Car Maintenance 101: The Student Guide to Car Maintenance

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September will be a month of firsts for a lot of high school grads heading off to college or university – the first time living away from home, the first time cooking for themselves on a daily basis, and quite possibly, the first time being the sole driver responsible for maintaining a car.

Parents can be helpful whenever you need to take a look under the hood, check your tire pressure, or top up your oil, but if you’re packing up your car and heading off to college, upkeep may be a new responsibility.

What to check and when

If you’re new to taking care of your car on your own, we’ve listed a few things to keep in mind in order to keep your vehicle safe and running smoothly: 

Don’t ignore your dashboard lights

Especially the "check engine" light. These lights are usually the first indicator that something is wrong with your vehicle, even if it appears to be running normally.

According to, your car’s check engine light will typically display the following depending on the severity of the problem:

  • A steady yellow light indicates a problem that should be serviced soon.
  • A flashing yellow light indicates a problem that may require immediate attention.
  • A steady red light indicates a serious problem. If this appears while you’re driving, it’s best to pull over and call for assistance.

Keep tabs on your tires

Your cars tires are the only thing between you and the road so it is essential that you keep an eye on them regularly.

Check your oil

Engine oil is critical to keeping all of your car’s parts moving and without it your car will grind to a halt.

  • Ideally, you should check your oil every time you fill up on gas or every few hundred kilometres. If you’re low, top up as necessary. If you notice any oil on the floor where you’ve been parked, take your car to a mechanic to check for leaks.
  • From time to time, your oil as well as other fluids need to be completely flushed and replenished. So it’s important to get regular oil and fluid changes. Your owner’s manual will tell you how frequently this needs to be done.

In addition to your oil levels, you should also watch your coolant, brake fluid or power steering fluids. If any of these are low, have the system inspected for leaks.

Take care of your windshield

Change your wiper blades every six months and fill your windshield washer fluid regularly as needed. Keep some in your trunk too should you run out while on the road.

Wash Car

Clean your car regularly

Corrosion and rust can form due to buildup of dirt and damaging chemicals. Protect your finish with regular visits to the car wash or by washing it yourself with auto-specific soap (not laundry detergent!). This is especially important in areas that use road salt during the winter months.

Resist the urge to use your car as storage and keep the inside clean too; You’d be surprised what thieves will steal.

Keep a car kit

Prepare a well-stocked car kit and leave it in your trunk in the event of a roadside emergency. Pack items like a first aid kit, non-perishable food, water, a flashlight, batteries, extra clothes and footwear, and a mobile phone charger. Check this kit regularly and replace any items that show signs of wear or food that has expired.

Take your car for regular maintenance to a professional mechanic

Find a local repair shop that you trust and keep up with your car’s maintenance schedule as recommended in your owner’s manual.

  • A yearly "checkup" is key to ensuring major systems are being taken care of. Some items to get checked annually by a professional include your HVAC system, brake system, fuel system, ignition system, emissions system, spark plugs, hoses and belts.
  • Also have all four wheels rotated and aligned at least once per year or every 10,000 kilometres. When you buy a set of new tires, you should have those aligned as well.

There’s more to a vehicle than just filling up on gas. Leaving areas unattended can lead to bigger problems and more extensive – and expensive – repairs. And while every vehicle is different and manufacturers may have varying recommendations on what to check and when, the best thing to do is to regularly maintain what you can and schedule regular check-ups with a professional mechanic.

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