Top Signs Your Car is Due for Maintenance

Cars aren't cheap. In fact, after homes, cars are one of the largest purchases many people will make. So maintaining your vehicle is critical to protecting a substantial investment. A well-maintained truck or car can run for hundreds of thousands of miles. But if you ignore signs your vehicle needs maintenance, you could easily kill even a brand-new car. Here are some of the top signs that your car is due for maintenance that you should not ignore.

Illuminated Check Engine or Other Warning Lights

Cars these days are quite intelligent. They are packed full of sensors, monitors, and computers. Some of those computers help control your vehicle, such as anti-lock brakes, cruise control, and other handy features of modern cars. But one of the most useful functions of all those sensors is to let you know when something is wrong. Depending on your vehicle, you may have a number of lights on your dash that indicate a variety of maintenance concerns.

Check Engine Light

This is the most famous of all warning lights on your dash. Just about every modern car has one, and it can indicate a broad range of issues, some more urgent than others. The ubiquity of this warning light sometimes leads people to ignore it, but that can lead to expensive repairs. If your check engine light is on, but nothing else about your car is unusual, the problem is likely not urgent. Get to your mechanic as soon as you can and have them check it out. One of the nice things about all those sensors is that if you have the right tools, they will actually tell you what's wrong. In many cases, a mechanic can hook up to your car's computer and determine precisely where the problem is, making it easy to find the right repairs.

If your check engine light is blinking, you should be more concerned. A blinking check engine light in most vehicles indicates a more severe or urgent problem. If you see a blinking check engine light, get your car into your mechanic as soon as possible and avoid driving until you know the source of the problem.

Low Oil Light

It is important to check your oil level from time to time and get oil changes as recommended by your vehicle's manufacturer. As your car ages, this becomes even more important. Older cars almost always leak a little oil. That in itself is not a huge problem, as long as you check the oil level regularly and keep it topped off.

But if your car suddenly springs a larger leak and the oil level drops, you could be in for serious trouble. Once your oil light comes on, it is almost too late. Pull over immediately. You can call a tow truck to tow you to your mechanic, or you can wait for your engine to cool so you can check your oil level and refill it and then drive to your mechanic. Either way, do not continue to drive when your oil light comes on. If you run your car with too little oil, you can severely damage your engine, leading to a very expensive repair or even engine replacement. For many older cars, running the vehicle with too little oil can be the vehicle's death, as the repairs are more than the car is worth.

Tire Pressure Gauge

This light is sometimes hard to recognize, but it often looks like a pair of parentheses with a squiggly line at the bottom. When you see this light come on, it means that your tires have low pressure. It is common to see this warning in the fall and winter as temperatures drop. It's a simple matter of physics, cool air contracts, and creates less pressure inside your tires. 

Typically, for every 10 degrees the temperature drops, you lose 1 to 2 psi of tires pressure. So if you filled up your tires on a pleasant 73-degree day, when the temperature drops to a frigid 25 degrees, you could see a loss of 5 to 10 psi. 5 to 10 psi is definitely enough to affect your car's handling, and you should refill the air in your tire if you lose that much pressure. Luckily, the solution is simple. Many gas stations offer an air pump that can easily refill your tires. The built-in gauge will tell you exactly how much pressure you have, and the max psi is usually indicated on the tires.

Other Warning Lights

As vehicles advance and the computers in them become more complex, the number of warning lights has expanded. If you see a warning light you don't recognize, check your owner's manual. Warning lights are your car's way of telling you that something needs maintenance, so don't ignore them.

Funny Noises

It is almost cliche now, the clueless car owner who comes to the mechanic trying to describe the funny noises their car makes. But strange noises are no joke. If your vehicle is running or sounding differently than it usually does, something may need attention. A test drive by your mechanic is often enough for them to get a firsthand listen to your car. But knowing some of the basic noises and what they mean can help you communicate more effectively with your mechanic.

Whining Under the Hood

It's not uncommon for owners of older cars to hear a whining sound coming from under the hood. That sound is almost always a loose belt. Like warning lights on your dash, that whining sound is a helpful warning that something is about to go very wrong if you don't get your car repaired soon. A loose belt can cause damage to other parts of your vehicle. But if a belt slips or breaks, it can cause much more damage. So consider that whining a polite reminder that now is the time to get your car looked at.

Unusual Engine Noise When Idling

Normally, when your car is idling, you should hear an even, consistent sound from your engine. That sound may vary from the cool purr of a well-tuned sports car to the loud gurgling of an aging economy sedan. But whatever noise your car makes as you sit waiting for a red light, the sound should be consistent and even. If the noise coming from your engine has changed or seems to be popping, revving, or slowing, that could be a sign of engine problems. In some cases, it's an easy fix, like new spark plugs. In other cases, your engine may be misfiring, which requires urgent attention. Unusual engine noises could be related to other serious engine problems, too. So if your engine sounds different than usual, take your car in now before the problems escalate.

Grinding Metal

If you hear the sound of metal grinding on metal, something is definitely wrong. There are as many possible problems as there are metal parts of your car. But the short of it is that no two metal parts of your car should be grinding against each other. So if you hear the sound of metal on metal, take your vehicle in for a mechanic to diagnose and fix the problem.

Squealing Brakes

If your brakes are squealing, your brake pads are probably worn down. Brake pads naturally wear down as they are used and are meant to be replaced after a time as part of routine maintenance. It's a relatively simple and inexpensive repair, and the price mainly depends on the quality of the new brake pads you install. However, if you hear your brakes squealing, it's not wise to wait to replace the pads. Worn down brake pads are unsafe, as they may lead to soft braking. And if the pads get too low, you can damage your rotors. In addition to protecting your rotors, your brake pads help dissipate the extreme heat caused by the friction of braking. If the pads get too low, your brakes could overheat and fail, leaving you unable to slow or stop your vehicle, which is obviously very dangerous.

Top Signs Your Car is Due for Maintenance [infographic]

Urgent Signs Your Car Needs a Mechanic

There are plenty of signs that your car needs maintenance, but some situations need urgent attention from a mechanic. Obviously, if your car stops running, you need to get it to a mechanic to get on the road again. But there are times when you may be able to get your car to run, but probably shouldn't.

Steam or smoke coming from under the hood is undoubtedly alarming. But some smoke should be more alarming than others. Steam is technically not the same as smoke, since it is water vapor instead of burnt material. Steam will be white without a strong odor. If you see steam coming from under your hood, pull over. Check your engine temperature dial. Steam is a sign your car is overheating, and you need to pull over and let it cool. Sometimes it could be nothing, especially if your vehicle is working hard like going up a long, steep incline. But it's worth having a mechanic take a look.

Foul-smelling smoke is often the result of burning oil. If there is enough oil to cause billowing smoke, you need to pull over right away to avoid running out of oil and ruining your engine. Greenish smoke is almost always the result of coolant and indicates a problem with your radiator. Again, pull over immediately to avoid destroying your vehicle. When it's safe, get your car towed to a mechanic.

If your car is stalling when it idles or is slow to start, head to a mechanic quickly. While it may be possible to get around, if a little inconvenient, you are putting yourself and others at risk. There may be a problem with your battery, alternator, or other electrical systems, or your spark plugs or engine. But whatever the cause, if your car stalls in an unsafe location, like in the middle of a crowded street, you could put yourself and others in harm's way. So don't wait. Get to a mechanic as soon as possible.

Reliable Auto Maintenance

When it's time to get your car serviced, there is a big difference in who you choose to work on your vehicle. So if you want reliable, honest, high-quality, and cost-effective car care, choose a TrustDALE certified auto maintenance team. You'll be protected by Dale's rigorous 7-point investigative review of every business and his trademark $10,000 Make-It-Right™ Guarantee.

Dale's New Book:
Don't Get Scammed: Get Smart!


TrustDALE in your Community