Critical Deployment Info: Basic Car Care


Whether it’s before, during or after deployment, you should know how to do the following services on your car: check the air, check the oil and jump your battery.

Do you have a set of jumper cables? If not, you’ll want to buy a set and keep it stored in your car. Whether the following information is new to you or more of a refresher course, consider printing this article and putting the copy in your car’s glove compartment for future reference.

Check the air in your tires.

Yes, this seems like a speech your dad gave you shortly after your turned 16 about the basic things you need to know about the car.

“Yadda, yadda, yadda” was all I heard. I was more concerned with getting those keys in my hot little hands.

Truth is, it’s been 16 years since my dad gave me that speech, and you would think a girl with a college education would know by now how to put air in the tires. Umm, no.

I didn’t think about that one-sided conversation again until last year when my husband was in Iraq. I hopped in the car one day and realized that one of my tires looked like a sagging elephant hide.

It took nearly an hour and, finally, a pleading phone call with my chuckling neighbor to put air back in the darn thing.

This time, you’ve got the keys in your hands, so listen up. This is how you check the air levels in your tires and how to perform a few other easy, but important, car care services.

Maintaining the proper amount of air in your tires is important for extending the life of your tires. Too much air could cause the tire to wear more on the inside edges. Having too little air will cause the tire to wear on the outside edges. Either way, having a tire that wears unevenly means you will have to pay to replace the tires sooner.

Step 1. If you’re at home, make sure you have a tire gauge on hand. It looks like a silver pen with a round valve stem on one end and a white meter that pops out on the other end.

Step 2. Know how much air pressure your tire requires. Find this information by looking on the tire. In small writing, there should be listed two digits and the letters “psi.” For example, it might read “35 psi.” The air pressure listed in the owner’s manual is correct only if you still have the original, factory-issued tires.

Step 3. Screw the cap off the tire’s valve stem, which is the piece sticking out of the side of the tire. No air will come out.

Step 4. Slide the round head of the air gauge onto the valve stem. You want to use the side of the head that is indented and is a hollow circle. The white gauge at the bottom of the tool will pop out. The number closest to the gauge is how much pressure you have.

Step 5. If you’re low, go to a gas station and put air in it. They may charge, so bring quarters and your pressure gauge with you. Don’t forget to screw the cap back on the tire’s valve stem before heading out.

Step 6. At the gas station, remove the cap from the valve stem and place the air hose on the valve. Squeeze the handle, and air will push into the tire. Some hoses have a pressure gauge that pops out when you let go of the handle.

Step 7. Stop and check your pressure. Use the gauge you brought if there is not one on the hose.

Step 8. If you added too much air, you now need to remove air. On the back of the gauge head, there is thin, silver knob that sticks up. Push this knob into the valve stem to release air. Then, turn the gauge back over to check the air pressure. Release as much air as necessary. If you release too much, start over at Step 3.

Check the oil

Experts suggest that you check the oil level in your car once a week to keep it running smoothly. If the levels become too low, the engine will wear out faster. If it becomes so low that the oil pressure warning light comes on, the engine can be destroyed in a matter of seconds.    

Don’t forget to also have your oil changed every 3,000 miles or every six months. Oil breaks down as it is used and, if it isn’t changed often, your engine will not perform as well. Ignoring oil changes completely, over time, can cause major problems in your engine.

Step 1. First, your car has to be level to get a proper reading. You can check the oil if the car is cold — for example, after sitting all night. You can check it while it is hot — for example, during a long trip. If you check the engine during a drip, turn the car off and let it settle for about five minutes so the oil can return to a resting state.

Step 2. Open the hood. Locate the dipstick. There are typically two dipsticks in an engine, one for the oil and one for the transmission. Each should be labeled. If they are not, transmission fluid is reddish pink. Oil is light brown when it is fresh, dark brown when it used or burnt.

Step 3. Have a napkin or rag in one hand (in a pinch, I used a new diaper), and pull the dipstick out with the other hand. If you are checking a cold engine, do not wipe the stick. If you are checking a hot engine, wipe the stick as you pull it out. Then, slide the stick back in for two seconds and pull it out immediately. Turn the stick slightly sideways so the warm oil doesn’t run down the stick.

Step 4. On the stick, there are two lines. If the oil residue is between these two marks, your oil level is good. If the residue is below the bottom line, you most likely need to aid oil.

Step 5. Adding oil can be a difficult and painstaking procedure. You must add oil sparingly and continue to check the level, frequently, as you add. If you add too much oil, the extra fluid will cause your engine to blow a seal and will cause a major oil leak. This may not sound like a big deal, but when this happens, the entire engine has to be pulled from the vehicle to fix the problem and in some cases, the transmission has to be rebuilt. And it does happen. I killed my very first car this way.

Step 6. To determine what kind of oil you need, look on the oil filler cap, which will normally have the type written on it. If it’s not there, check the vehicle’s owner manual. If you’re still unsure, go to a local parts store, and they can recommend the right type.

Step 5. When you add the oil, look for the oil filler cap, which is not necessarily near the dipstick. It should be clearly labeled. Open this cap, carefully pour very small amounts of oil in and then check the level again.

Step 6. If when you add oil, or when you check your oil, the residue on the dipstick is over the top line on the stick, you have too much oil and, again, could cause damage to your engine. The oil needs to be drained. This requires you crawl under the car, and your best bet is to take the car to a garage. It is a simple procedure but horribly messy. Do not drive the vehicle once you realize you have too much oil. Driving slow will not prevent possible damage.

How to jump start your battery

Step 1. Begin by determining whether your battery is dead. If the interior lights are out or if the motor makes a “click, click, click” sound when you try to start the car, your battery is probably dead. Batteries die fastest in extreme cold and extreme heat.

Step 2. Borrow a working vehicle and a set of jumper cables if you do not have some. Park the cars nose to nose or side by side, depending on the length of the jumper cables. Leave the borrowed car running.

Step 3. One set of jumper cables has four ends. The cables are split into two colors. Connect one end of the cable to the dead battery. Put one color on the positive side (clearly marked) and one color on the negative side. It doesn’t matter what color you choose, but you must match the same color to the positive and the same color to the negative when connecting to the live battery. A good rule of thumb to avoid confusion is to always use the black cable on the negative sides.

Step 4. Connect the other ends of the cables to the live battery. Again, be careful to match the colors. Use one color only for both positive sides and one color only for both negative sides. If you criss-cross the colors, you will cause a spark and could short the car’s electrical systems, which is really expensive to fix.

Step 5. Once connected, let the cars sit to allow the good battery to put some juice into the dead battery. After about five minutes, try to start your car. If it starts, leave it running, disconnect the cables from the batteries and immediately drive to an auto parts store. The store has equipment that can test whether the battery is good or bad. It also can test the alternator to see if it is charging the battery. These tests cannot be done by a home technician. If any of these problems exist, you will need a new battery or alternator. If you do not fix the problem immediately, your battery will continue to die, leaving you stranded, again. 

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