Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Car care – when ignorance isn’t bliss

I know very little about cars, but because I drive one I decided this year that I should learn about car maintenance. A friend gave some helpful tips and suggested that I read the manual.

“I’m not the manual kind of person,” I replied. Even so, I searched for it in the glove compartment then read it through.

I retained very little though. And some important things aren’t even written there. For example, the manual does not tell you how to use the air pump at the gas station. The first time I had a soft tire, I used the pump at the gas station and totally deflated my tire within seconds. Fortunately, a kindhearted hunk assisted me. What a pleasure! I mean, his kindness not his hunk-ness.

And have you ever seen anyone overfill his gas tank? Again, the manual doesn’t say that if the gas spout makes a noise, it means FULL. The driver on the other pump had to tell me, “Your gas is overflowing” because I wasn’t looking. I kept pressing the lever waiting for the $ counter to reach my prepaid amount of $30. Why should it stop at $27?

I didn’t particularly enjoy lifting the hood, and even today, I don’t always get it right on the first try. The engine intimidated me, but I had to learn how to add coolant, motor oil and wiper fluid. I have not gotten around to the brake fluid.

Don’t open the radiator cap while the radiator is hot or steam can burn your face. …Make sure you have wiper fluid in case mud splatters on your windshield and blocks your view. …Make sure you have enough motor oil. Use the dipstick to check the level.…

I have added these fluids a few times. For checking the motor oil, I even used the dipstick.

Last Saturday, I was taking my boys and our Korean guest for a picnic at Cultus Lake. Ever the cautious driver, I went on the Internet to get directions. 90 kilometres from Vancouver. Quite a ways off. I checked my tires and checked my oil. Hmm, I think it’s time to refill the motor oil. After doing this, we headed to the nearest gas station to get enough gas. Just then, I glanced at my rear view mirror, and to my horror, my car was emitting so much smoke. I had never seen that happen to my car or to any car here for that matter. I immediately stopped at a parkway and called BCAA for roadside assistance.

“Hello,” I said, “there’s a lot of smoke coming out of that thing at the back of my car.”

“Do you mean the muffler?” the person on the other line asked.

“Is that the muffler? Yeah, the muffler,” I said. Ladies, at least know the basic car parts.

In a few minutes, a BCAA serviceman came and I told him what I had done before leaving the house that morning.

“You poured four litres of oil? You poured too much.” He then showed me two dots at the end of the dipstick that tell you the minimum and maximum levels for motor oil. I never knew about that. So what was I looking at every time I used the dipstick? Your guess is as good as mine.

The BCAA man suggested that I have my oil drained and refilled to the right level. Fortunately, Budget Brake and Muffler was just across the street. I drove the car, belching smoke like crazy, to that shop.

As soon as I approached the man at the front desk, he said, “I can tell just by looking at your car that you blew up your engine gasket.” He said I should not drive the car at all or I might destroy my engine completely, and that his shop couldn’t do anything for it.

“Are you hearing me?” he asked when I stared at him blankly. I thought I just poured too much motor oil. Now he was telling me about gasket and engine and hundreds, even thousands of dollars for repair and replacement. My goodness, he had not even checked inside my car. I thought he was very snooty.

I called BCAA again to have my car towed to Honda along Fraser Highway. At least there, I have a regular customer service person, Malcolm, who attends to me and my car very well.

I sent my kids home, which was just around the corner, with our picnic food. “Mom, that’s why you shouldn’t be putting motor oil. The last time you did that, we had another problem,” Mickey said.

“I should have helped you, Mom,” Gabriel said. He was supposed to be my “oil assistant” that morning but he was busy with other things. Markus did it previously. I try to involve them in car maintenance so they will not grow up as ignorant about cars as I am.

At the Honda shop, Malcolm was very accommodating unlike that guy from Budget Brake and Muffler. However, it would not be until after lunch when my regular mechanic could see my car. I asked to be driven home by Honda service. On the way, I recounted what just happened to my car to Terry, the Honda driver.

“Oh, at least you poured it in the right hole. Otherwise that would have been disastrous. Are you sure you did not use vegetable oil?” he teased me. He gave me very useful car care tips to avoid costly mistakes.

“Why do they sell motor oil in 4-litre containers if you’re not supposed to pour it all?” I complained.

During the next two hours, I nervously waited for a call from Malcolm. Oh God, I hope it’s not the gasket nor the engine. Just please make it be the least expensive trouble.

True enough, the problem was too much oil which was drained and replaced. I had other things checked and serviced too. Honda even washed my dusty car.

I would love to have a brand new or slightly used car in the future. My boys each have a favourite – a convertible for Gino, a VW beetle for Mickey, Hummer! for Gabriel, and vintage!! for Markus.

Me, I just want something that won’t give me a headache!!!


lhb said...

You were very lucky you stopped driving the car just in time. You could really have blown the cylinder head gasket.

You use the 4 liter oil container when you do an oil CHANGE, i.e., you drain the dirty oil first. For older cars that burn a little oil between scheduled oil changes, you may have to top off the oil from a 1 liter container. When the dipstick shows your oil level is at "Low", try adding half a liter of oil at a time, in between checkings of the dipstick.

You were also lucky that you have an honest Honda dealer who did not stick you with an unnecessary and expensive repair. Car dealers usually charge higher hourly rates but are the best qualified to service your car.

It may be worth your while to cultivate a "healthy relationship" with a nearby service station for routine maintenance such as oil changes. It won't invalidate your new car warranty if you keep the receipts. After your new car warranty has expired, you may want to have the car serviced at the cheaper neighborhood garage whom you already know. Of course, if you feel that the guy wasn't honest, from your dealings with him on small maintenance items, then move on and find another mechanic.

Checking the fluid levels of your car is not that hard to learn and it could save you enormously. Even if you don't want to re-fill the fluids yourself, knowing when to do so could save you from a very expensive repair.

At the gas pumps, (where you are parked on level ground - very important!) check your oil AFTER you fill up. This gives the oil a few minutes time to settle down at the bottom of the oil pan. If you check it right after you shut the engine, about half of the oil is still dripping from all over the inside of the engine and you won't get an accurate dipstick reading. Wipe the dipstick clean, re-insert it all the way down, then pull it out to take the reading.

The brake fluid reservoir is sometimes semi-transparent in a Honda. That is so you don't have to open the cap to check the brake fluid level. The brake fluid deteriorates when exposed to air. Avoid opening the reservoir if you can. Keep the sides of the reservoir clean and all you have to do is jiggle the car a bit (push the car gently from side to side) when the hood is up and you can see the brake fluid level as it jiggles inside the transparent reservoir.

You should never have to open a radiator cap to check the coolant level. You check the coolant level on the reservoir outside the radiator. It should have two markings - Hot and Cold. The coolant level should be on Cold if you are checking it in the morning after it's been parked overnight. If you are checking it at the gas pumps, it should be at the Hot level because you have just been driving.

For windshield washer fluid, I always have a funnel and a 4 liter jug in the car, especially in the spring and fall when the light rains and mist tend to make you squirt the washer a lot of times. Nothing can describe the horrible feeling of driving blind against the sun and the windshield is caked with mud and you have nothing to squirt!

The other fluids you may want to check, although less frequently, are your power steering fluid and the transmission fluid. But this comment is already getting too long. You know what? Just pull up to a full service station every once in a while and after the gas boy finishes filling your car up, ask him to check your fluid levels. Stand beside him and watch what he does so you'll learn. So what if he charges you a couple of bucks more for a liter of oil or coolant? It would definitely be a lot cheaper than an engine repair.


P.S. I was the hunk who helped you with the air pump. How quickly you forget! :) Oh yes, buy yourself a tire gauge. The gauge on the air pumps at gas stations are always wrong. A tire gauge costs only about a buck.

lerryblossoms said...

WOW! I will have to print this and keep with the manual. How do you know all these things? Are you a mechanic? I have to digest these info one bit at a time. Thanks for your help. Well appreciated!

lhb said...

I'm not a mechanic. If I were, I'd be as rich as a plumber! :)

I'm just echoing to you what I've learned from all the years of reading the Consumer Reports magazine. I'm not a magazine salesman either. :) Check out back issues of Consumer Reports at a public library. The articles are mainly from an American point of view but you can still glean a lot of info that would be useful to a Canadian.

Good luck with your car!


lerryblossoms said...

well, you certainly know what you're talking about.

good luck on your painting!

ps. i think you can write so well. why is your blog empty?

lhb said...

Thanks. the painting is now done. We're finally ripping off the masking tape.

My blog is not empty. My setting is set such that it is not public. Sorry, I can't invite you. My blog is so "secret", only my friends at the CIA know about it. :) :) Just kidding! just kidding! I hope the guys at the CIA and Homeland Security who monitor the internet can take a joke.

BTW, how did you get rid of the spam comment from "corvettes"? It now says "Deleted by administrator". Are the guys at Google really that efficient? They should work for Homeland Security! :)


lhb said...

Oh! one more comment about your car - you drive a Honda and you have a Korean homestay? I used to work with a Korean lady and she and her family would never buy Japanese cars. They were so emotionally scarred by WWII that even after the passage of so many years and despite their migrating abroad, they still hated the Japanese so much. Too bad for them, though. They kept getting stuck with some of the worst GM lemons.

Maybe your Korean homestay is too young to have the same mindset.

Ooops! I think I have given away my age with this comment.


lerryblossoms said...

to remove a spam comment, log in first then go to the post with the unwanted comment. click the trash can underneath the comment. you can choose whether to delete the comment or delete it forever. the first one just says "this comment has been removed..." the other one leaves no trace of it at all.

and how did you know corvettes was a spam? i thought i had 2 fans. shucks!

ps. yes, my korean is very young. he's looking forward to visiting japan as part of their studies in college.

pps. you know history too? i am guessing you are retired with a lot of time in your hands to keep checking out my blog :)