Car maintenance tips and checks

Top tips and easy car checks

Ben, our patrol of the year, talks you through basic car maintenance

Whether you're driving less during lockdown, or starting to use your car again instead of public transport, it's important to look after your car whilst you're at home.

To help you avoid a breakdown, post-lockdown, we've got some top tips and advice, so your car is ready to go and you can get moving when you need to.

3 car care tips from Ben, Patrol of the Year

Basic car maintenance in lockdown

Our top tips checklist, at a glance:

  • Battery: To stop your battery going flat, you can give it a little help to stay charged by starting the engine, outside your garage, and running it for 15 minutes once a week.
  • Brakes: If your car's parked up for a long time, the brakes can seize. So while it's running, move the car a short distance back and forth a few times.
  • Tyres: Check your tyre condition and pressure – look out for cuts or bulges, and get them inflated, if they need it.

Read on for more advice on these and other areas to check, especially if you haven't used your car in a while.

If you need more help, you can take a look at our advice for looking after your car if it's not being used regularly or you can find out how we've responded to the situation.

Keep your battery healthy

Battery problems are the number 1 cause of breakdowns at any time of year, and particularly when vehicles aren't being used very often, such as during lockdown.

Your car may have a built-in battery monitor, Smart Breakdown or you can buy a manual monitor to check your battery's health. You can also keep your battery topped up with a battery maintainer, which is also known as a trickle charger. If your vehicle is equipped with stop/start, it may automatically switch the engine off while you're trying to charge the battery. If this happens, it means the Battery Monitoring System has recognised the battery is fully charged, so you're good to go.

The most common cause of a flat battery is leaving the lights after turning the engine off, so don't forget to switch everything off as you leave the car. Most cars have a 'lights on' warning sound as you open the car door. It's a good idea to have a pair of jump leads in your car, just in case, so you can recharge your battery from another vehicle. If you're not sure how to use jump leads or the jump start isn't working, just give us a call.

Most car batteries have a guarantee of 3 to 5 years, so if yours is getting a bit old and tired, you can replace it with a new one before it lets you down.

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Check tyre condition as well as pressure

While a flat tyre might be more obvious after a quick visual check, other problems could need a closer look.

We recommend you check your tyres – including the spare – every 2 weeks, keeping an eye out for cuts, uneven wear and that your tread is within legal limits, as well as checking the pressure – so you don't put yourself at risk when you do start driving again.

Tyre pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) are fitted to all cars built after 1 November 2014. If this system is fitted to your car, you may find the warning light has come on if the vehicle has been parked up for a time. This isn’t unusual and doesn’t necessarily indicate a fault or a puncture.

If you have one, you can use a tyre pressure gauge to carry out a more accurate check. The correct pressure should be in your vehicle handbook or printed on a label either inside one of the door shuts or on the inside of the fuel flap. If the TPMS light is on and the tyres look OK, it may just need resetting. Instructions on how to do this will be in the handbook, but there is usually a button somewhere inside the car with the same image as the TPMS warning light on it; pressing and holding this button for a few seconds should reset the system.

If you do have a flat, you can safely change it yourself, if you know how to use the jack, and are able to lift and position the spare tyre comfortably. If you'd like some support, our breakdown mechanics will be happy to help if you're unlucky enough to get a flat – whether you're a Member or not.

Generally, or if you're still driving, you can follow these steps to keep your tyres in good condition:

  • Increase your tyre pressure if you've got a heavy load (the right levels are in your handbook).
  • Replace your tyres when the tread gets low - worn tyres are more likely to get a puncture.
  • Drive around, not over, corners and kerbs. The sides of your tyres are easy to damage.
  • Get your alignment or 'tracking' checked to make sure your vehicle drives in a straight line. Otherwise, the tyres wear unevenly and this can even affect the handling.

Keep your vehicle clean

We're often called out to help vehicles with flat batteries caused by drivers leaving radio or interior lights on, particularly while cleaning, when you might leave a door open. To avoid this, don't use the radio or leave the keys in the ignition while cleaning the car. Once you have finished, drive the car a short distance if possible, applying the brakes often to dry them and run the engine for 15 minutes, or re-connect the battery maintainer. Driving your car to get fuel is allowed and many fuel stations are still operating their car washes. 

Look for signs of animal visitors

Car engine bays can be an attractive nesting area for small rodents at any time of year so if you haven’t driven your car for a while, it’s worth having a look around to see if you've had any visitors.

Look under the bonnet for droppings, gnawed wiring or pipework and plastics, evidence of bedding or hauls of stored food. Favourite nesting sites are air filter boxes, under fuse boxes and battery trays and the area below the windscreen. But any dry, concealed space could be a target.

While you're there, it's also a good idea to clear out any build up of leaves and debris that may have accumulated during this period.

It’s also worth checking the wheel arches, around the suspension, for signs of life. If you do find anything, it’s important to deal with it as rodents in particular can cause thousands of pounds worth of damage, and have a particular fondness for expensive wiring looms. If you're not comfortable or able to move the visitors on yourself, pest control firms are generally still operating, but you may have longer to wait as many are busy with essential decontamination work. If you find animals in to difficult to access areas, you may need assistance from your mechanic.

Check your Diesel Particulate Filter (if you have one)

If your vehicle is a diesel produced after 2007, you'll have a Diesel Particulate Filter (or DPF).

The DPF captures soot particles produced while the engine is running and stores them until it gets to a stage where it needs to burn them off (regen). This regen process usually happens when the vehicle is on a motorway or fast carriageway run, for about 10-15 miles, and usually goes unnoticed by the driver.

During the lockdown when cars are not getting this kind of use, DPF’s will be starting to fill up, especially where cars are getting one or two very short essential trips per week. When the DPF needs to regen but isn’t getting the opportunity, a DPF warning light will illuminate. In these circumstances it is acceptable to take the vehicle for an extended drive to give the DPF a chance to regen, which will cause the warning light to switch off again.

You can find out more about DPF with our complete guide.

Give electric vehicles just as much care 

Tyres, brakes, suspension and general electrical systems are all the same as a petrol or diesel vehicle. The only real difference is the high voltage system.

Many plug-in vehicles automatically maintain the 12- volt battery when they are plugged in – your vehicle handbook will tell you if this is the case. If you haven’t got your vehicle plugged in, it's good practice to plug in periodically, at least once a month, to help maintain systems.

Not sure what to check? Remember FLOWER

So, when it comes to general maintenance, there are 6 key areas to keep on top of:

  • Fuel
  • Lights
  • Oil
  • Water
  • Electrics
  • Rubber

When it comes to remembering them, just think FLOWER.

These maintenance checks are all fairly straightforward. But if you'd rather not do them yourself, find a trusted local garage with Smart Care.



Published: 30 March 2016 | Updated: 11 May 2020

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