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How to Perform a Basic Tune up for Your Car

Photo by Helgi Halldórsson on Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0.
Photo by Helgi Halldórsson on Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0.

Ever done a car tune up on your own? Even though car repairs can be a hefty expense, even if you’re a novice with a wrench, there are plenty of repairs and routine maintenance tasks that don’t require expensive equipment or years of experience. If you’re willing to get your hands dirty, you can save a lot of money by looking after your own vehicle. In this article, we’ll go over the tools you’ll need and the steps necessary to tackle some of the most common auto repairs yourself.

Things to Add to Your Car Tune Up List:

1. Air Filter Replacement

Image courtesy of Chris Billman on Flicke / CC BY 2.0.
Image courtesy of Chris Billman on Flickr / CC BY 2.0.

Replacing your car’s air filter regularly is one of the simplest car tune up tasks, and it can make your engine run noticeably better.

  • Tools needed: New air filter, rags
  • Time needed: 10 minutes.
  • Difficulty: Simple.
  • When to do it: Every 30,000 miles or once a year, whichever is first.

Your air filter prevents debris from entering your engine, but over time it can become clogged. Replacing it will allow air to flow freely into the engine. To begin, first identify the type of air filter that you will need; if you don’t already know the model, you can find the information in your owner’s manual or at an auto parts shop. Turn off the engine and place the car in park, and then open up the hood. Locate the air filter housing and open it up, taking care to place any fasteners in a secure location. Remove the old filter from the housing and clean out the housing as best as you can. Finally, insert the new filter into the housing and close it up.

2. Fuel Filter Replacement

Photo by Phasmatisnox on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0 / GNU FDL 1.2.
Photo by Phasmatisnox on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0 / GNU FDL 1.2.

Like your air filter, your fuel filter prevents debris from fouling the interior of your car’s engine. Replacing it can prevent you from experiencing a sudden loss of power while driving, so make sure to include it to your car tune up list.

  • Tools needed: New fuel filter, new fuel filter washers, open-end wrenches, rags, eye protection, flathead screwdriver.
  • Time needed: 30 minutes.
  • Difficulty: Advanced.
  • When to do it: Once a year.

Before beginning, make sure that any potential sources of heat or sparks are removed from your work area. Wear eye protection throughout the procedure.

Begin by relieving the pressure in your fuel lines; the easiest way to do this is to remove the fuse that controls your fuel pump while the engine is running. When the engine shuts off, most of the fuel will have been drained from the lines. Open up the hood and locate the fuel filter. Attach your wrenches to the bolts holding the fuel lines in place; after covering the fitting with rags, twist your wrenches to loosen the bolts. Set the bolt aside and remove the fuel filter once it’s free of the lines. You may need to use a screwdriver to release the filter from its clamp. Replace the old washers with new washers, and then install your new filter, fitting the hoses into place as they were on the old filter. Reattach the bolts. Check for any leaks before starting the engine again. Remember to re-insert the fuel pump fuse into your fuse box before starting the engine.

3. Oil Change

Photo by Myke Waddy on Wikimedia Commons / CC0 Public Domain.
Photo by Myke Waddy on Wikimedia Commons / CC0 Public Domain.

Changing your car’s oil is the most basic and commonly performed maintenance task. Clean oil keeps your engine running smoothly and ensures that it lasts as long as possible.

  • Tools needed: Jack stand, wrench or ratchet, filter wrench, oil pan, funnel
  • Time needed: 30 minutes.
  • Difficulty: Intermediate.
  • When to do it: Every 3,000-10,000 miles, depending on your vehicle and the oil used.

To begin, identify the type and amount of oil that you’ll need; you can find this information in your owner’s manual. You’ll also need to acquire a replacement oil filter.

Put on gloves and appropriate eye protection. Lift the car using your jack stands; you’ll be working underneath your car, so make sure that your stands are sturdy and reliable. Locate the drain plug for your engine oil and position your oil pan beneath it. Using your wrench or ratchet, twist the drain plug until it comes loose. Drain the oil into the pan. Once the oil stops flowing, locate your oil filter and position the pan underneath it. Loosen the filter by hand and drain any remaining oil into the pan. Replace the drain plug and then install your new oil filter, taking care not to overtighten either part. Finally, open the oil tank valve and pour your new oil into the engine using a funnel. Replace your oil cap when you’re done.

4. Replace Spark Plugs

Replacing Spark Plugs. Photo by Myke Waddy on Wikimedia Commons / CC0 Public Domain.
Replacing Spark Plugs. Photo by Myke Waddy on Wikimedia Commons / CC0 Public Domain.

Your spark plugs provide the ignition spark that keeps your engine cycle running. When they begin to wear out, your engine may misfire.

  • Tools needed: Ratchet or socket wrench, 12″ socket extender, spark plug socket.
  • Time needed: 20-30 minutes.
  • Difficulty: Simple.
  • When to do it: Every 30,000 – 120,000 miles, depending on your spark plugs.

When you’re replacing your spark plugs, it’s important that you only work on one plug at a time. The order of installation matters when it comes to the timing of your plugs, and the easiest way to preserve that order is to only work on one plug at a time.

Begin by gently removing the wire from the first spark plug. Once the wire has been removed, use your spark plug socket with your ratchet to uninstall the plug; use the extender if space is tight or you need extra leverage. Screw in the replacement plug by hand, and then tighten it until snug with your ratchet; don’t overtighten, however. Finally, replace the wire on the new spark plug. Repeat this process for each individual spark plug.

5. Battery Maintenance

Image courtesy of pixabay.org / CC0 1.0.
Image courtesy of pixabay.org / CC0 1.0.

Your battery provides the power necessary to start your car and run your electronics. Over time, it will wear out, but proper maintenance can extend its life.

  • Tools needed: Wrenches, corrosion-removal fluid, wire brush, rags.
  • Time needed: 20 minutes.
  • Difficulty: Simple.
  • When to do it: Every 3-6 months.

Always wear eye protection and gloves while working with your battery. To begin, make sure the engine and all electronics are turned off. Locate your battery and inspect it for any visible damage. Remove the leads from the terminals using your wrench. If your battery requires you to fill it with water, open the refill well and check the water level; if it’s below the bottom of the refill well, add water until it reaches the mark. Next, clean the terminals using your wire brush and the corrosion-removal fluid.

If you need to change your battery, this process is also fairly simple. After turning off all electronics, remove the leads from the battery as before. Also unscrew the retaining bar that holds the battery in place. Lift the battery out of its place and put the new battery in its place. Reattach the leads and screw the retaining bar back in place.

6. Replace Distributor Cap and Rotors

Distributor Cap. Photo by dave_7 on Flickr / CC BY 2.0.
Distributor Cap. Photo by dave_7 on Flickr / CC BY 2.0.

Your distributor controls the firing sequence of your spark plugs, ensuring that your cylinders fire in the right order. Over time, the caps and rotors inside of your distributor can wear out.

  • Tools needed: Screwdriver, ratchet and socket set
  • Time needed: 10-15 minutes
  • Difficulty: Simple
  • When to do it: Every 30,000 miles.

Locate your distributor; you should be able to find it thanks to the thick spark plug wires running to it. Before removing the old cap, label each of the wires with the appropriate spark plug number. Remove the old cap, using a screwdriver or ratchet to loosen any fastenings holding the cap in place. After the cap is removed, lift up the old rotor from the shaft. Install the new rotor, taking care to install it according to the markings on it. Install the new cap on top of it; the rotor should have a marking indicating the position of the first spark plug wire. The new cap should be installed so that the first spark plug port rests in the same location as it did on the original cap. Transfer the spark plug wires from the old cap to the new cap, installing them in the same order to preserve the firing sequence of your engine.

7. Radiator Flush

Photo by Maly LOLek on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0.
Photo by Maly LOLek on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Your radiator helps keep your engine from overheating, but over time, sludge can build up in your coolant, reducing its effectiveness. Flushing your radiator to clean out this sludge should always be inclued on your car tune up list.

  • Tools needed: Screwdriver or wrench, rags, funnel, jack, drain pan, empty containers
  • Time needed: 60-90 minutes
  • Difficulty: Simple.
  • When to do it: Every 30,000-50,000 miles or longer, depending on your coolant

Make sure that your engine has been turned off for at least two hours before beginning; otherwise, the coolant may be hot enough to burn you. It is important that you wear gloves throughout the entire procedure, as antifreeze is highly toxic.

Begin by jacking up the front of your car. Locate the radiator drain valve underneath your engine and place a drain pan underneath it. Open up the valve and allow the coolant to drain out; you may need to use a wrench or a screwdriver to open the valve. Once the coolant has drained, pour it into an empty container and set it aside to be recycled at an auto parts store later.

Next, replace the drain valve and fill your radiator with water until it reaches the fill line. Turn on your engine for a few minutes, then turn it off and allow the engine to cool again. Drain the water from your radiator, and repeat the process once more before moving on to the next step.

Mix the new antifreeze with water in a 50/50 solution; make sure you only use the antifreeze formula recommended for your vehicle. Pour the new coolant into your radiator until it reaches the fill line. Take off the radiator cap and turn on your engine; let it run for about 15 minutes to bleed any air pockets out of your coolant system. The escaping air will lower the fill level in your reservoir, so you’ll need to add additional coolant to the engine afterwards.

8. Inspect and Change Belts

Image courtesy of pixabay.org / CC0 1.0.
Image courtesy of pixabay.org / CC0 1.0.

Much like the chain on a bicycle, your engine contains a number of belts that transfer excess energy from your crankshaft to power a number of necessary engine parts, including pumps, alternators and more. If a belt is damaged or breaks, these parts may lose power.

  • Tools needed: Light, wrench, ratchet, auto tensioner
  • Time needed: 30-60 minutes
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • When to do it: Every 60,000-100,000 miles

Park your car in a level location with good lighting. Pop open the hood and hang your light for better visibility within your engine compartment. Look around until you see the belts; they’ll likely be on the side of the engine. Inspect the belt for obvious damage or wear, including fraying, chipping or cracking.

If the belt needs to be replaced, begin by finding a routing diagram for the belt; you’ll need to install the new belt in exactly the same configuration. Locate the tensioner and release it to make the belt slack; if there is no tensioner, you may simply be able to move one of the pulleys to introduce slack in the belt. You may be able to use simple hand tools to release the tensioner, but you may need to use an auto tensioner. Slide the old belt off the pulleys, and then install the new belt, taking care to thread it onto the pulleys according to the routing diagram. Make sure that you also installed it with the correct facing. Return the tensioner into position to complete installation.

9. Rotate Your Tires

Image courtesy of pixabay.org / CC0 1.0.
Image courtesy of pixabay.org / CC0 1.0.

Over time, driving will result in uneven wear on your tires. To prevent this uneven wear from getting too imbalanced, it’s important to rotate your tires periodically.

  • Tools needed: Jack, lug wrench, breaker bar, wheel blocks
  • Time needed: 30-60 minutes.
  • Difficulty: Simple.
  • When to do it: Every 5,000-10,000 miles.

Consult your owner’s manual to determine safe jacking spots for your vehicle before beginning. Place your car in park and engage the hand brake, and then place wheel blocks behind each of your wheels to prevent your car from rolling. Pull out your spare tire to use as a placeholder while you rotate your tires. Begin by using your lug wrench and breaker bar to loosen the lug nuts on the first wheel; when you loosen or tighten lug nuts, make sure to do so in a cross pattern to prevent damage to the wheel. After loosening the lug nuts, jack up the car to lift that wheel into the air. Twist off the lug nuts by hand and remove the wheel from the vehicle.

Install the spare onto the empty spot and lower the car from the jack. Next, remove the wheel on the opposite end of the vehicle in the same fashion; if you started with the left front wheel, for example, you’d next remove the left rear wheel. Install your original left front wheel where the left rear wheel was and then replace the spare tire on the left front of the vehicle with your original left rear wheel. Repeat this process on the other side of the vehicle. If you own a set of jack stands that can elevate all four wheels at once, you can greatly speed up your tire rotation.

10. Replace Your Brake Pads

Image courtesy of pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.
Image courtesy of pixabay.com / CC0 1.0.

Your brakes are possibly the most important safety feature on your vehicle, but they wear out over time. Replacing them will prevent painful noise and ensure that they function at their best. Only include this onto your at home car tune up list if you are sure you are doing everything right.

  • Tools needed: Jack, jack stands, lug wrench, breaker bar, ratchet set or adjustable wrench, c-clamp
  • Time needed: 90-120 minutes.
  • Difficulty: Advanced
  • When to do it: Every 35,000 miles.

Loosen the lug nuts on your wheels using your lug wrench and breaker bar. Lift your car using the jack and position the jack stands underneath the car to hold it in the air. Remove the lug nuts with hand tools and remove the wheels from your car. Remove the lower bolt from your caliper. You should be able to rotate your caliper away from the rotor, exposing the brake pads. The pads should only be held in place by some retaining clips; slide the pads out by hand.

If your new brake pads included new retaining clips, then discard the old clips and replace them with the new clips. Your new pads may also have included a packet of graphite grease; apply it to the retaining clips. Slide the new pads into place. Use the C-clamp to depress the pistons on the caliper and slide it over the new brake pad. Reinstall the lower bolt to hold the caliper in place and then reinstall the wheel. Repeat the process for each of your brake pads.

If you’re willing to get your hands dirty, you can become more in tune with your car and save some money while you’re at it.

Are there any other maintenance tasks that we left off?

What tune-ups have you done on your own car?