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Pre-Trip Car Check-Up

Brake Fluid, Dipstick

When planning a trip it is easy to get caught up in planning the route, picking out what to bring, packing the bags and getting it all into the car. We’re always afraid we’ll forget something and often do forget one of the most important parts of planning a trip. Doing a pre-trip car check-up may make the difference between a fun, relaxing vacation and an expensive repair in an unfamiliar area.

Of course, keeping up with manufacturer recommended routine maintenance makes this much easier. And the easiest pre-trip car check-up is a trip to your mechanic. However, this can be a time-consuming and costly option. Another option would be to have an oil change at a reputable location. Most places will check and fill your fluid levels as well as your tire pressures. They will usually check your belts, too. Be sure to mention you are going on a trip and ask your service provider to be sure to check everything they usually do. The invoice typically shows the items they check, and the status of each check. Doing a pre-trip car check-up is a relatively easy thing to do at home. You’ll want to park your vehicle on a level surface several hours before you begin so the engine and its components will be cool and safe to work with. You’ll also want to assemble a few items, including a tire pressure gauge, a trash bag and paper towels. You’ll also want to check your owner’s manual to make sure your vehicle does not differ from the tips suggested here.

First and foremost, make this a safe task. Make sure your vehicle is in park and the parking brake is set. It is also wise to place a wheel chock behind a front tire and in front of a rear tire.

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Begin with a visual inspection of the exterior of your vehicle. Are there any loose moldings or trim? Check your windshield wipers. Are they dry or brittle? Look through the grill on the front of the vehicle. If there are numerous bugs or debris, make a note to rinse off with a water hose. Inspect the condition of the tires. Is there sufficient tread? Are there any unusual bumps or bubbles on the sidewalls of the tire? Is there any visible metal where the steel belts have worn through? Visually, as well as with your hand, check for nails or other objects that may be lodged in the tires. Make a note of any objects to be removed and repaired at a later time. While the tires are cold, check the air pressure in each tire, making sure the pressure complies with the manufacturer’s recommended cold tire pressure. Be sure to tighten the valve caps when completed. Have someone assist you to check that all of your lights are working, including high beams and low beams of your headlights, turn signals, brake lights, tail lights and hazard lights. If it has been a while since your brakes were serviced, you may wish to have them inspected before your trip.

Your next step is to visually inspect your engine compartment. Check wires and belts for visible cracks or fraying. Check the battery posts for corrosion. Check around the engine for fresh oil seepage. Make a note of anything unusual.

Next check your fluids.

1. Oil. Remove the oil dipstick; wipe it clean with a paper towel, taking note of the level markings on the end of the dipstick. Replace the dipstick, making sure to insert it all the way. Remove it again and check where the level of oil is on the dipstick. If the level is less than desired, either make a note of the level and add the appropriate oil accordingly, or arrange to have an oil change. If it has been a while, or is near the time for an oil change, or you will be driving an extended time or distance then getting an oil change would be a good idea.

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2. Brake fluid. If the level markings are on the brake fluid reservoir, there is no need to remove the cover. Make sure the brake fluid is at the proper level. If you need to add fluid, check your owner’s manual for the proper type. Also make sure not to spill any on the paint, as brake fluid is corrosive to paint.

3. Coolant level. Most cooling systems have a coolant reservoir with level markings on the outside of the container. Make sure the coolant level is near the cold full marking.

4. Wiper fluid. Like the coolant, the level markings are usually on the reservoir. Make sure your wiper fluid is full.

5. Transmission fluid. With the engine running, remove the dipstick and check the transmission fluid level. The dipstick will be marked similarly to the oil dipstick and the procedure for checking the transmission fluid is the same as checking the oil.

Upon completion of these tasks, evaluate your notes and arrange for any services that are needed. It is much easier to take the time to perform this pre-trip car check-up and arrange for any needed services prior to your trip than to have a malfunction on the road in an unfamiliar area.

Getting into the habit of performing this pre-trip car check-up on a regular, periodic schedule will help you become familiar with your vehicle and its performance, as well as alert you to potential problems. Car repairs are usually expensive, so it is a great idea to stay a step ahead where your vehicle is concerned. This check up is also a step toward yours and your family’s personal safety.