Many regular “automotive” issues these days seem to be an enigma to most with the ever-changing automotive technologies and their complexities. Unfortunately, there are so many myths, misinformation and overstatements in the automotive advertising realm that it’s hard for the everyday driver to ascertain what’s right, wrong, too much or too little for their personal automotive maintenance choices! Here is a list of common everyday automotive Q & A tips that will save you money, keep you running in tip-top shape and cuts through all the hype.
Question: Do I really have to change my oil every 3000 miles like some dealers and “lube” retailers recommend? Also, newer synthetic oils seem to be a popular alternative, but are they really that good for the money?
Answer: You do not have to change your oil every 3000 miles unless you have the utmost in dire operating environments (heavy air contamination and/or heavy towing) and even then it’s probably a waste of money to change any less than 7000 miles! While today’s modern engine works harder in some ways and even at higher temperatures, the contamination of oil due to combustion by-products and foreign materials is no where near the problem of just 10 or 15 years ago due to overall improvements in power-plant and manufacturing technologies. Most, if not all OEM manufacturers, recommend oil changes of around 7000 miles and some even as high as 12,000 miles as standard practice. In general, follow your OEM’s recommendation, however there can be alternative “full-synthetic” products that are perfectly safe to use, meet every aspect of your automotive warranty requirements and can easily extend your drain intervals to well over 10,000 miles!
Full-synthetics, such as Mobile 1 to name one , are indeed superior to conventional oils in that they handle temperature extremes, flow better, have higher mechanical properties, adhere to parts longer, reduce engine parasitic drag and won’t produce corrosive compounds inside your engine. Many OEMs now provide full-synthetics in their new cars straight from the factory. You can assuredly extend regular oil changes to 10,000 miles or even as high as 15,000 miles under normal use with full synthetics, which are fully backed up by their manufacturers.
Question: Is there really such a thing as a “better” gasoline or brand? My car’s manual says “premium fuel only”, do I always have to use premium? Also, the new gasoline mixture of ethanol is confusing, how does ethanol affect gasoline or octane ratings? And lastly, do any “off-the-shelf” fuel additives work?
Answer: First, let’s take the main fuel topic off the table with regard to brand or “better” fuel claims. All gasoline is refined in just a few locations and pumped or distributed to geographic areas via pipelines for final retail disposition. What this means is that the “raw gasoline product” is basically the same out of the proverbial tap in your location and therefore each retail brand buys from one or two local distributors the very same raw gasoline product! In the marketplace it is hard for brands to differentiate themselves from one another so they commonly find something “special” or in some cases embellish the truth, whether it’s a special additive or calling the other brands “cheap gasoline” or theirs is just “rocket science”! With today’s sophisticated fuels, the best gasoline is the freshest gasoline! Essentially, fresh gasoline means higher octane ratings in general, whereas as gasoline ages it loses its octane punch.
Fuel “freshness” is especially true for ethanol (E10) mixed fuels! Therefore, visits to gas stations that move a lot of product volume and get fresh fuel shipments on a frequent basis is the best value and the highest octane rating right out of the pump.
Premium fuels (those rated higher than 87 octane) consists of a higher octane concoction and costs appreciably above the lowest octane product due to it’s refining methodologies, additive packages and lower market demands. This increase expense can translate to hundreds-of-dollars per year, but do you need it? While I won’t get into the minutia of octane requirements and the technical reasons for such, one basic money saving thing to know is that cooler outside air brought into your car’s combustion chamber lowers the requirement for higher octane fuel. Simply put, the cooler the outside temperature is, the lower the octane number required. So in the cooler climates and/or seasons, lower octane fuels could perform just as well as the “premium” selections in most cases and save you money doing such. In general, following your manufacturer’s guideline is recommended, however blending of higher and lower octanes can help offset the need for higher octane products exclusively. Try blending first before moving to a complete lower octane.
E10, as it’s referred to, is 10% ethanol and 90% unleaded gasoline, a fuel that is currently blended into more than 75% of America’s gasoline. Also, each state determines whether gasoline needs to be labeled if containing ethanol. So if you’re in an area where labeling is voluntary or not required, it is not always possible to tell if the gasoline contains ethanol.
While there is considerable debate on the accolades of E10 or not, there are some irrefutable issues.
Water absorption or contamination produces separation of gasoline containing ethanol, which severely lowers the octane rating of the fuel, sometimes detrimentally below 82 octane levels.
E10 fuels are more prone to vapor lock or fuel starvation, especially during hot summer months. These are problems also more germane to carburetor-ed engines and high altitude operation.
Non-E10 fuels have about 2 to 3% more heat energy making for better gas mileage. Thus, pure gasoline as such will give you better mileage numbers.
Ethanol is highly corrosive and literally melts the rubber and plastic parts it touches. Letting fuel sit for weeks and certainly months is a no-no! (side-bar alert!… Lawn and garden tools/engines should NEVER be left with E10 gasoline over four weeks!!! At the end of the season drain your lawn tools to prevent damage.)
Ethanol fuels have a decreased shelf life, meaning the older the fuel, the lower the octane rating. Gasoline purchased with ethanol content should be used immediately and refreshed often. In other words, refill your tank often.
Lastly, off-the-shelf octane “boosters” or “special additives” to increase your octane or mileage do not appreciably work, if at all. But, certain after-market additives to clean your fuel injectors can be helpful, which is the next question.
Question: Do my car’s engine fuel injectors really need extra cleaning from time to time?
Answer: Fuel injectors can become clogged with fuel by-products, however most fuels today contain enough detergents to keep your fuel system in good working order for tens-of-thousands of miles. So, rarely do the injectors need frequent cleaning with the use of fresh quality fuels. But in contrast, air induction systems can become “carbon-ed” up due to several mitigating factors which do need professional cleaning. A good induction system cleaning in concert with fuel injector cleaning is worth doing every 60,000 miles or so, depending on environment. Also, keeping your air filter up to snuff and using high quality filters will also cut down on the need for induction system, valve and injector cleaning. When using these additives, please make sure to follow the directions or have a professional do it for you!
Question: How often should I check my tire pressure and is the use of nitrogen in tires really better?
Answer: Interestingly and according to studies conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on tire-related crashes, the leading cause of tire failure is under-inflation. This can be due to several intervening factors. Under normal conditions, today’s radial tires will lose about 1-2 psi over each month and also lose about 1psi per 10 degrees of negative temperature change. So, for example, if you don’t check your tires going into the winter for 6 months it’s possible that you can have over a 10 psi loss due to colder temperatures and ordinary leakage through the tire media itself (called permeation or diffusion). That would be considered severely under-inflated. In general, checking your tires every month is a must unless you have an in-car monitoring device that does that for you. Most passenger car tire pressures reside in the 28 to 35 psi range, but see your manual for exacting ranges. Another issue about low tire pressures is that it also degrades fuel mileage. So, another good reason to keep on top of pressures.
The theory behind using nitrogen in tires in replacement of ordinary air is that nitrogen is more temperature stable, contains less moisture (which means it doesn’t expand and contract as much) and diffuses through the tire media slower, thus meaning an overall more stable tire inflation pressure. In general this is true, however keep in mind that ordinary air is made of of 78% nitrogen and the rest is left over for oxygen, water vapor and a few inert gases. Without getting into all the chemistry and physics of this subject, simply put, if nitrogen “fills” cost you anything, then it’s probably not worth it. But, if it’s free, then it certainly won’t hurt anything. Experts will agree that any benefits from nitrogen gas fills is minimal at best and certainly doesn’t replace the need for monthly tire checks.
Question: When it rains my windshield streaks badly! What’s the best remedy for this?
Answer: There could be two reasons for this. The accumulation of road contamination (oils) and/or windshield wiper blade issues. To thoroughly clean your windshield of stubborn debris and oils, use a mild abrasive such as Softscrub ® ,which is a very subtle abrasive combined with an effective surfactant. Scrub the windshield several times using a sponge and then rinse thoroughly with water. Take care not to scrub on the surrounding paint or trim areas while using Softscrub ® , whereas this could damage the paint or trim surface.
If your wipers have not been replaced this season, you should replace them every year at the least and probably twice a year in very rainy/snowy/hot climates. You can also try and restore your wiper blades by wiping down the blade with mineral spirits several times. This may restore the rubber wiping surface and help extend your wiper blade’s life by removing contamination that actually causes the streaking.
Question: Do headlights wear out and how do I restore my headlight lenses?
Answer: Headlights (bulbs) get dimmer with age and remarkably so! Regardless of your type of headlights, old-style filament, halogen/xenon or the new HID technologies, all bulbs eventually wear out, albeit at different rates depending on their type. For the most part, the old filament style headlights can be easily upgraded with aftermarket halogen or xenon technologies, literally by just plugging them in. Several aftermarket manufacturers make a premium type of bulb replacement technology for any automotive bulb application. These newer bulbs are much brighter, improve the light-pattern footprint appreciably, last longer and worth the upgrade expense. Headlight bulbs should be replaced every four to five years at the least and if you do a lot of night driving or your vehicle is equipped with full-time daylight running headlights, probably sooner.
Your headlight lenses can also become an issue due to “fogging” of the plastic lenses. Fogging of the lenses are a age-old problem to do with the natural aging process of the plastic as well as chips and scratches from ordinary driving. There are a few aftermarket products that address refurbishing of these lenses and are done so relatively easily and inexpensively.
Question: What’s the best method to warm up my car’s engine and drive-train?
Answer: With the modern engine technology of today, a few seconds of idling is all that is needed to get your on your way. There are no carburetors or chokes these days to warm up in the ensuing battle against the cold elements as in the carburetor days. The proliferation of modern fuel-injection and lubrication systems has made waiting for 10 minutes for the engine to warm obsolete thinking and a waste of fuel. A footnote to this issue is going back to the use of full-synthetic oils that flow and adhere to parts better in cold conditions and warm conditions meaning less wear on start-up, which is where most of your engine’s wear takes place.
Question: If I need to replace my battery, are all batteries the same?
Answer: Not all batteries are the same and battery longevity can be based on many things. Such variables as number of starts, operating temperatures (both cold and hot), charging cycles and routine maintenance all play a part of a battery’s useful life. Larger capacity batteries (meaning more cold-cranking amps) are not necessarily better just because they are bigger? Normally, a battery rated with higher longevity (60 to 72 months) is deemed to be a better value, albeit more expensive. There are a plethora of high quality batteries in the marketplace and looking for the best price, relatively speaking, is the best practice.
Interestingly enough, your battery may “telegraph” its intent on dying on you a few starts before it actually fails. The hardest thing for a battery to accomplish is starting your vehicle in terms of electrical demand. If you notice your vehicle starting/cranking slowly or sounding unlike itself during starts, this could be the warning flag that it’s going to die soon. This is especially true in very hot or very cold temperatures. For the most part, batteries seem to fail the most under dire heat conditions!
Also, there are new battery technologies referred to as spiral-cells, AGMs, maintenance-free or “sealed” that are all high performance technologies, albeit more expensive. These newfangled technology advantages are: complete sealed construction meaning no maintenance and no leaks, mountable in any position including completely inverted or sideways, very high cold-cranking capacity for hot/cold starts, superior vibration and shock resistance and generally longer-lived. This technology is a great choice for off-road vehicles, work trucks, marine use and vehicles with high demand (wattage) features such as “high performance” stereo systems or radios that run when the car is turned off.
Question: How often do transmissions need maintenance?
Answer: Conventional, rear-wheel-driven technology transmissions have filters and fluids that need to be changed on a regular basis. Depending on usage such as towing or stop-and-go traffic, transmissions generally need to be serviced every 60,000 miles or intervals suggested by your OEM manual. Combination all-in-one transmission and differential units, such as found on all front-wheel-drive vehicles, need a complete fluid and filter change-out every 40,000 miles due to the primary differential gears being present along side the transmission gear-set which get contaminated much faster with the “all-in-one” approach.
For the best “flush” results, make sure your mechanic uses an “active system flusher” to completely push new fluid through your transmission. Simple “gravity” drains and refills are insufficient means to do this job.
Question: When do I need to replace my brakes?
Answer: Brakes are such a subjective issue, it depends on such things as driving habits, brake technology and brake design. Front brakes generally will be the first to need attention, whereas most of the braking force is applied to the front brakes. It’s common to have several brake replacements done to the front of a car without touching the rear brakes whatsoever. Most, if not all brake systems, have a sensor system that will audibly tell you by a high-pitched squeal that the brakes are coming to an end! Don’t delay, driving your vehicle while the “siren” is telling you to do something will further damage your brakes!
Your “brake mileage” will depend on your personal driving habits and type of brake pad selection. Frequently, newer sports cars and some high-end vehicles have softer organic brake pads to improve brake feel. Metallic brake pads usually offer the longest-lived of the brake pad community.
Question: How frequently do I need to service my cooling system?
Answer: Today’s modern cooling systems require very low maintenance as compared to just a few decades ago. The hose and coolant technologies have made enormous strides in longevity and reliability! Generally speaking, following your OEM’s maintenance recommendations is solid advice with this one. Many cooling systems will easily go 60,000 miles and in most cases up to 100,000 miles without worry. But, checking your hoses for abrasions or cracking three times a year is still a good practice just in case. Also, replacing all the hoses, even if only one is found to be cracked, is a good “maintenance” practice. It’s likely that if one hose is in need of replacement, they all are.
Your cooling system is a closed system and there should never be the need to add water or coolant to the system as part of the regular maintenance. If topping off the cooling system is required, this could be a sign of one of two issues. One, there is an external leak somewhere in the system and should be readily evidenced in most cases by seeing coolant traces outside the system, perhaps on the garage floor or ground. A small leak can even hide inside or behind the dashboard where the heater hoses terminate, leaving no discernible way to properly diagnose this issue. So, seeing coolant on the ground may not be a good bet every time necessarily. A second cause of low coolant and a more dire potential problem could be an internal leak in the engine itself, such as a head gasket causing your car to burn the coolant out of the combustion chamber literally leaving out the tailpipe. If your coolant is down, it’s probably a good idea to have a professional check out as to why.
If you do find a simple problem of let’s say a loose hose connection and you need a simply “topping off” or the system, only fill with a pre-mixed blend of 50/50% water to anti-freeze. Too much water and you will expose your cooling system to an increased chance of corrosion or freezing in cold weather or too much coolant will degrade your coolant’s ability to cool. Many manufacturers of coolants offer an off-the-shelf, pre-mixed 50/50% anti-freeze to water ratio right out of the bottle.
Question: When do I replace my belts?
Answer: Like coolant hoses, “fan belts” as they are often referred to, even though there maybe no fan attached to any of them (most fans today are electric), are also made from rubber, plastic and various embedded fiber technology similar to those used in tires! Belts drive accessories such as water pumps, alternators, power steering pumps and air conditioning compressors and are a key component of any vehicle’s reliability. Frequent inspections of the belts is warranted, especially under high-heat conditions. Heat is the primary enemy of these under-the-hood belts and any premature cracking of any belt should dictate a complete replacement of all belts! ! In general, following your OEM’s recommendation is key to proper maintenance.