As things grind to a standstill, a lot of us are finding ourselves with a lot more free time on our hands. That coupled with so much uncertainty on what the next month or two has in store for us, I think we’d all be forgiven for wanting to tighten the purse strings a little bit as we ride this thing out. In the name of reducing unnecessary spending, I figured now is as good a time as ever to get into some maintenance you can get done yourself, and save some money on mechanic bills.
I get why people are afraid to do these things themselves! The fear of messing something up, leading to an even more expensive repair later is a legitimate concern. However, even in the age of complicated modern engines, you might be surprised at just how simple some things are to replace. I have had a harder time assembling Lego sets with my 6 year old nephew than many car repairs.
Every little bit counts, and for some jobs, you end up paying as much or more for labor as you do for the parts themselves. So let’s get into some of these maintenance, repair, and upgrades you can do yourself with basic hand tools and a healthy dose of social distancing. Plus I’ll go into some tips on how to diagnose and look up issues for your specific vehicle. Since every vehicle is going to be a little different, I can’t really give exact instructions on each job.
First, a Note on Safety and Best Practices:
If you’re new to wrenching on your own car, there are a few basic safety best practices and tools that should always be kept in mind — especially if you’re jacking it up to do the job.
Always use jack stands: Never rely solely on a jack to hold your vehicle up, especially if you are going to be climbing under it. Also, if you’re taking your tires off, you can put them on their sides under the car in case anything does happen. This shouldn’t be done in place of jack stands, just another layer of protection.
Always jack the car from recommended lift points: Your owners manual will have a section on where to jack your car from, if you don’t have that available, do yourself a favor and Google around for the answer for your specific vehicle. Every car will have a designated jacking point, and many have screw-in jacking pads that are included in your car’s tool kit.
Always go back and re-tighten bolts and wheel lugs after a few miles: It may seem like you snugged everything up correctly, but things can work their way back loose after some driving. This is especially important on lug nuts and any suspension components.
Get yourself some penetrating oil: This isn’t as much a safety item as it is a general tip to make your life easier. It’s always a good idea to spray the bolts you’re going to be tackling at least an hour before, if not the previous night. I like PB Blaster, but there are a million different options on the market. WD40 is OK if you have nothing else. You’ll thank me later.
Wear gloves: A set of mechanic’s gloves or a box of nitrile gloves to make clean up much easier, and allow you to be able to quickly remove them to pick something up that you don’t want to get dirty. Plus, nitrile or latex gloves will still work with your smart phone or tablet, giving you easy access to the instructions you’re working from
OK, now onto the jobs themselves:
1) Change Your Own Brake Pads And/Or Rotors:
Skill level: 2/5
It honestly kills me sometimes seeing how much people end up getting charged for a simple brake job sometimes. All in all, changing out pads and rotors is one of the most basic things you can do on your car, and along with changing your own oil, is one I recommend the most to people.
You can find our guide here, and there are tons of model specific guides on how to change your own brake pads and rotors, as well as replacing a brake line or caliper should you need to, and how to bleed your brakes. These are all things you can do with basic hand tools and a few other things that are essential for any sort of work to be done on your car, such as jack stands.
My advice would be to start by Googling around specific instructions on your vehicle, such as “Honda Accord brake pad change” and you should have your pick of instructional guides and likely a plethora of YouTube videos going step by step on the job, or worst case scenario some generic guides that cover most vehicles. Disc brakes especially are very simple systems, and most instructions will give you a good idea on how to get it done for your particular car.
2: Change Your Own Oil and Filter:
Skill level: 1/5
This is an obvious one, but an important one nonetheless. If you’re due for an oil change anyway, what better time to get it done than now when you have some time on your hands, right? Once you see how easy this is to do, you might have a hard time justifying paying someone to do it for you in the future — especially with nightmare stories you hear about shops messing this up.
How often should you change your oil?
The standard recommendation used to be every 3,000 miles, but with how oils and engines have evolved in recent decades, this is unnecessarily often in my opinion. Always check your owner’s manual for what the factory recommended service interval is for your specific vehicle. It’s likely in the 5-6k range, but some manufacturers have raised that up to as much as every 12k miles in recent years. Crazy, right?
What weight oil to use?
Again, always go by the manufacturer’s recommended oil weight. Every car group and forum has pages and pages of people arguing over what to use, so just go by the manual. If you don’t have your owner’s manual, you might have some luck Googling it for your specific car, but that can lead down a rabbit hole of forum arguments. My advice would be to call your vehicle manufacturer’s dealership and ask what they recommend. They will probably try to tell you to let them do it, of course, but they will have the correct information.
Synthetic or no?
If your car has used synthetic in the past, stick with synthetic. If you’re unsure, still just stick with synthetic. It’s worth the extra few bucks.
Always replace the filter at the same time.
You can get a filter wrench that attaches to the end of a socket, or use a strap wrench to get these off (both available at auto parts stores). They can be a little stubborn sometimes, but should come right off with a little elbow grease. It’s not a bad idea to rub a little bit of oil on the new filter’s threads before snugging it up to make removal easier in the future.
3: Scan/Diagnose Check Engine Lights:
Skill level: 1/5 to scan and look up codes, but it goes up from there to really narrow down issues
Simply checking engine diagnostic codes has become something of a racket in the industry with some places charging upwards of $100 just to scan the codes and tell you what’s wrong. Meanwhile for less than that cost you can get a scanner yourself and practice a little Google-fu to get it done yourself.
Your local auto parts store or even some big box convenience stores will have scanners, but they can be had cheaper online. There are even Bluetooth OBDII adapters that can be had online that connect to your phone and will give you the ability to scan and clear codes yourself, as well as check things like readiness monitors for emissions and even performance monitoring.
After scanning, actually tracking down the cause of the code can be a little more difficult depending on the issue. It could be something as simple as an evap leak from a loose gas cap, or something more ambiguous. Modern cars are complicated machines, and there could be many possible issues leading to a certain error code.
My advice for searching these issues is to use search terms like “Honda Accord P0420” except of course to swap in whichever code your car is reading. Your search will likely lead you to enthusiast forums where you can find other people who have gone through the same issues, and other members helping them through them. From there you can determine what the fix is, and if it’s within your skill range to tackle yourself, or at least the troubleshooting steps to narrow it down.
4: Changing Engine/Cabin Air Filters or Your Car’s Battery
Skill level: 0/5
Ever go in for something simple and find that the shop is tacking these other things onto your bill almost as a given? These are easy profit items for shops, as they are able to add their margin on the filters and batteries themselves, as well as charge the labor for something that is extremely quick and easy for them to do.
In most vehicles, engine and cabin air filters can be swapped out with no tools in just a few minutes. Most air boxes are held closed with some clamps that can be slid right off, or in worst case scenarios just a few small bolts. Same goes for cabin air filters, though in very rare cases, they could be hidden away beneath some obscure panels.
Batteries will require some tools and some muscle to change out (those suckers are heavy), but are beyond easy to do. Some cars (such as BMWs) might have the battery behind a panel in the trunk, and some vehicles keep them under quick access panels. You may run into some trouble if you have some seriously corroded battery terminals, but for the most part this is about as easy as it gets.
5: Swap out Your Own Spark Plugs
Skill level: 2/5 or 3/5 for most vehicles
This is one that can vary in difficulty depending on vehicle, but for most engines, it’s pretty simple to change out your spark plugs. Your biggest obstacle will likely be reaching into tight spaces, or sometimes other assemblies need to be moved out of the way in order to gain access. Some vehicles make this notoriously difficult, however, such as the infamous Ford 5.4l V8.
Research goes a long way here. Be sure to Google for your specific engine rather than just the make and model, so search terms more along the lines of “Honda Accord 2.4 spark plug change” will be helpful in narrowing it down to gauge difficulty from there.
Many socket sets come with spark plug sockets, if not, you’ll be able to find them at your local auto parts store. Other than that, you should be able to take care of it with just a basic socket set and a long enough extension. It’s also a good idea to get a feeler gauge set (your auto parts store will have these as well) to check the gap of the plugs. Most spark plugs you buy today come preset for your make/model, but it’s always good to check, and adjust from there if needed.
Your owners manual should have the proper gap listed, or if not you can contact your local dealer for the information.
Here’s how to gap your new spark plug:
- Use a feeler gauge to check the gap of the spark plug.
- Choose the correct wire based on the size of the gap.
- Run the wire between the two electrodes of the spark plug.
- The wire should catch on them as it passes through.
- Widen the gap, if necessary, by hooking the gauge on the ground electrode and tugging gently. Be careful that the gauge touches only the ground electrode and not the porcelain or the center electrode.
- Narrow the gap, if necessary, by pressing or tapping the ground electrode gently against a clean, soft surface.
- Check the gap and adjust it as necessary
Now is as good a time as any to save some cash and learn a new, useful skill. Have any questions on a particular project you’re looking to tackle? Drop a comment below or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll do my best to help point you in the right direction.
Stay safe and stay clean out there!