Whether it’s a summer excursion or family vacation—it pays to perform a basic vehicle check to ensure it’s ready for a road trip. Ideally a fresh oil change and a quick trip to the mechanic is your best bet, but if that doesn’t fit with time constraints or the budget, here’s how to self-inspect from the comfort of your driveway. While you’re at it, don’t forget to check the windshield, which when overlooked can do more than spoil your view. Grab your vehicle’s owner’s manual to follow along with these recommendations. The suggestions listed below are simply guidelines—when in doubt, always defer to your vehicle’s owner’s manual and take it to a pro if needed.
Step 1: Walk Around the Vehicle’s Exterior
Before popping your vehicle’s hood to do a basic check of things like fluids and belts, there are a number of things to inspect in a walk around. Start with the easiest: toot the horn to ensure that it’s functioning. Then, in addition to checking the operation of all your lights (just ask someone to apply the brakes and signals as you inspect), you’ll also want to pay attention to your vehicle’s tires. If they’re on the older side, you’ll definitely want to look for dry rotting, which displays as tiny cracks or spiderwebbing in the rubber. While a small amount of this might be okay, if you see a regular pattern, it’s best to visit a tire shop for a second opinion. While you’re at it, you can also inspect the amount of tread that’s left on your tires by using a penny. Slip a penny into the grooves of your tires with Lincoln’s head facing down (standing on the top of his head). The rule of thumb is: if you can see his full head, then it’s time for new tires.
As you inspect each tire, also be sure to check their air pressure. Not only will this help to ensure safety, but it can save you a few bucks on fuel over the course of your trip. Most vehicles include a sticker placed on the inside door frame where you’ll find the recommended tire pressures (which often differ from front to back). And if you don’t already have a pressure gauge, now’s the time to pick one up for a few dollars and add it to your glove box. Don’t forget to check your vehicle’s spare tire as well, as the last thing you want is to find out that it isn’t service-ready when you need it. In most cases, the spare is stored in an obvious location, but if you need help locating just check your vehicle’s owner’s manual.
Step 2: Check Engine Hoses and Belts
Once you’ve completed a walk around, it’s time to pop your car’s hood. Starting with the easiest points, give your vehicle’s hoses and belts a quick visual inspection—looking for cracks, splits, dry rotting or evidence of leaks. If you can push or pull on a belt and it bends easily, that’s a good sign that it’s loose and/or stretched and ready for replacement. Any that look suspicious should be checked prior to heading out, as those can spell major disaster for an engine (and vacation).
Step 3: Top Off Engine Fluids
Next you’ll want to check your car’s fluids—including coolant and windshield washer fluid. The easiest of these to check is typically the washer fluid, which is stored in a plastic reservoir mounted somewhere in the engine bay, often alongside the front grill or a fender. You’ll find a clear or translucent plastic or rubber tube coming from the reservoir’s cap. Look for blue liquid, or, if it’s empty, look for a cap that displays what looks like a tiny sprinkler on top of it (signifying washer fluid spraying onto the windshield). Verify this in your owner’s manual. Once you’ve found it, just ensure that it’s filled to the max fill line. When topping off, be sure to use windshield washer fluid that’s approved for use in vehicles, as anything else will either be ineffective at cleaning or could even clog or damage your system.
The second reservoir you’ll want to hunt down is for your engine’s coolant. This is where your vehicle draws and stores additional antifreeze (coolant) when needed, in order to maintain the proper operating level in your car’s radiator. This reservoir also prevents you from having to remove the cap on your radiator to check its level or add fluid, which can be dangerous—especially when the vehicle is hot (so don’t do that). Most antifreeze is either red or yellowish-green in color, but if you have any trouble locating the right reservoir, it’s best to consult your owner’s manual for “coolant.”
On the side of the reservoir container (which often just looks like a plastic bottle with a tube attached to its cap) you’ll find a high and low mark, typically with an indicator for “hot” and “cold” and/or “min” and “max.” Just check the level based on your engine’s temperature (if you’ve just driven, it will most likely be hot) and add approved coolant to keep it within the range shown on the reservoir bottle. If the bottle is empty to begin with, you’ll want toyou’re your car cool completely (completely) before removing the cap on your radiator to have a peek. After topping off the radiator, you can then add the appropriate level to the reservoir, but it’s a good idea to have your system checked for leaks.
Your car’s owner’s manual is where you’ll find the recommended type of coolant for your vehicle, should you need to purchase any, but you can also consult an employee at your favorite auto parts store. Whether your coolant is low or not, it’s a good idea to keep a bottle in your trunk, or at least a jug of distilled water, in case you experience overheating and need to top off after cooling down.
Step 4: Check Engine Oil
Moving to your engine’s oil, you’ll need to check this by pulling a “dipstick.” Be sure to do this after your vehicle has had a chance to sit and cool a little, allowing the oil to settle, as that’s what will give you the most accurate reading. Either consult your owner’s manual to locate the dipstick, or just look for a ring-shaped pull tab/cap (to slide your finger in) that has an icon of an oil can on it. When you pull the stick, be sure to wipe it with a clean rag or paper towel, then reinsert slowly and completely before removing to take a proper measurement. After removing the dipstick a second time, you’ll find two marks on the end of it—often indicated by lines, dots or holes. For the perfect level, oil should cover the dipstick to the higher of the two marks. Your owner’s manual is where you can find the appropriate type of oil to use, should you need to add. Whether it’s needed or not, this is yet another item to throw in the vehicle before a long trip. If additional oil is needed, the fill cap is typically easy to locate on the top or side of your engine, but consult your owner’s manual if there’s any doubt.
Step 5: Check the Air Filter
Another simple check that might not leave you on the side of the road but can greatly impact your car’s performance and fuel efficiency includes the engine air filter. You can consult your manual for instructions on how to locate and open the air filter canister (the plastic housing that holds the filter element), which typically opens via a few simple clasps. Have a quick look to see how clean the filter is. The inside surface (on the backside after you remove it) should always be sparkling clean, as that’s the side that faces your engine’s air intake. The frontside can have a little dirt on it, but if it looks excessive, then it’s probably worthwhile to pop in a new filter, which you can pick up for relatively cheap at an auto parts store and install yourself.
Step 6: Check Transmission Fluid
Before shutting the engine bay, for vehicles with an automatic transmission you can check the level of its fluid more or less the same way you check engine oil—with a dipstick. But be forewarned that this process can be a little more involved for those who aren’t familiar. Checking the lubrication level on manual transmissions (often called “stick shifts”) is a little beyond most DIY’ers because it requires climbing under the vehicle to remove a plug-bolt. (If you’re a novice, we don’t suggest that you attempt it.) At the same time, if you’ve had your car’s transmission fluid checked and/or changed in recent years, then chances are this is unnecessary to begin with. But for cars with automatic transmissions, the process is a little easier. The key here is in locating and identifying the right dipstick, but if you’ve already located the dipstick for engine oil, your transmission’s dipstick is really the only one left and is typically located lower in the engine bay, often toward the back.
The pull (usually with a finger loop) will look about the same as what you use to check your engine’s oil but is typically a different shape and/or color. If there’s any doubt about whether you’ve found the right stick or not, your best bet is to consult your vehicle’s owner’s manual, but you can often tell by the length of the dipstick, which is typically longer than the one used to check engine oil.
You’ll also need to ensure that your transmission’s temperature is at an appropriate level for checking. Unlike your engine’s oil, which needs to be settled, in most cases car manufacturers suggest that the transmission be at a certain operating temperature prior to checking. Anything else will give you a false reading, so be sure to follow the instructions. Also, adding transmission fluid is a little trickier than oil, so if you find that it’s low, it’s probably best to have it looked at prior to leaving, especially to ensure that you don’t have any leaks. Otherwise, your transmission could end up slipping and leaving you on the side of the road along the way.
Step 7: Check the Windshield
Last but not least, it’s time to check your windshield. And the good news is—this could be the easiest thing on your list (aside from the horn). But it’s also one of the most important.
Before you inspect your vehicle’s glass, take a quick look at your windshield wipers. If they’re dry rotted, cracked or otherwise look like it’s time for replacement, stop at a local auto parts store before heading out. In most cases, if you purchase new blades, an associate is happy to help you install them right in the parking lot. Otherwise, most replacement blades come with instructions and clip into place pretty easily.
When it comes to your windshield, there are just a few things to look for. The first and most obvious includes chips or cracks. And while you’re looking for those, don’t forget to inspect the outer most edges of the windshield where you might not look or notice on a daily basis while driving.
Any chip or crack should be addressed as soon as possible, as under the heat of the summer sun or the cold air of winter, those defects can grow rapidly, becoming serious safety issues. It’s important to know that your windshield does more than just block out wind and protect you from rain and road debris; it’s also a structural part of the vehicle—no different than its fenders or roof. In fact, your windshield is among the most important in cases of a vehicle rollover, not only helping to keep you inside, but to prevent the roof from caving in. In addition to interfering with your view, a chip or crack can compromise your windshield’s ability to hold up in the event of an accident, so those issues are worth addressing immediately. In most cases, chips and cracks can be repaired by a professional auto glass repair technician (and often without cost to you, depending on insurance), but when they’re too large to repair safely, you’ll need to have your windshield replaced.
Other forms of windshield failure include water leakage, which can be more difficult to spot than physical damages. If you’ve ever opened your vehicle after a heavy rainstorm and found any amount of water in the front floorboards, then there’s a possibility that the sealants and/or gaskets used to affix and seal the windshield to your vehicle’s body could be failing or have defects from an improper installation. Those you’ll want to have checked by an auto glass company. So long as the windshield is in good condition, chances are they can remove and reinstall the glass (properly sealed) according to the Automotive Glass Replacement Safety Standard™ (AGRSS).
Other signs to watch out for include the sound of water dripping or—in severe cases—rippling back and forth within the dashboard area. The same is true for sunroofs, which can leak, causing water to pool in your car’s headliner or trickle down the roof support pillars, where it can compromise the operation of side airbags. Any of those signs and sounds are things that you’ll want to have checked immediately, as they can lead to damaged electronics, or, worse yet, total vehicle failure.
Step 8: Hit the Road
The good news is—while the list sounds long, the entire pre-trip check should only take you an hour or so to complete. And whether you do it yourself or not, it’s worth taking the time to familiarize yourself with your vehicle.
If you find that you’re in need of an auto glass technician, use Glass.com to locate a reputable company to help inspect your vehicle’s glass. Within just a few clicks, we’ll connect you with a local business that specializes in auto glass repair, replacement and inspection.
Enjoy your trip!