An engine is a pretty complicated piece of machinery, but there are simple preventive maintenance checks anyone can do that will help you avoid some of the more common breakdowns.
The four checks outlined below are for your typical truck/van/Class C RV gas engine and they take under five minutes to do. We recommend doing them every time before you do any driving longer than an hour.
Is this always necessary? Maybe not, but five minutes of your time isn’t much and could mean a big difference to your engine’s performance.
To do these checks, begin by making sure you are on a relatively level surface and pop your hood.
1. Check your engine oil
Your engine oil is what keeps your engine’s components lubricated. Having the correct amount will prevent unnecessary damage to your engine.
Luckily, this check is pretty straightforward, easy to do, and most people probably already have an idea of how to do it, but we’ll review it here.
First, find the engine oil dipstick handle (most likely it is yellow and in a very accessible place). Pull out the dipstick and use a clean rag to wipe it clean.
Reinsert it all the way back in and then pull it out again. You will see two lines on the stick, one labeled “ADD” and one is labeled “FULL.” Your oil should be covering the stick to a point between these two lines.
If it is below the “ADD” line, you need to add some engine oil. If it is above the “FULL” line, you need to drain some engine oil. Remember having too much oil can be just as damaging as not having enough as it can cause you to blow a head gasket.
2. Check your coolant
The coolant is what keeps your engine cool when driving. Obviously, it is a crucial component to your engine working correctly. Luckily, if you have a major leak and you begin overheating, you will see it on your temperature gauge and most likely get a warning.
However, if this happens, you will need to stop immediately, no matter how inconvenient. That is why we recommend doing this check before hitting the road so that if there is an issue it can be addressed in a more convenient location.
Typically the coolant reservoir is a semi-opaque white tank that you’ll find near the radiator. Unscrew the cap and look into the tank to see where your level of coolant is. There are lines in the tank labeled typically as “ADD” and “FULL.” As with the engine oil, the amount of coolant should fall between these lines.
If you are low on coolant, add some more, but also take note of this and be sure to check it again the following day. If you are low again, it typically means you have a leak which will need to be addressed.
3. Check your serpentine belt
The serpentine belt is what drives many of the components of your engine, such as the radiator fan, the alternator, and the coolant pump. Typically problems happen when the belt becomes old and brittle and cracks while you’re driving. If this happens, you are stuck and will be waiting on the side of the road for the tow truck.
Another reason to avoid this preventable breakdown is that a broken serpentine belt whipping around in your engine can cause additional damage under your hood.
To do this check, look under your hood and find your serpentine belt. It will be a long thin piece of material that wraps around pulleys and through components of your engine. Find a spot where you can reach the belt and pull gently on it to check the tension. It shouldn’t be too tight or too loose, and it shouldn’t be visually cracked.
If it’s too loose or too tight, it needs to be adjusted. If it’s cracked or brittle, it will need to be replaced.
Depending on the age of your vehicle, you may also have a fan belt. Do the same check on that as you did with the serpentine belt.
4. Check your brake fluid
To be accurate, this is not part of your engine, but it is under the hood and important so we’ve included it here. Your brake fluid is what causes your brake pads to press against your calipers and in turn stops your vehicle. Having the correct amount is important to the overall operation of your brakes.
Find your brake fluid reservoir under your hood. It is typically a smaller semi-opaque tank that visibly has liquid in it with a cap that usually reads DOT 3 FLUID or BRAKE FLUID. On the outside of the tank, there will be two lines labeled “minimum” and “maximum.” Your fluid line should fall between these two lines.
If your level is below the minimum line, something is wrong such as a leak. If it is above the minimum line, but getting close to it, you don’t need to necessarily add more fluid, just make a note and continue to check it. It’s a good chance that it means your brake pads are getting old.
The more used and thinner your brake pads get, the lower your brake fluid level will get, making this a great indicator of when you might need to replace your brake pads. However, even with used brake pads, your level should never go below the minimum line.
If you are planning on replacing your brake pads, keep your brake fluid level closer to the minimum line (but not below it), as putting new brake pads on will cause your brake fluid to raise, and if it’s too high, it can overflow. Brake fluid is corrosive, so this can be a big pain if it were to get on to your vehicle’s paint.
These simple engine checks will help you avoid some unnecessary breakdowns and additional costly damage to your engine. So slow down, pop the hood, and get to know your engine a bit. Once you’ve done these checks a couple of times, it will become part of your daily on-the-road routine.