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Car maintenance checklist: 10 service tips to care for your car

Georgia Petrie

Written by

Georgia Petrie

tyre pressure gauge
  • Millions of potentially unsafe cars could be returning to the nation’s roads after one in five drivers say they've delayed servicing their car
  • Servicing your car is critical to keeping it running well and reducing the risk of road accidents  
  • From tyres to engine oil — these are our top 10 car maintenance tips

As the coronavirus lockdown 2021 eases across the UK, more of us will be out and about visiting our loved ones this summer. However, according to our new driver survey, 22% of drivers delayed servicing their vehicles due to lockdown. Our poll of 2558 motorists also revealed that one in ten drivers (12%) are planning to delay their vehicle’s next scheduled service, too.

Getting your car serviced regularly is essential to keep you and other road users safe, but there’s also plenty you can do between garage trips to improve the health of your car.

These top 10 tips are simple but essential advice for keeping your car in tip-top condition. 

Best maintenance tips to make your car last longer

How often should I check my car tyre pressures?

Punctured tyre
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You should check the tyres every couple of weeks. Inspect the tread depth, the tyre pressures (info can be found in the handbook) and the condition of the tyre. Also look for any unusual bulges or dents in the sidewalls, as these may be signs of internal damage to the tyre (caused by a road impact or kerb strike). 

The minimum legal tread depth for a tyre in the UK is 1.6mm and some tyres will have wear indicator bars built into the tread that’ll provide a visual indication of when you are nearing the limit. If your tyres don't have wear bars, you can use a 20p coin to check the tread — if the outer band of the coin is visible, then the tyre may be under the legal limit. Make sure you check the tread in several locations as uneven wear may give a false impression of the overall tyre’s condition.

How do I align my headlights?

Opel auto matrix headlights working
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Have you ever been blinded by an oncoming car because one of its headlights is out of alignment? Faulty or broken lights are one of the most common failure categories in the MOT, but many of these are headlight issues that could be cheaply fixed at home with a bulb replacement. 

Check that all of the lights are working and ensure the lenses are clean. Make sure that your lights are aligned correctly, too. You can do this by driving up to a wall at night: if one of the headlight beams is higher than the other then your lights may be misaligned. You can also back up your car to a wall to check that the brake lights are working properly.

How long should a windscreen wiper last?

How long should a windscreen wiper last?
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Checking the washer fluid is one of the quickest and easiest tasks. Most cars have opaque washer fluid tanks so you can see inside without removing the cap. If it needs topping up, mix suitable washer fluid and the right ratio of water (it'll explain this on the bottle and/or in the owner's manual). Always fill it to the marked line.

You should check the wiper blades for signs of wear and tear, too. Symptoms include looking cracked, dry or misshapen or stiff — which will mean new blades. Often you'll know that the wiper blades need changing before looking at them, though. Squeaking or the blades not smoothly gliding across the screen are likely to mean the blades are at the end of their life, however, it can also mean there's a lack of moisture. Generally, the wipers will need changing anywhere between six and 12 months.

Should I leave my car air conditioning on all the time?

Should I leave my car air conditioning on all the time?
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When it comes to air conditioning, most drivers don’t realise it’s a ‘use it or lose it’ situation when it comes to air con. If your car’s air con isn’t used for long periods of time it can dry out the system or cause the compressor to become starved of oil and seize up. The air con is filled with refrigerant gas and some oil, and it pays to keep the components of the system lubricated by operating it 100% of the time.

Leaving your air con off may save fuel, but you could end up with a bill for air conditioning re-gassing instead. It's also important to note that the car's heating system is designed to work in partnership with the air con, in order to keep the interior warm and windows clear of moisture.

How do you know if your car has an electrical problem?

ford focus headlights
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There are plenty of electrics to check in your car. Some basic — yet important — ones are the exterior lights and windscreen wipers/washers. Test your windscreen wipers are working and walk around the car to make sure the daytime running lights, indicators and headlights are all in good working order. 

The lights that illuminate the registration plate at the rear of the car is also a legal requirement so check that these are working as they should. 

How long do brake discs last?

Mazda MX-5 rear light
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How long brake pads and discs last will depend on your driving style, your yearly mileage etc — but being gentle on the brakes will ensure they last longer. Brakes are tricky to check visually, which means you'll usually only realise that there's an issue at a service or MOT. Otherwise, it'll be when you see a warning light or there's a noticeable issue when you try to apply the brake.

Brakes can get stuck (the pads can stick to the disc and callipers can seize) if the car hasn’t moved for a while. If the brakes have locked up, try applying and releasing the handbrake a few times and then attempt to drive gently forward in first gear and then backwards in reverse to see if this loosens the rust. Be careful not to apply too much force as this may cause damage to the engine and/or clutch as well as the pads and discs.

While braking, if the vehicle feels as if it pulls to one side or the other, that's a sign that there may be uneven pad wear. Similarly, if the brake pedal vibrates when you push your foot down on it, the pads could be warped or damaged.

Can I change the coolant in my car myself?

BMW 4 Series engine bay
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You can change the coolant in your car without needing to visit a garage. Engine coolant is a mix of water and antifreeze, which helps to stop your engine from overheating (it's not just essential for colder weather). The coolant should be between the min and max marks on the side of the expansion tank. If the coolant needs topping up, wait until the engine is cold (unless you want to be scalded by hot, pressurised water).

Most modern cars have a sealed cooling system so they shouldn’t need topping up. If the engine coolant level has dropped to the min marker then it could be a sign of a leak so take it to a garage if this is the case.

Is servicing a car compulsory?

Engine oil servicing
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While servicing isn't a legal requirement, it's vital that you stick to your car’s recommended service schedule. For many vehicles, this means a service every 12 months or 12,000 miles (whichever comes first). If you haven’t used your car much over the past year it may be tempting to skip the next service but this can have serious consequences for the vehicle’s mechanical health and warranty (if it has one). 

A basic service will replace the oil and oil filter, while a major service may change the spark plugs, fuel filter and brake fluid. Both a minor and major service will include a mechanical inspection of the car that will flag up any potential problems. Take note, if your car is still within its manufacturer warranty period then a skipped service may invalidate the warranty. 

How do I know if my car battery is almost flat?

Jump starting a car
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Does your car take a few turns to start up in the morning? Is the battery warning light illuminated? If you don’t use your car very often, the battery may be low or in need of replacement. 

If you can store your car in a garage with a mains power supply, consider fitting a trickle charger to maintain the battery’s charge. Some vehicles suffer from parasitic battery drain, which occurs when a switch remains live long after the ignition has been turned off. You can avoid this problem by switching off the vehicle’s internal lights, radio and infotainment system before you turn off the ignition.

Is it easy to change your own engine oil?

Driver checking oil
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You can check your own engine oil without too much trouble. If your car is powered by a petrol or diesel engine then the oil will be the lifeblood of the car. It’s important to check the oil every couple of weeks, as too much or too little can cause serious damage to the engine's internal components. Most oil level readings are done cold, but it's worth double-checking the owner's manual. Make sure your car is parked on a flat surface when you check any fluid levels, too, doing so on a slope may result in an incorrect reading.

Most cars will have a physical dipstick that will let you see how much oil is in the reservoir. The oil reading may be shown on a digital display on the dashboard or infotainment screen for newer or more advanced vehicles.

If the oil level is low, check the manual for the type of oil you should use to refill it. Only pour in a small amount at a time - the difference between low oil and high oil can sometimes only be half a litre. Overfill the oil and you'll have to drain the excess out — which is not a fun job...

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