you’re behind the wheel. A regular wash and wax will protect the finish and prevent the vehicle body and components from rusting, corroding, and decaying.

The same is true inside the vehicle where dirt and other foreign materials accumulate, increasing fabric, vinyl, and leather wear. Regular cleaning also gets you up close and personal with it, so you’re more likely to notice broken or missing parts or other maintenance items that need attention.

And as long as you’re at it, don’t forget to clean the engine bay.

It’s a long way to 200,000 miles. Another 38,000 beyond that, and you’ll have equaled Earth’s average distance from the moon. Not every vehicle will make it to that impressive milestone, but by being an attentive vehicle owner, you can increase the likelihood that yours will.

Have you already reached 200,000 miles? Share your tips in the comments.

How to Prepare for Your Motorcycle Road Trip

By Stephanie McDonald

Open road, highway

Source | Hogarth de la Plante/Unsplash

Hi, everyone! Stephanie here, aka the Blonde Bandit. Spring is coming soon, and that means it’s time for some long and exciting road trips. But before you set off, make sure you’re prepared. If you’ve been on a long trip before, you know the importance of having an emergency kit.

Recently, I took a four-hour ride through the mountains of Little Switzerland, NC. That’s not the longest trip I’ve ever taken solo, but I still packed some key items. During the journey a funny noise started coming from the chain of my motorcycle, a 2003 Suzuki Bandit 600 (get the nickname now?). I sprayed it with my emergency chain cleaner, and after inspecting my motorcycle, I noticed I was a little low on oil. So I topped that off too. Being prepared with the right essentials really saved me on that ride.

You may get into, or have already been in, a similar situation. There’s limited storage space on motorcycles, especially since your saddlebags are already loaded with personal items. So here’s the absolute essentials packing list.

Stephanie McDonald Motorcycle

Essential Motorcycle Packing List

Tire-repair kit & gauge

The gauge is a must to make sure you have the proper amount of air in your tires. The tire-repair kit comes in handy if you get a flat and need to get to the closest shop.

Emergency roadside kit

These kits are great to have on-hand in case you end up with a dead battery and need a quick jump to get going. Plus these roadside kits usually have first-aid items and flashlights, too.

Zip ties

When bolts rattle loose, minor accidents happen, and your fairing is flapping around, zip ties are a great quick fix. I also use them to secure my USB cable to the frame.

Bungee cords

You can never have enough bungee cords. I use them for extra support in holding my saddlebags, since I have the soft detachable kind.

Towels

It’s always great to have a few towels on hand in case you need to clean your visor or wipe down your bike before you enter it into a show.

You can also pick up:

Whether it’s a three-hour or 30-day road trip, it pays to be prepared.

Have any extra tips or motorcycle-trip stories to share? Leave a comment below!


Our Events in March:

12 Hours of Sebring

Want a free lunch? Speed Perks members attending the 12 Hours of Sebring on Saturday, March 10 will get one. Just bring a receipt from Advance Auto Parts showing a Mobil oil purchase to the Mobil tent at lunch time.

Daytona Bike Week

The Blonde Bandit herself will be at Destination Daytona to kick off our 2017 Restoration Tour with our friends at Mobil. Join us


How to Clean an Engine Bay the Right Way

Source | Gerard McGovern/Flickr

Do you clean your vehicle? The answer’s probably yes. But do you clean your engine bay? If not, that’s like taking a shower but never brushing your teeth. Don’t be that person; wash your engine, too.

Now you might be thinking that no one sees your engine bay except you and the occasional mechanic, so who cares, right? Well, like with the rest of your vehicle, cleaning prevents damage and keeps resale value high. A car engine bay covered in oil and grit is allowing premature wear in the pulleys and bearings, or hiding serious issues like gasket leaks. A clean engine bay allows the engine to stay cooler, operate efficiently, and keep your value high.

Difficulty

Good for beginners — A new DIYer will be able to complete the project

Time Required

1 hour

What you’ll need

 

Step-by-step guide on how to clean an engine bay

Hose it down

A quick pre-rinse does several things. It knocks off any of the loose dust and grit, makes it easier for the engine degreaser to spread around, and prevents spots from the soap quickly drying out. In short, a pre-rinse is essential.

Step 1: Wait until the engine is cool. It doesn’t need to be cold though—you just don’t want to introduce a bunch of cold water to hot parts. Pop the hood and let it cool for an hour. This is when you’ll put down the drip pans and absorbent pads to stop the chemicals and gunk from going down the gutters.

Pro Tip: Find a local recycling center that accepts both the used pads and the oily water from the drip tray.

Step 2: Disconnect the negative battery terminal or cover the battery with a plastic bag. Water conducts electricity, and you don’t want it to connect and make new temporary circuits. If you have a classic ride, cover the alternator, carburetor, and distributor with plastic bags. On a modern ride, cover the alternator and go easy with the water around the coil packs and fuse box.

Pro Tip: If you are using a power washer, use the low-pressure setting and rinse everything in the engine bay. Low pressure is better than high pressure here, as you want to clean off the crud, not blast it into the small crevices between components.

Spray it up

Step 3: Now it’s time to spray a liberal application of engine degreaser. Why use a degreaser instead of regular car soap? Your average car-wash soap is fine for grit and dirt but just won’t cut it on oil and grime. Go heavy on the engine degreaser on the typically nasty parts, like the starter and oil pan and anything else oily. Follow the directions on the bottle, but usually you will let it sit for a few minutes to get the most grime-lifting action. You can use a wash brush here for the seriously filthy areas. It has soft bristles that won’t scratch the paint or plastic.

Step 4: Rinse with low-pressure water again and take a look at your progress. Some engines that have never been cleaned in 300,000 miles will need the degreaser again. If not, it’s time to get busy with the automotive soap.

Step 5: Use an automotive car-wash soap to finish cleaning the engine bay the same way you would clean the exterior. Use an automotive wash mitt, get it soapy in the bucket, and scrub up the engine bay just like you would a rear quarter panel, then rinse.

Sweat the details

Step 6: Rinse with low pressure again and remove the plastic bags over the sensitive parts. If they need cleaning, professional detailers will remove the plastic fuse box cover or distributor cap and clean it by hand, where the electronics won’t be affected. Once clean and dry, just bolt them back on.

Step 7: Use a dedicated plastic cleaner to polish out fine scratches and restore shine to the engine bay plastics. Apply with a terry cloth and wipe off with a clean microfiber cloth. For the metal bits, a metal polish will brighten them up. They are all a bit different, but in general, grind a bit into the metal surface until the polish starts to turn darker, then wipe off with a clean cloth.

Now step back and enjoy your work.

Any detailing experts around? Let us know your engine bay cleaning tips and tricks!

How to Choose Windshield Wipers

Behind the wheel in rainy weather

Source | Jaromír Kavan/Unsplash

When it comes time to choose windshield wipers, the number of options available might surprise you. While wiper blades all share the same function, they don’t all do it in the same way, for the same price, or to the same level of performance. In order to help you choose the best wipers for your budget or circumstance, we’ve highlighted the three main types of windshield wiper blades below, how much you can expect to spend on them, and when they’ll perform the best.

Types of Windshield Wipers

traditional wiper blade

Traditional Wiper Blade:

The traditional wiper blade has been around for decades and is constructed of a steel frame and rubber blade. The frame itself is what attaches to the wiper arm of the vehicle and has pivoting suspension points that help keep the blade planted to the windshield.

Traditional blades can be found on most new cars and are reasonably priced—at under $10 per blade—when it comes time to replace them. Most wiper-blade manufacturers recommend replacing these blades every six months.

Beam wiper blade

Beam Wiper Blades:

If you’re looking to up your window-clearing game, you’ll want to check out the beam blade section. Most wiper-blade manufacturers offer a beam-blade option, and they certainly have their perks. Rather than having a metal structure like a traditional wiper blade, beam blades are made of a solid piece of rubber. This comes in handy when the weather gets nasty. Where snow and ice can clog up the frame and freeze a traditional wiper blade, you can simply slap a beam blade against the windshield to clear it of debris. Beam wiper blades also have a fin or spoiler along the spine of the blade that help keep the wiper placed firmly against the windshield for maximum contact, even at freeway speeds.

The price for this kind of windshield wiper is higher than traditional blades—between $15 and $30 per blade, but they generally last quite a bit longer.

Hybrid Wiper Blades:

If you like the cost savings of the traditional wiper blade but want to have the all-weather prowess of a beam blade, you’ll want to look into getting yourself a set of hybrid wiper blades. Hybrid blades are constructed like a traditional blade with a steel frame and pivoting suspension points but also have a plastic or rubber protective coating over the frame. This helps keep the cost down and provides protection against the more harsh winter elements. The cost of these blades will usually be right between that of a beam and traditional blade.

All three types of wiper blades are relatively easy to install, but your local Advance Auto Parts store will do it for you for free.

Got any wiper tips? Leave ’em in the comments.

5 Things You Need to Do Before Modifying Your Ride

Did you pick up a classic project car? Or did you simply decide that it’s time to start modifying your current vehicle? Before you kick off the projects, there are a few things you should take care of—especially if you’re planning on adding extra power. Whether you’re working on a 1965 Falcon or 2015 F-150, here’s what to do before modifying your ride.

Don’t be Fred Flintstone

You can’t go if you can’t stop. Adding more power for a faster ride is a wonderful thing, but having the power to stop all that power is even more important. Most factory braking systems are acceptable with factory power levels but become inadequate after modifications.

Look into pad and rotor upgrades at a minimum. Ceramic pads are a great all-around street option, and certainly better than those asbestos pads on your ’50s Plymouth. Modern vehicles mostly come with organic pads offering less health hazards and a cheap price, but opt for composite pads for the best braking possible on the street. While swapping pads, be sure to flush your brake fluid for easy and cheap insurance. If you want to go the extra mile, drilled and slotted rotors look awesome and provide extra cooling for repeated stops.

Stay cool

Speaking of cooling, don’t forget that more horsepower almost always means more heat. On a classic, you’ll want to upgrade the cooling system. An upgraded radiator isn’t cheap, but the price includes peace of mind. Another way to look at it: a better radiator is cheaper than a new engine block.

If you have a heavy belt-driven engine fan, look into upgrading to electric fans. They’re lighter, reducing parasitic power loss, and can increase power and gas mileage. Don’t forget to keep the rest of the vehicle cool. If you’re working with an automatic transmission, you’ll want to look at a transmission cooler. It’s cheap and helps prevent the number one cause of early transmission failure: heat. You can even run a differential cooler, if you like overkill. If your ride is newer, its cooling capacity is probably improved over a classic, but it may be time to flush the radiator with some fresh coolant.

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Get charged up

Electrical systems from back in the day just aren’t up for modern performance. While performing repairs on a classic, go for upgrades in the electrical system. Swap out the old school points distributor for a higher performance and more reliable HEI unit. It’s the same price, easier to find in stores, and will support your higher horsepower goals. For a classic or modern ride, pick up some thicker spark plug wires with low internal resistance. They’ll deliver more bang to the spark plug. Also, just about every electrical part can be affordably upgraded here, so go for the best spark plugs, coil, cap, and rotor that your budget allows.

Tackle those corners

Ignore the suspension, and your street warrior might be a sudden and unfortunate off-roader. Adding power without suspension improvements makes a 1966 GTO just spin the tires and a 2006 GTO have excessive wheel hop. Either way, you aren’t going anywhere quickly.

Controlling all those forces on curvy roads and under hard throttle takes a good suspension. Upgrade your shocks, struts, and springs with more sport-oriented options. Add sway bars for better cornering, or upsize with thicker diameter bars if your current bars are lacking. If your classic is over 25 years old, look underneath at the suspension bushings—you’ll want to replace those crumbling rubber things right away. Performance versions are cheap, but even new factory equipment rubber bushings will be a dramatic improvement.

Under pressure

Tires have improved more in the last 50 years than perhaps any other area of the automobile. If your Packard project came with tubes and re-treads, or your Mustang is running Gatorbacks, it’s time to get some new tires. You can go for a period-correct look, while still increasing grip and hydroplane resistance and decreasing stopping distance. Hagerty recommends new tires if yours reach eight years old, regardless of mileage or tread life. It seems obvious, but these are the only four contact points your vehicle has with the road. Inspect them carefully and budget for a good set of tires.

While this seems like a large checklist, remember that this isn’t a side track distracting from your performance goals. This is about making your ride a better, safer, more reliable, and faster vehicle.

Anything we missed here? Let us know in the comments.

Tools 101: Essential Tools for Basic DIYing

Tools

Source | Andy Jensen

If you’ve decided to tackle a vehicle repair by yourself for the first time, welcome to the DIY Club! It’s fun here, plus we’ve got awesome tools. Whether it’s your first repair, first car, or first garage, we’ll cover all the affordable and useful tools you’ll need to get the job done. Let’s get started with the obvious.

Air Pressure Gauge

Got $2? That can buy one of the most useful tools in your inventory: an air pressure gauge. This simple device does exactly what its name suggests, measuring the amount of air in your tires and displaying the reading of pressure in pounds per square inch. This is useful information, since underinflated tires cause decreased gas mileage, increased tire wear, and poor handling. Wielding this simple, inexpensive tool and adjusting your tire pressure to the proper level will save you money and make your vehicle drive properly. That’s quite a return on such a small investment.

Jack

Sure, your vehicle probably came with a jack, but have you looked at it? It’s likely a stamped steel hunk of junk with the build quality of a Cracker Jack box toy. A solid jack is cheap, well-built, and easy to use—making it safer all around. Floor jacks are large, but they roll easily, have a low profile for low vehicles, and can lift tons in just a few pumps of the handle. If you need something smaller for everyday carry, bottle jacks are conveniently small but offer incredible lifting power. There’s even some that can lift a ridiculous 20 tons, for our DIYers with an Abrams tank.

Jack Stands

Odds are that once the vehicle is in the air, you’ll want some backup support. Modern jacks are reliable, but sometimes you need both front wheels in the air or maybe even all four. In that case, you need jack stands. Think of them like a cell phone mount for your car; it’s cheap safety. These steel or aluminum devices keep the vehicle at the lifted height, allowing for easy and safe tire rotation, oil and transmission fluid changes, and swapping out brake pads.

Buying tip: save cash and get a kit offering jack and jack stands together.

Ratchet and Sockets

Yeah, wrenches are cool. But there’s nothing like the sound of a spinning ratchet that loudly and proudly announces, “I’m fixing my ride!” Rather than slowly working a bolt off with a wrench, a ratchet and sockets get the job done in less time. For small bolts, go with a 1/4-inch drive. For large bolts, like on heavy-duty trucks, buy a 1/2-inch drive socket. Or split the difference and get a 3/8-inch drive. Buy sockets, however, for that specific ratchet, as 1/2-inch sockets will leave you disappointed on your 1/4-inch drive ratchet. Like with the jack stands above, buying a ratchet/socket set is easier and cheaper than buying individually.

Multimeter

This tool is way more than just a battery tester. A basic multimeter can read the volts, current, and impedance of electrical systems, providing valuable troubleshooting assistance. Flip-up headlights being wonky on your Honda Prelude? Use a multimeter on the headlight relay. Thinking that your Ford Explorer’s coil packs might be going out? Make sure with a multimeter. It can also help around the home with installing that ceiling fan or troubleshooting Christmas tree lights, so it’s far more than just an automotive tool. And, yes, it will also be a great way to test your battery.

LED Lighting

Lighting isn’t a tool in the traditional sense. It won’t help you get that seized bolt unstuck or grease those bearings, but it certainly will help with both of those projects. Roadside emergencies seem to mainly happen at night, and it’s no fun changing a tire by the headlights of passing motorists. LED lights are long-lasting, compact, run cool, and can be very affordable. Options cover basic flashlights and headlamps for seeing into dark engine bays to large four-foot shop lighting systems that can turn garage darkness into daylight. A good first buy is a handheld unit with a magnet for attaching to metal surfaces. Everything is easier when you can see what you’re doing. Get some good lights.

Cleanup

Some of the most-used tools, and often most overlooked, are those involving cleaning up. For yourself, get clean with mechanic’s soap and stay clean with some disposable latex or tough safety gloves. For your ride, a degreaser is your best friend under the hood, while the top of the hood needs a good car wash soap. A shop vac is excellent at keeping the interior clean and can even power through the mess of your garage/workspace. PEAK offers a radiator cleaner among other fluids, and if you spill them, use your shop towels. Those cheapo things have a million uses.

Have any suggestions for the first-time wrencher? What would be a common and affordable tool that everyone needs? Add to this list in the comments.

Halloween Hacks for Getting the Gross out of Your Ride

pile of pumpkins

If you find your car covered in blood and mysterious goo this month, don’t rush to call CSI. It’s the witching hour, or—ahem—Halloween ‘season,’ and that means your vehicle has seen some action as a creepy carriage for costumed critters or as a target for cloaked pranksters. As spooky as their appearance may be, the mess they leave can be even more disturbing. Here’s a look at how to remove the Halloween from your car.

The Sarcophagus (aka Car Exterior)

If you’re a dentist giving out toothbrushes instead of candy, you’ll be looking at how to remove egg yolk from your car’s exterior, which is no simple task if the yolk has dried. Ideally, you should fix the issue while the egg is still wet. This solution only requires water and mild soap. Spray the mess down, quickly scrub with soap, rinse, and you’re done. If the egg is as dry as a mummy, it is likely stuck to the paint. Use hot, soapy water to loosen the egg, and slowly attack it with a microfiber towel. Use an automotive soap, as it is mild but effective. Silly string and shaving cream also follow the same rules, so just try and get the majority cleaned off while still wet. And, next year, remember to give out the good candy.

Some pranksters take it a bit further, writing on the windows or tires with white shoe polish. This is water resistant, so you can’t just hose it off. Automotive soap is a good bet, but so are dedicated glass cleaners or tire wash. Follow the directions, and just one application should do it.

The Guts (aka Car Interior)

The interior of your ride may need a bit more work. First, start by removing any leftover trash the ghouls leave behind. Candy wrappers and crumbs can be removed by hand, but a vacuum makes the job much faster. Use a car vacuum or the small nozzle on a shop vac to get glitter out of the carpet and crevices in the dash and between seats. This is also a great option for wigs or fur left over from transporting witches, celebrities, and werewolves.

Your presidential candidates, zombies, and princesses could also get a little loose with the colored hairspray, fake blood, or makeup on the upholstery. Use a carpet and upholstery cleaner to spray the mess, let it sit for a few minutes, and wipe up using a damp cloth.

Adults are no better this time of year, as we overdress for fall weather and dump pumpkin spice into everything. When your friend spills his or her pumpkin-spice latte on your seats, it will probably leave a stain. Grab a dedicated upholstery cleaner and spray it, giving it several minutes to soak. Also use a cleaning agent with enzymes that breaks down food for the best results, and wipe with a clean cloth.

Then wrap up all your hard work with a new scented air freshener. Halloween is over, so it may be time for a winter theme.

Do you have any other tips on how to survive messy monsters? Let us know in the comments!

Forgotten Fluids: Checking and Maintaining Lesser-Known Vehicle Fluids

Photo credit: www.flickr.com/photos/hardchessesandyou

Photo credit: www.flickr.com/photos/hardchessesandyou

You’ve probably heard a saying similar to this: just like your body, your car needs fluids to keep going. That’s a truth many of us car owners grew up knowing. But we want to be more specific here—your vehicle also needs the right fluids; fluid chambers filled to the proper level; and fluids and filters changed based on the vehicle manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule. Not as catchy, sure, but equally true.

Most DIYers know that ignoring fluid levels and fluid-change intervals virtually guarantees that a mechanical breakdown and shortened vehicle life are in your car’s not-too-distant future. Engine oil and coolant are probably the two fluids most vehicle owners think of, hear about, and check most frequently, but there are several other fluids just as vital to a vehicle’s operation and longevity that many drivers inadvertently overlook. Here, we take you through those lesser-known fluids and how to check them.

Automatic Transmission Fluid

Automatic transmission fluid (ATF) lubricates and protects the transmission’s complex gears and also contains detergents that trap potentially destructive contaminants, holding onto them until they’re removed during a transmission fluid change. For the transmission to work properly, the right type of transmission fluid has to be used (there are many, and they are highly dependent on vehicle manufacturer specifications) and it has to be maintained at the proper level. Your car will tell you the ATF needs changing when you notice it is missing gears, its fuel economy is getting worse, or it revs up inconsistently.

How to check automatic transmission fluid

Consult your vehicle owner’s manual to locate the transmission fluid dipstick and for instructions on how to check the fluid level. Based on manufacturer, there could be differences in whether the fluid level should be checked when the vehicle is hot or cold, while it’s in park or neutral, and while it’s running or turned off.

The recommended transmission fluid change interval varies from vehicle to vehicle, and can also depend on whether synthetic or conventional ATF is being used. Consult your vehicle owner’s manual for the proper change interval—it could be as often as every 30,000 miles or as infrequently as every 100,000 miles. And while you’re at it, determine whether the maintenance schedule calls for changing the transmission fluid filter at the same time. A sure indication that the transmission fluid needs to be changed is if it’s dark or smells burned.

Brake Fluid

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Photo credit: www.flickr.com/photos/moto_club4ag

Brake fluid is hygroscopic, which means it attracts moisture. And moisture in brake fluid is a very destructive contaminant—it will corrode brake parts and eventually lead to system failure. The change interval, based on time and/or mileage, and specific type of brake fluid—there’s DOT 3, 4, 5 and even 5.1—is important, and like most vehicle fluids, dependent on vehicle manufacturer specifications found online or in the owner’s manual.

How to check brake fluid

The reason the under-hood, brake-fluid reservoir on most vehicles is usually see-through is so that it can be checked at a glance, without removing the cap and introducing atmospheric moisture into the fluid. There will be “minimum” and “maximum” levels indicated. The fluid level should be in between. If the brake fluid looks dark brown and dirty it needs to be changed as well.

Washer Fluid

Washer fluid is one of those fluids that you don’t know is low or empty until you need it and it’s not there. It’s also an important safety item, particularly in cold-weather climates where road slush and salt can quickly coat the windshield, instantly obscuring a driver’s vision. Washer fluid doesn’t need to be changed, mainly because it’s used and replaced frequently, but in cold-weather climates it’s important to ensure that the fluid won’t freeze. Most commercially available washer fluids are pre-mixed and won’t freeze so long as you don’t add water to them.

How to check windshield washer fluid

In most vehicles, washer fluid is blue and housed in a white plastic tank. Look on the side of the tank to see if the fluid level falls between the recommended levels, or open the cap covering the tank to check the fluid level.

Power Steering Fluid

Power steering used to be an expensive add-on option for older vehicles, but today, nearly every vehicle comes equipped with it as a standard feature, making it much easier to turn the steering wheel without feeling as though you’re doing an upper-body workout. The system depends on a power steering pump and power steering fluid, and if you’ve ever turned the wheel and heard a loud groaning or moaning sound under the hood, chances are the power steering fluid was low. How often or even whether power steering fluid ever needs to be changed is vehicle-specific, but it always needs to be maintained at the proper level to prevent damage to the power steering pump and so that the vehicle can be steered properly.

How to check power steering fluid

If you can’t find the power steering fluid reservoir, consult the owner’s manual for its location. It’ll either be an opaque tank where you can see the fluid level through the tank’s side, or the tank will have a removable cap and dipstick, possibly with a “hot” or “cold” marking indicating where the fluid level should be based on the engine temperature. Add the right amount, and the right type of power steering fluid.

Differential, Transfer Case, and Transaxle Fluids

Depending on the type of vehicle you’re driving, and possibly whether it’s all-wheel, four-wheel or front-wheel drive, there are other fluids related to the vehicle’s drivetrain (the system that transfers power between the engine, transmission, axles, and wheels) that you may not be aware of but that need to be checked and maintained. Once again, consult your owner’s manual or ask your trusted mechanic if your vehicle has these components, how to check their fluids, and when those fluids need to be changed.

Fluids Can’t Be Ignored

Fluids are a vehicle’s lifeblood and your vehicle is an expensive asset. Fluid maintenance is one of the easiest and most important ways you can protect it and help ensure miles and years of trouble-free driving.

Did we miss any important fluids? Do you have questions about any of the fluids we listed? Let us know in the comments.

 

Is Your Vehicle Ready for Winter? Here’s a Maintenance Checklist

A snowy city street

Source | David Creixell Mediante/Unsplash

 

If you live in places like say, California, winter driving can be as easy as a Santa Monica breeze. For the rest of us, it pays to be prepared for roads covered in ice, snow, and sleet. So here’s an easy winter car maintenance checklist to help protect your vehicle from the harsh weather ahead .

1. Protect your exterior

Take the time now to scrub away last season’s buildup from your vehicle’s exterior. Then apply a quality car wax to protect against the impending barrage of snow and road salt. Need help getting started? Here’s how to wash and wax like a pro and winterize your vehicle’s exterior.

2. Change your oil

Some of us don’t think about oil when it comes to winter vehicle maintenance. But this can be a good time to switch from conventional to synthetic if you haven’t already (and if it’s appropriate for your car). Cold weather starts can be easier on your engine with a full-synthetic oil. Synthetic flows freer at low temperatures and doesn’t require any time to warm up, providing crucial and immediate protection to the engine’s moving parts.

Not making the switch? Try a synthetic blend. Synthetic blends consist of synthetic oil coupled with naturally occurring conventional oil. Check with your vehicle manufacturer or trusted mechanic for specific recommendations on which oil is right for your vehicle. For more in-depth information on this topic, read up on the debate between synthetic and conventional oil.

3. Maintain your battery

Summer’s heat takes a toll on batteries. That weakness is bound to show up on the first really cold morning, when your car won’t start because of a dead battery. Really, it’s why batteries tend to fail in winter. So test your battery and charging system, and replace the battery if it’s weak.

A fresh battery is your best defense against cold weather, but it isn’t a guarantee. If you live in an especially cold climate or use your vehicle infrequently, you may want to keep your battery attached to a maintainer or trickle charger. That’s because your battery is working harder in cold weather and it will gradually lose power over time if it isn’t in use. You can also disconnect the battery from the vehicle to prevent power draws.

4. Ensure your visibility

Windshield Wipers on an icy windshield

Being able to see where you’re going is always a top priority, but in winter it becomes especially important. Your first stop is to make sure all of your lights are working. If your headlights or tail lights are dim or yellow, replace the bulbs and clean your lenses.

We also recommend that you replace windshield wipers with winter blades in climates where snow and ice can be expected, and fill the windshield washer tank with a deicing fluid. It’ll help you out on those cold mornings.

5. Inspect your tires

Traction is key here. Take a look at your tires. If the treads don’t have sufficient depth, get a new set. You’ll need the best traction possible for dealing with treacherous roadway conditions. Depending on where you live, you may want to invest in snow tires. Not sure which tire type is best for you? Read about your tire options.

Temperatures aren’t the only thing going down in winter. For every 10-degree drop in air pressure, it’s estimated that tire pressure decreases by one pound. Under inflated tires wear faster, hurt fuel economy, and can reduce handling and traction. So keep your tires at the correct inflation.

6. Check your antifreeze

The name says it all. Antifreeze is one of the most important winter chemicals, because the liquid in an engine’s cooling system is composed of equal parts water and antifreeze. Depending on the brand, either ethylene glycol or propylene glycol in the antifreeze prevents that water from freezing, expanding, and causing damage to the engine.

Use an antifreeze tester or take the vehicle to your mechanic to measure the antifreeze’s strength. This test indicates the lowest ambient temperature to which the engine is protected from freezing. Also check the coolant reservoir level to make sure it’s filled to the proper level. Top off your antifreeze or flush the radiator if it’s time to replace it.

7. Clean your fuel injector

Cold temps can cause performance issues related to a vehicle’s fuel system. Using a fuel injector cleaner prevents some problems from cropping up. Add it to the gas tank during a routine fill up, to clean the injectors, which can help restore lost power and eliminate rough idling and hard starts.

Water that may be present in the fuel system can also become a problem in the winter when temperatures drop low enough for it to freeze. A good way to avoid fuel-line and system freeze up is by choosing a fuel-injector cleaner such as HEET. It’s designed to be a fuel-system antifreeze and remove water from the fuel system.

8. Do your diesel diligence

If you have a diesel vehicle, remember that diesel fuel lines tend to “gel” up in the winter time. Use a product like Diesel 911 to avoid this common problem.

Also keep an eye on your diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) levels. On many passenger and commercial diesel vehicles, a dedicated tank contains DEF which is automatically metered and sprayed into the emissions system. Many vehicles have built in warnings and alerts to prevent DEF levels from being exhausted. They’ll also perform at significantly restricted levels, or not at all, if DEF runs out.

9. Grab your de-icing chemicals

This may be one of our favorite winter car maintenance tips, because it’s inexpensive, requires zero mechanical experience, and prevents headaches. After all, you can’t drive your vehicle in the winter if you can’t unlock the doors or see out the window. That’s why lock deicers and windshield deicing fluid are must-have winter chemicals.

Lock de-icer thaws and lubricates door locks, as well as other types of locks, helping prevent damage. We’ve already discussed windshield de-icers above, which can be added to the windshield washer fluid tank. These products work together to prevent hassles and frozen fingers.

10. Inspect your radiator cap and thermostat

While it’s a simple and inexpensive part, the radiator cap plays a critically important role in your heating and cooling system. Your radiator cap keeps the antifreeze in your vehicle where it should be. A leaking radiator cap can cause the engine to overheat and allow antifreeze to leak, neither of which are good scenarios for winter-weather driving. Take a close look around the radiator cap for signs of leaking fluid. To be on the safe side, if the vehicle radiator cap is several years old, replace it with a new one. The five bucks you invest is well worth the peace of mind and performance you get in return.

Another inexpensive, yet critically important component of your vehicle heating and cooling system is the thermostat. If it’s not functioning properly, you might find yourself without heat. That’s because thermostats can fail, particularly if the coolant hasn’t been changed regularly and corrosion has appeared. Change the thermostat, and improve your odds of having a warm interior all winter long.

Do you have winter prep and maintenance tips you’d like to share? Leave a comment.