Monday, November 18, 2013

Don't Let Your Car "Brake" Your Day!

Not very long ago, Larry and I set off on our very first real road trip.    We've made trips before, obviously.    But this one was different because we were going a very long distance in our own car.  No rental car this trip!   It was a trip that ended up putting nearly 4,000 miles on our trusty Camry.     We knew it was going to be a lengthy trip because we planned to be gone for nearly 3 weeks  and required several overnight stays along the way.   

I started planning for this trip some time back in the summer.     I spent a lot of time on the internet scouting out hotel rooms, places we wanted to see along the way and what we could do once we got to our destination---Massachusetts.      Thanks to wonderful hosting by Rich and Rebecca, we got to see parts of Vermont, Massachusetts and New York.    They were our traveling companions for that portion of the trip and made a lot of grand adventures possible!  

Before we could pack our bags, load up the car and head out on this fun trip, Larry was already thinking about preparing our car for the trip.     Fortunately, he didn't wait until the last minute to do that.     A full two weeks before we were to leave he began maintenance and check ups that anyone should think about before taking a road trip.  He replaced belts, hoses, changed the oil and checked fluid levels.  He even gave the ol' buggy a good wash and wax!   Starting ahead of time ultimately saved us a lot of aggravation and potential problems that could have interfered with our plans.  

Larry is a guy who knows a lot about preventive maintenance because he spent the lion's share of his career doing that for Fed Ex.    The vans that he kept running and in service were on a regular maintenance schedule.   But it wasn't just the scheduled maintenance that was important.   The eyes and ears for every day those vans went out on the road came from the drivers who were required to do a pre and post trip inspection.   Before they ever left the building, they were expected to do a walk around for their vehicle.  They looked at it, noted anything that didn't seem right.   They were supposed to make sure the vehicle was ready for service and tell the mechanic if anything seemed amiss.     Then they listened and watched for things while on the road and finally, wrote it all up at the end of the day so the mechanic could check it out with more detail and experienced eyes.   This system works very well for major fleets and is one that you can adopt to make your car last longer and not fail you when you need it to work properly --- which come to think of it is EVERY time you get in it to go somewhere!     

How many times do you just get in your car, crank it up and let 'er roll?    You only pay attention when the noise coming from under the hood is literally screaming at you or it fails to start.      Or you give a passing glance to the dash board and don't make it a habit to note whether there are lights on, other than the gas gauge giving you a nudge that you might need to refuel.   If this is you, then maybe the following suggestions will make your driving experience a bit less of a hassle and more pleasurable.   

Cars today are amazing devices and, like most of the other things in our lives, are run by computers.    They make our cars run more efficiently, keep us safer and, in some of the newest models, have even taken over things like parking and braking to keep us a safe distance from the next vehicle.   When you look under the hood of most cars, the entire engine compartment is filled edge to edge with almost no room for a hand to get in there to repair something that is broken or malfunctioning.   What you need to realize is that even with all those computers and mechanical devices the most important component is YOU.   If you don't heed the warnings, the lights and other ways your car has to tell you that something is wrong (those new sounds!!), you could still end up stranded on the side of the road. 

On a regular basis, you should be looking at your tires, your oil and water.    Unlike the Fed Ex driver, you probably don't need to do this every time you go out, but every couple of weeks is usually sufficient.     When you crank your car, listen to it.    Preferably without the radio or air conditioning on as they can mask important sounds.   Does it sound like it normally does?   Did it take longer to crank than it usually does?   If so, what did it sound like?    Make note of these things because you will need that information if you believe it needs to be checked out by your mechanic.   Don't ignore changes as they are clues to what is going on out of your sight, under the hood.  

Once you get going, does your car move correctly?   Do you notice any unusual vibrations or shimmying as you move along?   When your tires are not aligned properly it can make your car sway as it rolls along.  It might be harder to steer, too, or pull in one direction or the other.   Improper alignment can make your tires wear out faster than they should and can interfere with the comfort of your ride.    If you notice unusual lumpiness as you ride along, it may be that your tire has a serious issue going on that requires a more thorough exam by a mechanic or tire store.     Before we left on our road trip, Larry did a visual examination of our tires and deemed them to be OK.  But to be sure, he took the car in to be aligned and so they could put it on a lift for a better look at the tires.   Imagine his surprise to be told that one of the tires had a serious problem that would have almost certainly caused us a problem after we were under way.     As it was, because he started the check up process WELL AHEAD of our trip, he had plenty of time to replace the tires so we started our adventure with less of a chance that a blown tired would ruin our day and possibly our trip.   

Now about those warning lights and gauges that we depend on to warn us about issues under the hood......On a trip last fall to Apalachicola,  I learned something that I never knew before.   We had been traveling along nicely, enjoying the scenery near Panama City when all of a sudden an amber CHECK ENGINE light came on.   Larry noticed it almost immediately and mentioned it to me.    I was sort of panicked, wondering what it meant and if our trip had just hit a big snag.     I figured he would pull over and stop immediately.    

I was wrong.    He did stop, but it was a little way down the road where we could pull off into a shopping center parking lot.     He got out, did a quick check and then got back in and we continued our trip.     He explained to me that AMBER lights mean one thing, while RED lights are another matter altogether.  This, I never knew!    Amber lights are a way to let you know that something is not right and that it should be checked out.    As a rule, they do NOT mean you need to stop ASAP.     Just make note of the light and, at your earliest convenience , take the car to the shop to find out the source of the problem.

Please note that another thing you can do is take your car to almost any of the national auto parts houses (Auto Zone,  O'Reilly's or Advanced Auto) and they can hook your car up to a laptop computer that can get the code your car's computer is giving and tell you what it means.     Most of those places do not make the repairs but can tell you what needs to be done which will be useful information when you take your car to the repair shop.     

RED LIGHTS.    They are a whole other ball game when it comes to your car's well being.    If you ever see a red light come on, you have to find a way to get off the road and quickly.      Something is really wrong under the hood and that RED LIGHT is giving you the signal it's time to shut things down.    If you ignore it, chances are pretty good that your car is going to simply stop running and you're going to stop anyhow.  If you see a red light, start planning immediately how to safely get to the side of the road or to an exit if you can.   You probably will need road side assistance and possibly a tow truck to get you to a repair shop, but by acting quickly and appropriately, you could save yourself thousands of dollars in repair expenses!   

And speaking of repairs, if you are ever in a situation where you are advised to have an expensive repair done to your car, always think about getting a second opinion.    Ask the first mechanic to write down what the problem is and what they recommend to fix it.    Then find another mechanic, take the car to that person and get another opinion.    Do not tell them what the first mechanic recommended, just what the symptoms are.   When you are being told that an expensive repair is necessary, you surely want to know that it was, indeed, necessary.    So don't be afraid to seek out another opinion when it's your money and your car.    

Finally, one last bit of advice from the resident mechanic here on the Funny Farm:   Try to park in the same place when you arrive back at home.    Why?    Because every now and then (two weeks) you need to move the car a bit ---- back it up, pull it forward, whatever works in your drive way or parking space. Then look where your car was parked.     Is there fluid on the ground?    If so, do you notice any color to it?     Normal air conditioning drips will not be colored and will dry up shortly. Totally normal, by the way.  If you notice color in the drainage, take note of what color it is.   Fluids that your car uses to function come in all colors---red, yellow and green.    Oil leaks will often give off a rainbow effect.    Make a note of the color of the leakage so when you take your car to be checked ----- you ARE going to get that checked, aren't you? ---- you can tell your repair shop service writer (the guy or gal writing up your ticket) what you found had dripped out of your car's engine compartment.  This gives them a starting place to look and will save them time and possibly save you some money.    

Most of us today would be lost without our vehicles.   We depend on them to get us to our jobs, run errands and just take us from here to there!    You can make your car last longer, cost less to maintain and reduce the stress in your life by simply taking the time to maintain your vehicle.   Listen to what it is telling you.    Pay attention to the signals it is giving you.    Then act on them and don't wait until you're stranded to discover you have a problem.    You might even save a lot of money by getting attention where it is needed before something is ruined or has to be replaced.   Moral of this story is: do your due diligence when it comes to your car and it will make your car last longer, cost less and give you less heartache.   You might even have an amazing road trip to tell about!

Happy Motoring!  Happy Trails!