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A Dad’s Guide to Preventive Maintenance on Your Car

Do you wish you were a handyman so you never had to call for one? Do you wish you could do more with your hands than text, swipe and order Lyfts? Do you worry that if you were ever left to fend for yourself you simply won’t be able to?

My dad, Jeff Finster, doesn’t have these worries. He can barely use a computer, but he can fix your fucking car in mere minutes. So he’s never worried about waiting on anyone to bail him out of car trouble. Or home trouble. Or any trouble related to a machine working (or not). Practically speaking, he loves saving money by being able to maintain his own shit instead of ignoring it until it breaks.

That’s essentially the mission of Preventive Maintenance — featuring, of course, my dad, a man who has spent a lifetime wielding a wrench and assorted other tools. His (and our) goal is to introduce you to cheap ways of servicing the myriad circuits in your life before they malfunction in big-ticket and/or highly annoying ways. As he always says, “It’s a lot cheaper to do the preventive maintenance than fix shit when it breaks.”

First up: Your car.

Check Your Tire Pressure

“Tire pressure is the most commonly overlooked thing,” my dad vows. “Nobody does it, but it’s one of the most effective ways to make sure your car remains in good shape. It keeps your tire and brake systems in check and saves you money in fuel efficiency because no matter what, tire pressure diminishes over time, and when that happens, you burn fuel more quickly.

“Also, it’s not hard to do. It takes all of about five minutes.

“Growing up, I was taught to do it every time I filled up my car with gas, but every week or two should be fine. All you need is a tire-pressure gauge and some air. You can use the gauges at the gas station, but most of the time, they suck because most gas stations don’t properly maintain their air equipment because the general assumption is that nobody uses them. I personally like using digital gauges because they’re the most exact. I get mine at AutoZone, but Target and Walmart have them, too.

“If you’re incredibly lazy, you can buy special valve stem caps for your tires that change color when your pressure goes down. They’re sort of like a mood ring for your tires. They cost about $12 for a pack of four. You buy them according to the amount of pressure needed for your car, and they make it super easy to spot when you’re ready for a change.”

Top Off Your Fluids

“The main fluids I’m talking about are: engine coolant, power-steering fluid, brake fluid, engine oil and transmission fluid,” my dad explains. “These are all contained in the engine bay in tubes with sticks attached that are usually marked with words or symbols that indicate whether the levels are safe or need to be topped off. And yes, you really should open the hood and look at the engine bay, even if your car has dashboard displays. Often times, dash displays will only show your levels for a couple of these categories, but they’re all important.

“It’s also my general belief that these dash displays tend to be inaccurate and alert you to a problem too late. Manually checking them should be standard operating procedure, something you do at least once a month. You only need an eyeball and a rag, which is to wipe your dipsticks clean to make sure you get clear readings.”

“If you check all of these fluids as regularly as I suggest, you can go 300,000 miles without a breakdown instead of 100,000 miles.”

Swap Out Your Air Filter

“Engines use about 10,000 gallons of air for every gallon of fuel burned, so your air filter experiences a lot of wear quickly,” my dad says. “Keeping your filter new and clean protects the engine from damage caused by unnecessary debris like dirt and leaves. (It’s a pretty big air pump so it’ll suck in anything.) It also will do you a favor when it comes to lowered fuel consumption and emissions, because when the air filter is dirty, the fuel pump has to work harder. This will make your fuel economy run like shit, which only leads to more premature breakdowns.

“With the exception of my own, none of the cars I work on ever have a clean air filter, even though it’s easy to swap out. This usually requires no tools. If you do need tools, however, we’re talking about a screwdriver or an adjustable wrench and some latches. They’re both used to remove any brackets that hold the air-filter box in place; the latches are to keep the air filter’s lid down so you can work on it. A new paper air filter costs roughly $20, though you have to be sure to get the right kind for your model of car.

“I suggest doing this every 5,000 miles.”

Keep Your Lights Bright

“Four in particular: Brake lights, running lights, turn indicators and emergency flasher,” my dad specifies. “Taking a couple minutes to make sure they’re all working is, of course, a huge safety thing, but it also keeps the cops off your back. Police love to pull people over for having a brake bulb out, which can open a Pandora’s box. It’s easiest to have one of your friends tell you if anything is out while you hit the brakes and do the turn indicators, repeating these steps for the front side, too.

“When nobody’s around to help me, I’ll roll up to any establishment with a good pane of glass — for example, a liquor store or laundromat — and check out my lights that way.”

Change Your Windshield Wiper Blades

“A lot of people get lazy with these. Again, this is a safety issue because they ensure you’re going to be able to see clearly out of your window at all times. Old blades can even scratch your windshield, so replacing your blades regularly for $12 or so ($6 for a set for the front and another $6 for the back) can save you expensive (and dangerous) scratches that could impair your vision and get you a ticket.”