Every 3000 Miles We'll Screw You Over
January 21, 2014 8:12 PM   Subscribe

After some frustrating dealings with the local Jiffy Lube, I want to be able to handle some car maintenance stuff myself. What should I be able to handle?

Oil changes are what prompted this, and the only thing I need to worry about with that is what hi do with the old oil.

I don't have car experience, but I know my way around tools and I'm not an idiot.

The parts store down the street has a series of books about how to work on different models, including my Jeep Liberty. Are those usually something good to have as a resource? I don't mind paying for something over YouTube if it means keeping my phone safe/clean.

In addition to what can I handle, I'm also wondering what is just worth having someone else do. Like how there's no reason to install my own battery since everyone who sells will do it for free. Or things where I'd end up paying more for parts myself than someone else's parts+labor since I don't get the same deals a garage gets when purchasing.
posted by theichibun to Grab Bag (15 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Oil Changes: I really want to do my own, but frankly I don't have storage space for all the stuff you need, and disposing of the old oil seems like a bitch. My fix here is to not go to Jiffy Lube, but go to my trusted mom & pop mechanic.

Things I do myself:

- Changing wiper blades and topping up the wiper fluid.
- Checking oil and various fluid levels and suchlike
- I've installed a battery myself; it's actually super easy.
- Anything cosmetic on the car. I've installed seats, for example. I had less luck with the rearview mirror, and it turns out the auto glass shop in my area will fix this for $5, so I probably won't DIY in future.
- Simple tire maintenance like checking/maintaining pressure.
- Changing the air filter. Easy peasy.
- Changing tires.

Things I would never do myself:

- Brakes. Scary.
- Anything where you are actually taking apart mechanical things. Also scary.
- Anything where the part is under another part and you have to do a lot of steps to even really get properly started.
- I'm pretty afraid to start jacking my car up and getting under there.

There are a lot of really helpful YouTube videos out there. Just search "how to change [blah] Honda Civic 6th Gen" or whatever.

Having a PDF copy of your manual is also helpful.
posted by Sara C. at 8:27 PM on January 21, 2014

It's all a matter of how much you're willing to try. Labor costs more than parts for many repairs, so the more you learn and the more time you're willing to spend the more you can save. I've done everything from replacing a turn signal bulb to building up a supercharged smallblock ford V8 from a short block, and frankly the hard parts are mostly physical things more than conceptual ones, like you have to wedge a ratchet into a space where it can only make 1/8 of a turn and unscrew a transmission bell housing bolt three inches, smashing your knuckles on the firewall every 1/8 turn, but it's not confusing or complicated.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 8:33 PM on January 21, 2014

Stop going to Jiffy Lube. Find a small independent shop to have your work done.

Oil changes are a bitch if you don't have a way to dispose of the oil.

You should be able to check air in your tires, check all fluids, and change (most) light bulbs.
posted by notsnot at 8:35 PM on January 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

My nearby big chain auto parts store takes used oil. I've got one of those oil change pans that has a screw-on lid, so I drain into that, then put the oil pan into a larger pan for transport in the car. My dad used to keep 5-gallon buckets with sealable lids to cut down on disposal trips.

Your first non-chain oil change might be tough in regards to the filter (grease monkeys don't seem to understand torque specs), but once you do it right, they're all easy after that.
posted by hwyengr at 8:47 PM on January 21, 2014

I've never had any problem finding a place to accept my used oil--I think most AutoZones will take it, for instance. Sometimes there are residency requirements (i.e. you can't drive to the next town over to use their municipal waste recycling program). You can search for places which accept oil for recycling here.

Get an oil filter socket, the kind that cups the end of the filter, if there's room above the installed filter to use it. Don't mess with strap wrenches. The specific socket you buy will depend on the filter your car takes, and (I think) Craftsman makes a universal model.

If you're really serious about this consider investing in an oil extractor. They let you pump the out out through the fill cap rather than draining it from the bottom of then engine.
posted by pullayup at 8:47 PM on January 21, 2014

Absolutely have a manual. Real service manuals at dealerships are wildly expensive if you have to buy them, but a board devoted to your marque and model might have "vacation pics". The one for my car runs to 5000 (right: five thousand) pages and it's full of diagnosis flow charts and diagrams. With this manual you could build the car if you had all the pieces in a box. For aftermarket, Bentley manuals are the best but they're costly. Chilton's are sort of outlines. Read your marque's board and ask for advice.

Take things slowly. If stuck, stop and think. Forcing things is a bad idea. If you are tired or the sunlight is fading, stop for the night. Never touch a wrench to a car after sundown.

Always pull on wrenches. I didn't heed that advice, pushed on a wrench, and came within an ace of severing a finger tendon I badly need.

Buy mid-range tools. The budget for a cheap wrench is "wrench, $1.50; ER visit, $700". Cheap wrenches and screwdrivers break. Mid-range (Craftsman / MATCO / APEX) tools, and the high-zoot tools like Snap-On, don't break. I have Craftsman wrenches older than I am, and I voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Fluid changes from easy to hard: oil, differential (because the plugs can get stuck), coolant (because of 'burping'), clutch fluid if you have a hydraulic clutch, brake fluid, transmission oil. Changing thermostats is rarely very difficult unless you have a Lancia.

The one trick to oil and some other fluid changes is: always open the hood before you remove any fluids, because if the hood release is broken and your fluids are now in a pan, what are you going to do?

Brakes from easy to hard: all-wheel disc brakes are generally very easy to change. Drum brakes, if you have them, are a little more difficult.

Belt changes: if you have a serpentine drive it's pretty easy and most cars have those nowadays. If you have multiple V-belts it can get a little tricky because you have to set the tension based on some dodgy force/deflection rules. Until you have done a lot of stuff please don't try changing a timing belt.

Spark plugs are fairly easy to change on most cars but the service intervals are increasing on these and sometimes you have to dig a little. If you have iridium plugs, you must be careful when you gap them. Ask at the parts counter. Also, always start threading the plugs in with a piece of rubber tubing slipped over the insulator. If you get a bunch of turns on the plug without getting it stuck, you are probably not cross-threaded. Cross-threading a plug is tough to fix.

Wiper and light bulb changes are easy with some exceptions: some cars with HID lights need to have bumpers and cross-braces removed. Air and cabin filters are usually pretty straightforward. Fuel filters - a whole different ball game. Get a manual and a fire extinguisher before you try that.

If you have a logical bent and a decent wiring diagram it might surprise you just how accessible most electrical systems not designed in France or Italy are. You can use your observations (happens when it's wet, when the air conditioner is on, and so forth) and the wiring diagram to accumulate clues about how to fix intermittent problems which are the most expensive ones to cure.
posted by jet_silver at 8:48 PM on January 21, 2014 [6 favorites]

Auto Zone is geared towards the do it yourself. When purchasing their "oil change kit" included is a container to drain the oil into. This container full of oil can be brought to Auto Zone and dropped off for recycling. They also will rent tools and check parts.

I am a 52 year old woman who does a lot of work on my cars. The local Auto Zone is very helpful in answering my questions and showing me where something is located on my car. I watch Youtube videos and own Haynes manuals.

Vovlo- thing I have done: replace ECU cost $500, 1/2 hour of my time vs dealership $1298.
Brake module - $100, 1 hour of time vs dealership $700
Rear Brakes $28 first time 2 hours, second time 1/2 hour vs dealership $800

Mazda Miata-
spark plugs, coil cables $300 1 hour vs $900 at shop
posted by JujuB at 8:57 PM on January 21, 2014

Just chiming in to agree with the above posters: don't go to Jiffy Lube or any other similar chain..... I'd rather go to a dealership any day of the week than Jiffy Lube!
posted by easily confused at 9:44 PM on January 21, 2014

there's no reason to install my own battery since everyone who sells will do it for free

Actually, there are reasons to do this: need for a new battery often goes along with not being able to start the car, you might want to take the battery inside where it's warmer to charge, you might want to clean the terminals and need to hook up the battery again.

Also, for some work on your car you'll want to unhook the battery.

It's really easy to install a battery on most cars. On the cars where it's not, the place doing your free battery install might not know how to do it. Also, not everyone who sells batteries installs them for free, or if they do not at all hours. It's useful to be able to buy a battery in the evening and get your car running instead of having to wait until the next day.

For repairs, and deciding if you want to do them yourself, when they come up get a price quote and decide how to deal with them. Some things are mostly labor cost -- for example, anything you need to remove the dashboard to deal with.
posted by yohko at 10:33 PM on January 21, 2014

I'd say that with a reasonably modern car you need oil, battery, wiper blades, washer fluid, lights, and maybe whatever brakes on your car are disc brakes, if they are easy. Some are pretty much jack, pull the tire, pull one bolt. Use a clamp to retract the piston, tap the old pad out with a hammer, put the new ones in and reverse the process - more complicated, but less annoying than the oil change for that car. Others can be miserable. And I've only done drum brakes once, and I regretted it.

You have 60k mile spark plugs and 60k mile coolant from a quick google - when those are due, better to pay the fee and get your car inspected (unless you are pretty broke).

It's definitely worth getting the Haynes manual and enough tools to do the oil (in most cases). It's rather rewarding to own at least a bit of car repair for yourself. But depending on the difficulty of your car, how badly the local dealer wants to get you through the door, and how valuable you rate your time, it may not be cost effective.
posted by wotsac at 10:42 PM on January 21, 2014

The autozone/jiffy lube gets paid for all the used oil it takes in. You are doing them a favor when you drop off oil.
posted by buzzman at 12:29 AM on January 22, 2014

Get an oil filter socket, the kind that cups the end of the filter, if there's room above the installed filter to use it. Don't mess with strap wrenches. The specific socket you buy will depend on the filter your car takes, and (I think) Craftsman makes a universal model.

Don't even do this. Put a tray under the filter. Get a large Philips head (cross-head) screw driver and hammer it through the filter about half way along. Is will go through very easily. Then hold the both ends screwdriver and unscrew the filter. The oil that's in the filter will run into the tray.

But seriously - oil change time also means regular service time - so you should get a reputable mechanic to check breaks, pads and disks, transmission fluid, coolant etc.
posted by Mario Speedwagon at 2:13 AM on January 22, 2014

If you do decide to change your oil, get some safety glasses and wear them when you get under the car to drain the oil. (It's not a bad idea to wear them anytime you are under the hood messing around). You'll need to have run the engine for a short time beforehand to warm the oil (it won't take long) so it will drain easier. I've changed my oil for 20 years and I don't care how much precaution I take, some WILL splash when it hits the pan and some WILL go on my face. You don't want hot oil in your eyes. Wear clothes you don't mind getting oil on.

If you need to put your car on ramps to get underneath it (like if you have a Miata), make damn sure you have the wheels chock blocked. You cannot be too safe here.
posted by dukes909 at 6:23 AM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I waffle on whether doing your own oil changes is worth it. It's easy, but also awkward and messy, and doesn't save that much. I do my own brake work, and am thankful that none of my family's cars have drum brakes anymore. I rotate my own tires, but I don't even attempt to fix punctured tires myself. I do most of my regular maintenance, and intend to change my first timing belt sometime this spring or summer. Generally it's the major repairs occasionally needed in older cars that I tend to let the pros handle -- anything that requires lifting the car more than a few inches, or special diagnostic equipment. There have been exceptions, but I am generally not capable or efficient at things like emissions problems, exhaust work, most suspension work, replacing steel brake or transmission lines.

One thing that makes a big difference is the presence or absence of significant rust. Badly rusted parts can be a bear to get apart with shadetree-level tools. On a newer car that's still relatively clean underneath, you'd probably be surprised at how easy many tasks are.

One thing you'll find, if you get into working on cars, is that particular models have characteristic problems that lots of people have dealt with. As a result, enthusiast forums are often more valuable than shop manuals. When I have an issue with my wife's Honda Fit, I consult FitFreak. If my Outback needs work, I peruse relevant threads on subaruoutback.org. I have the Subaru shop manual, but the forums are more useful for diagnostics.

Get an oil filter socket, the kind that cups the end of the filter, if there's room above the installed filter to use it. Don't mess with strap wrenches.

FWIW, I would give exactly the opposite advice. I have a strap wrench that works beautifully, and the oil filter sockets I've owned (2 of them) were nearly useless.

Or things where I'd end up paying more for parts myself than someone else's parts+labor since I don't get the same deals a garage gets when purchasing.

Honestly I don't think this is the case very often. Regardless of what the shop actually pays for parts, they're sure to charge retail (or more) to the customer. I once bought an aftermarket exhaust system online for something like $250. The local muffler joint wanted $800 (parts only) for the exact same thing.
posted by jon1270 at 6:23 AM on January 22, 2014

One of the great things about working on cars nowadays is that there is so much information online on how to do things. I was faced with a bad ignition switch on my Saturn a couple of years back, and I was thinking I was going to have to take it in. But after a little research online I found a YouTube video that showed exactly how to do it - it took less than ten minutes and I saved $150.

You have to determine what you do and don't feel comfortable messing with. For example, maybe you don't want to do anything that involves working anywhere near the airbag electronics, or rebuilding an engine. But things like oil changes are definitely in the easy category. (Most auto parts stores will take used oil... just ask. Get an oil pan with sealing caps and bringing used oil back in will be a breeze.) Learning how to do your own brakes... If I can learn it, you probably can. The advantage of learning these things is not only that you can fix a lot of problems yourself, but you'll also be armed with knowledge if you have to take it into a shop.

About replacing the battery - that's usually a pretty easy task. And while most places that sell them will install it for you, what if you're not able to get the car to the parts store? If you're stuck with a car that won't start you'll need to go get a battery and bring it back to the car.
posted by azpenguin at 7:23 AM on January 22, 2014

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