Pay attention, you might just save yourself financial stress

Thursday July 22 2021
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By Mustafa Ziraba

Cars are complex machines composed of thousands of parts that have to work together. If you are curious enough, when at the garage take a look around and you shall get to see cars in their natural habitat when things do not work properly.

In many instances, I have heard mechanics say that the cost of repairs could have been minimised by the driver paying attention to the car and taking it in for repair sooner than later. Additionally, with the cost of a “new” car at its highest ever, many have decided to keep their old beaters a bit longer.

So in that regard, here are some tips that will help you keep your car operating more economically and for a longer period of time.

Pay attention to warning lights

Those on the dash when you first turn the ignition key to the “on” position right before the start or ignition.

This is usually referred to as a “bulb check” and allows the driver to see if one of the warning lights isn’t working.

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It is only when you start the engine that the lights start going off to indicate all is in good condition.

There are many warning lights on cars but some have the highest priority and the car may be unsafe to drive, while others indicate a problem but the car can typically be driven to the garage.

When the engine is running and the ‘oil’ light comes on, the engine probably does not have oil pressure, you have to stop instantly.

However, for the engine check light, you may continue driving but the car needs checking as soon as possible using an appropriate diagnostic machine.

Gauges are important too

Temperature gauges are not NASA accurate, but do represent what the engine is doing. With time you can get to know the normal position of your car’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 heavy load on it on a really hot day or that the engine is starting to overheat perhaps because the coolant level is low or the radiator is blocked or the radiator fan is not running, basically, your cooling system is failing. 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. Repairs shall cost you an arm and a leg just because the engine was too hot and you didn’t notice.

“A faulty cooling system and failure to notice is one of the biggest killers of engines,” says Donald Lule, an instructor with Nakawa Vocational Institute with the motor vehicle section.

He goes to say anything that raises the temperature of an engine over and above the operating temperate should be checked with towering urgency. 

Noises, part of operations

Tyre treads hum against the road, wind noise is a given, bits and pieces in the dashboard generate little squeaks as they rub together and so forth.

Most drivers do not even notice these harmless notes after a while. But some noises are not so innocent. You should not ignore certain thumping, banging, clicking and squealing sounds.

These sounds often rear their heads or intensify whenever the driver takes specific actions such as stepping on the accelerator, depressing the brake pedal or turning the steering wheel sharply, going over very uneven surface etc.

If any suddenly becomes part of your everyday driving experience, it is time to take action. Something is probably very wrong.

Ignoring the symptom will not make the problem magically go away.

Delay can provide the time for a problem to worsen, and that usually translates into a bigger and more expensive repair.

That squeaking belt

A squeaking belt may be just a worn belt, but it could also indicate bad bearings.

Clunks when you drive over a bump may be a worn suspension bushing or loose steering joint.

Rattles from beneath the car could mean a loose exhaust system or even loose brake pads, roaring that increases with acceleration could be a damaged exhaust pipe.

Hissing or sizzling under the hood heard when the engine is first shut off might mean something is leaking for example coolant or oil could be leaking onto a heated engine part or a vacuum line could be leaking or the engine could simply be overheating.

Odour of fuel could mean your engine is not burning all the fuel it is receiving from the tank indicating combustion inefficiency.

The key to noises is to listen for changes. All cars make noises, but a change often indicates a potential problem.

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Watch where you park

Look for new wet marks on the ground as you drive away. Many leaks start small and leave drops beneath the car long before damage starts to occur.

Air conditioners drip water onto the ground 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 as soon as possible.

The idea of oil drops is a whole other article but here is the two-liner version. You can live with some engine oil drops and keep topping up regularly. Depending on the quantity, some oil drops might be signs of much bigger looming problems.

In terms of priority, the engine takes number one. All engine problems should be fixed at the first possibility as a failed engine can instantly render your car just a glorified immovable metal box on the road. We all have seen car carriers taking perfectly looking cars to the garage. Engine problems right there.

The transmission takes number two. While the worst case scenario for a failed transmission is total failure to engage, most problems are poor and inconsistent engagement and you have the opportunity to drive the car to a garage.

Transmission problems warn for a while before they become fatal. Three is the suspension. We all can live with poor ride quality for a while. And number four is the aesthetics.

The small dent on your car can stay there for a year and you’ll be perfectly fine albeit your colleagues pointing it out to you every so often.

Some items that have to do with your safety and that of other road users usually need no ranking, they are simply a must. Things like brakes, tyres etc.

If you do not pay attention to your car, things can go downhill quite rapidly. Repair costs could grow, you could be stranded on the road, or might be forced to sell the car because it’s not worth keeping anymore.

Remember today cars depreciate quite fast and the cost of replacement is high, pushing many people to a choice of keeping their cars a little longer.

With this background, it’s only natural that you should pay attention to your car.

Fuel and other fluids

Sight, sound, smell and feel are all used in diagnosing car problems. You can use your own senses to help identify problems too. All it takes is becoming tuned into your car’s operating characteristics, and looking for change. Noises never get better, just worse.

Fluids like engine oil, coolant, brake fluid, power steering fluid, and transmission fluid are easy to check. To get an accurate reading on these fluids and locate their reservoirs, your regular mechanic should be able to guide you.

Additionally just under the bonnet, the fluid reservoirs have level indicators. If a dipstick is reading low or the fluid looks far too used, you may want to add more or do a full change. Don’t cheap out on fluids.

Many cars are very specific as to what fluids can be used with them. When it comes to oil, make sure you’re buying the correct viscosity as well as good brands for your car.

If your vehicle is known to burn oil or leak fluids, it is not a bad idea to carry some of those fluids around with you in your car for top-ups as you perhaps save up for the fix or a new car all together.

For over a month I carried a five litre jerrycan of water for my leaking cooling system, specifically the water pump. With little or no oil, there’s less lubrication leading to friction which invites its best friend, heat. This whole situation can escalate so quickly that the moving metal parts literally melt into each other and the engine seizes.

Lule says while some newer engines are designed to turn off automatically when they detect a problem with say the cooling system or the oil pressure has suddenly dropped, many times there is inherent damage that happens. And as the engine might continue to work, it might not be as efficient as it should.

Key priorities

In terms of priority, the engine takes number one. All engine problems should be fixed at the first possibility as a failed engine can instantly render your car just a glorified immovable metal box on the road. We all have seen car carriers taking perfectly looking cars to the garage. Engine problems right there.

The transmission takes number two. While the worst case scenario for a failed transmission is total failure to engage, most problems are poor and inconsistent engagement and you have the opportunity to drive the car to a garage.

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