Car maintenance

Our vehicle maintenance checklist for beginners

Our Patrol of The Year talks you through basic car maintenance

To help you avoid a breakdown, it's important to do essential vehicle maintenance from time to time. Check out our top tips below, curated by none other than our expert patrols.

3 car care tips from Ben, Patrol of the Year

Car maintenance

The most important things you need to stay on top of:

  • Battery (12-volt) – To stop your battery going flat and help it stay charged, try to drive your vehicle for 15 minutes once a week.
  • Brakes – While it's running, move the car a short distance back and forth a few times to stop the brakes from seizing.
  • 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.

We provide 24/7 roadside assistance.

How long does car maintenance take?

You can expect a full car maintenance servicing to take between three and four hours (if you're taking your vehicle for a professional service). If you're attempting to maintain all the internal parts of your car on your own, expect it to take longer than this, depending on your experience levels.

10 Car maintenance tips

1. Keep your 12-volt battery healthy

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

Checking your battery health

Your car may have a built-in battery monitor (via your manufacturer's app) or an AA-X device. Alternatively, 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.

Flat battery causes

The most common cause of a flat battery is leaving the lights on 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.

Replace your battery easily with Battery Assist

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2. Check and change your oil regularly

Changing your oil regularly helps to improve your engine’s performance and extend its longevity. It’ll also help you to achieve maximum fuel mileage. Engine oil contains several additives that enhance its performance, including anti-wear agents, detergents and dispersants. If you fail to change your oil at the right time, these additives can break down or become much less effective, reducing their effectiveness when it comes to protecting your engine. 

Luckily, you can follow our quick and easy guide for checking and topping up your oil


3. Check your brakes

The brakes in your vehicle are incredibly complex and require in-depth checks at an annual MOT servicing. Brake pads, discs and callipers are the most likely parts of the braking system to cause problems – the best way to check your brakes is to see how they perform while out on the road. If you hear any unusual sounds when braking, notice the vehicle pulling to the left or right, or notice that it takes longer for your brakes to work and slow you down, get them checked by a mechanic immediately. 

Modern cars also have dashboard warning lights that will alert you when there’s a problem with the brakes, so keep an eye out for these. 


4. Check your air filters

Air filters are designed to prevent any debris or dust from entering your vehicle’s engine – if they get clogged up it can lead to engine damage or at least reduced performance. To check your air filter yourself you can follow the steps below: 

  • Open the bonnet 
  • Locate the air filter (It is usually located within a plastic box attached to the engine via trunking. The box usually has a number of clips holding the lid on. The filter itself is a rubber or plastic frame which surrounds the main filter which could be made of layers of cotton, synthetic paper, foam or a combination of those elements.) 
  • Unfasten any clips keeping the box in place 
  • Take the air filter out and examine it for any dirt/debris 
  • If it’s especially clogged (looks dark in colour) then you should get it replaced


5. Check your car's fluids

Transmission fluid (in automatic cars), brake fluid and engine coolant are the main fluids that you need to stay on top of when maintaining your vehicle. Again, your dashboard will light up warning you when any of these are getting low, but it never hurts to check the levels of each fluid yourself. 

You should also check your washer fluid, especially in the winter when the fluid becomes susceptible to freezing. If you run out of washer fluid and therefore do not have the ability to clear your windscreen, this will be considered an offence. 

You should check your brake fluid levels every few months by doing the following: 

  • Open the bonnet  
  • Find the brake fluid reservoir (your vehicle manual will tell you where this is – though it is usually a white container with dark brake fluid visible on the inside) 
  • If the liquid is below the minimum marker, top it up so that it sits between the minimum and maximum markers 
  • While doing this, check the reservoir for any dirt or debris (if there is some, you’ll need to get a mechanic to clean it out) and clean the reservoir cap 
  • Drive your vehicle and test the brakes often 

To check your transmission fluid, you can follow similar steps to checking your car’s oil levels: 

  • Warm up your car by running the engine for 10 minutes or so 
  • Open the bonnet 
  • Locate the transmission fluid dipstick (usually an orange or yellow handle) 
  • Remove the dipstick and wipe off any residue from it with a clean cloth 
  • Reinsert the dipstick and see how far up the liquid reaches (you want this to be between the minimum and maximum lines) 
  • If it’s below the minimum amount, top up with transmission fluid (make sure the fluid is suitable and meets your manufacturer’s recommended specifications) and test again 

For coolant checks, follow our dedicated guide to checking and topping up your engine coolant


6. 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, as tyres do naturally deflate over time. Keep an eye out for cuts, uneven wear and that your tread is within legal limits

Check the tyre pressure too so you don't put yourself at risk when you do start driving again – the best time to do this is when the tyres are cold. 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. 

Using a tyre pressure monitoring system 

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 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. There's 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. 

Using a tyre pressure gauge 

If you have one, you can use a tyre pressure gauge to carry out a more accurate check. 

Replacing a flat tyre 

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. Read our step-by-step guide on how to change a flat tyre

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, 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. 


7. Cleaning your car

Keeping your car clean is an important part of maintaining your vehicle’s health. Spraying your car down and washing it with the right soap can help stop corrosion and exterior damage. It’s also very important that your number plates are clean and legible. 

Follow our dedicated guide page for cleaning your car and you’ll be good to go!


Don’t get a flat battery while you clean

We're often called out to help vehicles with flat batteries caused by drivers leaving the radio or interior lights on. This can particularly happen when you clean as 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've 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 a battery maintainer, if you have one. 

Read our useful guide on how to clean your car.  


8. 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. 

Check under the bonnet 

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. 

Check around the wheels 

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 will be able to help. If you find animals in to difficult to access areas, you may need assistance from your mechanic. 


9. Check your Diesel Particulate Filter

If your vehicle is a diesel produced after 2007, it most likely has a Diesel Particulate Filter (or DPF). The DPF captures soot particles produced while the engine's 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 for about 10-15 miles, and usually goes unnoticed by the driver. 

DPF warning light 

During periods where your car gets less use, DPF’s will be starting to fill up, especially where cars are getting only 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


10. 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: 15 April 2024

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