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Cars for Dummies: Basic Information Every Driver Should Know 

Cars for Dummies

Every day we interact with technology that few if any of us fully understand. How many people can repair their home computer if it breaks down? Or their cell phone? Even things like your dishwasher, your central air, or your cable box can be real roadblocks if something goes wrong with them and we don't know how to fix them. We call in experts who know what they're doing. The same goes with our cars. Most of us don't really have a lot of understanding about how a car works or what to do when something goes wrong. We rely on mechanics for those issues. However, there are some basic things every car owner should know.

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Unfortunately, it's easy to feel embarrassed when you don't know what seems like it should be basic information. That prevents us from wanting to ask for help and just makes the situation worse because we can end up going for years without knowing something as simple as how to change the oil filter in our car. Thanks to the internet though it's now easier than ever to learn the basic stuff you need to know about your car without having to feel embarrassed asking for help. With that in mind, let's go over some of the information any car owner should know to help them be a better educated and more efficient car owner. This information will help you better understand how your car works, including  giving you a better idea of what's going on when something breaks down and how you might even be able to get it fixed on your own.


How Often Should You Change Your Oil?


Everyone knows about engine oil, there are even lube places that simply specialize in changing your oil and doing nothing else. But not everyone knows what the oil is for in their engine or why it's important to have oil changes.  Engine oil is a multi-purpose substance. It lubricates your engine, but it also helps keep it cool. Without engine oil your engine would create a destructive amount of friction and heat and fail extremely quickly on you. It's also useful for cleaning the engine as it helps carry away contamination and particles that could cause damage.


It used to be a rule of thumb that you change your engine oil every 3,000 miles or so. That's not the standard any longer however and it doesn't apply to every single vehicle by any means. These days oil changes are more commonly performed anywhere from 7,500 miles to 10,000 miles. If your car uses synthetic oil it might get 15,000 miles to 20,000 miles. How do you know for sure with such a wide range? Your owner's manual will tell you for sure. Not to pass the buck to another source but the internet can only give you general information in a situation like this. When you want specific information, your owner's manual has the precise number you want for your make and model of car. It's always going to tell you the best information for how to handle and maintain your vehicle. The old rules of thumb are good for a general idea of what to do, but they're no substitute for the precision that you'll get from your owner's manual


 How Often Should You Change Your Oil Filter?


So now that you have some idea how often you need to change your oil, what about your oil filter. That keeps your oil clean and running smoothly. Any car that has a combustion engine has an oil filter in it. The oil filter, as the name suggests, helps filter out grit and grime from your oil to keep your engine running more smoothly. There are two schools of thought when it comes to changing the oil filters. Again, we’ll tell you to specifically defer to your owner's manual to find out for sure but that said there will be one of two options presented to you. Either you change your oil filter every time you change your oil, or you do it every other time you change your oil. If it's not getting done at least that often, it's not being done properly. 


 How Long Do Spark Plugs Last?


In a gas-powered vehicle, you have an internal combustion engine. That means the gasoline from your fuel tank gets pumped and injected into a part of the engine called the combustion chamber. In the combustion chamber the aerosolized gasoline is mixed with air and then it is ignited by a spark from your spark plug. This happens again and again to keep your engine moving and powering your vehicle. But a spark plug is one of the key ingredients to this equation. It literally makes a spark that causes the fuel and air to ignite. So how long do spark plugs last?


The lifespan of a spark plug depends very much on the spark plug itself. There are many different kinds that you can buy. Different car manufacturers also have different recommendations for when to swap out spark plugs. A Ford F-150 has a recommended lifespan of 100,000 miles for a spark plug. The Toyota Corolla gets 120,000 miles from a spark plug. A BMW 3 Series will recommend 60,000 miles. Some Mercedes-Benz will be less than 40,000 miles.


The type of spark plug has a great effect on this as well. Some cheaper spark plugs are simply made of nickel coated copper. They're good for conducting electricity, but they can only handle the wear and tear of those hundreds of thousands of sparks for so long. These kinds may only last for 60,000 miles. Some might even fail sooner than that. However, if you get more high-end spark plugs that have tips made from platinum or iridium you can get 100,000 miles to 120,000 miles or more out of them.


 What Kind of Coolant Should You Use?


Coolant in your vehicle has two purposes. As the name suggests it can cool things down. It's necessary for lowering the temperature of your engine to ensure that it doesn't overheat. The coolant travels from your radiator to your engine wear it absorbs excess heat and then cycles back through the heater core of your cabin heater so that you can use your heat on a cold day if you want and warm yourself up, and then returns to your radiator where it will cool down again.


It also has a function of helping your car function properly on very cold days as well because coolant is mostly made of antifreeze. That means it won't freeze up in the cold weather so that you can keep your car functioning.  Many coolants are made up of a 50/50 mix of antifreeze and water. But there are other kinds of coolants you can buy as well, and you can tell what they are by the color. The two most common colours for coolant are green and orange.


Green Coolant: Most people will call this antifreeze but that's not strictly all that it is. Green coolant is made with something called inorganic additive technology. This is typically found in older cars, but new cars may just as well use it. It lasts for about 2 to 3 years and is made of ethylene glycol. If you have a leak of this kind of antifreeze, you'll notice a sweet smell in your car.


Orange Coolant:  Sometimes called Dexcool, this coolant lasts longer than green coolant and has a lifespan of about five years or so before it will need to be flushed from the system. 


You can add green coolant to green coolant, and orange coolant to orange coolant, but you can't mix the two together. If you do, you'll create a jelly like substance in your radiator which could shut your entire car down. It will need to be flushed entirely before you can get going again safely. 


What Side of the Car Has the Gas Tank on It?


This is one of those little things that is kind of confusing at first, especially if it's a new car that you're driving, and you're not used to it. When you pull into any gas station and you're not 100% sure what side of the car your gas tank is on you have a 50/50 shot of getting it right when you're just guessing. However, you don't need to guess, nor do you need to get out of your car to answer that question. 


If you look at the gas gauge on your dashboard there will be a tiny symbol of a gas pump on it either above or below where it tells you how full your tank is. Along with that little gas pump symbol is going to be an arrow that points either to the left or to the right. That arrow is there to let you know what side your car the gas tank is on. So, if it's pointing to your left, your gas cap is going to be accessed on the driver side of your car. If it’s pointing to the right, then you have to pull your passenger side up to the pumps. Just a simple little thing to help you remember where to go, or to help you when you've never been behind the wheel of that particular car before. 


How Long Does a Car Battery Last?


Your battery is typically going to last you from 3 years to 5 years. That's from brand new. If you live in a colder climate, your battery may wear out a little bit sooner. Likewise, if you plug in a lot of things into your car like a dashboard camera or your cell phone to charge it, over time it will help wear down your battery a little faster as well. 


Your battery is naturally charged by the alternator in your vehicle.  In fact, aside from when you turn the key in your ignition to get your car started, the battery does not actually power very much of your vehicle at all. It provides the initial charge to get going, and then your alternator takes over. 


How Much Air Goes in the Tires?


This is another question that is specific to your vehicle. If you have a newer vehicle you should have a sticker inside your driver's door somewhere on the inside of the door itself or the door frame. The sticker will list the recommended air pressure for your tires. If you don't have a sticker, then your owner's manual will tell you for sure. If you're driving a passenger car then you're likely looking at an air pressure of 32 psi to 35 psi.  You should always check your air pressure when your tires are cool. That means they've been resting for a while. The reason is that if you've been driving then your tires have been subject to friction and that will have caused heat which makes them expand.


There are numbers listed on your tires themselves. This is not the pressure to which you should inflate your tire. This is the maximum pressure it can possibly hold. You do not want to use this.


Your VIN Number


A vehicle identification number, or VIN number, is basically your car ID. If a car gets stolen, this is how police trace it. A VIN number is unique to each vehicle. It's 17 digits long, so it's not the kind of thing you're likely to memorize. The specific sequence of numbers identifies the make and model of your car, the engine size, as well as the place it was manufactured and the date it was manufactured.


Aside from stolen cars, VIN numbers are important for insurance purposes and things like that. You can find your VIN number easily by getting out of your car and looking at the windshield. On the corner of the windshield just above the dashboard on the driver side you'll see a tag that has your VIN number on it. This is also helpful for when you're buying parts that are specific for your make and model of vehicle.


 The Bottom Line


You could spend hours a day for months learning everything there is to learn about your specific car and cars in general. Mechanics have to go through a lot of training to get to the point where they are in understanding how vehicles work and how to fix them. Even if you don't want to spend the time developing your knowledge that far, it never hurts to know the basics so you have a general understanding of how your car works and how to maintain it. The more you know, the better equipped you'll be to deal with problems when they arise and also to converse more knowledgably with a professional who can take over with their specific knowledge where your general knowledge leaves off.

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