servicing of car

The Ultimate Guide To Car Servicing (And How To Service Your Car At Home)

Why is it important to service your car regularly?

Servicing your car regularly is really important if you want to keep it running smoothly and help prevent it from breaking down.

Your car’s engine is a complicated piece of engineering. To help protect it from premature wear it’s important to change the oil and numerous filters regularly. The filters help to protect the engine from contaminants in the air and fuel. Over time they loose their ability to do this, and can become clogged with dirt. 

The oil is vital for lubricating all of the moving parts in the engine block. Most oils these days are fully synthetic, and contain a variety of additives that help to protect your engine from wear.

Modern engines are complicated and need regular servicing to keep them running smoothly for longer

These additives lose their effectiveness over time and the oil can also change in consistency. Worn engine oil won’t protect your engine as much as it should, and this will lead to problems with the engine. 

Another reason why it is important to keep your car servicing up to date is safety. Components such as tires, brakes and wipers all have a limited lifespan. If left unchecked they can become worn out and can be a danger, especially in bad weather. It’s really important that you (or a qualified mechanic) carry out periodic safety checks on your car. 

Safety checks usually include checking the condition and operation of suspension parts and subframe, tires, brake components, wipers and outside lights. Some countries have a compulsory annual safety check for cars, such as the MOT in the UK.

A final reason why you should keep your servicing up to date is the impact it can have on the value of your car. If you plan on selling your car a buyer will usually want to see proof that the servicing schedule has been adhered to. If a car looks like it has been well looked after, then it will usually be worth more than a car that hasn’t.

What Are The Benefits of servicing your car yourself?

If you want to save some money, then servicing your car yourself is a great option. Most of the money you pay to a dealer or service shop is for the labor involved in servicing your car.

The servicing parts are not that expensive. So doing the work yourself can save you a packet during the lifetime of your car.

Another benefit of servicing your car yourself, is that you can be sure that the servicing has been done properly and with the right parts. Unfortunately, there are lots of unscrupulous businesses out there that will try to cut corners, especially when it comes to car maintenance that can’t easily be rechecked.

servicing your car yourself

Learning how to service your car yourself can save you a lot of money

By doing the job yourself, you can be sure that you have used manufacturer approved parts, and that you have actually changed whatever parts need to be changed.

What’s included in a routine car service?

In the old days, manufacturers typically recommended that you got your car serviced once a year, or at certain mileage intervals. This type of service typically included an oil and air filter change, spark plug replacement if necessary and a new cabin and fuel filter if needed.

Other wear and tear items such as brake pads/rotors, wiper blades and suspension bushings would also be checked and replaced if necessary at an extra cost. This type of servicing model was more expensive for the customer, as would typically cost $300-500, depending on the age and model of the car.

In more recent years, most car manufacturers have changed servicing to a condition based servicing (CBS) model. Cars now have a built in intelligent maintenance system that monitors the condition of various service items such as engine oil and brake pads. 

Each of these service items will usually need changing at different intervals, instead of all at once. The servicing interval can also vary depending on the type of driving you do and the amount of annual mileage. With CBS service items are still changed at regular maximum intervals and the driver is notified via the dashboard or touchscreen when a service is required.

The CBS model can save you some money if you don’t drive your car much, but on the downside it can extend servicing intervals longer than is traditionally recommended. Some manufacturers such as BMW used to recommend an oil change every 2 years or at 30,000 miles, but many believe this led to problems with timing chains in their diesel engines.

If you are going to take care of your car’s servicing needs yourself here’s a list of typical serviceable items that you’ll need to keep an eye on.

  1. Engine oil and oil filter - At least once every year or 12,000 miles (15,000kms)
  2. Air fiIlter - Once a year or every second oil change
  3. Cabin (pollen filter) - Every 6 months
  4. Fuel filter - Every 30,000 miles or every second oil change (for diesel engines)
  5. Spark plugs - Every 60,000 to 100,000 miles depending on type of spark plug
  6. Glow plugs (diesel engine) - every 100,000 miles or sooner
  7. Wiper blades - Once a year (check every 3 month and change if necessary)
  8. Brake pads - Change when worn out
  9. Brake rotors - Inspect every 6 months, change if warped, rusted or if worn below manufacturers minimum thickness (this is engraved on the rotor)

What tools do you need to service your car?

The good news is that you don’t need that many tools to carry out a full service of your car. Most standard servicing jobs can be carried out with normal tools that you may already won. These include:

  1. Socket wrenches
  2. Axle stands
  3. Lifting jack
  4. Screwdrivers (including torx)
  5. Set of Allen keys
  6. Pliers
  7. Oil drain pan, oil funnel and cloths

You may need to buy one or two specialist tools such as an oil filter wrench or a large socket wrench for changing the oil filter. 

Here’s an overview of how to carry out the most common service procedures. I highly recommend you get your hands on the correct service manual for your car. This will give you the exact procedure for all maintenance jobs and will list any specialist requirements specific to your car or truck model. There are lots of different automotive manuals out there, I personally use and highly recommend Haynes Auto Repair Manuals.

1. How To change the oil and oil filter

This in my opinion is the most important maintenance job you can do on your car. It’s fairly straightforward and with a bit of practice you’ll be able to get it done in less than an hour.

Regardless of manufacturer guidelines, it’s generally recommended that you change the oil in your car once a year or at most every 15,000 miles. 

You should always use an engine oil with the exact specification recommended in your vehicle’s handbook, for newer cars this is going to be a synthetic oil.

Don’t skimp on the oil filter either. There are dozens of oil filter manufacturers out there, and not all of them are going to be of the same quality as those fitted to your car in the factory. Check out my article on how to choose the best oil filter and the best synthetic oil 

If you are still in any doubt then buy the oil and filter directly from the service department of your local dealer.

  1. Run the engine for around 15 minutes, or bring it for a short drive. It’s essential that you warm up the oil before starting so that it will drain entirely from the engine.
  2. Turn off the engine, put the gearbox in first gear (if manual) or park and put on the parking brake.
  3. Assuming you are not using a garage ramp, you will need to jack up the front of the car and secure it in place with some good quality axle stands. If this is your first time doing this, then get some advice from somebody that has done it before. It’s important that you check the handbook before jacking up your car, the handbook will show you where the jacking points are.
  4. Open the hood and remove any plastic engine covers that are in your way. 
  5. Remove the engine oil top up cap and put it in a safe place.
  6. Now get under the car and remove the engine cover (if present). Locate the oil sump bung and check to see what type of socket or Allen key you will need to remove it. Be careful when touching the underside of the engine as it will be hot.

7. Place some cardboard or sheeting on the ground under the oil sump to catch any oil splashes.

remove the drain bung

Remove the drain bung, be careful not to get hot oil on your arm

8. Now place the oil drain pan under the sump and loosen the oil drain bung counterclockwise. It shouldn’t be too tight and once loosened a bit slowly unscrew it with your hand. It’s a good idea to wear some disposable gloves to protect your hands from the oil. Fully remove the oil drain bung and let the oil drain into the basin. Be really careful not to get any oil on your hands as it will be hot.

9. Now locate the oil filter. If it’s under the hood in the engine bay then you can go ahead and replace it while the oil is draining. If it’s located under the car or at the back of the engine you may need to wait until the oil has fully drained.

Changing oil filter

Carefully remove the oil filter, remember that oil is hot!

The oil filter can be a screw on unit or it can be a synthetic filter in an oil filter housing. If it’s in a housing then you will need to remove the housing lid with the appropriate socket wrench. The screw on filters will need an oil filter tool to loosen them . Be careful when removing the oil filter as it will be hot.

Before fitting the new oil filter let the oil continue to drain from the engine into the basin. It’s worth leaving it to drain for a few minutes to ensure all of the old oil drains from the engine.

10. Replace the oil filter with the new one. If it’s a paper filter you will usually need to change the rubber seals on the housing lid. These are usually included with the filter. When tightening the oil filter housing lid use a torque wrench, the tightening torque is usually printed on the lid. If it’s a screw on filter, then apply a small amount of oil to the rubber seal on the filter before you fit it. Don’t over tighten a screw on filter, usually hand tightening will suffice. 

11. Now replace the oil sump bung. Depending on what type it is, you may need to replace it entirely with a new one, or you may just need to fit a new copper washer to the old bung. Hand tighten the bung and clean any oil drips from the bottom of the sump and around the bolt. Now tighten the sump bolt with a torque wrench.

12. Using a clean funnel, pour the new engine oil into the engine slowly. Before you start, double check the correct engine oil capacity and be careful that you don’t add too much.

add oil to the engine

Carefully pour the new oil in to the engine using a clean funnel

Replace the oil top up lid and double check that the oil sump bung and oil filter have been replaced properly. 

13. Now, start the engine and leave it running for a few minutes to let the new oil circulate and warm up.

Turn off the engine and check the oil level according to the handbook. Some cars don’t have an oil dipstick and you may need to bring the car for a short drive while it calculates the oil level itself.

low oil pressure

Check the oil level and make sure you've added the correct amount to the engine

Check the oil sump bung and oil filter for leaks, if it’s all good then replace any plastic engine covers that you may have removed. Remove the axle stands and lower the car slowly to the ground.

Remember to dispose of the old oil in an environmentally friendly way. Check with your local recycling centre, as most will take old engine oil.

2. How to change the air filter

Changing the air filter is one of the easiest servicing tasks and is usually one of the cheapest too. A good quality air filter should only set you back around $20. 

You should check the condition of the air filter twice a year, as a dirty air filter will affect engine performance and fuel economy.

Most air filters are located in an air filter box that is connected directly to the mass air filter sensor and intake manifold. You should check your service manual to see exactly where the air filter is located and the steps for replacement. Most newer vehicles have air filter that are easy to access and change, in some cases you can remove the air filter without any tools. 

On some older cars, you will need to remove a lot of engine parts to get to the air filter. Keep track of everything you remove and take lots of photos with your smartphone so you can easily retrace your steps when you are putting it all back together.

A dirty air filter will restrict the amount of air your engine can use

  1. Locate the air filter box. Remove any engine covers that obstruct the box.
  2. Some engine air filter boxes will need to be removed from the car to before they can be opened, others have a removable lid to make it easier to replace the air filter. If you are removing it you may need to unplug the MAF sensor or remove it with the air filter box.
  3. Using the necessary screwdriver/wrench, remove or open the air filter box. Be careful not to damage the MAF sensor or it’s wiring. 
  4. Once you have access to the air filter, remove it, noting how it fits into the air filter box.
  5. Clean out the air filter box, removing any leaves or debris and give it a wipe with a damp cloth. 
  6. Fit the new air filter, ensuring it’s the right way up and is fully pushed into place using the plastic guides in the air filter box.
  7. Replace the lid or refit the air filter box to the engine bay.
  8. Replace any plastic covers, MAF wiring connectors or hoses that you removed earlier.

3. How To Change The Pollen (cabin) Filter

The pollen or cabin filter is another important filter that should changed at least once a year. It is responsible for filtering the air that comes into the cabin of the car and depending on where you live it can get pretty dirty if left unchecked. 

It’s an easy enough filter to change, but sometimes can be awkward to access. It’s usually located  behind the dashboard or on the top of the engine bay (under the hood near the windshield).

Again, you’ll need to check the service manual for your car to find the exact location. Some cars have more than one cabin filter and it’s usually advisable to change both at the same time.

When buying a cabin filter, make sure you get a good quality one that will filter the air properly. Some vehicles are fitted with carbon active pollen (cabin) filters that help to neutralise bad odours that can come in with the outside air. These are usually more expensive than standard pollen filters, but are recommended for some vehicles especially those fitted with advanced HVAC systems.

dirty vs clean cabin filter

An dirty cabin filter vs. a new cabin filter

  1. Check the location of the cabin filter. 
  2. If the pollen filter is accessed under the dashboard, you will usually need to remove a plastic cover under the dashboard before removing it. 
  3. Once you have access to the filter, pull it slowly downwards towards the floor of the car. You’ll probably need to get down onto the floor so that you can see up behind the dashboard. This type of cabin filter is usually long and narrow and is bent into an ’S; shape when it is in place.
  4. Fully remove the filter and any debris or trapped leaves that you can reach with your hand. If possible, shine a torch up into the cabin filter holder you can check to see if there are any trapped leaves or twigs that may need removing.
  5. Before replacing the cabin filter, check for an orientation arrow printed onto one of its edges. This will show you which way up the pollen filter needs to go. 
  6. To fit the new filter, gently start to push it upwards behind the dashboard into the filter box. There are usually plastic guides to hold the filter in place as you push it in. Keep pushing until the filer is all the way in and then replace the lid you removed earlier.
  7. If the filter is located in the engine bay, it’s usually easier to replace. Most engine bay cabin filters are located underneath a plastic cover that you will need to remove to gain access. Once removed, it’s as simple as dropping in the new filter and replacing the cover. 

4. How To Check and replace Wiper Blades

Wiper blades are often overlooked when it comes time for a car service. You should check and replace worn wipers at least once a year. It’s especially important to check them after the summer, when they may not have been used in a while and before the winter when they are vital for safe driving.

Wiper blades are really easy to check, and you don’t need any special tools. If you live in a part of the world that experiences extremes in weather then you should check the wiper blades once a month, especially during the winter when they often can break or become damaged due to bad weather.

To check wiper blades, all you need is a clean cloth to wipe away any dirt. Don’t forget to check the wiper blades on the back window too, these are often over looked but can get really dirty from debris that is thrown up from the road surface.

checking wiper blades
  1. To check the rubber part of the wiper, lift the wiper blade arm away from the windscreen, it should spring back and stay up by itself.
  2. Turn the blade upside down on the arm so that the rubber part that touches the windscreen is facing upwards (so you can see it).
  3. Now closely check the rubber blade for any cracks or pitting. 
  4. Push and squeeze the wiper blade rubber to ensure it is still flexible (and hasn't hardened)
  5. If it's a conventional blade with a frame, check the frame for any breakages along it's length. Make sure there is no rust on the frame and that it connects securely to the wiper arm. Also check that the rubber part is still connected to the frame at all of the connected points
  6. If the wiper blade is a flat blade without a frame, then check that it securely connects to the wiper arm, and that it is flexible and slightly curved when you lift it from the windscreen.
  7. If you need to change the wiper blade then I highly recommend you check a service manual or find a YouTube video that demonstrates the procedure for your car. Wiper blades can be tricky to remove if you don’t have the exact procedure. Most require you to squeeze a plastic tab while pulling the blade away from the wiper arm. 
  8. When fitting the new wiper blades check that you are fitting the right blade to the right side of the car. Some cars (or trucks) use different sized wiper blades for the driver and passenger sides.

Remember to check and replace the rear wiper if fitted and if necessary. The rear wiper blades don’t get as much use as the front ones, so you should get a few years out of them depending on the vehicle and what the weather is like where you live.

5. How To change a fuel filter

Not every car has a fuel filter that is easy to change. Some manufacturers claim that the fuel filter on some models are good for the life of the car. This usually is not true, but you may find that the fuel filter is really difficult to access and change. Sometimes the fuel filter is part of the fuel tank and is not really a serviceable component.

If your truck or car is has a diesel engine or is an older petrol model, then the fuel filter should be changed regularly. Most diesel fuel filters are good for around 30,000 Miles. If a fuel filter change is recommended by a manufacturer, they may do it every 2-3 oil changes, or sooner if it's a diesel engine.

Fuel filters are cheap, but are not always the easiest to change if you’ve never done one before. The biggest problems you may face are fuel spillages and bleeding the fuel system after you fit the new filter. 

dirty fuel filter

A dirty fuel filter can cause low fuel pressure and engine stalls

Again, I highly recommend you get your hands on a service manual for your car or check out a Youtube video if you can find one. Remember, fuel is under pressure in the fuel lines. Take care when removing the fuel lines from the filter. 

  1. Locate the fuel filter. If it’s under the car, be sure to jack up and secure the weight of the car on axle stands. Alternatively the fuel filter can be located in the engine bay under the hood. You may need to remove some plastic covers, piping or the air filter box to access it.
  2. Before you start it’s often a good idea to remove the fuel pump fuse in case it automatically kicks in when you have the fuel filter removed. 
  3. To remove the fuel filter you will need to remove the fuel lines coming from the fuel tank, and the fuel lines feeding the fuel pump/engine. There are a few different ways that these are held in place, they can be snap on connectors, a hose clamp or a nut and bolt. Before you start, be sure that you have the correct tool for removal.
  4. Before disconnecting the fuel lines, prepare for some fuel spillage. If possible, place a container under the fuel filter to catch fuel. 
  5. Refitting of the fuel filter is the opposite of removal. In some cases, you may be able to fill the new filter with fuel before fitting, this helps with priming of the system.
  6. After the fuel filter is changed, you will need to bleed the system and prime the engine. This process will vary depending on the car. Some cars will have an automated sequence that will start the fuel pump to bleed the system. Other cars will have a hand pump along the fuel line, and it will be necessary to manually pump the air out of the system before the engine will start.
  7. It's often a good idea to cut open the old fuel filter after it is removed. This can reveal the condition of the filter and can help diagnose reoccurring problems.

6. Check tires (pressure and thread depth)

 Checking the condition and pressure of the tires on your car is one of the most important maintenance checks you can carry out. You should be checking your tires at least once a month, and before any long road trips. Defective and worn out tires can be very dangerous, especially in bad weather. 

Even if you don’t cover that many miles in your car, the rubber in tires can still degrade over time and they can become cracked or weakened, making them more susceptible to a blow out when put under strain. 

It’s also important that your tires are correctly inflated when carrying loads that are heavier than normal.

Checking Tire Pressure

It's really important to regularly check tire pressure

It’s really easy to check the thread depth, condition and air pressure of tires. All you need is a tire pressure gauge and the owners handbook (for recommended air pressures). You can check and top up air pressure at most service stations, but you should also use your own pressure gauge as this will be more accurate.

  1. Before you start, look up the recommended tire pressures in your vehicles handbook. You can also find this information on the driver’s door frame of most cars. Some cars have wider tires fitted to the rear and these may require a different pressure to the front tires.
  2. To check pressure, remove the screw on valve cover and connect the tire pressure gauge. Most pressure gauges will give you a reading in PSI (pounds per square inch) and BAR. If the pressure is too low, top up the air and recheck the pressure.
  3. To check the thread depth, use a tire depth gauge and take several readings across the threaded part of the tire, noting the lowest and highest readings. If the wheel alignment is off, then the tires may be wearing unevenly. A safe tire should have at least 2.5mm of thread left, although some states (and countries) require that tires have more or less than this. 
  4. To check the overall condition of the tire, check for small cracks on the tire wall or any damage to the tire such as dents in the tire, chunks of rubber missing or small balloons in the tire wall. If you see any of these problems, or if the tire is more than 6 years old then you should change the tire(s) for new ones.

If you have been driving around on under or over inflated tires then they may be damaged and unsafe to drive on. Many new cars today have tire pressure monitoring systems installed to help monitor the tire pressure.

Even if your vehicle has a TPM system you should still manually check the tire pressure, as some of these systems do not report tire pressure changes in real time. Some only trigger a light on the dashboard if there is a big change in tire pressure.

check tire depth

Check tire thread depth using a digital tire depth gauge

It can also be difficult to feel any changes in tire pressure if your vehicle has run flat tires fitted. Many premium brands such as BMW and Mercedes fit run flat tires with TPMS.

However, if the system is not reset properly when changes are made it may not pick up changes in tire pressure. If you find that you have been driving around for a while on a flat run flat tire, you should always replace the tire and not get it repaired. There are some newer types of run flat tire that can be repaired, but generally speaking it’s safer to replace than to repair most brands.

7. Check the brake pads

Another essential maintenance task is checking the condition of brake pads and rotors. Most modern cars will have a brake pad sensor fitted to alert you to a worn out brake pad. It’s still a good idea to visually check the pads for wear. 

  1. To check the condition and thickness of brake pads all you need is a good torch. If your car has alloy wheels, you should be able to see the brake pads without taking off the wheel. If you can’t then you’ll need to remove the wheel. Be sure to jack up and secure the car on suitable axle stands if you are removing a wheel.
  2. Taking one corner of the car at a time, remove the wheel if necessary and locate the brake calliper.
  3. Shine the torch through the cut-out at the front of the calliper. You should be able to see the edge of the brake disc (rotor) and the brake pad pushing against the inside and outside surfaces. 
  4. Visually check the thickness of the brake material on the brake pad. If it is less than approximately 5mm (1/4 inch) then the brake pads are nearly worn out.
  5. If you have removed the wheel you can also check that the brake pads are wearing evenly along their surface and are sitting flat against the rotor. If they are wearing unevenly or are chipped or damaged in any way they should be replaced.
  6. You should also examine the surface of the brake rotor for damage or uneven wear. Some discs (rotors) develop an uneven surface as they age. This can be caused by worn out brake pads or sticky calipers. 
  7. You should also check the thickness of the brake rotor using a brake rotor calliper gauge. I like the digital calipers as it’s easy to see the exact reading on the LED screen. You will find the minimum recommended brake rotor thickness in the service manual and stamped onto the brake rotor.
check brake pads and rotors

Check the brake rotors for rust and uneven wear

Even if the brake pads or rotors look like they are in good condition, they do have a limited lifespan and should be changed every few years.

8. Check the brake fluid

For the brake system to work effectively it’s also important that you check the brake fluid levels regularly. It’s a sealed system, so the fluid level should remain constant, but the level in the top up bottle may drop a bit as the brake pads wear down.

In many manual gearbox cars today, the brake fluid system is part of a dual system whereby the fluid is shared with the clutch hydraulic system. If there are any problems with the clutch system such as leaks or a new clutch plate fitted, you should always check that the brake fluid levels have not be affected.

It’s also a good idea to have the brake fluid changed at least once every two years. Even though the system is sealed, the fluid can have a tendency to take in water vapour reducing its overall effectiveness when it comes to generating braking pressure.

Brake fluid topping up

Check and top up the brake fluid if necessary 

  1. To check the brake fluid level first locate the brake fluid reservoir. It’s usually located near the brake servo (booster) under the hood near the windshield. You may need to remove a plastic cover to expose the reservoir.
  2. Look at the side of the brake fluid bottle for the maximum and minimum markings. Make sure that the brake fluid level is in between these two lines. 
  3. If it is hard to see the fluid level (sometimes the reservoir can go yellow if it is aged), shine a torch at the side of the bottle while gently shaking it. You should be able to see the fluid level move inside the bottle.
  4. If the fluid level is below the minimum marking then you will need to top it up. You will also need to figure out why it has dropped. If the brake pads are due to be changed soon and no other work has been carried out then it’s probably not a leak in the system. The fluid level in the bottle will rise again when the calliper pistons are pushed back to accommodate the new brake pads.
  5. Before topping up the fluid level, start the engine and pump the brake pedal. If this causes the fluid to rise, there may be air getting into the system or the master or slave cylinders may be leaking. If you are unsure at all, get the brake system checked out by a professional as soon as possible.
  6. If the brake pads are fairly new you will need to add some brake fluid to the top up bottle.
  7. Before opening the lid of the brake fluid reservoir, clean around the top of the bottle, especially around the cap. You don’t want to get any dirt into the bottle when you remove the lid. 
  8. Check the owners handbook to see what specification brake fluid is suitable for your vehicle. Common brake fluid types are DOT3, DOT 4 and DOT 5 specifications.
  9. Place a clean cloth around the top of the top up bottle before opening the lid, and put on some disposable gloves. Be careful with brake fluid, it’s is corrosive and will damage the paintwork of your car.
  10. Slowly add a small amount of fluid to the top up bottle, keeping the level below the max.
  11. Replace the cap on the top up bottle and clean up any spillages immediately.

After topping up the brake fluid, recheck the level after driving to make sure it hasn’t dropped again. Any changes to the brake fluid level over a short period of time, would indicate a leak somewhere in the system.