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By Jim Kerr

Vehicles are complex devices composed of thousands of parts that have to work together. As a technician, I get to see vehicles when things don’t work properly. In many situations, the cost of repairs could have been minimized by the driver paying attention to the vehicle and taking it in for service work sooner. So in that regard, here are some common sense tips that will help you keep your vehicle operating more economically and for a longer period of time.

First, pay attention to the warning lights on the dash when you first turn the ignition key to the “run” position. This is usually referred to as a “bulb check” and allows the driver to see if one of the warning lights isn’t working. There are many warning lights on vehicles so you may need the owner’s manual to decipher all of them. Red ones have the highest priority and the vehicle may be unsafe to drive, while amber lights indicate a problem but the vehicle can typically be driven to the repair shop. If the red “oil” light comes on, the engine probably doesn’t have oil pressure – turn it off now and have it towed!

Gauges are important too! Temperature gauges aren’t extremely accurate, but do represent what the engine is doing. Learn the “normal” position of your vehicle’s temperature gauge needle and then watch for changes. A gauge that is starting to rise above the normal could mean that the engine has a high load on it, such as climbing up mountain grades, or that the engine is starting to overheat perhaps because the coolant level is low or the radiator is blocked. Selecting a lower transmission gear, turning off the air conditioner and even turning on the heater are all methods of lowering the engine temperature if the gauge rises too far above normal.

If the gauge continues to climb, it is time to pull over. Engine damage can occur if the engine is operated at a temperature that is too hot. Aluminum cylinder heads will warp and the head gaskets will fail. Repairs can be several hundreds of dollars, just because the engine was too hot.

Watch where you park: look for new wet marks on the ground as you pull away. Many leaks start small and leave telltale drops beneath the vehicle long before damage starts to occur. Air conditioners drip condensed water onto the ground in the summer time near the front of the passenger side door, but if the liquid has a red or brown colour, it is usually oil. Green or yellow liquids may be engine coolant. You can spot a leak and have it repaired at your convenience.

Noises are another symptom of a vehicle problem. A squealing belt may be just a worn belt, but it could also indicate bad bearings in an alternator or power steering pump. Clunks when you drive over a bump may be a worn suspension bushing or loose steering joint. You shouldn’t be able to feel any shock or clunk in the steering wheel – if you can, have it inspected right away.

You may also hear a clunk when shifting into gear. The play or clearances in the driveline are allowing the parts to move slightly and it can sound like a small hammer tapping once on a steel bar: if the clunk is getting louder or continues when driving or turning corners, you could have a bad universal joint in the driveshaft or axle shaft. The key to noises is to listen for changes. All cars make noises, but a change often indicates a potential problem.

The vehicle should stop straight-ahead without pulling to either side and there should be no grinding noises. Disc brakes do often squeal however during light braking, so that isn’t a problem. If the vehicle pulls to one side, you may have a brake caliper seized or fluid leaking onto the drum brakes (installed on the rear of many vehicles). Even though the brakes may be working fine, the only way of checking them for wear is to visually inspect the brake lining thickness. Most shops will do this for a minimal charge.

Sight, sound, smell and feel are all used in diagnosing vehicle problems. You can use your own senses to help identify problems too. All it takes is becoming tuned into your vehicle’s operating characteristics, and looking for change.

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