Repair Your Own Car Without Experience
Even if you have little or no knowledge of your car's inner workings, as long as you own a basic set of tools, you can accomplish most of your car's basic maintenance, and many of its needed minor repairs. For some models workshop manuals or workshop videos can be attained from 3rd party Car Maintenance and Repair companies. This will make the job much easier.
- Be safe first. Be sure the engine is cool to touch. Many engine compartments are very crowded and it may be difficult to see the parts, screws and nuts, and accessing, reaching or even touching the parts, nuts and bolts is often tricky.
~ Causing an electrical short can ruin the cars computerized systems, relays and fuses.
~ Battery acid, hot fluids, and oil can each burn you, etc.
~ Mashed fingers, skinned knuckles, slips and misalignments are problematic.
~ Working under cars and in a street or parking lot are very dangerous.
~ Understand that "lefty-loosey" (means turn toward the left so that counter-clockwise is usually to loosen and remove bolts) and "righty-tighty" (right meaning clockwise is usually to tighten) though that direction of turning the tool is helpful.
~ You need to understand that when the nut/screw head is viewed from the opposite end that reverses that direction. Be sure of avoiding confusion about that direction when you are bending over looking down to reach a bolt that is away from your view, that is opposed to your usual view, or when you are looking up from underneath the car at a bolt/nut and needing to reach the head that is opposite from your view, etc. So think about it and go slow.
- Be sure of the correct process and sequence of loosening and tightening of nuts and bolts which can be very important to keep from warping/ruining parts.
~ Under tightening can cause leaks and failures (vibrating loose and falling off).
~ Over tightening of screws and bolts can strip, or break them off and be very difficult to extract the embedded broken off screw.
- Avoid using the wrong tool, loose or improper tool slipping off, or wrong size screwdriver can all ruin screws and nut/bolt heads before you get some of the hardest ones to access loose. You might have to use tricks to get them out (a punch or chisel, hacksaw, knife or drill may be needed occasionally, but can and do damage the screws and other parts). So "get help" for hard situations.
- Search for videos and discussions online about a problem that you are thinking about tackling or in the middle of doing. Some videos and discussions are very good. You may find several on some topics or little or nothing on some others.
- Get a "Haynes" manual (which is for less experienced users) from the parts store; even a pro uses a manual to perform repairs. Avoid the dealer service/repair manuals which are usually for experienced mechanics, are not easy to understand, are not detailed and call for use of special numbered tools (often unnecessary). While you may find a manual at the library, these manuals need to be exactly specific to your vehicle, which can make that difficult, and they are so indispensable, it is best to buy one.
- Familiarize yourself briefly with the complete layout of the manual. They are generally broken up into sections that each encompass a system on your vehicle, i.e. the section about "Chassis Electrical", "Trouble-Shooting" (by section, check it out), "Suspension" (shocks are not bad, but struts are tricky and complicated), etc., and "Maintenance" - general upkeep; see the main table of contents and indexes (at the beginning of each section, and an index at the back).
- Keep records of "Scheduled Maintenance" under your warranty which must be proven by receipts and records such as a log furnished by the dealer or the warranty provider.
- Realize that the electrical section for fuses/fuse boxes (trickier than you might think) are often very poorly labeled, charts are poor, differ by year and by model, and are nearly illegible (hard to read).
~ Remove only "one" clear plastic fuse at a time and check by seeing if it is burned out "one by one" to keep from mixing them up. Replace or put it back before you look at the next one.
~ There are usually some special, large fuses and relays in a fuse box in the engine compartment or scattered here and there and inline fuse links (in wiring), but the usual fuse boxes for owner/operator access are below the instrument panel or on the "kickpanel" near the driver. Some pickups, vans, and trucks have fuse boxes in odd locations compared to where they are located in cars. You might find a fuse panel in the glove box or by unscrewing a cover in the dashboard/near the instrument panel.
- Start with small and simple: Repairing your vehicle assumes that you know what's wrong with it. This is often the most difficult part of a vehicle repair, as the repair itself is covered step-by-step in the manual. Diagnosing can be quite tricky, and must be done correctly to avoid "throwing parts at it", or making an incorrect (and probably expensive) repair. While there are "logic trees/troubleshooting charts" in the manual to test some specific parts, what about when you don't know which part is bad?
- Caution: to replace a set of sparkplug-cables or the spark plugs "only remove one" and replace that one, and then the next one -- to avoid getting the cables out of sequence which is very likely and would cause firing out of order which could damage the engine.
- Diagnose the problem. This is where the parts store guy becomes your friend. These guys are often hired for their knowledge; a correct diagnosis by them equals a parts sale. They have a diagnostic code reader that they may attach and read for you (hoping to sell parts) or one that you can borrow for free (with a deposit) -- that's right, the same service you have been paying $60-$90 for at your repair shop can be done by the parts people or you for nothing.
~ They can also run diagnostics on your de-installed parts such as starter, battery, alternator, etc. If you don't click with the first parts guy you talk to, shop around, as you are going to find one you do like to work with, and probably follow him around as he changes parts store jobs in your town.
- Gather tools and supplies needed for the job. Nothing is more of a pain than to be buried in the engine compartment up to your elbows when you realize you don't have a new (insert cheap but vital tool here). Some back and forth to the store is inevitable, even when you have become comfortable doing this; it helps to remember that you are going to get something that you will own when you are finished with this specific repair, in the case of needing, say, a small specialty tool, and various metric versus customary (English fraction of inch measures) tools.
~ "Rent to own" larger more expensive specialty tools at auto parts stores (But, actually you buy it and get a refund "only if" you bring it back with the receipt, and the tool is in "new condition", within 48 hours for example).
- Prepare the area. Block wheels to prevent rolling. If you are going to be leaking fluids, put down a drop cloth. If you will need to get under the car, a flattened, large cardboard box or a scrap of carpet pad can make all the difference for comfort when you are lying on the ground and for cleanliness.
~ Caution: Always use "jack stands" to help maintain the security and safety of the jack when you must raise the vehicle.
~ Drive up ramps are quite useful, but some very low cars can "not" work with the ramps.
~ Driving two wheels onto a curb may work in a pinch to help raise one side or an end of a vehicle.
- Follow the manual order and method instructions. It can be tempting to get in a hurry, and think that some steps seem irrelevant -- until later.
- Develop a system for placing parts that you had to remove to just get to the defective part in such a way that they will be easier to reassemble, replace properly, such as setting a bracket down correctly oriented, with it's accompanying hardware placed right by where it goes, rather than all jumbled in a pile. A good method will also incorporate reversing the order of removal to put it together again.
~ Caution: A manual instruction such as "now replace the peripheral flange bracket" is useless to you, if you can't remember how the bracket came off -- and while the manual is helpful, the pictures often are not very clear and are not labeled or explained well.
- Take pictures. Label parts with tape and names and numbering, etc. Cell phone pictures are small, and it's more helpful if you are able to upload them to your PC when needed; but even a small picture, taken from very close to show a vital detail, can potentially save you hours.
- Draw a picture before dis-assembly -- or if you have to, get someone else to draw pictures and work on labeling them with you.
- Use nail polish, or a number of clear scratches to mark the spot for alignment of parts. If, as you are removing a part, you find yourself asking, "I wonder how I'll remember if that goes this way, there, or there?", a dot of nail polish, after a quick wipe off, can tell you. Nail polish applied to two touching/matching parts for gaskets, etc. can save you of the need to re-calibrate, re-time, and re-adjust after the repair is completed -- you just re-align the polish stroke or scratches.
- Realize that each repair is a relearning or learning process. The first time you "R"emove & "R"eplace an alternator, it might be frustrating.
~ Take breaks if needed. When you are finished, realize that your next alternator "R&R" on this or a similar model will happen in about 1/3 the time -- and any alternator R&R, even on a truck, is now within your reach.
- Study each problem thoroughly before beginning: If you are in any doubt as to your ability to perform a needed repair, read the manual step-by-step R&R for that repair, re-read it; it will give you a pretty good idea whether you're up to it or not.
- Use your eyes. After using ears, to a knowledgeable diagnostician, eyes are the most important diagnostic tool; often all you need if you understand the systems and parts. It isn't at all uncommon to have a car in for a completely unnecessary repair because the owner didn't bother to open the hood and take a quick look around. Although it's less common now, cars vibrate, nuts loosen, debris/leaves, grass and dust collect and rodents/mice nick or chew off wires, etc.
- Useful tips for this topic could fill a book, and this is where a library can help.
- Go check out "Auto Maintenance for Dummies", and read it before you begin your first repair.
- Protect hands: first wash hands and then apply Vaseline (essentially "invisible gloves"), or buy surgical latex, vinyl or nitrile gloves, if you want normal hands when you're done. The parts store has hand cleaner and protection, but embedded dirty grease in your skin, creases and cuticles is very difficult to remove; like oil based paint; stains may have to be "worn-off".
- Jacks can wobble and fall, embed in the pavement or earth, or slip off, slide, break, bend, fold... very dangerous.
- Never work under a car with a jack "without a jack-stand" used properly in case of jack problems.
- Exercise care when working around a hot car parts, hot oil, and especially with the hot cooling system, which may have steam pressure and can cause scalding injuries.
Things You'll Need
- A Haynes manual. for anything other than the most basic maintenance, it is a must.
- A tool kit. Large discount stores, home building centers and such have better prices on good tools than auto parts. Luckily this will vary depending upon how involved you plan to get in your car repair, and can be added to as needed, so start with the basics -- and then later add (when needed) sets of larger and deeper sockets, a breakover wrench, some "star" and "torx / t" drivers, punches, chisels, etc.
- A shade tree or approved area (cities and apartments may have time rules and even tow away disabled/disassembled cars if not finished quickly). Seems simple, but you need to consider how long the repair may take, and it's impact on the law, neighbors and your comfort.
- Containment and clean-up supplies. Working on a car can be messy; be prepared to catch fluids, funnel and dispose of them properly. The parts store guys will rescue you again here.
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