By on December 4, 2010

Certain things keep me up at night.

Stock market? Nope.

Business issues? Every once in a blue moon.

Family? Not unless the little ones begin drinking my coffee.

Weird questions that no one in their right mind should ever ponder? Bingo!

Car maintenance seems to be an inescapable recurring thought these days. So I may as well take the dive here.

For simplicity purposes let’s assume you drive 10k miles a year. Your maintenance chart may look like this.

Oil: Change Dino every 5k. Synthetic can be nice for extended intervals but on a long-term ‘cost’ basis, dino oil is usually the better deal.

Best Deal: Black Friday Pep Boys Special, 10 quarts Castrol & 2 Purolator Filters (Cost $12)

Air Filter: Replace every 15k if you operate in high dust or pollen areas. Every 30k otherwise. A $10 air filter is perfectly fine although you can always get the ones with better filtration elements for just a few bucks more.

Best Deal: Frequent Bob Is The Oil Guy once a month and see what’s up in the rebates section. Combine the air filter discount with an oil change when you drive more than 10k a year.

Coolant: Replace every 5 years.

Best Deal: Pep Boys $1 Coolant, 2 gallons, every couple of years. It’s more than you’ll ever need.

Spark Plugs: Inspect Platinum plugs at 50k, Replace every 100k… or do it more frequently since you can buy them for free.

Best Deal: Pep Boys 16 Free Spark Plugs after rebate.

Fuel Filter: Some replace every 30k to 50k. Others don’t replace them at all. I would opt for the 30k if it’s easy, 50k if it’s hard.

Best Deal: Can’t recall ever seeing a good deal on fuel filters.

Belts & Hoses: Inspect once a month. Replace as needed. DO NOT forget about the ones not mentioned in the usual maintenance regimen. Replace those at the 7 year or 100k mark. I’m talking specifically about the vacuum, radiator and heater hoses. These can add hundreds to thousands in repair costs when they fail at the wrong times.

Best Deal: Shop around. No rhyme or reason here. This is also a good excuse to buy an…

Owner’s Manual: Haynes tends to be very good for advanced beginners. Factory manuals are more for enthusiasts.

Best Deal: If you buy a used car, consider using the one from the local library. Other than that buy it used, new, Ebay, whatever. Just make sure you have one.

Tools: Socket set, wrench set, Snake screwdriver set, a 12 gallon drain bucket, a torque wrench, and a few well chosen extensions will likely give you the best overall use along with a few special tools as prescribed in the owner’s manual. Just make sure you have what you need for regular maintenance.

Best Deal: Black Friday. I tend to like Craftsman tools. The cheap Chinese ones are fine but why not buy what you can happily keep for the rest of your life?

Brakes: Try to turn the rotors once if you can help it. Always have a brake set on hand for the times when you need to replace them.

Best Deal: Black Friday. Pep Boys has Prostop Brakes for $10.99. Often times you can get the better sets which typically sell for $40 to $50. This is what I did for our two Hondas. Rotors can be had cheap at the junkyard. Other junkyard parts worth buying are mentioned here.

Wash & Clean: In a perfect world we would wash every month and wax once to twice a year. In practice few people do it. For those that truly love their vehicle…

Best Deal: I am open to any suggestions for this one beyond the ‘look for free’ advice. If you don’t have a garage, a top quality car cover can be a truly wonderful alternative. Yours truly prefers to just get a good car cover and do a complete wash, wax and detail once a year.

Brake fluid: Follow the factory rec’s. Buy a large bottle when it’s on sale. For most cars sucking it out with a Mityvac every 5 years and putting new stuff in will be fine.

Power steering fluid: 5 years or 50k. Buy when it’s on sale.

Tranny fluid: Mityvac it out once every 30k for most front wheel drive vehicles. Once every year for most minivans. Yes it seems excessive but one of the better feelings that comes with long-time ownership is when you drive a 200k+ vehicle that still shifts like brand new. Those who own Panther vehicles won’t ever need to bother with it.

What else? I would prefer to have a Mityvac so I can remove all the fluids in a quick and easy fashion without loosening any bolts. But if you really want to redneck it, go and buy some clear hose from Home Depot, inhale and siphon. On second thought just get the Mityvac.

Radiator: Once every 100k or 8 years. Earlier if you notice any temperature variance. Make sure to replace the hoses and thermostat while you’re there as well.

Best Deal: 1-800-Radiator and Ebay tend to be very cheap and worthwhile.

I don’t think I’ve missed anything. Oh wait, there’s…

Tires: A long lasting tire will almost always be better than the cheap low-end [self-censored].

Best Deal: Buy your favorite brand on a Black Friday. Have them rotated every 5k. Every 75k tire I’ve bought has lasted 85k to 95k by doing this.

Big Items: Timing Belts are best bought around the time you need them. However water pumps, alternators, fuel filters, windshield wipers, headlight bulbs, and hoses can all be bought whenever there is a good sale. Those who have an Advance Auto Parts nearby can benefit from their 50% off sales. Amazon, Autozone, O’Reilly’s, and other stores have their sales as well. This site does a good job tracking the discounts. My advice is to buy the high quality units at a discount price.

Now I’m sure there’s a few other things….

Battery: Black Friday deal. Buy one within the third year of ownership and shop around every five years for a cheap reserve.

Battery Jump Pack: The Peak Battery Jumpers can be had for $20 to $30 on Black Fridays. Beats the heck out of a AAA membership.

Battery Charger?: I would opt for a basic one with automatic shut off. Usually can be bought on sale for $20 to $30. When the dead battery or bad alternator rears it’s head, this pays for itself.

Battery Cables? I like having them. The ‘Emergency Kits’ are usually fine for normal cars and you usually get a few fix-a-flat’s with them as well.

Now what else have I forgotten? Oh…

Gas: Always use a 3% to 5% cash back card for gas if you can find it. The average family spends at least $2000 a year on gas, and this will yield at least $60 to $100 extra in your pocket.

OK… done… feel free to modify as needed.

Thanks!: I would like to offer a special thanks to a few posters at the ‘Bob Is The Oil Guy’ site for helping me modify and add several of these recommendations. An additional thank-you must go to those posters at TTAC and beyond who will find this advice valuable. I am not much for designing matrixes for organizing all this information. So if anyone here wants to give it a shot please feel free.

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29 Comments on “Steve Lang’s Ultimate Auto Maintenance Regimen...”

  • avatar

    Please excuse the thread vector, but my son’s a mechanic.  I got to get him that T-shirt.  Where did you find it?

  • avatar

    Good advice on the min-van tranny fluid intervals.  Those transmissions do heat up while going up hills.  03 – 04 Honda transmissions, especially so.
    When siphoning the tranny fluid use a plastic milk or water jug as a measure.  Some transmissions no longer have dip sticks.  You can even use the new fluid as a flush, then change again in a couple of weeks. The idea is not to overfill the transmission beyond the stated capacity.
    The same technique works for the power steering fluid, but requires repeated siphons and refills over a few weeks to get the fluid nice and clean.
    I change the coolant every two years and use a 50/50 mix of antifreeze and distilled water to refill.  My system only holds 5 quarts.

  • avatar

    Wiper blades at least once a year.
    Tires are more than something black and round with a hole in the middle. Spend some time on Tire Rack and get something that is really good for your use of the vehicle and rewards the manufacturer for doing it right.
    Battery: same thing as tires. Spend some time and get a good one you can rely on for many years. The second from the top Sears have lasted 7-9 years in four vehicles.

    Trans fluid, antifreeze and brake fluid: Buy it at the dealer. Yes, you pay triple but the ball is in the manufacturer’s court if something goes wrong. Go puff out your chest to someone else you saved a few bucks buying cheap crap on sale. Been there, done that, won’t do it again.
    Brakes: NAPA has three or four levels. Either of the top two give great stopping and long life. They last so long you have to turn the discs every time but have them “lightly” turned to preserve the metal.
    Best advice: This is not about saving money but an exercise in keeping the vehicle safe, reliable, and performing to the as-new or better condition. You have not evolved to the upright position under the rack until you accept this is the deal you are signing up for.

    • 0 avatar

      Read the maintenance section in the vehicle manufacturer’s manual and the Hayes Manual. Some vehicles still need the wheel bearings repacked at regular intervals. If so, use high-quality wheel bearing grease, not chassis lube like far too many shops will do if you are not watching them.
      Windshield washer fluid. Honda dealer sells all-season “Peak”.  A gallon of that stuff sells for $3.50 at discounters and lasts for years. I’ve seen some off-brand stuff stain the paint around the nozzle. Risk that to save 75 cents???
      Wipe the door and trunk seals with a light coating of silicone grease in the spring before it gets hot and in the fall before it starts freezing. Both temperature extremes dramatically shorten shorten seal life.  Honda sells a Honda-brand silicone door seal grease but a tube of any good silicone grease will do.
      Belt dressing.  I’ve never seen this stuff do anything but make a mess and cause properly tensioned belts to slip. Save your money.
      Another tip is a good tire gauge. Ok, you don’t need a $130 Longacre Racing unit some use but spend at least $20 at a parts shop catering to the commercial trade.

  • avatar
    M 1

    If you’re changing the coolant regularly, you should never have to replace the radiator.
    Well, maybe every 50 or 60 years or so.
    Given some of the nit-picky things listed, it may also bear mentioning that manuals have clutch fluid. It is almost always just brake fluid — which means it’s hygroscopic, which means over time it turns to crap. And almost nobody ever changes this, ever. A very small number of cars have an easily accessible reservoir which can be pumped out (but never emptied…)

    I’d change the brake fluid whenever it starts looking really dark. Long before it loses transparency. Five years is probably way too long. It’s dirt cheap, and you’ll be doing yourself a huge favor even if you just pump out the reservoir and replace that, rather than suffering through a full system flush and bleed, which is a huge pain on some vehicles.

    • 0 avatar

      Replace the radiator HOW OFTEN??! My ’36 Chevy is doing fine with the original radiator. Please tell me why I would need to do this any time soon. Other than the clutch and water pump, it is pretty much original in the mechanical department. Of course I do change the oil every year or so.

    • 0 avatar

      Newer radiators are aluminum with plastic tank, not brass.  Radiator shops are headed toward the way of the buggy whip maker and blacksmith.  Previously, the radiator could be opened and cored to remove deposits.
      The best way to make the newer ones last is to change the antifreeze mixture periodically.  Antifreeze now has organic acids to prevent clogging from deposits that are formed when hot water is cooled.  Try not to mix antifreeze types.

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      There are three factors you have to consider with radiators.
      1) The frequency of antifreeze replacement (and mixing which is still a no-no for certain GM models.)
      2) The type of driving you do. More highway driving results in more small objects that will impact the fins of the radiator.
      3) The quality of the radiator element. I have seen quite a few Toyota from the late-80’s to mid-90’s still chugging away with their original radiators. The ones on Panther vehicles and other RWD cars and trucks tend to be a bit more stout. But today’s radiators are more fragile (flimsier) across the board.
      For what amounts to $100 every 10 years, I think it’s worthwhile to just change the radiator and replace the hoses, thermostat, and coolant fluid at that maintenance interval as well. I like the 50k flush, 100k change regimen.
      But if you drive 20k+ a year, it wouldn’t be so bad to wait to 150k, or even 200k if the fins appear to be in good shape. My 1994 Toyota Camry was still chugging along with it’s original radiator at 220k. But one little pinhole or enough dents on the fins, and I could have grenaded the engine and harmed the tranny as well. I especially like to see gas powertrains last as long as their diesel counterparts… and what I’ve written will pretty much get you there with minimal extra cost.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m with M1 on this.  I change my rad coolant every 2 years.  In my pickup, van, and VW Rabbit before that, the rad always failed because it sprung a leak where the plastic end tanks are crimped to the aluminum body.  The leak was always slow enough that I had time to make plans to change the rad so it was not an emergency.  IMO, the rad is not a wear item that should be replaced before it fails.
      Thermostat: I check thermostats by dropping them in a cup of boiling water along with a thermometer.  I verify that they open/close at the correct temperature.  If the thermostat behaves properly, it goes back in the vehicle.  My only thermostat failure was on my VW Rabbit while on a long trip in the winter once.  It failed open, so the engine was running cold.  A piece of cardboard in front of the rad solved the problem for the remainder of the trip.
      brake fluid: I bleed the brakes every 2 years on all of our vehicles.  I would not leave it longer than that.  5 years seems way too long to me.
      Battery: Buying a new battery every 3-5 years is crazy.  You can send me your 5 year old batteries and I’ll get another 3-5 years out of them.  My wife’s 2001 Civic had the original battery when we sold it recently, and my fall service showed it would be good for another winter.  I top-up the charge on a bench charger, pop the caps and check the electrolyte levels and specific gravity, then use a load tester to check the voltage under load.  If it passes then it goes back in the car for another year.
      Brakes: I’m sure some will disagree, but I recommend buying expensive rotors and cheap pads.  The pads will require slightly more frequent replacement, but your rotors will last longer and never need to be turned.  The pad is supposed to be the sacrificial part of the brake system, not the rotor.  I also would not have rotors turned or replaced because of radial grooves unless the vehicle is pulling to one side.  After installing new pads and stopping a couple of times, the pads will conform to the rotors.

  • avatar

    Nice post. I also believe that vehicle operation is key to long life.  I agree with the tranny fluid change on an annual basis. Seems expensive but….a new tranny is a lot more expensive. Despite 146K easy highway miles on my 2003 Expedition, I made the mistake of changing out the tranny fluid only twice (75K and 140K). After a trip to cold (4 degree central washington), the tranny smoked itself after a long trip home in AWD. I suspect it also didn’t like the cold weather and in retrospect, I’m also convinced that in sub freezing weather, automatics and manuals need 10 minutes of warm up to allow thick cold oils to get moving before loads are applied. Modern automatics are complicated enough without asking them to perform with subfreezing thick fluids. Differential and viscous couplings are probably similar issues but many of us can’t store our vehicles every night in a mildly heated garage.

  • avatar

    If you have an older car, check Rock Auto and eBay regularly.  Both are good places for deals on dead stock.  Last year I bought name brand rotors (close-out deal) from Rock Auto for $12.50 each.

  • avatar

    Changing the transmission fluid is a waste of money, time and effort if the owners manual does not call for it.  You may in fact damage the tranny for good by changing the fluid.  And sometimes even changing the fluid by the book will not save a bad design.  Just ask any 1999-2004 Honda Odyssey owner (myself included).

    Also, inspect the PCV valve per your owners manual or every 30K miles.

    • 0 avatar

      “Changing the transmission fluid is a waste of money, time and effort if the owners manual does not call for it.”

      I’m not sure I can agree with this. Most manufacturers just care about getting you out of the warranty period, then it’s on you. Unfortunately marketing drives a lot of these maintenance schedules since it affects total cost of ownership reported by numerous sources.

      Draining and refilling your transmission while the fluid is still clean and not burnt in appearance will never harm your transmission if you refill it with the correct fluid and to the proper level. Other than minivan example cited, for most vehicles 30,000 is a good number. Remember that trans fluid, unlike engine oil, is more than just a lubricant – it’s a crucial part of the whole “fluid coupling” concept.

  • avatar

    If I may sound like a total noob for a moment, how do you change your brake fluid using a MityVac?

    • 0 avatar

      I’m not a fan of using the MityVac on brakes. A pressure bleeder works much better. A good enough one, from Motive Products, can be had for less than 60 bucks.
      On a non ABS system, siphon the old fluid in the reservoir with a baster or large syringe. Add fresh brake fluid. Then occasionally check the reservoir level – while bleeding the hydraulic system.

    • 0 avatar

      You connect a hand-pump vacuum to the brake bleed nipple located on each caliper or wheel cylinder. Pull a vacuum then open the nipple about 1/4 turn. Keep a vacuum on it and suck the old fluid out into the canister attached to a pump. Close the nipple any time there is no vacuum on the suction line. If you can round up a helper to keep an eye on the reservoir and refill it as it gets low so it doesn’t pull in air, that’s cool.  If you pull in air, you start over.
      Pay about $60 and get a brake bleeding system that connects to an air compressor. It also comes with an inverted filler to keep the reservoir from running dry and sucking in air.
      I’ve bled brakes with someone pumping them up, opening the nipple, and having them yell “DOWN!” when the pedal hit the floor so I can close the nipple. I’ve also used a pressure bleeder and and the above vacuum technique. In my view, done correctly, any of the three will result in fresh fluid with all the air purged.

    • 0 avatar

      Most ABS systems bleed exactly the same as none abs cars. Only systems like Mercedes Sensortronic Brake Control require different procedures, and are very rare due to their cost and pointless complexity.

  • avatar
    thats one fast cat

    I tend to like Craftsman tools. The cheap Chinese ones are fine but why not buy what you can happily keep for the rest of your life?

    Long after you forget the price, you will remember the quality.  There are things in life on which you do not want to skimp, and tools are near (or at) the very top.  Don’t be cheap – buy quality regardless of the cost and you won’t regret it.

    Also, to getacargetacheck – uh, no.  Change the transmission fluid (I’m looking at you, BMW, and your ridiculous claim that the transmission fluid never need to be changed).  Unless you have figured out how to violate the laws physics around molecule shearing, if you don’t change the fluid, the transmission is gonna fail earlier than it would otherwise.  Period.

  • avatar

    Steven, which Mityvac do you suggest and from where?  There are a million variants it seems.

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      I used this version nearly every week before the plastic storage container exploded. Apparently I did too good a job re-tightening the screws.
      I now have a free compressor that I simply plug in to this unit.
      As well as this package for bleeding brakes…
      With all that said, sometimes I just redneck it and use plastic tubing to siphon off coolant into an empty gallon coolant container. It takes less than a minute to do and sometimes I can get the oil changed and most of the brake fluid replaced while this is going on.

  • avatar

    For topside fluid exchanges primarily for the auto tranny, get yourself a Mityvac Fluid Evacuator:  Best $60 you’ll ever spend.  You can suck out 4-6 quarts at a time, refill, and then repeat every few days or weeks until you get clean fluid in there.  Forget about dropping the pan, and despite what everybody says, there is no need to change the filter in there, if it is plugged up your transmission is already dead.  I ran 150K on my 1988 Buick on the same filter doing fluid-only changes, and finally had to look at the pan and filter just out of curiosity and it was just fine after that many miles.

    For brake fluid changes, I have been doing gravity fluid changes successfully for the past 20 years.  You first suck out as much dirty fluid out of the reservoir as you can (I use a turkey baster, $1.49 at Safeway), refill with clean fluid, and then open one bleeder screw at a time, connected to a hose that drips into a clear glass jar.  The clear glass allows you to see the color of the fluid coming out.  Keep the reservoir full, and run the one open bleeder until you get clean fluid out.  Now repeat at the other 3 corners.  It takes awhile, but if you’re doing a brake job and other maintenance, you can do this while you do the other work.  Just DON’T let the reservoir run empty – then you’ll have air in the system.

    • 0 avatar

      The quickest way to flush brakes is to get a helper to pump the brakes.  Girlfriends are easily recruited for this type of DIY project.  Believe it or not, most girlfriends actually like helping with “boy stuff”.   They love bragging to their friends about how they helped fix a car, furnace, water heater etc.
      On the other hand, wives make terrible helpers.  A wife will hate your DIY project and see you as a loser for not buying her a new luxury car every other year.   When doing any DIY project, send the wife to the mall first.

    • 0 avatar
      thats one fast cat

      +1 skor  — har har har.  That was good for an (almost) coffee-bathed mac this morning

    • 0 avatar

      “Gravity bleeding” will replace the fluid if you wait long enough but will not push air bubbles out of the line. You need to push it from one end or pull it through using suction to ensure all air is purged.

    • 0 avatar
      Gardiner Westbound

      So your recommendation is send the wife to the mall and have the girlfriend come over – to help with the brakes.

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    I’m a little late to the party.

    Consider adding a “CV boot check” to the list.
    Front wheel drive (FWD) and many four wheel drive (4WD) vehicles have constant velocity joints that transfer the torque to the front wheels. A rubber boot seals each joint keeping grease in and dirt out. If the boot tears the joint will quickly fail, a very costly repair.

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