Avoid these maintenance scams and save a bundle!
After 30 years in the automotive world, Richard Reina knows the value of a good “Eddie.” The Product Training Director at CARiD.com, spent his entire career in automotive repair with several dealers before working for Euro car manufacturers. He can diagnose most problems on sight, but still, when doing the job right requires time or tools he doesn’t have, he goes to see Eddie, the mechanic at his local gas station.
“The old cliché is true: A good mechanic is worth their weight in gold,” Reina says with a smile. “Having a relationship with a good honest mechanic like Eddie will always save you money in the long run.”
But there is no old cliché about how much the auto industry actually preys on guys who don’t want to admit when they don’t know something*. This is a question that gets worse when you ask. Many guys—certainly not you, of course, but other guys—don’t know offhand how often they should change their oil vs. their transmission fluid.
Luckily, this is a great example of when being a nerd really pays off: Don’t ask anyone. Just look it up in the manual that came with your car (which, if missing, can be found online). They made your car, they made the book, they know what it needs and every manufacturer will lay out a schedule of maintenance based on the odometer reading. And it’s shocking how much money you can blow over time. “You’re not gaining anything, or getting longer life out of the car by over-maintaining it,” notes Reina.
So before you pour a fortune into the gas tank and every other section of your road warrior, take note of all the ways you’re getting hosed.
When you put “midgrade” into your car a switch between the tanks sends up one-third premium and two-thirds regular. But you get charged for half and half.
The guys who make the oil say change it every 3,000 miles, the guys who make the oil filter say every 5,000 miles, but the car manufacturer might say don’t do it until 10,000 miles. Check the manual. “Today’s oil is higher quality, and combined with an oil filter that weeds out contaminants, it lasts much longer,” Reina explains. “When it is time to change, doing it yourself also saves you money.”
Transmission, air conditioning, coolant: often a huge waste of perfectly good fluids and money. Too many dealers push this as required maintenance. “There’s a big different between an oil change and an oil flush. There is no advantage to spending the extra money for a fluid flush. Modern engines are frequently being tuned by on-board computers, and they will alert you when something is not working correctly. ”
I know. After the oil thing you’re not going to believe that the other half of the petroleum industry is also made up of market-savvy a-holes. So let’s just break it down: “Using premium fuel in a lot of cases is another waste of money. I’m talking about basic cars, both domestic and European. An Audi or Lexus. Some manufacturers will recommend premium fuel, but not require it.”
Let this be your only guide: “Try a tank full of Premium fuel and see if you notice a difference. If not, you’re wasting money.” If that difference is worth the price to you, the consumer, go ahead. If not, regular is fine.
Car guys have debated this for decades and it’s worth noting: Decades ago cars were made for higher-octane leaded fuels that are no longer available. “I own an older Alfa Romeo, a 1968.” Reina says. “And fuel octane was higher in 1968 so I put Premium in my Alfa.”
So that covers Premium. Trust us, don’t even ask about Midgrade…
OK, fine: When you put “midgrade” into your car a switch between the tanks sends up one-third premium and two-thirds regular. But you get charged for half and half. The oil industry is, from top to bottom, awful for us, our planet and, oftentimes, our self-respect. If you want to try midgrade just wait until your tank of regular gets to about two-thirds full and fill it up with one-third Premium. “There is no risk of damage from switching fuel grades,” Reina says.
Out of nowhere you might get a card in the mail from your dealership saying they recommend you get your spark plugs replaced every 50,000 miles. Again, check the back of your manual. Most modern manufacturers recommend changing spark plugs every 100,000 miles.
Let’s say for example that you graduated college with zero prospects and a 1989 Toyota Corolla, like I once did. Maybe I barely had money to put gas in the tank, but by keeping an eye on fluids I could avoid costly problems on the horizon.
No Cost Maintenance
Whether you wanna keep things nice for when you bring your car to Eddie or you just cannot afford a breakdown on your way to a job interview, you don’t need to spend a dime having someone else check your fluid levels. “The manufacturers have gone to lengths to color code them so they’re easy to find.” Here’s a quick guide to checking a couple major ones.
Park the car on level ground.
Shift into Neutral or Park.
Turn the engine off.
Wait 5 minutes.
Wipe dipstick with paper towel, reinsert.
Remove to check level.
Park the car on level ground.
Leave the engine running.
Repeat with transmission fluid dipstick as above.
“If the oil gets low and you have a leak it might cost you $100, but if you ignore it you could seize the engine and destroy the car,” Reina warns. “It’s the same with transmission.”
Let’s say for example that you graduated college with zero prospects and a 1989 Toyota Corolla, like I once did. Maybe I barely had money to put gas in the tank, but by keeping an eye on fluids I could avoid costly problems on the horizon. And I could save up some money to have Eddie take a look at it when I noticed a spike in fluid consumption.
A portrait of the author changing oil on a road trip in Montana in 2000. Note: You never want to change your oil using a jack. In a pinch you can just back it up onto a curb. Note: We don’t recommend being in a pinch.
The Truth About Tires
Well-maintained tires not only improve your gas mileage, but also they wear out less frequently, saving you TONS of money in the long run. “Last thing you want is to be coming home on a Saturday night on a date and you get a flat.” A leaky tire could blow on the highway. A blown tire could mean replacing an expensive damaged rim. Eddie’s gonna be pissed at you. Remember this: When you’re filling up at the gas station, don’t check your phone, check your tires. Here’s how.
Checking Your Tire Pressure
The correct tire pressure for your car should be in the driver’s doorjamb by law.
“Do NOT inflate them to the ‘max air pressure’ number molded into the tire sidewall!”
If you one of your tires appears low, fill it to the pressure listed in the doorjamb and keep an eye on it.
If the next time you check the same tire is low again, go see Eddie.
It will be less expensive (and safer) to plug a nail hole than to replace a tire ruined by driving on it while flat. “But if you notice it’s low and you go to Eddie, he could pull the nail out and plug the tire for $20.”
If this is your first car you should know that most flat tires are caused by improper maintenance rather than by suddenly running over something. Tires, like any other part of your car, are quite resilient and can be patched, plugged, rotated and adjusted to wear evenly.
When you’ve got a problem and you need to go see Eddie, having an organized list for him to consult will save him time, too. Which is good, because Eddie’s a great guy. But he does charge by the hour.
Changing Your Own Oil
This is the master class. Not for the casual car tourist as there are tools and safety equipment required. This has its ups and downs. It will certainly save money, but then dealing with how to dispose of the oil can be a pain. (No, you can’t pour it down a drain or toss it down the trash chute). It is, however, the perfect amount of effective and satisfying. You put clean oil in your car, you drive the damn thing for 10,000 miles and then you get to see how much gunk you can flush out. Couple things:
Required tools (non-negotiable)
A pair of ramps or jack stands, NOT your spare-tire jack: “Never get under a car with a regular jack. You risk injury and even death.”
Drain tub or pan for oil
Oil filter wrench or large pliers
Draining old oil
Get the care safely up on jack stands or ramps.
Secure the brake.
Remove the plug from the oil pan with a wrench
Let the oil drain into a drain tub
Replacing with new oil work backwards from there
Install new oil filter
Secure the plug in the oil pan with a wrench
Take the used oil drain tub away and store it safely.
Use a funnel to refill the engine oil.
Be graceful. Remember: Spilled oil can gunk up your engine and start a fire.
This is a time where making some notes here and there can save you money on maintenance and even help you later on when it’s time to sell the car. Plus, when you’ve got a problem and you need to go see Eddie, having an organized list for him to consult will save him time, too.
Which is good, because Eddie’s a great guy. But he does charge by the hour.
For more info on how you’re tossing away money at the dealer, check out this episode of my friend Adam Conover’s show on TruTV:
*Car dealerships, even though they should be the experts on your make of auto, are garbage institutions run on terrible laws who push unregulated repairs that even their own manufacturers would disagree with. But good luck complaining about it to your state representative or the Better Business Bureau: According to a study in the always-thrilling Journal of Economic Perspectives at Yale University, car dealerships account for 20 percent of state sales tax revenue. But because the manufacturers have got both the dealers and the states by the balls, dealerships are forced to turn a profit by tacking on extra services and pushing their expensive maintenance plans. Seriously, do you have any idea what undercoating is?