As car owners, most of us think we know vehicles well enough.
But car repair or refurbishment experts will tell you that most vehicles end up in repair shops because of poor maintenance and shaky driving practices. Lack of basic upkeep makes for inferior driving experience, lessens the life of your car parts and systems, and leads to noises and unexpected breakdowns. It also means, well, poor resale value.
So we visited 8 car care professionals to build a basic, everyday list of car maintenance practices. We kick off our car care series with arguably the most important system of the car – its engine. Here’s what we think can keep your car engine alive and kicking, year after year:
Know What Your Engine Likes to Drink
The engine oil is your engine’s preferred beverage, so it’s a good idea to know it well.
Engine oil is an integral part of your car engine’s lubrication system. While there are many different Grades, Brands, and Types of engine oils available in the market, all have one major function: to keep all engine parts lubricated for smooth movement. Additionally, they also help to maintain the temperatures of the engine’s running parts.
The only engine oil that your engine needs…
…is the one suggested by your service manual. The choice is that simple because the makers of your car have extensively tested the vehicle using this, making their recommendation the best suited option for your car.
Here’s exactly when to change engine oil
All blogs on engine maintenance will tell you your engine oil needs periodic change, but how often is that? Here are some numbers you may find helpful: synthetic oil lasts approx. 15,000 km, semi-synthetic oil lasts 8000-10000km, and mineral oil lasts 6000km. Within these ranges your engine oil should stay in good condition. Most car manufacturer’s schedule servicing at the 10,000km-mark, and at this stage you may get the engine oil changed or simply check its colour, its level, its thickness and the sludge situation.
Thicker? Darker? Your engine oil needs replacement
Some tell-tale signs of trouble with engine oil in a petrol-powered engine include:
Thickness: in good condition, you can expect engine oil to be moderately viscous but its thickness increases if there are impurities in it.
Colour: in a petrol car, if the engine oil looks dark brown, it means there’s a good amount of carbon in it. In a diesel car, though, the color of engine oil turns dark as soon as it is added to the tank.
Levels: the level of the engine oil should be somewhere between the maximum and minimum lines of the dipstick.
Check your parking spot for any oil deposits
The evidence of an engine oil leak is often right there, just under your car. You just have do a quick visual inspection of the ground where you normally park your car for long hours. If you find dark deposits there, there’s a possibility your engine oil is leaking.
Bonus Tip: Remember, the AC water outlet is also on the floor and any water leakage from there may be confused with oil leakage. But how to tell the two apart? Just put a finger in the leaking fluid: if it’s sticky, it’s oil and needs attention. If not, it’s water.
Keep Your Engine Nice & Cool
As the engine has many moving parts, and combustion of fuel also produces heat, car engines are fitted with a cooling system. This system is made of a water pump, a radiator, coolant and a thermostat. When the engine gets heated, the thermostat triggers the water pump to pull the coolant out from the radiator and drives it into the engine’s compartment, and then takes it out back to the radiator where it’s cooled again through air flow.
A coolant, an essential element of this engine cooling system, is a mix of water and additives (antifreeze) used in modern automobiles. The concentration of this mix depends on the prevalent environmental conditions and the engine type.
Confused which coolant to use? Listen to the OEM
Just as it is with engine oil, in the case of coolants, too, the manufacturer knows best. An OEM-specified coolant works best for your engine as it maintains the required working temperature range.
Increase coolant concentration in sub-zero temperatures
While visiting areas with super low temperatures, it is a good idea to increase the coolant concentration in the coolant-water mix. Addition of coolant lowers the freezing point of the water further, which means the coolant-water mix will not freeze at subzero temperatures.
Red or Green? Coolant color doesn’t matter
Is ‘green’ better than ‘red’? A coolant is a mix of water and chemicals, with a boiling point higher and a freezing temperature lower than that of pure water. Cooling systems are designed and tested for a specific coolant.
Which coolant should you go for then? As mentioned earlier, you go simply the one that the OEM has recommended to avoid unnecessary breakdowns.
And avoid mixing coolants entirely.
Measure coolant level in reservoir in cold car condition
The coolant level must be checked in the reservoir tank, and not in the radiator. Further, this check must always be checked in cold car conditions, which can be achieved only some time after stopping the engine. Here’s the logic: after cooling down, the coolant contracts, and the radiators sucks the coolant back into the system, thus reducing the coolant level in the tank.
Make sure the coolant level is somewhere between ‘full’ and ‘low’.
Safety warning: Opening the coolant reservoir cap yourself is risky and not recommended. A visual inspection of the tank is enough to know if the fluid is at an appropriate level. The same recommendation applies to radiator caps as well. Avoid opening the radiator cap since the coolant inside the radiator can be fairly hot and may cause scalding.
Stay Calm, Drive Easy
Your car engine is as good as how you treat it. Add the following practices in your daily driving style to derive best mileage and ensure your car engine’s health and longevity:
Spare the accelerator at launch – the car will ‘creep’ on its own
All cars come with a ‘creep’ function: this means that when you start the car and release the clutch, the car moves forward – or creeps – automatically. This happens even without engaging the accelerator pedal. In fact, if you are pressing the accelerator at this stage, you are essentially abusing the engine by drawing its power for no reason.
Don’t race your engine right after cold start
Some drivers press the accelerator hard and race the engine as soon as turning the ignition on, before the car has moved an inch.
This shouldn’t be done because in an idle state the car engine is still cold and if you floor the gas pedal, it causes sudden increase in temperature. Since engine oil is yet to lubricate moving parts properly, you only end up damaging the engine’s piston and crankshaft, and thus reduce the life of the engine.
To cool cabin fast, lower windows after turning AC on
Leaving the car out under the sun for a few hours is enough to turn your car cabin into a heat chamber. Thanks to the greenhouse effect, heat gets trapped in the vehicle, raising the cabin temperature much higher than what it is outside. Higher the temperature inside the vehicle, higher the effort required to cool this year.
To make the cabin cooling or air conditioning system more effective and more fuel efficient, you can lower all the windows for the first 2-3 minutes with the AC on. This lets the hot air trapped inside rise and exit the cabin as the car begins to move.
The result? Your AC begins to work on relatively cool air and can lower the cabin’s internal temperature faster. This eases the load on the air conditioning system and, in turn, on the engine.
At high speeds, opening windows is not more economical than running AC
Here’s a myth-buster for you: it’s believed that rolling down the windows and switching the AC off helps in saving fuel. But this statement does not apply to speeds above 60 kmph. At higher speeds the aerodynamic drag on your vehicle becomes significant as it is a factor of the square of velocity. This aerodynamic drag is a force that the air applies on the car in the opposite direction of its movement.
Thus, it might be more fuel efficient to drive the car with windows rolled up and AC turned on at those speeds.
Do not shift gears at high engine RPMs
Many drivers rev their engines up to very high RPM levels (red lining), and then change gears to generate maximum torque. This is not a fuel efficient practice. The higher the engine RPM, the more fuel you will burn per minute. As mileage is measured in kilometers per litre, you should drive in such a way that you achieve maximum distance with the least use of fuel. Which means you should drive the car at lower RPM and at the right gear to maintain the required speed.
Check engine idle RPM irregularity
The idle RPM range for a car is 600-800 RPMs, with the lower end of the range applicable specifically to smaller cars. This is the minimum range that’s required for an engine to run. Below that the engine simply shuts off. If you find the engine racing at higher rpms while waiting at a red light in neutral, get your engine checked.
Keep Your Engine Clean
The car engine needs continuous flow of clean air to function. Therefore, your engine is fitted with air filters which are responsible for filtering out any dirt, debris etc. from entering the engine. After some point of time, the filters do get clogged due to debris and need to be replaced, so that the engine can work efficiently.
Check air filter every 5000 km in dusty cities
Your car engine takes in air, which is needed for fuel combustion, and this air needs to be free of impurities. The air filter ensures exactly that: it catches dust, debris and other foreign objects and prevents it from entering the engine, so it’s important to inspect it every once in a while.
If you live in cities that are sandy or dusty (e.g. Bikaner, Manesar or even Gurugram), and if you experience a loss in pickup, it’s perhaps because the air filter has become clogged. It’s best to get the air filter cleaned at a workshop as frequently as every 5000km. Even otherwise, air filters should be replaced every 20,000-25,000km.
In fact, checking your air filter is one of those things you can do yourself. In some cars air filters may be bolted, so removing them might need a screwdriver. But mostly a filter is housed in a box with clips, which you can easily snap open to access the filter. You can then inspect how dirty it is and dust off any dirt, dust or grime settled on it.
Overall it does require a certain level of skill to do this, so we would still recommend seeking help from a professional.
Get spark plug gaps checked every 20,000 km
The spark plugs are the starting point in the combustion process. They generate a spark which ignites the fuel and air mixture in the cylinders. So, every time you switch on your engine the plugs come into play.
You can get your spark plug checked before undertaking any long drives or even whenever you experience loss in pick-up or face trouble getting your car started.
Also clean the spark plug if it’s old because any dirt on it will impact the strength of the ignition spark. This process too should be done at an interval of 20,000km.
Engine misfiring? Get throttle body cleaned
Essentially, the throttle body controls the flow of air as per the command of the Engine Control Module (ECM). A dirty throttle body can cause uneven burning of fuel, cause engine misfiring (which can be detected if the RPM needle fluctuates in idle condition), impact acceleration and fuel efficiency. Therefore, when you notice any of these symptoms, getting the throttle body cleaned may be one thing for you to get done.
Bonus tip: Carry extra spark plug, engine oil, coolant, etc. ahead of long drives
Pay Attention to Odd Sounds, Sights & Signals
A lot of engine problems can be spotted, diagnosed and mended early by simply keeping a close watch on any deviation from the normal sounds, sights and signals that you associate with your car. Some of them are given below:
Colored exhaust smoke is bad news
A thin, vapor-like emission from the tail pipe is never a cause for concern. But if the colour of the exhaust smoke is milky white, blue, grey or black, this indicates serious problems in the engine or in the exhaust system.
For example, blue smoke means the engine oil is mixing with the fuel and burning along with it.
Other causes could be anything from coolant leaking into the engine (white smoke), coolant mixing with oil or too much fuel being burned in the combustion chamber (black smoke).
A faulty turbocharger could also cause these abnormal exhaust colors.
Bottomline? Get your car looked at by a professional before your engine gets worse.
Car AC dying abruptly? Get your engine checked
Your car AC could be shutting down on its own for one of many reasons, including an overheating engine. Other reasons may be a blown fuse, poor air intake, damaged cooling fans, belts and hoses and leaking refrigerant. An AC that dies on its own indicates some problem with the engine. Get it checked at once.
Pay attention to dashboard warning lights
Noticed those tiny symbols on your cluster panel flash briefly when you turn the ignition on? That’s completely normal. But if they continue glow, that’s perhaps the clearest – and earliest – indicator of any potential problem with your vehicle, including your engine.
For example, the ‘Check Engine’ sign lights up when you turn on the ignition, but if it continues to stay lit even after the engine starts, it could mean, among other things, have someone take a look under the hood.
If engine overheats, it’s time to stop
Inside your car’s engine there’s a sheet called the head gasket that prevents the coolant from mixing from with the engine oil. If overheated, there’s a good chance this sheet may get blown. And when that happens it may require a super expensive overhaul or rebuilding of the engine.
So when the ‘red’ engine overheat indicator lights up (in Honda cars, ‘blue’ color is safe and is not a cause for alarm), it’s time to bring the car to a complete halt. You shouldn’t attempt to restart the vehicle after letting the engine ‘cool off’ for some time, not even an hour. Wherever you are, just call a tow truck. It may cost you 1,500-2000 rupees, but it can save you a much bigger bill in engine repair.
See tiny footprints? There’s a rat in your engine!
Rats may look small but they are capable of unleashing great damage to your engine. These rodents are strong, can survive undetected in your car for long and can gnaw through air pipes, wires, plastic parts and more with their freakishly sharp teeth. One rat under the hood is enough to cause severe engine malfunction.
Car Parked for Long? Restart With Care
If you have left the car parked for a month or longer, you need to run the following checks before restarting your engine:
- Check Tire pressure to ensure they aren’t flat or underinflated.
- Check coolant level to make sure the engine’s moving parts get lubricated properly.
- Check brake oil level and top it up if required.
- Dust off wiper blades before using as the accumulated dust might cause scratches.
- Check Battery condition, water level and discharge at the terminals. If the battery fails to crack the engine, do not keep trying as this could cause deep discharge and permanent damage to the battery
- Check engine oil condition. If you observe any sludge, take the car to a mechanic.
- Run the engine on idle for five minutes or until the normal idle RPM mark is reached. This allows engine oil to reach every part of your engine for proper lubrication.
These are some engine maintenance practices that can go a long way in increasing the lifespan and better efficiency of the vehicle. Want to read more about car maintenance? Check out the Tyre Maintenance Guide to keep your tires in shape.