5 Maintenance Tasks to Take Your Skills to the Next Level

Are you new to do-it-yourself vehicle work? If you're feeling comfortable with your own oil changes and tire rotations now, it may be time for a few new challenges. These types of tasks might seem difficult at first, but they can help you take your skills to the next level and get one step closer to becoming an expert on car repair—and can save you a bit of money when you don't have to pay someone else to do them.

They may take a bit more preparation and in some cases some specific types of tools, but after you complete them successfully, you will have advanced your skills and will be prepared to take on almost any challenge when it comes to car maintenance in the future.

Let's take a look at five challenging maintenance tasks that will take your skills to the next level.

Replacing a Battery

replacing a battery

Battery service is arguably one of the most essential car maintenance tasks. Ensuring that the battery is in good shape at all times helps prolong its lifespan and deliver the best possible performance under all conditions and circumstances. That's why you should inspect your car battery from time to time to make sure it's not showing any symptoms of weakness or deterioration and to know when it's time to replace it.

To do a quick inspection of the car battery, take a look at its case and terminals. If they look like they are corroded beyond repair, then you should replace it with a new battery. If you're not sure which battery is best for your vehicle, swing by your local Advance. We'll test the old battery for free, and an associate can help you choose the right battery for your vehicle.

battery test at Advance Auto Parts

When replacing a battery, the first step is disconnecting the terminals, removing the negative first, before moving on to the positive. They will usually be attached with small screws that need to be loosened, often with a 10 mm wrench or ratchet and socket. Just make sure that the terminals don't get into contact with the battery or any metal part of the car after you disconnect them, to avoid causing sparks and potential damage.

Then, remove the hold-down bracket and pull out the battery. Be sure to clean up the area underneath it before installing the new battery.

When you're ready to put the replacement battery in, first make sure you secure it properly in place within the battery tray, and then move on to the terminals, this time around connecting the positive first. To further extend your battery's life, you can get a terminal protection kit, which helps prevent corrosion on both the battery cables and the battery itself. To head off corrosion problems, it's a good idea to coat the terminals and clamps with an anti-corrosion gel before reinstalling the battery completely. It's important to check whether the terminals are tightly screwed before starting your car to test the new battery, so that it can perform in the best way possible.

Detailed guide: How to Replace a Battery

Replacing Brake Pads

For this task, you will need a little more time and a few more tools compared to battery replacement. To prepare for brake pad replacement, you'll need sockets, a ratchet, and wrenches, a floor jack, jack stands and a tire iron. You'll also want to stop by your local Advance Auto Parts store to borrow our master brake tool set because it includes a caliper compressor—our loaner tools are available at no cost to you after a deposit.

master brake service kit at Advance Auto Parts

But first, you have to be able to determine when it's the right time to replace the brake pads. For that, you need to look for any of the following signs and indicators: screeching noises when you apply the brakes, brake pad wear indicator on your dashboard, longer stopping distances, vibration while braking or metal grinding sounds.

Every brake pad replacement starts with raising the car up with a jack and removing the wheel. Then you loosen and remove the brake caliper and the rotor. It's important to note here that installing new rotors alongside the new brake pads is highly recommended. This is because rotors are also prone to wear, but it's more difficult to detect than wear on brake pads, so it's a good practice to replace them at the same time. Over time, rotors can get warped or corroded, and they can even start to crack and develop deep grooves on the surface. All these issues affect the integrity of the rotors, which in turn may lead to other technical problems or even some potential safety risks.

new rotor

After removing the old rotor, you can move on to removing the brake pads and then installing the new ones.

installing new brake pads

Given the different types of tools it involves, and the fact that it requires some skill to perform properly and safely, brake pad and rotor replacement is definitely one of the tasks that can help make you a better mechanic. It will help you get comfortable with jacking your car up and learn more about the brake caliper assembly and other elements of the braking system, as well as give you the opportunity to use various other tools that you will need for other repairs in the future.

Detailed guide: How to replace brake pads

Inspecting and Replacing Belts

Belts are among the most crucial parts of any car. They transfer power between various engine parts, keeping the engine and the car running. If a belt stops doing its job for any reason, it may result in an engine breakdown, which is why you have to inspect them on a regular basis and replace them when necessary.

serpentine belt mounted on engine

Source | Lisa Kowite

The most commonly found belt in today's cars is the serpentine belt (also commonly called an accessory or drive belt). The serpentine belt drives engine accessories, including the water pump, the alternator, the air-conditioning compressor and the power steering pump.

There are several details to pay attention to when inspecting the belts. For starters, you should check for cracking on the underside and signs of wear on the edges, as well as squealing or chirping sounds on start up, which can indicate looseness or wear. Then, see if the belt is worn down the grooves, in which case you should replace it as soon as possible. There are special tools you can use to inspect belts, which will help you determine how much material has been lost between the grooves.

If you notice any of these symptoms, it means that your car needs a new belt. You will need a socket set, a serpentine belt tensioner tool and a ratchet for this task. In the process, you will get to see how all the different engine accessories are connected to each other and work together, which will give you a better understanding of the engine as a whole and what you need to do to ensure it runs properly and provide the best possible performance.

Detailed guide: How to Replace a Serpentine Belt

Performing a Tune-up

removing a spark plug

Source | Lisa Kowite

Maintaining your car's ignition system is also important in order to mitigate some common causes of breakdown. That's best done with periodic tune-ups, during which you would check various parts of the ignition system, including the spark plugs. To make sure that the ignition system performs at its best, you need to replace spark plugs at your manufacturer's recommended interval or as soon as you notice excessive wear. If you have spark plug wires, those should be replaced along with the plugs.

inspecting a spark plug

Source | Lisa Kowite

Engine tune ups also include checking vacuum lines for wear like cracks or dry rot, replacing the PCV valve, and replacing the engine air filter. Tuning up your engine is important for preventing reduced engine performance, and it also gives you a chance to learn more about your car's ignition system.

Detailed guide: How to Tune Up an Engine

Inspecting the Cooling System

Cooling system maintenance is another key task that helps prevent engine breakdowns. It can be a little time consuming because this system consists of numerous parts that are difficult to locate and reach, but it's by no means impossible.

When inspecting the cooling system, you should check the following parts: coolant, water pump, serpentine belt, the radiator, radiator caps, the thermostat, the cooling fan, as well as the heater and radiator hoses.

The serpentine belt is there to drive the water pump on most vehicles, which keeps coolant flowing through the engine. The hoses carry the coolant through the system, and the thermostat opens and closes in response to the coolant temperature to stay within parameters. Finally, the radiator is where the exchange between coolant and outside air occurs, lowering the temperature of the coolant before it flows back to the engine. Finally, cooling fans make sure the radiator has proper air flow across the fins for optimal heat exchange.

You should start the inspection by checking for signs of coolant leaks around the hoses and the radiator, and making sure there are no cracks or other damage on the hoses. Then, move on to the cooling fan to see if it's distorted or if the shroud is loose or has cracks on it. If you have an electric cooling fan (most new vehicles do), carefully inspect the fan's electrical connector for corrosion and a tight fit. When you get to the water pump, see if the seals and the bearing are in a good condition, and check for corrosion. Additionally, look for leaks past the gasket, and pay attention to any grinding or gravelly sounds, which is another sign that it's started to fail.

Coolant is critical in preventing engine overheating, and it is also formulated not to freeze in cold weather, which could crack the engine block. However, coolant loses its effectiveness over time. Luckily, testing it is easy. Use a coolant tester to quickly get a read on the freezing and boiling points of your vehicle's coolant. Remember to only open the radiator cap when the engine has completely cooled, though. If you get a good reading, then check the level in the reservoir. Top off with the type of coolant recommended by your manufacturer, but stop at the full line—don't fill it to the very top.

Detailed guides: Troubleshooting the Cooling System, How to Replace a Radiator, How to Replace a Water Pump

While all these tasks require a certain mechanical experience, you can perform them easily and properly by taking the time to prepare before you start and having the right tools at hand. What's common about all of them is that they will help you get more comfortable with using specific tools that you might not have had to use before and prepare you to do more complex tasks in the future, while also allowing you to learn more about some of the most important systems in your vehicle.

How you attempted any of these tasks? Let us know in the comments.

Last updated January 2, 2020