How to maintain your engine
Your engine is the heart of your car and if it doesn't work smoothly, you know what happens... repairs are expensive. The most common causes for engine problems are:
• Lack of regular oil changes
• Using poor quality oil
• Driving low on oil
• Faulty parts
• Design flaws
• Low quality fuel.
Let's start with the first one. Your engine needs to be maintained well to last. First of all your engine needs to be well lubricated, because there are whole bunch of moving parts inside the engine that will wear faster without good lubrication.
Why regular oil changes are important?
Oil sludge. Click for larger photo
Engine oil deteriorates over time; after a certain point, it starts losing its lubricating qualities and carbonizes.
This causes a couple of things: first, the friction increases causing mechanical wear; second, the whole engine starts getting contaminated with carbon deposits or sludge (see the photo).
These carbon deposits start clogging the oil pick-up screen and the oil filter, decreasing oil supply and further increasing friction. Through the engine ventilation system the carbon deposits get transferred in to the intake and build up inside the engine throttle body and the EGR system, possibly causing rough idle, Check Engine light and various driveability issues.
As the moving parts wear, the engine compression decreases and the engine loses some of its power. See the poorly maintained sludged up engine in the photo on the left. Once the engine is sludged up, there is no easy way to clean it other than manually. Typically, this involves removing the oil pan and valve cover and cleaning all the sludge, paying particular attention to the oil pick-up screen. If the engine is sludged up, it's good idea to change oil and filter more frequently, so the filter won't clog up.
Check engine oil regularly
How to prevent this type of problems? Easy: If you do your regular oil changes before this "carbonizing" point and use good quality oil, your engine remains clean and once the oil change is done, it is ready to work hard again. See how a well-maintained engine in an 8-year old car looks inside in the right photo. That's why the car manufacturers recommend changing engine oil at regular intervals. If you don't remember when you changed engine oil last time, just check it on the dipstick; if it looks very dirty, it's better to change it. Read here how to check engine oil: simple car maintenance checklist.
Regularly check the oil level
This engine run out of oil and "threw a rod."
Keeping engine oil at the proper level is also important. Over time, the engine oil level drops; either because of the leaks or because some amount of oil gets burned in the engine combustion chambers. Driving with very low oil level can cause problems. This engine in the photo "trew a rod" when it run out of oil. That's why the oil level needs to be checked regularly especially if you notice that your engine consumes oil.
Do not keep driving if the oil pressure gauge or warning light Low oil pressure warning light indicates low oil pressure, check your oil; without sufficient oil pressure, your engine is not lubricated properly, and can be damaged.
When you do your oil changes, use good quality oil of the appropriate grade; you can find the proper grade on the oil cap or in the owners manual. You won't save money by using cheap oil. Here is the link if you don't have the owner's manual: where to download the owner's manual for your car.
Synthetic oil versus conventional mineral oil
Many newer cars require synthetic oil, as it offers better protection for the engine. The advantage of synthetic oil is that it can withstand higher temperature and can work longer without losing its lubricating qualities. Synthetic oil doesn't get thicker at below-zero temperatures and provides better engine lubrication at a cold start. Using synthetic oil makes perfect sense if you have a low-mileage or turbo engine or often drive under severe conditions such as high temperatures, excessive load or long intervals without an oil change.
However, using synthetic oil in high-mileage engines is not always worth the extra cost. Since synthetic oil is "thinner," a high-mileage engine filled with synthetic oil is more likely to develop leaks or run noisier.
What is the right oil change interval when using synthetic oil? This is a pretty heated debate. In my opinion, yes, synthetic oil lasts longer and doesn't degrade as fast as conventional oil, but what about the products of engine wear? The moving parts inside the engine still wear, whether regular or synthetic oil is used. If you drive longer between the oil changes, the products of wear mix with oil and lessen its lubricating ability. On top of this, they clog up the oil filter reducing the oil flow that further increases friction. Just imagine adding the metal powder to your oil; it will obviously cause more friction and increased wear. For this reason - and of course this is only my personal opinion - I'd recommend keeping the oil change intervals close to what recommended by your car manufacturer even with synthetic oil.
Where is the oil dipstick located?
Engine oil dipstick
This is actually very common question. The easiest way to find it is to check your owner's manual. You can quickly find in the maintenance section:
Maintenance » Do-It-Yourself Maintenance » Engine Compartment. Typically, you will see the map of the engine compartment that shows where the major components are located. The engine oil dipstick usually has a bright handle that says 'Engine Oil' on it. Here are few examples; the oil dipstick is marked with the orange arrow. Place the cursor over the thumbnail to see the larger image:
2003 Pontiac Grand Prix 2003 Pontiac Grand Prix 3.1L engine
2007 Honda Accord 2007 Honda Accord 2.4L 4-cylinder engine
2008 Audi A4 2.0L 2008 Audi A4 2.0L
2006 Toyota Camry 2006 Toyota Camry 2.4L 4-cylinder engine
2012 Chevrolet Sonic2012 Chevrolet Sonic 1.8L engine
Protecting your engine from overheating
The fuel burned inside the engine produces a lot of heat. Keeping the engine temperature under control is the work of the cooling system. The cooling system moves the liquid coolant (antifreeze) from the engine into the radiator installed in the front of the car where the coolant is cooled down by the air flow passing through the radiator fins.
Keep the engine coolant level full
A problem with a cooling system can cause the engine to overheat, and this can result in serious damage to the engine. One of the common problems with a cooling system is lack of coolant caused by leaks. Coolant leaks are very common in many cars. Here is an example Coolant leak from a crack in the radiator.
For this reason, it's important to keep your engine coolant level full. Check the coolant level regularly; your owner's manual has the directions. Caution: Never open the radiator or the coolant overflow reservoir when the engine is hot; engine coolant is under pressure!
If you found a coolant leak in the engine compartment or on your parking spot, have it fixed before lack of coolant will cause overheating; coolant is usually green, orange or red in color. If you notice the engine temperature rising above normal, have your car checked out before the engine overheats.
Getting a regular tune-up
The term 'tune-up' usually means changing the spark plugs, ignition wires, distributor cap and rotor, and possibly replacing air and fuel filters. Today's cars need a tune-up less frequently, as most modern cars don't have the ignition wires or distributor and use long-lasting spark plugs. When your mechanic recommends a tune up, ask what is included. If you want to do a tune-up on your car, it may also be a good idea to clean the engine throttle body, as when it's dirty, it can cause rough idle and the Check Engine light coming on.
Typical tune-up items
Often as part of the tune-up, your auto repair shop may recommend the fuel injection cleaning service where a special cleaning solution is run through the fuel injectors while in the car. If you have a high-mileage car, cleaning the fuel injectors may help improve gas mileage and restore some of the engine power. This service could cost around $100. However, if your car is fairly new and has only 30,000 miles or so, cleaning the fuel injectors most likely won't have much effect.
In high-mileage cars, the PCV valve also needs to be cleaned or replaced if needed; a PCV valve is a part of the engine ventilation system. A clogged PCV valve can cause excessive pressure inside the engine that may result in oil leaks and other problems. A stuck open PCV valve can cause rough idle, Check Engine light, oil consumption and driveability problems. Changing the air filter is never a bad idea, as it's not very expensive part. You can even change it yourself; you can probably find the instructions in the Maintenance section of your owner's manual. If your engine feels sluggish, lacks power, misfires or runs rough, a good tune-up often can make a notable difference.
When your timing belt needs to be changed
A timing belt synchronizes the crankshaft with the camshaft, so that valves operated by the camshaft open and close in sync with piston movement. A timing belt should be replaced at recommended by the manufacturer intervals; usually from 60,000 miles to 105,000 miles (96,000-168,000 km).
A timing belt also needs to be replaced if it's damaged or soaked in engine oil. If a timing belt breaks, your car won't be driveable. In some cars, if the timing belt breaks when the engine is running, the engine could be severely damaged. If your don't know when the timing belt was replaced last time, ask your mechanic to check its condition; usually it's easy to see if the timing belt is in good or bad shape. Replacing the timing belt can cost from $200 to $750 in the auto repair shop, depending on the amount of work involved.
Not all cars have a timing belt; many car manufacturers use a timing chain instead. A timing chain does the same work as the timing belt with the difference that the chain is running inside the engine, soaked in engine oil. If oil is changed regularly, a timing chain can last very long. A timing chain only needs to be replaced if there is a problem with it; for example when it's noisy or stretched.
Maintenance tips for turbocharged engine
A turbocharger pumps more air into the engine boosting the engine power without increase in the engine volume.
Chevrolet Cruze 1.4L turbo engine.
Due to its design, a turbocharger works at very high temperatures. A turbocharger turbine shaft is lubricated by engine oil. Therefore, the requirements for the engine oil quality are much higher. Low quality, or old contaminated oil can be easily cooked under high temperature in the turbocharger causing it to fail. If it's not against manufacturer recommendations, it's always good idea to use synthetic oil in a turbocharged engine, or at least be very accurate with regular oil changes. When you stop a turbocharged car after hard driving (speeding, towing, etc.) don't shut the engine off right away; let it idle for a while to cool down the turbocharger. Very long uphill driving under constant load can also overheat the turbocharger.
Few tips how to improve emission test results
Change engine oil before testing. For old or high mileage car using thicker oil may help.
Change the spark plugs and the air filter if it was a while ago since you've changed them last time. A complete tune-up may be an option for older cars. Cleaning the fuel injectors usually helps. Before the test, check and adjust tire pressure. Fill the car with premium gasoline if the owner's manual allows it. Take your car for a spin on a freeway; it helps to clean the spark plugs and the catalytic converter. Make sure, the engine is fully warmed up before the test.
If the 'Check Engine' light is on, or your car has an exhaust leak, the problem needs to be repaired before the test.
Oil additives is a bit controversial topic and while some people swear by them, most car manufacturers usually don't recommend using any additives in their cars. Personally, I don't use additives in my car on a regular basis, but over the years I had tried few products.
From my experience I know that some oil additives can actually harm in some situations, others will show no or little effect and some may help in certain cases. For example, I once bought a four-year old Honda Accord that was consuming a lot of engine oil. Since the engine overall was in a good shape I suspected it was just because the oil rings were stuck in their grooves on the pistons. I decided to give it a try and added an oil additive that was said to help free sticking oil rings; and it worked. I drove this car a lot after this and I never had to add any oil between the oil changes. However, a friend of mine ended up with no oil pressure due to clogged oil pick-up screen in his engine after using an additive that was supposed to flush the engine inside. I also on various occasions tried few additives that were designed to stop leaks. Similarly, some helped a little; others showed no effect. So, there is no clear-cut answer on this issue. Personally, I think changing engine oil regularly with good quality oil should be enough.