Basic Maintenance

Each winter, thousands of cars break down through faults which could have been avoided if they had just carried out some basic checks. Breaking down is miserable at the best of times, but in the winter months it can be far more serious if you have to contend with the weather as you seek help. Last week covered tyre condition and safety, but here are some more suggestions to save you time, hassle and money this winter.

You should be performing regular checks of your car all year round. We would recommend thoroughly checking these things at least every month, and ideally every two weeks (with the exception of the battery and alternator)


It’s not just snow and ice that can affect the performance of your tyres, colder temperatures and wet or muddy roads will also greatly influence the handling and performance of your car.

In many ways your tyres are the most important part of the car as, no matter how large or small the car is, they are the only point that actually comes into contact with the road surface area. As a result, it is incredibly important to ensure that your tyres are inflated correctly, and have a good amount of tread remaining so that they can grip the road. Not only will this increase your safety, but will also mean you get improved fuel economy, allowing you to actually save that little bit more money as you drive.

Legal Limit


Many institutions recommended tread depth for tyres is no less than 3mm. Once the tread gets below this level, braking distances start to greatly increase and road handling deteriorates. Currently the legal limit is set to at least 1.6mm of tread throughout a continuous band in the centre 3/4 of the tread and around the entire circumference.

To put this into perspective; at 50mph with only 2mm of tread on all tyres, it can take an extra 8 metres to stop. That’s in dry and warm road conditions, just imagine how much worse this would be in wet or icy conditions.


How to check condition


Check the outer walls of the tyre for any cracking or bulges. If you find any, then you will need to replace the tyre immediately.

The legal limit for the amount of tread depth on a tyre is 1.6mm, you can get an inexpensive tyre tread depth tool which will measure this precisely for you. However as a guide there are small pieces of rubber which run across the tread of the tyre. If you run your finger around the gooves in the tyre you will feel them.

These are set to 1.6mm so you know that if your tyres are level with these grooves, then they must be replaced immediately, otherwise if caught it’s 3 points on your license and up to £2500 fine per tyre.


How to check pressure


What to replace with


On the outer wall of your tyres there are a series of numbers for example: 165/55/15

These are the dimensions of the tyres. Like the size of a shoe.

The first 3 numbers (165) is the width of the tyres, the second 2 numbers (55) are how tall the tyres are and the last number (15) is how large the diameter of the hole in the middle is.

It may also be written 165/55/r15. You can just ignore the r, as it’s no longer relevant these days for road cars. (It stands for radial, which is the type of tread on the tyres, but all tyres these days have radial treads.)

Lastly you will have to determine the brand of tyre that you want to have put on. As well as the brands they have their own ranges of tyres that will fit the sizes that you need. All of these will be rated under 3 criteria.

    Fuel Efficiency
    Noise level
    Wet Grip

We recommend that you pick the tyres with A rated wet grip, as these will be the safest that you can buy.




With the days being shorter, we become much more reliant on our lights in the winter. They don’t just allow you to see where you’re going, but allow other drivers to see you too.

Remember to regularly wipe your lights with a cloth or paper towel. They will collect dirt and fumes from the road and will not be as effective when out in the dark.

How to check


The easiest way to do this is to ask for help from another person. If they stand on the outside of the car while you can turn each of your lights on.

Make sure you remember to check:


    Dipped Beam
    Main Beam
    Front Fog lights (if you have them)


Indicators (Left and Right)


    Brake lights (Including 3rd high level)
    Reversing Light(s)
    Rear Fog light(s)

You should always be aware of your lights while your driving, and pay attention to any reflective windows or other cars, which will give you the chance to check your lights for yourself.


What to use


You will need to check your car manual to identify the correct size, type and shape of bulb you need. They come in all different shapes and sizes and with different connectors, just like bulbs used in the home.


Wiper Fluid and Wiper Blades

With all of the salt and dirt on the roads, windscreens become dirty very quickly. As a result, you will get through a full tank of washer fluid much more quickly than at other times of the year.

Where to find it

The wiper fluid tank will be marked with a colourful cap along one of the edges of the car (under the bonnet). Often it will have a windscreen symbol on it.

How to check

Often the wiper fluid tank is obscured by other bits in the engines, and you can’t actually see what the levels are, so it’s a good idea to just routinely top up your wiper fluid.

What to use

You can buy concentrated wiper fluid/detergent or ready mixed. The concentrated you mix with water in a jug or watering can as directed on the bottle, and will generally cost you less and last you longer. However I tend to just go for the ready mixed option as it really is quick and easy, and requires even less thought to just top it up. It also means that you can carry one around with you in the boot of your car meaning that you won’t get caught short while you’re out somewhere.

Top Tip: Don’t fill it with just water. This will freeze in the winter and may crack the tank meaning anything you top it up with after will just leak away and end up costing you to have it repaired.

Wiper Blades


A good set of wipers makes a whole lot of difference when it comes to clearing the windscreen. Over time the rubber on the wiper blades can begin to perish, crack or crumble. It will eventually begin to tear off altogether.

Look at the rubber blades and inspect for any cracks and tears. Pinch the rubber between your fingers to feel if it is still soft and spongey or has become dull and hard.
Tip: Best practice is to wipe the blades down with white vinegar and then a damp cloth after. This strips off any dust and grease that they have picked up from the windscreen, and will help keep them working better, for longer.



It’s understandable that the number one cause of breakdowns is caused by a faulty car battery, especially in winter. Starting your car in cold weather requires up to 3 times more power than usual, add to that driving with your lights, heater, windscreen wipers and radio all at the same time, it puts a lot of strain on the battery.

Where to find it


The Battery is usually located under the bonnet of the car, although you may find that some vehicles have them in the boot if they need to be large or if they need more than one.

It is a large box with two wires attached at the top. These wires will be marked positive(+) and negative(-) or be colour coded.

They may even have caps which fit over the top of the connectors with these markings and colours on them.


How to Check it

 This one’s a little more tricky than the others as you will need a multimeter. You can pick them up for not a lot of money although this is a bit of a cheats way to guess at the condition of your battery. It’s just a way of giving you some kind of indication as to it’s condition. Although this is all best done by a mechanic who has far more expensive and accurate equipment available to them.

    Set the multimeter to measure DC Voltage.
    Make sure the car is turned off
    Connect the positive and negative leads from the meter to the cars battery.

(Red (+) is positive) (Black (-) is negative).

    Take a reading

The reading should be between 12.4 and 12.7 Volts. Any lower than this and the battery should ideally be replaced.

However as you will see from the image above, the battery still works as long as it is above 12v, there is just a risk of it not having enough power to start the engine again at any time.


How to Fix it

Batteries are a little tricky. If you find that you have a flat battery because you have left your lights or your radio on, then it might just need re-charging. You can either jump start it with jump leads, and run the engine without any other electrics running.

Or alternatively, disconnect the battery and hook it up to a trickle charger. This is a device that plugs into the mains and recharges the battery over night and is the best option for recovering a flat battery.

However if the battery keeps going flat, then you may just need to replace it. They’re in the region of £50 – £100 for the battery it self and if you have the tools are usually relatively simple to change. However if you lack the confidence you’ll need to get a mechanic to change it for you.



The alternator is the component in the car which recharges the battery while the car is running. Sometimes this can also become faulty and fail to charge the battery as well as it should be.

Where to find it


The alternator is a big component that is attached by the side of the engine. It’s a big coil of wire that you may be able to see through the gaps in the casing, and will have a rubber belt running to or near it.

How to Check it


    Set the multimeter to measure DC Voltage.
    Make sure the car is turned off
    Connect the positive and negative leads from the meter to the cars battery. (Red (+) is positive) (Black (-) is negative).
    Start the Car.
    Take a reading

The reading should be anywhere above 13.5 volts. This means that the battery is being correctly charged.

At the same time, check the condition of any rubber belts that you see by the side of the engine. Check to see if they’re clean or if there are any rips of cracks.


How to fix it


If any of the rubber belts are torn or cracked or make a squealing sound while they are running, it may be that these need to be replaced by a mechanic. This should solve any number of issues you may have

If the alternator needs replacing, this will need to be done by a mechanic. It’s not uncommon for it to be an issue with older cars, however other avenues should be explored first, and if in doubt have a professional take a look


Engine Coolant


Car engines work through lots of tiny ignitions (explosions) of fuel, and therefore can get incredibly hot. They need to be cooled so that they can work at their best, and in the case of all modern cars, this is done through pumping water (coolant) around the engine to carry the heat away.

Where to find it

Identify which of the tanks under your bonnet is the engine coolant. It’s generally the larger tank in the more prominent position. Look at the cap, it may have it written on there, or be marked with a symbol of a thermometer or something to do with temperature.

How to check


If the engine is hot, don’t remove the cap. The liquid will be extremely hot and you may scald yourself.

There are minimum and maximum marks on the side of the tank and you need to make sure that levels are topped up between these two points.

Top Tip: If you cant see where the levels are, rock the car so the liquid shifts around, or shine a torch into the inside of the tank, and it will glow.

If you notice that you are having to do this regularly, you may have a leak somewhere, in which case have it checked out by a mechanic.

What to use

There are different kinds of antifreeze available, and are identifiable by the colour that the liquid is. And generally it suggests what temperature they will freeze at. Although this isn’t something that you really have to worry about, as temperatures very rarely ever fall low enough for this to be an issue with any of them.
You may also notice that there are silicate or non-silicate options. Most manufacturers recommend to just go with non-silicate. Especially if you have a newer car, as it can cause some corrosion on some parts over time.
Personally I prefer silicate versions, because it suits my needs better, it offers better general protection for my older car, and I have it changed every couple of years when it’s serviced.

Never fill it up with just water.

Engine Oil

An engine is full of moving metal parts, so oil is needed to grease these parts to help keep them moving smoothly together, otherwise it would just be metal grinding on metal and your engine would soon blow apart.

Where to find it

To check your oil, you will need to find the dip stick. This usually has a brightly coloured handle so that you can find it. Often it will be found at the front of the car (under the bonnet) and towards the base of the engine.

To top up the oil, there will be a screw cap on the top of the engine that is marked with an oil can symbol.


How to check it

This is best done when the engine has cooled down and while you are parked on a flat and level surface.

    Pull the dipstick out all of the way
    Wipe the end with a cloth or paper towel
    Put the dip stick back into where it came from
    Pull it back out again
    Look at where the level of the oil comes up to on the stick. There will be maximum and minimum lines or notches in the side of the dip stick to show you where the oil should be.

If the oil is a little over the maximum, dont worry it’s not too serious

Also make note of the colour of the oil. Engine oil should be a nice caramel colour when it’s at it’s best. When it becomes all black, it is full of particulates. Think of these as little grains of sand making the oil less greasy. Meaning that those metal parts are not going to slip and slide as well as they should be.

If you do find this, look at when your cars oil was last changed, and when your car was last serviced. As it might be due another.


What to use

There are a number of different oils that you can buy, although the ones that will be suitable for your car will be rather limited.
The best advice would be for your to check your car’s manual. It will tell you what the most appropriate oil will be for you to use. Make sure that you’re aware of how large your engine’s capacity is, whether it uses petrol or diesel, and how many miles the car has done.


Power Steering

In a majority of cars, there is a power steering pump which needs a special hydraulic fluid in order for it to work.

Where to find it

If you car takes power steering fluid, the tank is usually the smallest one in the engine bay, and should be marked on the top of the cap with a steering wheel symbol, or be written.

Not all cars will have one. Some cars have electric power steering. If you have a city button inside the car, or speed sensitive power steering, then you most likely have electronic power steering

How to check


    Identify the power steering fluid tank.
    On the side of the tank there will be maximum and minimum lines, the fluid should sit somewhere between these.

If you have trouble seeing where the fluid is, rock the car, or shine a torch into the inside of the tank.


What to use


You will need to get fluid which is specifically for power steering. Check in your car manual to see which one your car needs, as using the incorrect fluid can cause damage to your steering.



Over time your brakes will wear out, just like tyres every time they are used they become more worn. It’s incredibly important that they work well across all wheels on the car.

How to check


Checking your brakes are working correctly is simple. Apply your brakes gently and on flat ground before moving off. If the braking feels different in any way, if the pedal is spongey or there is any grinding of squealing, then there is something wrong with your brakes.

You may also make a visual inspection of your brakes to determine how long you have left before any parts need replacing, although this requires a certain level of judgement to be made by a mechanic.

You will also need to check that the hydraulic fluid for the brakes is topped up to the correct levels. Here it will sit between the minimum and maximum lines on the outside of the tank.


What to use


You will need to get fluid which is specifically for brakes. Check in your car manual to see which one your car needs, as using the incorrect fluid can cause damage to pipes and seals.

Tip: It may say what fluid you need to replace with on the cap itself.