The Ultimate Guide to Vehicle Maintenance and Repair

If you've just picked up your first ride and want to learn about it, decided on a New Year's resolution to learn car maintenance, or had a vehicle emergency and realized you need to know more, this is your one-stop directory for everything you need to know about vehicle maintenance and repair. And just for fun, we'll cover modifying, too.

Bookmark this main page and click each relevant link for lots more info on only the subjects you want to learn. Think of this as a free and convenient technical college, minus the homework and tests. “Knowledge is horsepower," to paraphrase an old saying. Go get it.

two men in front of a truck in a driveway

This guide will cover the following topics:

GETTING READY TO DIY

Safety

Before you try and tackle a new task, it's important to consider your safety. Vehicles are heavy, parts can be extremely hot, batteries are corrosive, engine fluids can be under high pressure, and some liquids have dangerous fumes or pose a fire hazard. This isn't to scare you off, but to remind you that safety gear exists for a reason, and you should use the proper tool for the job and follow safety recommendations every time you wrench. If you want to DIY, but don't have safety covered, this is step one.

At a minimum, you will need the following:

1. Gloves. There are two main types of gloves: mechanic's and nitrile. Mechanic's gloves are heavy-duty fabric, providing protection against sharp parts and providing grip on slippery parts, like an oil-coated ratchet. Nitrile gloves should be in your toolbox, too. These thin disposable gloves protect your hands from the nasty stuff that you really don't want on your skin, like brake fluid and axle grease.

2. Eye protection. Safety glasses keep everything out of your eyes, from engine fluids and chassis rust to the throttle return spring that's a bit too enthusiastic to leave the engine bay. Remember, eye protection is much cheaper than medical care.

3. Jack stands. If you're lifting any part of your car with a floor jack, and especially if you are getting under it, you need a set of jack stands. Unlike the jack's movable parts that are a (very unlikely) point of failure, the jack stand is a solid two-piece design. If the vehicle slips off the jack, the jack stands will provide an immovable object that allows you to safely escape. Read more about how to safely use jack stands.

Last bit on safety, remember to read the instructions. Penetrating oil, for example, has very different safety requirements than brake cleaner.

tool box with wrenches

Tools

If you are just starting out wrenching, odds are you don't have many DIY tools, or maybe none at all. If that's the case, you can save money and just buy what you'll be using in routine car maintenance and common repairs. Check out this newbie-friendly tool guide to get started. If you already have the very basics, like a good wrench set, you can look into filling your chest with intermediate-level tools.

Keep reading for more guidance on buying and caring for your tools:

Pro Tip

Remember, you don't have to buy everything, as you can borrow a huge selection of tools from your local Advance.

Basic Maintenance Schedule

Everyone, even brand new drivers, understands that a vehicle breakdown happens when a necessary part breaks or malfunctions, and it seems to happen at the most inconvenient time. The absolute single best thing you can do to prevent a breakdown – and increase your vehicle's reliability – is preventative maintenance. Keeping track of your own car maintenance provides these benefits:

  • The peace of mind of a more reliable vehicle
  • A valuable record for the next owner
  • Higher resale value due to proof of proper maintenance
  • Easier car repair when needed, due to seeing what was recently replaced

Each vehicle has a different schedule based on manufacturer recommendations and how you drive it. The 3,000-mile oil change is long gone for most cars and drivers, but could still be recommended if you drive under severe service conditions. Always follow your owner's manual's recommendations for service but if you've lost it, take a look at these resources:

Pro Tip

Use the calendar function on your phone, or another productivity app, to set reminders for future maintenance tasks. It'll never slip your mind again.

BASICS

Preventative Maintenance

a person pouring windshield washer fluid into the container

Topping Off Fluids

Vehicles just aren't great containers. Coolant leaks out, oil gets burned up, and brake fluid pulls a disappearing act somehow. Any vehicle component that has fluid inside it will need to be routinely checked and eventually replaced. In a classic, you might have to pull the dipstick once a week to keep up with the oil level. In a modern ride, you can mostly trust the oil light but physically check the level before a road trip.

Here's a big guide on how to check and replace essential automotive fluids. This is worth looking at if you want to get up to speed on basic car maintenance.

Need a quick run-through of how to look at your oil level before a road trip? Checking the oil level and adding oil can be done in a few simple steps:

  1. While the engine is still warm, and with the vehicle on a level surface, pull out the oil dipstick. Wipe off the end onto a rag or shop towel, and push it back into the tube.
  2. Pull the cleaned dipstick out again for an accurate look at the oil level.
  3. Grab the same type of oil as listed on the oil cap (or in the owner's manual), and, using a funnel, add as much oil as the dipstick shows you need.
  4. Run the engine for 20 seconds or so to get the oil circulating, then shut off the engine and check the oil again. Like most automotive fluids, you'll want the level close to the max line without going over.

a woman checking a dipstick

    Preparing for an Engine Oil Change

    Do you understand why an engine has oil, and why you need to change it? Or, how often should you change your oil? If not, it's totally fine. Start here with some friendly articles that will answer some basic questions about car oil.

    How to Change Your Oil

    You learned all about oil above, so this is where we get hands-on with how to do an oil change. The basic steps are:

    1. Remove the drain plug from the bottom of the engine to drain the oil.

    2. Remove and replace the oil filter.

    3. Reinstall the drain plug.

    4. Add fresh oil.

    The oil filter is an important piece to change at the same time as the oil, as it cleans out oil particulates and prevents damage to your engine. Here's a detailed look at why you should always do an oil and filter change. Remember, even changing your oil and filter with the cheapest stuff on the shelf is better than continuing to drive past time/mileage recommendations. Change that engine oil on time for maximum reliability.

    You've got this, but drop a question below each article in the comments, and the Advance Team or the community will help you out.

    a flat tire on a road

    Source | Getty

    Take Care of your Tires

    Everyone likes to save money, right? You can save a good chunk of change by performing simple and quick routine maintenance on your tires. The single best thing you can do for your tires is to routinely check the air pressure of each tire. All you need is a simple tire pressure gauge that only costs a few bucks, takes all of a minute to check each tire inflation, and can save you gas money and prevent tire wear. Just do this once a month and you'll keep that annoying tire pressure light off.

    Have you wondered how often to rotate tires or how to rotate tires? Once you have some basic tools, you can save some cash by doing this easy maintenance job at home. Here's how to do your own tire rotation. Insert, “but they rotate every time I drive!" dad joke here, but seriously, rotating tires (swapping the location of each tire) helps maintain even tire wear for a safer ride and longer tire life.

    We hope you'll never have to deal with a flat tire. If you do, here are some helpful resources so you can prepare ahead of time:

    Pro Tip

    It's also important to maintain the alignment (ensuring all the tires line up properly), to maintain tire life, traction, fuel economy and a quality ride. Get an alignment after any suspension work, or new wheels and tires.

    Beginner Level Repairs

    Pro mechanics go to school for years, and they have all kinds of fancy garage gadgets and resources to diagnose nearly any vehicle made. They're helpful when you absolutely need it, but a basic set of tools above and an enthusiastic attitude will get you 80% of the same results as a pro, with a few other bonuses:

    • Learn a new skill, hobby, or even business
    • Huge savings on labor costs for repairs
    • Help out others in need with your know-how
    • Satisfaction of accomplishing the task
    • Less stress, knowing your ride is reliable

    Have a look at some of the most common car maintenance jobs, starting with the easiest tasks.

    a woman installing a windshield wiper

    Wipers

    Windshield wipers are just one of those things you don't think about until it's raining and your busted wipers are dragging a cracked and broken flap of rubber across your glass. That's annoying, and it's also dangerous. Learning how to replace windshield wipers is a great beginner-level routine maintenance project. Here's everything you need to know to tackle this job, from choosing the best wiper blades to steps for replacement.

    Filters

    Filters are one of the hidden heroes of a vehicle's systems. Various filters eliminate contaminants from the fuel, oil, and engine air system, as well as keeping your cabin air clean and odor-free. We covered oil filters above, but you should know the other filters in your car are just as easy to replace, and similarly important. Starting with one of the very easiest routine maintenance tasks, swapping a cabin air filter takes all of a minute with some practice. Other filters are nearly as easy to replace, with changing oil filters and swapping out engine air filters needing only a few minutes and often no tools. Depending on your vehicle, fuel filters are a little more work to replace but they don't need changing nearly as often.

    Check out these additional resources for each type of filter:

    Cabin Air Filter (filters air inside the vehicle cabin)
    Engine Air Filter (filters the air that enters the engine)
    Fuel Filter (protects the engine by filtering debris from fuel)

    Bulbs/Lighting

    Headlights are good for more than just attracting giant bugs at night. They are actually critical pieces of safety equipment and require a small amount of occasional maintenance. Fortunately, replacing headlight bulbs is one of the easiest and most affordable exterior maintenance tasks. a replacement headlight bulb usually costs under $20 and can be changed in just a few minutes. Even foggy, hazed, or yellow headlight housings are an easy and relatively quick fix for the total beginner. Here's how to get back to seeing clearly at night.

    Want to see the steps for how to clean a headlight? Take a look at the video below:

    Air Conditioning

    It's weird to notice that in some new vehicles, like the Jeep Wrangler, air conditioning is still an extra-cost option. If your ride isn't the basest of base models, then you'll have A/C components that need occasional maintenance. While there are several expensive and complex parts here like the compressor, A/C maintenance is fairly quick, easy, and affordable. For example, here's a three-minute look at how to recharge A/C:

    Here are a few more helpful articles on A/C basics:

    How to replace a battery

    Have you ever changed a battery in a remote control? Replacing the battery in a car is nearly as easy, the main difference being a 12V battery is much heavier than a set of AAAs. You probably don't think about the vehicle's battery much, until your car won't start and you see signs of a dead car battery.

    Before calling it done for and looking up a replacement, there are a few steps you can take at home to determine whether it's time to replace the battery. First, you should clean off any battery corrosion on the terminals, and test the battery yourself. If a multimeter shows the battery reasonably low, such as 11.5V, you can slow charge the battery and see if that solves your problem. If the battery doesn't take well to charging and maintenance, it's time to start thinking about replacing it.

    No multimeter? No problem! Advance has battery testing and installation among other free curbside services.

    Here are additional resources that will help you with that process.

    Do you drive a hybrid vehicle? Note that hybrid 12V batteries are sometimes difficult to locate, but usually use the same diagnosis steps.

    Drain and Refill: Cooling System

    Yes, just like your engine oil, the engine coolant needs to be changed out. The cooling system is the most likely culprit of a car overheating. This is because the entire system's job is to pull heat away from the engine, and when a cooling system component fails, you often see it on the temp gauge.

    Cooling systems circulate coolant (or antifreeze) through various passages in the engine, and hoses running to the radiator. A small thermostat determines when and how the coolant circulates, and it's all driven by the water pump. And, yes, with all those components and hoses, the cooling system is susceptible to leaks. Let's talk about what else you should look for.

    Research and Preparation

    Guides and How-tos

    Pro Tip

    Remember to perform maintenance on the cooling system only once the engine is entirely cooled down.

    Drain and Refill: Everything else

    After swapping out the coolant, you're well prepared for draining and refilling the other major components. Take a look at these resources for guidance:

    Wash & Wax

    a man waxing his carExterior

    After that oil change, you might have noticed your vehicle is filthy. There's a proper process here, too, so you can effectively de-filth it without wasting time or making it worse. It's time to refresh the vehicle's exterior. Check out these articles for tips:

    Under The Hood

    Start by reading up on why you want to clean the engine — it helps you spot trouble early and also prevents the buildup of dangerous gunk. Then use our guides to specific areas to focus on and to get your technique down.

    Engine Bay Tip

    Place plastic grocery bags to keep water out of sensitive electronics, like the alternator, coil packs or PCM.

    a man dusting his steering wheel

    Source | Getty

    Interior

    The interior of your vehicle needs love, too. It's often a great place to start wrenching, with easy work, affordable supplies, and a dramatic payoff. First off, maintain your interior like new with these quick interior cleaning and detailing tips, or this more in-depth guide to car-show level interior detailing. The possibilities for interior car cleaning are virtually endless, so here's some more inspiration:

    Helpful Tip

    A cotton swab, or flathead screwdriver with a shop rag over the tip, can get the grime out of any small crevice.

    INTERMEDIATE REPAIRS

    someone wrenching an engine part

    Brake Pads & Rotors

    Brake pads and rotors are critical components of vehicle safety, but they're also a great DIY learning task for the intermediate wrencher. From brake fluid basics to servicing every component in the brake system, here's everything you need to know before working on your brakes:

    Research and Preparation

    Guides and How-tos

    a battery light indicatorSource | Getty

    Alternator

    Replacing a car alternator is usually one of the easiest repairs, up there with replacing a battery. The alternator is what tops up the battery after you start your car, converting engine motion into electricity. Replacing the alternator generally takes less than an hour. If you're seeing common signs of a bad alternator, it's time to shop around for a replacement.

    Here's a DIY guide to replacing an alternator but if you aren't quite confident yet, watch this handy video from Gas Monkey Garage.

    It's perfectly safe to overbuy on alternator amps, but don't buy a replacement with fewer amps than the factory.

    If you need more info, read on:

    Drive Belt

    The accessory drive belt, or serpentine belt, gets skipped in routine maintenance all too often. It's a deceptively simple piece that is responsible for spinning the pulley of everything from the alternator to the water pump. You'll sometimes get that awful screeching sound on startup when a drive belt is starting to become brittle and fade. Read up on the different kinds of belts, then look over how to replace a serpentine belt.

    sparkplugs

    Source | Getty

    Spark Plugs

    Spark plugs are like restaurant reviews; there are all different kinds and everyone feels the need to tell you what they think is best. The thing is, what works great for someone else might not be best for your ride. If you're a beginner, here are some resources to get you started, from what do spark plugs do to spark plug replacement:

    Do you have spark plug wires on your vehicle? If so, you'll want to replace those along with the plugs. Here are some additional resources on this easy extra step:

    Pro Tip

    Spark plug gap is important. While your plugs are most likely gapped from the factory, it's a good idea to take a minute and check the spark plug gap before installation.

    Ignition Coil Packs

    If your vehicle was made in the last 25 years or so, odds are you have a distributor-less or coil-on-plug type ignition system. Here's a great look at how these ignition systems work, but essentially they place the ignition coil close to - or even directly on top of - the spark plug for a stronger spark.

    There are a few common signs of a failing coil pack, including:

    Coil packs are usually rather simple to replace, needing about an hour of your time and no specialized tools.

    putting gas in the tankSource | Getty

    Fuel injectors

    Despite what your grandfather says, fuel injection is a huge improvement over the old carburetor. However, those extra components need maintenance, or even replacement when they wear out. First off, prevent fuel injectors from getting clogged by occasionally using a fuel system cleaner and by replacing your fuel filter on time if it's a serviceable type. If that doesn't work, you can try a DIY fuel injector cleaning similar to what pro shops perform. If all else fails, replace your fuel injectors.

    Pro Tip

    Before installing the new fuel injectors, dip the fuel injector tip (sprayer end) into a small amount of engine oil. This will wet the seals, preventing leaks.

    Here's everything you need to know about maintaining your fuel injection system:

    Water Pump

    The water pump is a hugely important engine component, as it circulates coolant through the engine, pulling excess heat away before it can cause expensive damage. Know what isn't expensive? Replacing a water pump yourself. This job does take some time and careful attention to gaskets but is easily DIY with a few hours and some care. First off, have a look at how the cooling system works, then read about the specifics of how the water pump works.

    When you're ready, there are slightly different instructions depending on how all the parts in your engine compartment are laid out.

    Pro Tip

    Periodically check your vehicle's coolant level but only when the engine is cool. A sudden or gradual loss of coolant could indicate a problem with the water pump.

    Steering & Suspension

    Most people don't think too much about their vehicle suspension until it starts making weird thumps or grinding noises, or when potholes cause excessive bounce or a harsh jolt to the entire car. While it's true you can mostly continue driving with a worn-out suspension (say, saving for payday), you'll feel the poor performance every drive, which is more mentally punishing than reading comments on YouTube. Suspension work sometimes requires specialized tools, like ball joint separators and spring compressors, but remember you can get loaner tools for free from your local Advance.

    a dirty truck on a forest path

    Source | Getty

    If you're ready to jack up your ride and lie on the cement for a bit, here's how to get started diagnosing, replacing and repairing your suspension parts:

    Research and Preparation

    Guides and How-tos

    EXPERT REPAIRS

    Timing Belt

    Your engine's precise timing is kept by either a belt or a chain. On vehicles with timing chains, the chain typically lasts the entire life cycle of the vehicle. Not so with timing belts — these belts need to be replaced at about a 60-100k-mile interval, and a failed timing belt can have catastrophic consequences.

    If you do suspect your timing chain needs replacement, you can skip down to learn more now.

    Replacing a timing belt isn't the easiest job, but it must be completed on schedule to maintain a reliable engine. First, you'll want to read up on the difference between interference and non-interference engines. Then you can learn the steps for changing a timing belt. Also, since you're working in the same area, go ahead and swap the water pump when you change the timing belt. It's probably time.

    Here's a clever mechanic's tip for changing timing belts. Before pulling the old timing belt off, take a razor knife and cut down the length of the belt (effectively making it half as wide, but the same length), and pull off the outer half (closest to you). Then slip the new timing belt halfway into place. Cut the rest of the old belt off, and slide the new belt all the way on. This process means there is no need to adjust engine timing, although you should check the timing marks for peace of mind.

    a dirty gear in the engine

    Source | Andy Jensen

    Timing Chain

    Usually, a timing chain (unlike a timing belt) will last the life cycle of a vehicle, but on an engine with high miles, it's possible for it to stretch and slap. A worn timing chain will show some obvious engine problems. You might notice misfires and reduced performance, metal shavings in the oil, or a loud rattle from the front of the engine. Here's what you need to know to tackle this project the right way:

    Diagnose Your Vehicle Problem

    You don't need to be Sherlock Holmes or even a professional mechanic to diagnose what is wrong with your vehicle. Maybe your project car won't start, or maybe you're unfortunate that your daily driver won't stay running. The good news is that your vehicle gives off clues that help you narrow down or even solve your starting or running issues.

    For example, if your vehicle cranks and tries to start, logic tells you that the starter is getting power, so one potential issue is already off the table. No matter the malfunction, narrowing down the symptoms and their causes will help you eventually solve the underlying issue. Don't just turn the music up; figure out what there that odd noise is coming from. Here are some resources to help you diagnose the problem.

    a speedometer with a lit check engine light

    Source | Getty

    Check Engine Light

    No, this light doesn't mean pop the hood and say, “yup, the engine is still there." Modern cars have this handy part of the computer system called Onboard Diagnostics. Since 1996, vehicles running OBDII utilize vehicle sensors to optimize engine performance and control vehicle emissions. When those sensors detect an error, it displays a check engine light and saves a code that helps you narrow down problem diagnosis.

    Using an affordable code reader, you can narrow down which system, sensor or cylinder is having an issue, and focus your examination there. Code readers offer a much clearer picture of where to start than just “something is wrong with the engine."

    Once you have the code, use it to search our huge selection of trouble code articles for more info on your specific issue. Code readers can also erase the code causing that check engine light. Only do this once the repair is complete, or the light will immediately come back.

    There are many diagnostic trouble codes, or DTCs, that you might find. We've gathered our best resources here to provide more background on the OBD II system as well as in-depth looks at some common DTCs.

    Pro Tip: Emissions Tests

    If you live in an area where vehicle emissions tests are required, a check engine light means you won't pass your emissions test. Learn more about common causes of a failed emissions test and how to fix them.

    a woman at an auto store

    Speaking with a Pro

    Sometimes you simply can't get every mechanical task finished on your own. That's not failure; that's being human. No matter how many YouTube videos you watch, you probably won't be ready to rebuild that 10-speed automatic transmission on your own. That's why professional mechanics exist. Before you give one a call, check out what the mechanic wants to know about your ride, and how to decode all those stickers and labels all over the engine bay. Be ready to describe the issue in detail, and have basic vehicle info ready, like make, model, year, engine, and VIN.

    Pro Tip

    Remembering your entire service history is probably not realistic but keeping receipts and records in one place is. The glovebox is the easiest place, and it keeps your vehicle history easily accessible both to you and your mechanic.

    MODIFICATIONS

    Beginner Mods

    No matter how much horsepower your vehicle has, you probably want more. There are several easy solutions here, in the form of aftermarket parts that can increase the horsepower and torque of almost every vehicle ever manufactured. The usual suspects here are:

    Replacing car parts isn't always about repairs, as modifications and performance parts can increase the fun factor of any ride. You don't have to just accept the horsepower level your vehicle makes from the factory, even if it's a slow BRZ. There are several popular performance modifications to upgrade any ride, but here are some resources to get you started if you're new to modding:

    Note that mods don't usually have a cumulative effect. Meaning, if an intake advertises a 10 HP gain, and so does a header, installing both won't always net you a 20 HP gain. Choose mods that are designed to work together.

    Performance Mods

    If you're building a racecar, or you have plenty of time on your hands, consider these larger modification projects that need more time and know-how.

    After the initial intake/exhaust/tune combo, check out other ways to increase horsepowerPerformance doesn't have to cost a lot, but if you're serious about going fast, check out the 10 best big performance mods for maximum HP per dollar. Superchargers, turbochargers, and nitrous are high on the list here, and while their performance increases are huge, so are the safety warnings. If you're looking for specifics, these MustangCamaroFR-S/BRZ, and F-150 guides can help narrow down all your options, and we even have one for the diesel bros.

    Classic Car Mods

    Speaking of performance upgrades, here are our recommendations specifically for your classic ride.

    Tech Mods

    If you need all of that new tech in today's vehicles, you'll want to consider these upgrades, too:

    What's Next?

    That's it! We're all set to get wrenching on your ride. The first step, after bookmarking a few projects for later, is to check out all the great deals your local Advance offers.

    And if you're still not 100% sure which water pump you need, or if that exhaust manifold comes with new gaskets, feel free to ask. Use the expert advice of the Advance Team Members at your local store, as they are happy to help you get your project done. 

    If your vehicle problem or how-to isn't covered, post in the comments below.

    Last updated February 15, 2022

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