If you’re anything like me, your automobile knowledge doesn’t extend much beyond the gas cap and ignition switch. I find myself much more comfortable under the hood of a stove than the hood of a car and happily leave it to the men in my life to tell me when something’s wrong. Yet, in an age where women are becoming increasingly independent and adept at a variety of skills, I think it’s time to demystify the automobile world. I enlisted the help of Phil Reed, senior consumer advice editor with Edmunds.com, to explain what’s really going on when you’re having car trouble.
Forget Warning Lights, This Baby Won’t Even Start.
When your car won’t even turn on, you most likely have a dead battery—the most common problem experienced by motorists. Leaving on the music and interior lights has robbed your battery of its power to crank the engine. The good news is you don’t need to immediately call a tow truck. Any good neighbor in the parking lot with jumper cables can jump your car off with the power in his battery. This process will not only start your car, but it will re-power your battery so you don’t have to get a new one. Unless, that is, your battery hasn’t been replaced since Regis and Kathie Lee were a duo.
If this attempt doesn’t work, your battery may be unable to take a charge or there was a bad connection to one of the posts. Most auto parts stores can test your battery to see if you need a new one. However, if your car frequently fails to start, it could be the sign of a deeper problem, namely, the alternator. If you often find yourself stuck in a parking lot with no power, let an auto mechanic look at your car.
Smoke Is Coming Out of the Hood and We’re Not at a Prince Concert.
Smoke coming out of the hood is generally a sign that your car has overheated. There is probably a lack of coolant in the cooling systems or there may be a problem with your radiator. While I’d leave the radiator to an experienced professional, adding coolant to the system is easy and may just solve the problem.
Sometimes, smoke isn’t coming from the hood yet, but the temperature light inside your car comes on to warn you that the engine is getting too hot. If the gauge is slowly rising, you have time to get to an exit, but if it’s all the way up, stop as soon as possible to avoid destroying the car engine.
Coolant, which can be purchased at any auto parts store, needs to be added to the overflow tank, the tank beside the radiator. This is extremely important because adding it directly to the radiator could cause it to spew back and burn you. The cap is color-coded and should be easy to identify. Once you add it to your system, try starting the car and see if the temperature goes down. Pat yourself on the back it if does for the potential thousands of dollars you just saved. Whatever you do, don’t drive an overheated car—unless you want to destroy your engine.
The Noises Coming from My Car Are Worse Than Sanjaya’s.
One of the most obnoxious and scary noises your car can make—one that sounds like it’s getting ready to explode—is actually not a dangerous sign if it’s the result of a broken fan belt. If your car, particularly when you first start it, produces a horrible racket but all of your gauges and signs show that everything is normal, then you probably just have a broken fan belt and there’s nothing to worry about. A mechanic can easily fix the problem and it shouldn’t be too expensive.
There’s More Vibration than the Bed at a Cheap Motel.
One of the most common signs of trouble is front-end vibration. This shaky, uncomfortable sensation while driving, sometimes accompanied by a thumping noise, is telling you your tires are either out of balance or, in extreme situations, you’ve got a flat.
Pull over to the side of the road and check to see if you have a flat tire or if it looks like you’re about to have one. If you ran over a sharp object and it’s now deflating your tire, there are “Fix-A-Flat” cans you can buy that will put a film over the hole until you can get the tire replaced. If it’s completely flat, it needs to be replaced to avoid damaging your tire axle. While replacing a flat tire is my equivalent of baking a soufflé, any woman who wants to attempt this has all of my respect and your owner’s manual will guide you through the process. If the tires look good, but you sense the car is out of balance, there’s nothing more you can do and a mechanic will have to look at it.
What Do Cars and Southern Cooking Have in Common?
As any good southern cook knows, the key to good food is working with plenty of oil and your car is no different. When the light that looks like a watering pail (also known as your oil pressure gauge) comes on, it’s actually telling you that you’re low on oil—not a good sign. So in order to not burn dinner … err … your engine … pull over and open your hood. Unscrew the oil cap and check the level of oil on the dipstick. It should be all the way up to the tick mark. If it’s low, you have time to get to an auto store and buy oil to add to the engine or to a mechanic; but if there’s hardly any oil visible, don’t run the risk of destroying your engine by driving without oil. Collect on a favor owed and have someone bring you some engine oil.
The Dreaded Light.
“Check Engine.” That miserable light flashes on and you can’t help but wonder how many thousands of dollars this may cost you. The good news is that this light can come on for any number of reasons, even something as simple as you forgetting to tighten the gas cap. The bad news—it can only be reset by a professional. Until you have your car examined, you won’t know if it was a simple error or the sign of a more serious problem, so get thee to an auto mechanic.
I Can’t Stop … No, Really.
Brake problems are some of the most dangerous on the road and can cause a lot of accidents. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you’ve lost brake power, remember you’ve got an emergency brake! It operates on a different system and should still work even when your other brakes aren’t working. Use the emergency brake to guide yourself to a safe stopping place. One thing you can do is check your break fluid level—again an easily identified, color-coded cap under the hood. If you’re low on brake fluid, it’s something you can add yourself and your owner’s manual will direct you based on your car’s configuration. It may be an easy fix to the problem, but I wouldn’t recommend trying to do anything else yourself when it comes to your brakes because problems are dangerous. Take your car to an auto mechanic immediately. Hey, maybe you can get a cute little convertible to drive in the meantime!
Even though a lot of car problems need to be handled by a skilled mechanic, it helps to understand what’s going on and, in many instances, you can fix it yourself! Note that on most cars, things you can do yourself have color-coded caps— like oil, brake fluid, coolant, and windshield-wiper fluid. Your best guide is your car owner’s manual because it was written by the people who specifically designed your car. Just like some of the best foods have the simplest recipes, don’t be afraid to try fixing your car—you may be surprised at how easy it can be!
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