Suddenly, your car conks out. Should you fix the car problem yourself or call a pro?
It happens when you least expect it. Suddenly your car stops by the side of the road, or in your driveway. Can you repair it yourself? Not likely, unless you’re an accomplished mechanic or do-it-yourselfer. But there are some things you can do to help lessen car problems.
Car problems aren’t always the car’s fault
Let’s start with some easy-to-fix problems that can be caused by the driver.
Lost keys or keys locked in the car
Stash a spare key in a small magnetic box, sold in most auto supply stores. Attach it to a metal part of the car, like inside of a fender.1
Dead battery in your electronic key fob
Keep a spare battery in the glove compartment. Unfortunately, that won’t help you if you’re locked out. Your best strategy is to replace well ahead of schedule.
Gas gauge on empty
Running out of gas is no picnic. A good rule to follow is never let your gas gauge go below the halfway mark, especially if you drive in heavy traffic or congested interstate highways.
Shortened battery life
Car problems that might require professional help
Per a recent AAA (Automobile Association of America) survey (reported in Fortune magazine), one-fifth of all car problems require towing to a repair facility because newer vehicles are so complex that they can only be fixed by a mechanic.4
Here are some common car problems and what you can do to help the situation.
It’s a common car problem, especially in warm weather.5 There could be a leak in the car’s coolant system, in the cooling system’s hoses or in the radiator wells. The thermostat5 could be stuck, so no coolant is getting to the engine. You could have a faulty water pump or broken fan belt.5 Another cause of overheating is a clogged radiator.6
If the temperature light comes on, pull off the road as soon as you safely can. Wait a few minutes, then open the hood to help the engine cool. Stuck in traffic? Turn off your AC. Or turn on the heater full blast to pull heat out of and away from the engine. NEVER remove the radiator cap if the car is running or has been running. You risk very serious injury from scalding water and steam that is under pressure.
You turn the key and nothing happens. Often, this is caused by a weak or completely discharged battery. If the headlights or dash lights dim while trying to start, or your car turns over slowly, it may be an indication that the alternator, not just the battery, could be an issue.
Your EMS (Engine Management System) is your car’s “computer.” If the EMS dash light flashes, it will require a trip to the shop.7
The high tension leads, which carry voltage to the spark plugs, can deteriorate with age or dampen. A damp-repellant spray can stop them from slowing down the flow of voltage to the spark plugs.8
Lots of car parts wear out. With any luck, you won’t be on the side of the road when they do. Here are three common problems that will probably require a professional mechanic.
SQUEALING OR GRINDING BRAKES
Watch for a brake pedal that suddenly feels soft, or that you must push to the floor to stop. Brakes might also pull to one side. Experienced home mechanics can check and replace their own brake pads and rotors, and fill brake fluid when low.9
SLIPPING OR FREEZING TRANSMISSIONS
Once damaged, this is a shop fix. Be sure to check transmission fluid regularly. Listen for loud noises when putting the car in gear, or gears slipping and engine revving when you first start up the car.
SUSPENSIONS AND STEERING SYSTEMS
Springs, torsion bars, steering links, control arms and ball joints, or shock absorbers, just to mention a few, can wear, or fall victim to accidents or deep potholes. These systems are critical to driving safety. And if they break in transit, you’ll have to call a tow.
Bottom line: If you’re not an experienced home mechanic, it’s best to leave major repairs like these to a pro.
1 Open a Locked Car Door (Dummies.com)
2 Today’s Key Fobs/Smart Keys Provide Convenience -- and Cause Problems (AutoServiceProfessional.com)
3 Smart Keys Not Making Americans Smarter About Getting Locked Out (Yahoo.com/News)
4 Despite Vehicle Advances, Break Downs at Record High (Newsroom.AAA.com)
5 The Most Common Causes of Car Breakdowns (SellYourProblemCar.com)
6 Reasons Why Your Car Is Overheating (ThoughtCo.com)
7 Why Check Engine Lights Come On, and Go Off (AgcoAuto.com)
8 How to Avoid Breakdowns: Keeping Your Car on the Road (TheAA.com)
9 Worst-Case Scenarios: 8 Biggest Car-Breakdown Headaches (CBSNews.com
Be Car Care Aware (carcare.org)
To get an idea of what repairs may cost before you commit, go to
Repair Pal (repairpal.com)
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