Last summer, I took the family car to a new-to-me auto-repair shop to get it checked out before a family trip. Aside from a few scheduled maintenance items (and the fact that the A/C was blowing hot instead of cold) I thought it was in pretty good shape. So imagine my surprise when I was told the car had a blown head gasket and needed a valve job, resurfaced cylinder heads and new freeze plugs.
Huh? The service manager might as well have been speaking Latin. The car had been running fine. But this sounded scary, and we didn’t want to risk a highway break-down. Since a friend had sworn by this shop, I decided to trust them. Ten days and $2,296 later, I drove away, feeling ripped off. And did I mention there was now smoke coming from the tail pipe?
Women now make more than 65 percent of vehicle-service decisions, according to automotive-parts manufacturer ACDelco. But we’re not the only ones tearing our hair out when maneuvering the car-care maze. These days, many guys would rather surf the Web than spend time under the hood of a car. And between running to work, school and soccer practice, what parent has time to learn all about car maintenance? So we’ve asked the experts for advice on what busy parents can do to be smart about car care. Here are five tips to get you started:
1. FIND THE RIGHT REPAIR SHOP
There are four types of shops to choose from:
° Auto-dealership service department. While the dealership has experience with your car’s make and model, it’s generally the most-expensive option.
° General auto-repair shops. These shops can be corporate-owned or individually owned.
° Specialty repair shops. These shops specialize in brakes, oil changes, mufflers, etc.
° Tire shops. Many of these shops now also do light auto repairs.
The American Automobile Association (AAA) recommends these guidelines when choosing a shop:
° Be proactive. Don’t wait for your car to break down to select a repair shop.
° Talk to family and friends. Gather recommendations and opinions. (Although, as I learned, this isn’t always fool-proof!)
° Check the shop’s reputation. Call your local consumer agencies to ask if the shop you’re considering has any unresolved disputes.
° Ask about ASE certification. The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certifies technicians and requires that they follow a strict code of ethics.
° Look for AAA approval. AAA-approved shops undergo an extensive investigation before being accepted into the program. Visit www.aaa.com to find approved shops in your area. Click on “Automotive” on the home page and then look for “Approved Auto Repair.”
° Get it in writing. Ask about the shop’s guarantee on parts and labor and keep good records of all services performed.
2. BE TIRE SMART
Just follow these suggestions from the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA), the ASE and the AAA:
° Pressure. Check tire pressure monthly when tires are cold, following owner’s manual recommendations.
° Alignment. A bad jolt from hitting a curb or a pothole can throw your car’s front end out of alignment and damage your tires. Have the alignment checked periodically.
° Rotation. Regularly rotate your tires for more uniform wear. Unless your owner’s manual has a specific recommendation, aim for every 6,000 miles, says the RMA.
° Tread. Check your tires for uneven wear, looking for high and low areas, unusually smooth areas and damage.
3. STAY ALERT FOR PROBLEMS
These tips from ACDelco and the AAA can help you identify potential trouble:
° Use your senses. Listen for squeaks, clunks, hisses and other abnormal sounds and note where they’re coming from. Unusual vibrations, lurches or shimmying can indicate problems, too. And keep an eye out for fluid leaks on the garage floor.
° Watch your engine temperature. The temperature gauge or light indicates the temperature of your vehicle’s coolant. An “H” (hot) reading means trouble. Pull over, shift into neutral and allow the engine to idle. Don’t continue to drive if the engine temperature doesn’t return to normal.
° Don’t ignore the “Service Engine Soon” light. This light often comes on briefly when the car is started. That isn’t cause for concern. But if the light remains on while driving, there may be an engine problem.
° Stay “in charge.” The voltage gauge or battery light indicates the electrical system’s voltage when the engine is running. Get it checked if the gauge moves to either “high” or “low” or if the battery light comes on.
° Watch your oil. The oil gauge or light indicates oil pressure, not the amount of oil in the engine. A continuous “high” or “low” reading indicates an engine-lubrication problem and the need for immediate service. If the oil light stays on after you start your engine, or comes on while you’re driving, you may have a problem.
4. PLAN AHEAD
These maintenance suggestions from ACDelco, the AAA and Kay Wynter, co-owner of Terry Wynter Auto Service Center in Fort Myers, Florida will help prevent costly repairs:
° Know your vehicle. So you don’t know a condenser from a starter? Visit ACDelco’s website at www.acdelco.com and click on “About Your Vehicle” on the home page. Then click on “Automotive Systems Guide” for an easy-to-follow look at the major systems on your vehicle. Spending just a few minutes here will make it easier to communicate with the service manager when discussing repairs.
° Put safety first. “Always make sure your ‘safety items’ —brakes, tires, steering/suspension, seat belts/air bags and lights — are in good shape,” advises Wynter.
° Maintain a healthy battery. Battery cables, clamps and connections should be inspected with every oil change. And batteries that are more than 3 years old should be tested regularly.
° Protect your engine’s life blood. Change your engine’s oil and oil filter at the intervals listed in the owner’s manual, and use the weight of oil recommended in the manual for existing temperature conditions.
° Keep a clear view. Use windshield-washer fluid, not water, to help your wipers remove debris. During fall and winter, use a solution with anti-freeze protection.
° Inspect the air filter. Check it every six months or 7,500 miles. Typically, repair shops will inspect the filter at each oil change.
° Don’t forget the anti-freeze. While its name would indicate that it’s more important to use anti-freeze in your vehicle’s cooling system in the winter, “it’s equally important to use it in the summer to help protect against corrosion,” Wynter notes.
° Carry a driver’s survival kit. ACDelco suggests carrying a cell phone, flashlight and spare batteries, first-aid kit, shovel, reflectors or brightly colored cloth that can be tied to the antenna, emergency flares (if used, place them at least 45 feet away from your car to give other drivers adequate warning of a problem), tool kit, booster cables (look for four- or six-gauge cables), an approved gas can able to hold at least a gallon of gas, road maps, bottled water, snack bars and an ABC-type (multi-purpose, dry chemical) fire extinguisher.