Monthly Archives: August 2010

Engine Maintenance- a little goes a long way!

Now that we’ve discussed some common engine problems, let’s look at ways that you—together with a trusted mechanic—can nip these problems in the bud and prolong the life of your engine.

First, take the time to find a mechanic in your area whom you trust. If you’ve just acquired a car or moved to a new area, take some time to shop around and get quotes from different mechanics. I’ll write more about this in a later entry, but for now, remember that having a good relationship with your mechanic will take stress out of your life and the life of your car.

Next, make sure to follow the tune-up schedule recommended by your car’s manufacturer. You can find this information in your owner’s manual. How often your car needs a tune-up depends on how much you drive, so this schedule will be listed in terms of both time and distance driven. A general rule of thumb is to have a major tune-up every two years or 30,000 miles (whichever comes first), with interim oil changes every 6 months or 6,000 miles (again, whichever comes first.) However, the exact schedule will vary from car to car.

At a major tune-up, your mechanic will inspect, clean, and often replace the parts of your engine that experience the most severe wear and tear. At a tune-up, a mechanic will often:

  • Replace the spark plugs
  • Replace the fuel filter and the air filter
  • Replace the distributor cap
  • Check the ignition timing
  • Check the timing belts and replace if needed
  • Clean and service the battery

In between major services, however, there are a number of small things you can do to make sure your engine is still in good working order. This way, you can spot potential problems before they develop into major issues.


These are easy and very satisfying tasks; for those of us who don’t think of ourselves as “car people,” checking your own oil and coolant can give you a feeling of accomplishment. Try to check your oil at least once every two weeks.

First, park on level ground and wait for your engine to cool down before opening your hood. Then, locate your oil dipstick and coolant reservoir. The oil dipstick is often marked as “oil” and/or will be brightly colored (red, yellow, or orange.) It’s generally very easy to spot, as is the coolant reservoir. This will be a translucent tank off to one side of the engine, with “high” and “low” marked on it. See figure 1 below.


Figure 1: a typical car engine

Once you’ve located the oil dipstick, pull it out and wipe it off using a rag or paper towel. Then, stick it back in, wait a second, and carefully pull it out again. It’s important to do this in order to get a clear and accurate reading of the oil level.


Figure 2: oil dipstick, side view

Your dipstick will have a “high” and a “low” mark. Sometimes these will be marked with lines or with different patterns of scoring. You want to check that the oil level is close to—but not above— the “high” mark. If the oil level is too high, it’s likely something else is leaking into your oil tank. If the oil level is too low, you should add oil; if you aren’t familiar with how to do so, take your car to a local service station. Do, however, make sure that you only add the grade of oil specified by your car’s manufacturer. You also want to check the oil color. The oil should be a light golden brown and should be translucent. If it’s dark or opaque, it’s time for an oil change. If it’s a cloudy white color, then coolant or water is leaking into your oil tank.


Figure 3: tip of an oil dipstick

While the oil level is fine in the picture above, notice that the oil is a very dark brown color. This means that the oil is fairly old and should be changed soon, although not necessarily immediately.

To check your coolant, simply locate the “high” and “low” marks on the coolant reservoir and make sure that the coolant level is within these limits. WARNING: don’t take the radiator cap off when you check the coolant levels; if the system is still warm, there will be pressure in the radiator. Removing the cap could cause a nasty burn. If you have trouble seeing the coolant level in your tank (perhaps because your engine, like mine, is quite old), you can try shining a flashlight through the tank to better illuminate the fluid level.


Figure 4: coolant reservoir




While you’ve got your hood open, take a moment to check the timing belts on your engine. You’ll see these near the front of the engine. They look like long elastic bands that have been stretched from the bottom to the top of the engine well.


Figure 5: timing belt

Check the belts to make sure that they don’t look frayed, cracked, or worn. If a belt looks damaged in any way, take your car to your mechanic for a tune-up.


If you have a car with automatic transmission, you should also check your automatic transmission fluid about once a month. You may also want to check the fluid level if you notice anything odd about the way your car is (or isn’t) shifting gears.

First, consult the owner’s manual of your car. This manual will tell you where the dipstick for the transmission fluid is located. It will also let you know if the car engine needs to be running when you check the fluid (this is the case for many cars.)

Then, park in a level area and follow the same procedure as for checking the oil: pull the dipstick out, wipe it off, reinsert it, and then pull it out again. If the car engine is running or has just been running (i.e. the engine is still warm,) then the fluid should be at or near the upper “HOT” mark. If the engine is cold, then the fluid level should be at the lower “COLD” mark. The fluid should be clean, slightly pink and transparent; if it’s black, brown, or burnt-smelling, then it’s time to replace the fluid.

Overall, be aware of how your engine sounds and runs, and don’t be afraid to look under the hood from time to time! It’s not as daunting as it may seem.

To learn more about this topic, or a broad range of subjects from “How To Change A Tire” to “How To Jumpstart Your Car”, visit’s Safe Driver Resources website!

Check out these sites for more information about online defensive driving in Texas, online defensive driving in Florida, and business driver safety.



Now that we’ve reviewed the basic principles of engine operation, I’d like to discuss a few of the most common engine problems, how you can identify these problems, and what basic maintenance you should do in order to prevent serious issues from occurring. Even if you don’t have the technical know-how to diagnose or repair your car yourself, having a general idea of what might be going wrong and why will definitely keep you from panicking when faced with an engine issue. Learning to identify common warning signs will also help you to ensure that little problems don’t escalate into bigger ones.

What if your engine won’t start?

First of all, ask yourself: do I hear the engine cranking? If you do hear a cranking sound (i.e. the starting motor driving the crankshaft) but the engine still doesn’t start, then a variety of things could be going wrong.

First, there could be a lack of compression. Remember that if the pistons can’t compress the air in the cylinder, the fuel-air mix won’t ignite. Lack of compression could be caused a faulty seal, either in the valves or the piston ring, or by a hole in the cylinder.

Alternatively, the valve timing could be off, so that the air fuel mix isn’t coming in or the exhaust isn’t going out. There could be a fault in the ignition system, meaning that either the spark plugs aren’t sparking or the timing of the sparks is off. If you’ve run low on oil, then it could mean that the piston isn’t able to move freely in the cylinder. Obviously, lack of fuel could be a cause; this doesn’t necessarily mean that your tank is empty. It could be that your fuel pump isn’t working properly, or the fuel filter is clogged. There could also be a bad fuel mix, meaning that there is either too much air or too much fuel entering the cylinder. This could be caused by the fuel pump or the fuel filter or by water in the gas tank.

If you don’t hear your engine cranking at all or if it is cranking very slowly, then you most likely have a dead battery (lucky for you—this is very easy to fix!). You can jumpstart your car (see previous entry) to get on the road again; if your battery goes dead again, however, it’s probably time for a new one.

What if your engine makes funny noises?

Engine noises can be one of the first clues you’ll have that something isn’t going right. If you notice your engine making an unusual noise, take careful note of the type of noise and when it occurs. For example, does it always happen when you’ve just started the car, or after you’ve been driving a long time? When braking, or when going up hills? Is it a grinding, whining, or clicking sound?

Then, take your car to a trusted service station to have the noise checked out. Since sounds are an important diagnostic tool for technicians, the more detail you can give in your description, the better the chances are that your service station will be able to identify the issue quickly.

Once common—and disturbing—engine noise is backfiring. This is the sound of a minor explosion coming out of your tail pipe. Backfiring occurs when something goes wrong in the combustion process. Possible causes include: a clogged air intake, poorly fitted spark plug wires, incorrect fuel-to-air ratio, and an impurity in the fuel.

If you notice a knocking sound coming from your engine, don’t delay taking your car to be serviced, as this could indicate one of a number of serious issues.

What if your engine overheats and/or you notice smoke rising from the engine?

The most obvious cause of overheating is a lack of coolant in the cooling system. Once you’ve stopped your car, check the level of coolant in the reservoir (I’ll explain how to do this in part two.)

There are a few other common causes of overheating. First, there could be a build-up of deposits in the water jacket around the cylinders; these deposits impede the transfer of heat from cylinder to water. A broken cooling fan or broken water pump would also keep the cooling system from working properly, as would a twisted or broken radiator hose.

What if your exhaust smoke is a funny color?

Ideally, you shouldn’t really be able to see your exhaust smoke, aside from a few puffs on cold mornings. A bit of pale grey smoke is probably also okay. However, if you notice large amounts of dark or thick smoke, it’s a sign that your engine probably isn’t running properly. Do take the time to check the color and density of exhaust smoke occasionally.

Black smoke: This looks dramatic but is likely the result of fairly minor issues. Black smoke is caused when excess fuel is burned in the cylinders, meaning that there is too much fuel in the fuel and air mix. This could be caused by a dirty or clogged air filter. A faulty fuel pump, a carburetor (device that mixes fuel and air, primarily in older cars) that isn’t properly adjusted, or a faulty engine computer could also be the underlying cause.

White Smoke: This white smoke is actually steam that is produced when either water or antifreeze gets into the cylinder and burns along with the fuel and air mixture. This probably means that one of the gaskets, which separate the cooling system from the cylinder, is cracked or leaking. Check your oil as well to see if antifreeze has leaked into the oil (the oil will be cloudy.) See part two for more information on how to check your oil.

Blue smoke: This indicates that your engine is burning oil. Broken or stuck piston rings—i.e. the seals between the piston and cylinder—are the most common culprit. Check your oil levels carefully to see if you notice a leak. If too much oil gets into the cylinder, it will wreck the spark plugs, so it’s best to check this sooner rather than later.

As we’ve discussed, the engine is a fairly complex machine, and lots of different problems can occur. I’ve outlined a few of the most common and easy to diagnose here. In part two, I’ll cover a few of the basic maintenance tasks you can carry out to help ensure that your engine doesn’t develop any of the problems in the first place.

How to maintain your car:

1.      Check your oil (once a week)

a.     Car at level spot

b.     Wait awhile for engine to cool and oil to collect in oil pan.

c.     Pull the engine oil dipstick out. (Usually labeled OR indicated in owner’s manual.)

d.     Wipe it off, and then insert it again.

e.     Oil should be at- or close to- the “full mark.”

f.        Oil should be transparent—not cloudy—and a light golden colour. If your oil is a milky white or black color, have your car serviced immediately.


2.      Check automatic transmission fluid. Cold engine- “cold” mark (lower one); hot engine— “hot” mark (upper one)

3.      Check coolant level (should be between low and full marks.) Add coolant after car has cooled down. (Don’t take the radiator cap off to do so! May be under pressure.) Also check manual; normally a translucent white reservoir to one side of the engine.

4.       Check the rubber drive belts at the front of your engine; make sure they aren’t too worn or frayed

5.      Have your car serviced: oil and filter change every 5000 miles, full service once a year. More on this in a later entry.

To learn more about this topic, or a broad range of subjects from “How To Change A Tire” to “How To Jumpstart Your Car”, visit’s Safe Driver Resources website!

Check out these sites for more information about online defensive driving in Texas, online defensive driving in Florida, and business driver safety.