I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, but back around New Year’s the subject came up, and, without really thinking about it, I resolved to pay more attention to maintaining my car, and specifically to do it myself when possible. Back in November or so, I bought Auto Repair for Dummies–my first purchase from that illustrious product line–and flipped through it, but never applied its wisdom to my car. Given that I’ve had the thing since September ’04, it was past time to get to know some rudimentary knowledge about its inner workings.
I don’t mean to sing my own praises, but I dislike owning something without knowing something about how it works. Compared to many people I know, I’m not very knowledgeable about computers, since I don’t know anything about programming or circuitry, but I still do some tech support for my family since I’ve learned as much as I can about working with computers. I like learning about systems of knowledge; insofar as I know anything about music or baseball, for instance, it’s because I just set out to absorb what I could about it from as many sources as possible. Even when I started drinking was systematic, mentally cataloguing drinks, brands, cocktails, etc., which paid off when I used it all to make my sister a drink guide for her 21st birthday.
However, the car is a special case, since my desire to learn about my car comes into conflict with my certainty that I’m always going to screw up anything I undertake with my hands, particularly anything mechanical. The advantage of learning about computers is that it’s safe and clean, and the most damage you’re ever going to do is some lost data here and there. The stakes are higher with a car, since not only is the equipment more expensive, but the risk to life and limb is present as well. Whenever I open up the hood, the sticker saying “Warning: Fans may start any time ignition is on” gives me pause, even if my keys are firmly in my pocket.
Certainly I allowed myself to be intimidated when, on January 15, I went out to finally make good on my resolution. Opening up the hood in my first attempt to actually learn where things were, the confidence I gained during my research evaporated upon viewing the ridiculous forest of hoses and valves. Even with the manual’s map of everything, I couldn’t find the air cleaner at first. I couldn’t figure out how to get at the belts, much less inspect them. I didn’t have any rags to wipe the dipstick with. The fear came in, as well; cleaning the deposits off my battery, I kept thinking I was going to electrocute myself or poison/dissolve myself with battery acid.
But I got there eventually. I did get the battery clean. I refilled my windshield washer pump. I found out that I had enough brake fluid, transmission fluid, and coolant, which was relieving: I wasn’t such a bad car owner that I had been blithely driving around without anything in my engine, even if I had been driving around blithely.
The big one, though, was changing my oil. Understand, before I got the For Dummies book, I didn’t know that one could change one’s own oil, nor even what changing the oil really entailed. (You pour out all the oil, see, then you add new oil.) Once I learned that I could, it struck me as essential that I do so, as a symbol of my newfound mastery of my vehicle. Not only was it my right as the car’s owner, it was my duty, and even if I could get an oil change for $15 with a coupon, I wasn’t going to let some stranger change my oil, any more than I’d hire someone to build an IKEA bookshelf or install Microsoft Word for me.
This was a project that took a whole working week, Sunday to Friday, and took me to Kragen Auto Parts three times and Ace Hardware once. I found the oil pan under the car (day 1) and bought motor oil, a drain pan (to catch the oil), a new oil filter, and an oil filter wrench (dollars 1-25); finding my car too low to cram under, bought a jack and jack stands to get at it (day 2, dollars 26-60); attempted to jack up the car but found I couldn’t get it high enough to put the jack stands under (day 3); went back to Kragen, where they told me that I had to jack it up from the side rather than the front, and where I bought a set of wrenches since a friend told me a monkey wrench wouldn’t do it (day 4, dollars 61-95); successfully jacked up the car and got underneath, but was unable to take off the oil pan nut (day 5); bought a spray to help loosen the nut and a mallet to hit the wrench with if necessary (dollars 96-100), but when I jacked up the car again and got back under there, I was finally successful without need of these aids (day 6). The sight of dirty motor oil splashing into the drain pan was the sight of cascading triumph. I wasn’t 100% successful–the oil filter wrench was the wrong size, so I had to change the oil but leave the filter alone. Still, though, it did get done. It should pay for itself in twelve or fifteen months, around oil changes four or five.
Getting under the car was that most magical thing, a new and intimidating experience. I took all of the safety precautions when jacking it up–blocked the wheels, checked it for stability before getting under it–but nonetheless I’m not used to having a compact car suspended a few inches above my face, and it took me a couple tries to get under and stay under. Disturbing questions (would I die almost before knowing it, or would it be the “lie crushed in agony” kind of thing?) occupied my mind until the challenge of the damn nut took their place (though even then I remembered my friend’s report that he knew someone who had knocked the car off the jack stands by trying too hard on the nut. For the record, it felt completely stable throughout). I was rewarded for my boldness, though, when a guy I knew passed by and we had one of those guy conversations about auto work–commisserating, sharing war stories about cars past. As a scrawny academic, this conversation made me feel much more adult (not to say masculine) than usual. This is a rite of passage for the modern man.
The other significant thing about the oil change (is any of this significant?) was that I performed it the day before I left to visit my sister in Santa Cruz, a 400-mile trip. The car ran fine throughout, but I still checked the oil at every gas station. (Which, I guess, you’re supposed to do anyway.)
It’s anyone’s guess whether this interest in my car, and the good habits that come with it, will last. From what I know of me, I think I’ll probably keep up with the technical part of it (checking the fluids, learning how to do a lube job, all that sexy stuff), since I love tinkering–I get a real thrill out of updating my software and even out of changing a printer cartridge–but keeping it looking nice doesn’t hold as much attraction as it should; the idea of washing it once a week feels like drudgery to me. This is of course related to a more general failing of mine, which is that I never feel like keeping things clean, even though it inevitably means more work for me later on. So perhaps that will be next year’s resolution.
But regardless of my behavior towards my own car, it feels really good to have the knowledge, and to share it when needed. My friend Joe got a flat tire during my oil change project–the tire had both a screw and a nail in it–and he enlisted my help changing it. So we learned how to do that together, and now I’ll always know, finally, how to change a tire.
To conclude this very long entry–why do I write so much when cars are involved?–I’ll give a few helpful and surprising tips that I’ve learned during my recent research:
–In almost all cars, the positive battery terminal also grounds the battery. Therefore, when disconnecting a battery, make sure that you disconnect the negative cable first and reconnect it last. If you disconnect the grounding cable first, and your wrench touches metal, it can fuse to the metal part. I learned that the easy way.
–You should always drive with your gas tank as full as possible. This keeps dirt and impurities out of the gas tank.
–Driving with a passenger window open increases air resistance, which costs gas mileage. An advantage of a sun roof is that it lets in air without slowing down the car.
–Liquid gasoline doesn’t explode, it burns. Gasoline only explodes when it’s mixed with air and ignited, which is what happens inside your engine. This means that a nearly empty gasoline can or tank is much more dangerous than a full one.