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DIY at the Self-Service Pump

Pump-side engine checks are vital to your car’s well being




By Peter D. duPre

It used to be that when you pulled into a gas station for a fill-up, an army of trained, uniformed and smiling attendants would fill up the tank, clean your windows, check all vital fluids and make sure your tires were properly inflated. There was always a mechanic on hand to make any needed repairs. In fact, the service was so good people didn't call them gas stations. They called them service stations.

Today, the service station has all but disappeared, having been replaced by the convenience store with self-service pump, and “full service” no longer means getting an underhood check. Instead, a surly attendant pumps the gas and grudgingly wipes your windshield. True, you can buy a six-pack, a bag of chips and some candy bars, and you might save a few cents at the pump. The downside is that less service means fewer underhood checks and in the long run, that can cost you a lot more in expensive repairs than the savings offered by pumping it yourself. It is important, therefore, not neglect the underhood checks that used to be performed by service station attendants. 

When you pull up to the pump, put the vehicle in park, set the brake and turn off the engine. Then, as the tank is filling, look under the hood. Check coolant level first by looking at the overflow tank (never open the radiator cap of a hot engine), topping up to the fill line as necessary with a mix of coolant and water. Most convenience stores still sell anti-freeze, oil, windshield washer fluid and brake fluid, so getting the supplies you need shouldn’t be difficult. 

Next, check engine oil. You’ll need a paper towel for this; it is a good idea to keep a roll in the trunk in case the dispensers at the pumps are empty. If the dipstick should read between "full" and one quart low; if it's at or below the one-quart down mark, add oil but be sure not to overfill. Then, check brake fluid and the battery. Although most cars have maintenance-free batteries which can't be topped up, look for corrosion build up, a sign that the battery needs attention. Finally, start the engine and check the automatic transmission and power steering fluids.

Different cars use different types of engine oil, brake fluid, coolant, power steering fluid and transmission oil. Check your owner's manual to find out what types of fluid your vehicle needs and make sure you purchase the correct type for your vehicle.

Once the underhood stuff has been taken care of, check the tires. Ideally air pressure should be checked when the tires are cold -- before you've driven more than a mile or so. Add or bleed air from the tire to meet the air pressure recommended for your car (usually listed in the tire placard on the doorpost, fuel filler door or glovebox). If the car has been driven any distance and the tires are warm, you can't get an accurate pressure check and should only adjust the air pressure if a tire is well below the recommended pressure. But it is still a good idea to check tires for unusual wear at every fill up.

When all the vitals have been checked, wash the windows and check your wiper blades. Wash all the glass-- not just the windshield -- and don't forget to clean the outside mirrors. Check the wipers for cracks, or missing hunks. Finally, give the headlights and taillights a quick wipe so you can see and be seen.

Sounds like a lot, doesn't it? Well, the fact is it only takes a few minutes to do all the above. What's more, those few minutes spent on do-it-yourself service checks can save you big repair bills later on, to say nothing about helping you catch a possible safety hazard. Cars and car repairs cost big money and with the ever-increasing number of miles we drive each year, regular service checks are vital. So next time you pull in to top up the tank and buy a burrito, take a couple minutes and give your car or truck a full-service checkup.

Pump-Side Check List: 

  • Make sure engine is turned off and transmission is in park. Set parking brake.
  • Check coolant level in recovery tank. Never remove the radiator cap; escaping steam could burn you.
  • Check engine oil level. Add oil if dipstick registers at or below the quart-low level.
  • Check power steering fluid. Dipstick inside the cap registers levels for cold or hot engine.
  • Check brake fluid. Look at the side of the brake fluid reservoir to make sure fluid level is at maximum. If fluid level is low, wipe cap clean before attempting to remove it from reservoir to keep contamination out. Add only proper type of fluid. Check your owner’s manual.
  • Top off washer fluid reservoir.
  • Look for signs of corrosion around battery posts.
  • Clean windshield and wipe off head and taillights.

Peter D. duPre is iCARumba content editor.