How to maintain your engine

Updated July 21, 2014

Your engine is the heart of your car and to last long without problems it needs to be maintained well. Let's look what is needed to keep your engine in a good shape. First, consider the most common causes of engine problems:

  • Lack of regular oil changes
  • Driving low on oil
  • Overheating
  • Using low quality fuel or oil
  • Racing, driving only short trips, excessive idling
  • Design and parts flaws

Why regular oil changes are important?

Well maintained vs sludged up engine
Oil sludge. Click for larger photo

Your engine has a lot of moving and rotating parts and needs to be well lubricated. That's the function of the engine oil. As you drive, engine oil gradually degrades. It loses its lubricating qualities and carbonizes under high temperatures. If you change you oil regularly, you keep your engine clean and well lubricated inside, see the photo. If you continue driving much longer past the regular oil interval, the friction slowly increases causing mechanical wear and the engine slowly gets contaminated with carbon deposits or sludge (in the photo). Through the engine ventilation system these carbon deposits are transferred into the engine intake and build up inside the throttle body and on the valves. This might cause lack of power, rough idle, Check Engine light and various driveability issues. If you don't remember when you have done your last oil change, check the engine oil with the dipstick; if it looks too dirty, have the oil change done. Read here how to check engine oil: simple car maintenance checklist.

Why do you need to check your oil level?

Checking  engine oil
Check engine oil level

Over time, the engine oil level drops because some amount of oil gets burned in the engine. Driving with very low oil level can cause serious engine damage. Check this photo; this engine "threw a rod" when it ran out of oil. That's why the oil level needs to be checked regularly especially if you notice that your engine consumes oil between oil changes. Many cars have maintenance remainders that give you a warning when your next oil change is due, but a very few cars will actually warn you if the oil level drops. You still have to check the oil level manually. Car manufacturers recommend checking oil level at every fill-up. With our busy lives, this doesn't sound realistic, but if you at least check it once a month, you might be able to catch your oil level getting low and top it up or have the oil change done. It takes just a couple minutes to check the oil level; all you need is a level spot to park you car and a clean rag to wipe out your dipstick.

Where is the oil dipstick located?

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.

2003 Pontiac Grand Prix
2007 Honda Accord
2008 Audi A4 2.0L
2006 Toyota Camry
2012 Chevrolet Sonic
2007 Subaru Impreza
2012 Toyota Highlander
2012 Toyota Corolla
2006 Dodge Caravan
2014 Nissan GT-R

Protecting your engine from overheating

Engine coolant level
Keep the engine coolant level full

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 circulates 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.

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. 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.

Synthetic oil versus conventional mineral oil

Synthetic oil
Synthetic 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. The synthetic oil lasts longer 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. All this means that it makes sense to keeping the oil change intervals close to what recommended by your car manufacturer even with synthetic oil.

Getting a regular tune-up

Engine tune-up

If your engine feels sluggish, lacks power, misfires or runs rough, a good tune-up often can make a notable difference. A tune-up is typically done every 60,000-90,000 miles. In newer cars, a tune-up may include changing the spark plugs, air filter and possible cleaning the throttle body. In older cars, distributor cap and rotor, ignition wires and fuel filter may also need to be replaced. Often, your mechanic may suggest cleaning the engine throttle body, as when it's dirty, it can cause rough idle and the Check Engine light coming on. A PCV valve may also need cleaning or replacing. A fuel injection cleaning service is another often suggested tune-up item, where a special cleaning solution is run through the fuel injectors while the engine is running. In a high-mileage engine, cleaning the fuel injectors may help improve gas mileage and restore some of the engine power. This service could cost $100-$160. However, if your car is fairly new and has only 30,000 miles or so, cleaning the fuel injectors won't have much effect.

When your timing belt or chain needs to be changed

Timing belt in good condition
Timing belt

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 may also need to be replaced if it shows signs of wear or is soaked in engine oil. If the timing belt breaks, your car won't be driveable. In some cars, if the timing belt breaks while 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 check if the timing belt is in good or bad shape. Replacing the timing belt can cost from $200 to $750. 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, lubricated by engine oil. If you do your oil changes regularly, a timing chain can last very long. It may 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

Turbocharged engine
Chevrolet Cruze 1.4L turbo engine.

A turbocharger pumps more air into the engine boosting the engine power without increase in the engine volume. A turbocharger is powered by very hot exhaust gases, but the turbine shaft is lubricated by engine oil. This means that engine oil in a turbo engine must be capable of withstanding much higher temperatures. For this reason, premium synthetic oil is the most suitable for a turbocharged engine. If you turbocharged engine uses mineral oil, make sure to have the oil changes done regularly, as mineral oil carbonizes much faster in a turbocharged engine. 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. .

Oil additives

Engine oil additive

Oil additives is a controversial topic and while some people swear by them, car manufacturers usually don't recommend using any additives in their cars. Over the years we had tried several products in different engines. From our experience, some oil additives showed very little effect, but others actually worked well. For example, we had a four-year old Honda Accord that was consuming a lot of oil between oil changes. Since the engine overall was in a good shape, we suspected that the oil rings were stuck in their grooves due to carbon build-up. We tried an oil additive that was said to help free sticking oil rings; and it actually worked. After this, the car did not consume any oil between the oil changes.

Change your air filter in recommended intervals

Dirty vs new air filter

An engine air filter prevents dust and other debris from entering into your engine. A dirty air filter can restricts air supply to your engine, causing sluggishness and lack of power. An old air filter can actually collapse or rip through, allowing unfiltered air, dust and other debris into the engine, causing it to wear faster. An air filter is typically replaced every 15,000-20,000 miles or more often if you regularly drive on unpaved or dusty roads. Replacing the air filter can cost from $30 to $60. Many DIY car enthusiasts change an air filter at home; in most cars, it's actually not very difficult.

Change worn engine drive belt(s)

Worn drive belt

A drive belt runs an alternator, air-conditioner compressor and other accessories attached to your engine. Some cars have only one drive belt, others may have two or three belts. Over time, a drive belt wears out; squeaking is the first early sign that a drive belt needs to be checked. An extremely worn or cracked drive belt may break disabling your engine. Typically, a drive belt is inspected during an oil change service. If a drive belt shows signs of wear or cracks, it needs to be replaced.

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