The best way to keep your vehicle running clean, lean and green is to follow the maintenance instructions in the owner's manual. It will tell you everything you need to know, from what type of vehicle oil to use and how often it should be changed, to recommended intervals for engine and transmission checks. Failing to follow this maintenance regime could void your vehicle's warranty.
If you don't have an owner's manual for your vehicle, contact the dealer or manufacturer and ask for a copy. Don't guess at maintenance, and don't rely on the advice of friends, neighbours or family members. Maintenance requirements vary widely from one vehicle to another.
To ensure maximum fuel economy and to keep the manufacturer's warranty valid, your vehicle must be maintained to the standards recommended in the owner's manual. A poorly maintained vehicle can boost fuel consumption by up to 15 percent and increase toxic emissions by even more.
With today's sophisticated engines and on-board computer systems, it just makes sense to leave the servicing of your vehicle in the hands of trained automotive professionals. They have the knowledge and tools to diagnose and correct problems and to put you on the road to safe, fuel-efficient driving.
That doesn't mean you should ignore your vehicle between scheduled maintenance checks or until you have a breakdown. By understanding how different vehicle components affect fuel efficiency, you can better appreciate the importance of maintenance and your role in keeping your vehicle in peak running condition.
Perform a monthly check
Most maintenance should be left to the professionals. However, once a month you should perform the following checks to help identify and head off problems that can cost you fuel and money down the road:
- Measure tire pressure and look for signs of uneven wear or embedded objects that can cause air leaks. In winter, measure tire pressure whenever there is a sharp change in temperature.
- Check around the car and under the engine for fluid leaks. You can often identify the type of fluid that is leaking by its colour. Oil is black, coolant is a bright greenish yellow, automatic transmission fluid is pink, and power steering and brake fluids are clear, with a slight brown tinge. All of these fluids are oily to the touch.
- Check fluid levels, including engine oil, engine coolant level, transmission fluid and power steering fluid, according to the instructions in the owner's manual.
- Check under the hood for cracked or split spark plug wires, cracked radiator hoses or loose clamps and corrosion around the battery terminals.
- Check for problems with the brakes. On a straight, flat and traffic-free stretch of road, rest your hands lightly on the steering wheel and apply the brakes gradually. If the vehicle swerves to one side, one of the brake linings may be worn more than the other, or the brakes may need adjustment.
- Use a similar test to check for problems with wheel alignment. On a straight, flat and traffic-free stretch of road, rest your hands lightly on the steering wheel and drive at an even speed. If the vehicle pulls to one side, the wheels may be misaligned.
A guide to Auto$mart vehicle maintenance: Engine oil
Changing the engine oil regularly according to the manufacturer's recommendations is one of the best ways to keep your vehicle in top operating condition. Oil lubricates the moving parts of the engine, preventing metal-to-metal contact, minimizing friction and carrying away excess heat – all of which promote better fuel efficiency and reduced emissions. Motor oil also removes dirt, metal shavings and other impurities from the engine and captures them in the oil filter. You can pay a severe penalty for neglecting engine oil, possibly even needing to replace the engine itself.
For best engine performance, fuel efficiency and reduced emissions, use only the oil recommended in the owner's manual. Some manufacturers specifically advise against using oil additives.
Most engine oils sold for light-duty vehicles are multigrades, such as 10W30 or 5W30. Today's vehicles are generally designed to use 5W30 oil year-round, although some manufacturers are beginning to specify 10W30 oil. Older vehicles often need 10W30 in summer but can switch to 5W30 in winter. By using the lowest multigrade of oil recommended in your owner's manual, you can improve the fuel efficiency of the engine, particularly when starting it cold.
When purchasing motor oil, look for the two labels shown on the product container. The label on the right side of the container appears with virtually all motor oils sold in Canada. The middle of the label shows the multigrade (for example, it might read 5W30). At the top is the oil's service rating, and at the bottom is its rating as "Energy Conserving." If the label on the far left also appears on the container, the oil has passed a series of rigorous tests and product quality audits of oils on the automotive retailer's shelf.
The best oils for fuel economy carry the label "Energy Conserving." With energy-conserving oils, you may use as much as 2.7 percent less fuel than with other oils.
You might want to consider using a re-refined motor oil in your vehicle as an alternative to "virgin" oil products. Engine oil recovered from oil changes is taken to a recycling plant and rejuvenated. The necessary detergents and additives are replaced in the oil, and impurities are removed. The result is an oil that has similar properties to mainstream motor oil products. Re-refined oil certified with the EcoLogo mark performs as well as motor oil from original sources.
If you change the oil yourself, take the old oil to your service station for recycling. One litre of engine oil can contaminate 2 million litres of water.
Synthetic oils also offer an advantage over mineral oils, particularly under extreme weather or performance conditions. Synthetic motor oil is manufactured, rather than refined from crude oil, which means it can be specially formulated to have extremely good flow characteristics and resistance to viscosity breakdown. However, keep in mind that synthetic oil is more expensive than conventional motor oil.
Your owner's manual will tell you what type of oil to use and how often to have it changed. Taking into account Canada's roads and climate conditions, the average time between oil changes is every three months, or 5000 kilometres.
A guide to Auto$mart vehicle maintenance: Cooling systems
The role of the cooling system is to keep the engine at its optimal operating temperature. Outside this range, fuel consumption increases, as do emissions and engine wear.
The cooling system will perform properly only if it receives regular maintenance. This includes monitoring the coolant level in the overflow tank, regularly inspecting hoses for cracks or loose clamps, and adjusting belts, where applicable (most new vehicles have self-tensioning belts). Coolant degrades over time, and it's important to change it as specified by the manufacturer. Antifreeze concentration should also be tested every fall so that the engine will be adequately protected for the winter.
A guide to Auto$mart vehicle maintenance: Ignition systems
Regular maintenance of your vehicle's ignition system is critical in maximizing fuel efficiency. The spark plugs in a gasoline engine ignite the air-fuel mixture. If one or more of the plugs is worn or malfunctioning, the engine will misfire, and some fuel will remain unburned. Worn or damaged spark plug wires can also cause misfiring. A misfiring engine wastes fuel, produces higher levels of emissions and generally performs poorly.
Signs of misfiring can be subtle, which is why it is important to follow the manufacturer's recommendations on engine checks and spark plug and ignition wire replacement. Regular spark plugs typically last 48 000 kilometres, while platinum plugs can last 160 000 kilometres. Some manufacturers recommend changing spark plug wires at 96 000 kilometres; others suggest they be replaced only as required.
Vehicles with distributors require additional ignition system maintenance. This is another good reason to have your engine tuned up regularly.
A guide to Auto$mart vehicle maintenance: Emission-control systems
Modern vehicles are equipped to treat exhaust emissions before they are released into the atmosphere. The emission-control system must be inspected and maintained according to the manufacturer's recommendations. If it is not, your vehicle could be a major polluter.
If you experience problems such as stalling or poor acceleration, or if your exhaust produces black or blue smoke, your vehicle is probably polluting the air and needs servicing.
Vehicles manufactured after 1996 have an on-board diagnostics system that monitors emission-related components and alerts the driver to problems by triggering the "Service Engine Soon" or "Check Engine" light. By detecting problems before they become noticeable to the driver, this system can help you avoid hefty repair bills. Whenever one of these warning lights comes on, consult your owner's manual for instructions. For vehicles manufactured before 1996, the only way to be sure the emission-control system is working is to have it tested.
A study of 124 vehicles that failed an emission test conducted under the Government of British Columbia's AirCare program showed that fuel consumption improved by 15 percent when the emission-control system was repaired. For the average driver, that represents a savings of $200 a year in fuel alone.
A guide to Auto$mart vehicle maintenance: Other mechanical systems
Your vehicle's air systems need to be inspected according to the timetable in your owner's manual. Air for the engine passes through the air filter, which removes dust and dirt that could damage the engine. A dirty air filter may reduce acceleration performance. Replace the air filter according to the recommendations of your owner's manual.
Fuel also passes through a filter on the way from the tank to the engine. Consult your owner's manual for how often your fuel system should be inspected, including the fuel lines, tank and cap. A leaking fuel system is dangerous, increases fuel consumption and gives off evaporative emissions when the fuel is released into the atmosphere.
A guide to Auto$mart vehicle maintenance: Tires and wheel alignment
Here's where the rubber meets the road! Rolling resistance is a key factor that affects a vehicle's fuel efficiency, and the best way to reduce rolling resistance is to maintain correct tire pressure. Operating a vehicle with just one tire under-inflated by 8 psi (56 kPa) can reduce the life of the tire by 15 000 kilometres and increase the vehicle's fuel consumption by 4 percent.
You might find resistance in your tires if you don't maintain them. Rolling resistance results in premature tread wear when your tires are under-inflated, increasing fuel consumption. Measure tire pressure (when tires are cold) at least once a month and on days when the temperature has dropped significantly. Also check your tires for uneven wear, which could be a sign of over-inflation, under-inflation or improper wheel alignment.
Under-inflated tires are estimated to cost Canadian light-duty vehicle owners almost 643 million litres of fuel annually. At $0.79 per litre for regular unleaded gasoline, that amounts to more than $500 million a year in wasted fuel.
Rotating your tires helps prolong their life and improve fuel economy. On most vehicles, they should be rotated every 10 000 kilometres, or about twice a year. Consult your owner's manual for the recommended rotation pattern and frequency for your vehicle.
Tire pressure needs special attention in cold weather. It can be expected to drop by about 1 psi (7 kPa) for every 5°C drop in temperature. Tires also lose a certain amount of pressure due to their permeability – by some estimates, as much as 2 psi (14 kPa) per month.
Regular tire inspections are therefore crucial to improving your vehicle's fuel economy and reducing emissions. This inspection should include the following:
- Measure tire pressure at least once a month when the tires are cold. The vehicle manufacturer's recommended pressure for the front and rear tires is specified on a plate or sticker attached to the edge of the driver's door, the door post, the glove compartment or the fuel tank door (the pressure marked on the tire itself is the maximum pressure and is not likely to be the same as the manufacturer's recommended pressure). If you can't find the plate, check the owner's manual or consult your dealer. And don't forget to measure the pressure of the spare tire – you never know when you might need it.
- Check for uneven wear, which can be an indication of chronic under-inflation or over-inflation, improper wheel alignment or tire balancing, or a problem with the suspension system.
- Check for imbedded stones, glass or other foreign objects that could work into the tread and cause a leak.
Measuring tire pressure
Measure tire pressure when the tires are cold – i.e., when the vehicle has been stationary for at least three hours or has not been driven more than two kilometres.
Note: If you have an under-inflated tire, return it to the proper inflation as soon as possible. If you must drive more than two kilometres, measure the tire pressure again. Using the following example, inflate the tire to the correct pressure:
- If the correct pressure is 35 psi (241 kPa), and three tires are at that pressure but one is at 28 psi (193 kPa), this tire is 7 psi (48 kPa) under-inflated (20 percent under-inflation, which means 4 percent excess fuel consumption).
- If you drive eight kilometres to find an air pump, all of your tires will warm up. The three correct ones may rise to 37 psi (255 kPa), and the under-inflated tire could be at 30 psi (207 kPa). The low tire is still 7 psi (48 kPa) under-inflated.
- Inflate the low tire to 37 psi (255 kPa). It's all right to exceed the normal recommended pressure, because the tire is no longer cold and warm tires gain pressure (tire manufacturers allow for this in tire design). The three tires that were correctly inflated when cold should not be adjusted.
- It's advisable to purchase your own tire pressure gauge because those at air pumps are often inaccurate or missing.
It's also a good idea to rotate your tires regularly to distribute the wear evenly among all four tires. In addition to promoting long tire life, this will help your tires deliver the best possible economy and safety. The recommended rotation pattern for your vehicle is shown in the owner's manual. The general practice is to rotate tires every 10 000 kilometres – twice a year for most drivers.
Not all tires are created equal. Bias-belted tires are stiffer than radial tires and have a higher rolling resistance, which makes the engine work harder to move the car down the road. If you need to replace a tire, consult your owner's manual or a tire professional for information on the right type and size for your vehicle.
From an energy efficiency point of view, the most desirable attributes of a replacement tire are low rolling resistance and long tire life. Most tire professionals are aware of the importance of rolling resistance and can discuss tire choices accordingly. Generally, a 10 percent reduction in rolling resistance will result in a 2 percent reduction in fuel consumption.
For the best performance, ask a tire professional to help you choose quality tires with a low rolling resistance and a long projected tread life that will meet your vehicle and driving needs.
Wheel alignment and balancing
Wheel alignment should be checked once a year. Misaligned tires will drag instead of rolling freely. This will increase fuel consumption, reduce tire life and cause problems with the vehicle's handling and ride.
Wheels should also be balanced. If they are out of balance, the driver will feel a pounding or shaking through the steering wheel. This pounding will shorten the life of other suspension components and will produce uneven tire wear, which will increase fuel consumption. Tires that are not balanced exhibit "cupping," a wear pattern that looks like a series of bald spots.
A guide to Auto$mart vehicle maintenance: Brakes
While keeping your car going is important, so is getting your car to stop. Brakes that are squealing, grinding, pulling the vehicle to one side or are "soft" could be dragging, meaning the brake pad or shoe is not releasing from the disc or drum. If you wait too long to have your brakes serviced, the pads and shoes can wear to the point where they damage other components and increase your repair costs – not to mention that your engine is working harder to overcome the resistance.
Dragging brakes (when the brake pad or shoe fails to release from the disc or drum) can significantly increase fuel consumption because the vehicle must work harder to overcome the resistance. This also reduces brake life and effectiveness, making the vehicle harder to drive. It is important to have your brakes inspected and the brake fluid checked and changed at the interval specified in the owner's manual.
If you wait too long to have your brakes serviced, the pads and shoes can wear to the point where they damage other components and increase your repair costs.
Warning signs that your brakes need servicing include squealing and grinding noises, brake fade (loss of braking effectiveness because of excess heat in the brakes), pulling of the vehicle to one side, or a "soft" or pulsating brake pedal.