In an ideal world, we'd all either do every single bit of work that needs to be done to our cars on our own, or we'd all have enough money to never have to lay a finger on it. In reality, though, there are times when you need certain skills, either to save you a boatload of cash on basic maintenance or to get yourself out of a jam. These are five absolutely anyone could and should know how to do themselves.
1. Change your wiper blades
As a general rule, your wiper blades have a short lifespan. Depending on where you live, they should only last a few a few months. The good news is they only take a few seconds to change out, so paying someone anything more than a debt of gratitude is fiscally silly.
- Get the right blades for your car. They differ in size not just from car to car, but from one side of the windshield to the other. Most online retailers will have you enter your car’s year and model and will pre-select options that fit, and at brick and mortar stores you can usually look it up yourself, or ask for help.
- Lift the wiper arm (the piece connected to the car) and remove the old blade. There are several different mounting methods, but usually all you need to do is turn the blade perpendicular to the arm and push down.
- If that doesn’t do it, look at the directions that came with the new blade, find the drawing that looks like your setup, and simply reverse the instructions. The whole process should take under a minute for each side.
2. Change a blown fuse
Whenever something electrical suddenly quits working on your car, like your radio, window switches, or both headlights (simultaneously), the fuse panel is always the first place to look.
- Grab your manual and find your fuse panel. The manual should tell you which fuse is for the item in question -- don't worry about having to find it, they're all numbered.
- Simply pull the fuse straight out with a pair of needle nose pliers and look at it (within many fuse boxes you will also find a small plastic tool just for removing fuses). You'll see a piece of metal running across the middle -- if it's burnt or broken, like a burnt out lightbulb, that's your culprit.
- Grab a new fuse that is of the exact same color and that has the same number on top as the fuse that blew, and put it in where the old one went. Problem solved.
3. Jump a dead battery
It’s a safe bet that jump starting a car is the single most incorrectly-done of the basic tasks. That’s a problem, since it’s also one of the most dangerous and most vital skills you need to have. If your battery’s dead and you have both jumper cables and another car to help, here’s what you need to do:
- Park the helper car so that its battery is within the cables' reach of the dead battery -- usually in head-to-head or alongside the car needing the jump.
- Pop the hoods on both cars, and find the positive and negative terminals on both batteries. Some cars have batteries in the trunk, and others have them in hard to reach areas, but they’ll still have a terminal under the hood.
- Connect the positive (red) cable to the positive terminal on the dead car.
- Connect that same positive cable to the positive terminal on the helper car.
- Before you go back to the dead car, connect the negative (black) cable to the negative terminal on the good battery.
- Connect the other end of that negative cable to a ground. This can be the engine block, or the chassis, so long as it’s a bare piece of metal that you’re connecting to. There should be a small spark when you touch this last cable to the grounding spot -- that's a good sign and means you have completed the circuit.
- Start the helper car and let it sit for a couple of minutes. If you sense anything amiss whatsoever, be it a strange smell, an odd sound, or excessive sparking, shut everything off and disconnect the cables.
- Try to start the dead car while the cables are still connected. If it starts, proceed to the next step, otherwise pay attention to the sound. Was it every bit as dead as it was before, or did it start to crank the engine just a little? If it was just as dead, double check your connections and try again. If that doesn’t help, you may have a problem that needs more than jumper cables to fix. If it showed a little more life, wait a few more minutes and try again.
- Once you’ve got the car started, remove the cables in reverse order from when you attached them. Whatever you do, do not touch the live ends of the cables together while they’re connected to a battery. Think of it like Ghostbusters crossing streams. That would be bad.
- After you’ve put your cables in your trunk and closed both hoods (and maybe even thanked the kind stranger that stopped to give you a jump), take your car on a nice long drive to charge the battery. If your car has a fuel-saving “Eco” mode, make sure that’s turned off, since it tends to run the alternator less to save fuel.
4. Change a headlight
There are several different types of headlights on newer cars, so the first thing you need to do is figure out which type you’ve got. If you have Xenon (HID) or LED lights, it’s generally a good idea to just go to the shop unless you’re comfortable with a job like this, since you can potentially hurt both yourself and the car. But unless your car has a sticker with this warning symbol under the hood, you've almost definitely got the basic halogen bulbs, and you’re good to go:
- First things first, make sure the car is off and the headlights are switched off as well.
- Figure out what you need to remove to get to the headlight. There will likely be at least one cover in the way, and possibly more, depending on your car. Your manual should cover all of that, so definitely keep it with you.
- Once you’re at the headlight itself, simply unplug it. You might need to use a flathead screwdriver to help remove the plug, but again, that depends on the car.
- Turn the bulb just a little bit counterclockwise, and you should be able to pull it straight out.
- Repeat the process in reverse order to install, but whatever you do, don’t touch the bulb with your fingers. The oils from your hands do not interact well with the heat of the bulb, and you’ll be changing it again before you know it. Then again, practice makes perfect...
5. Change spark plugs (on an older car)
This is really for older cars, because newer cars a) don’t require spark plug changes as often as the classics, and b) the packaging of the engine bay is now so tight that getting to your spark plugs without having to use special (read: expensive) tools and removing a bunch of panels isn’t going to happen most of the time. But if your car is at least 10 years old and it looks like you have space under the hood, here's what to do:
- Pick up a spark plug socket, which is a deep and thin-walled socket that will make your life much easier, and a feeler gauge, which helps you measure the plug’s gap. More on that in a second.
- Unplug the spark plug wire from the first plug, and using your new socket, simply unscrew the old plug and pull it out.
- Using your gap gauge, open or close the curved part of the spark plug until the distance to the center portion matches the gap that corresponds with your manual.
- Put the new plug into the socket and tighten it by hand until it’s snug. Attach your ratchet and screw it only a quarter turn past hand tight. Any more than that and you run the risk of breaking the spark plug, which will send tiny shards of porcelain down into your engine. Which is a very, very bad thing.
- Reinstall the spark plug wire over the plug, and move onto the next one. Repeat on all the remaining plugs.
Aaron Miller is the Rides editor for Supercompressor, and can be found on Twitter. He once had to change a spark plug on an old Mustang on the side of a highway. He wasn't concerned with the gap at that moment in time.
Want more of the world's best Rides delivered straight to your inbox? Click here to sign up for our daily email.