Services

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Coolant can deteriorate over time and should be tested to see if it's still good, as it can be hard to tell just by appearances. Even if testing shows the cooling and antifreeze protection are still adequate, antifreeze can become more acidic over time and lose its rust-inhibiting properties, causing corrosion. Corrosion can damage the radiator, water pump, thermostat and other parts of the cooling system, so the coolant in a vehicle with more than about 50,000 miles should be tested periodically. That's to look for signs of rust and to make sure it has sufficient cooling and boiling protection, even if the cooling system seems to be working properly. It can be checked with test strips that measure acidity, and with a hydrometer that measures freezing and boiling protection. If the corrosion inhibitors have deteriorated, the coolant should be changed. The cooling system might also need to be flushed to remove contaminants no matter what the maintenance schedule calls for or how many miles are on the odometer. On the other hand, if testing shows the coolant is still doing its job...

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Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut schedule that tells you when it's time to replace the brakes, so you need to rely on your ears and the advice of an experienced automotive technician. Most vehicles should have their tires rotated at least every six months, and that is a good time to have the brakes inspected, as well. A mechanic can check the thickness of the pads and the condition of the brake hardware to spot wear. Many cars have built-in wear sensors that scrape against a brake disc when the linings needed replacing. The driver will hear an annoying screeching sound when they apply the brakes (or when the brakes are released on some vehicles). Those sensors aren't on every vehicle, so drivers should listen for squeaks, squeals, grinding (often a sign that brake pads are entirely gone) and other noises that indicate wear. Some minor noises can be eliminated by cleaning the brakes, but persistent, prominent noises usually mean parts are worn. Other signs are pulsations through the brake pedal, longer stopping distances, or when you apply the brakes your foot goes down...

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When you take your car in for routine service you may hear an urgent pitch for having your power-steering pump flushed and filled with fresh fluid because the current fluid has turned dark. Bear in mind that engine oil and transmission fluid also become darker after a while, so a deeper shade of red doesn't mean the power-steering fluid is bad. Before you jump at paying for this service, see what your owner's manual or maintenance schedule says. You probably won't find mention of changing the fluid. You should check the power-steering fluid reservoir monthly to make sure it has the proper amount and that the power-steering system isn't leaking. Reservoirs on many vehicles are the see-through plastic type, so you don't even have to remove a cap to check the level. Consult your owner's manual for the location of the reservoir in the engine compartment for help. You also should check the manual for the type of power-steering fluid that is required. The manufacturer may call for a specific type of fluid instead of a generic type found at parts stores.

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Years ago it was a good idea to change the oil and filter frequently, but because of advances in engine materials and tighter tolerances, as well as the oil that goes into engines, most manufacturers recommend intervals of 7,500 miles or more. If you're nervous about going 10,000 miles or more between oil changes, then do it every six months, when you probably should also have your tires rotated (also explained in your owner's manual). GM says to change your oil at least once a year even if the service indicator warning light doesn't come on. With longer recommended intervals between oil changes, it's more important to check the oil level at least once a month to make sure you have enough. But to change oil every 3,000 miles is probably wasting money.

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A glowing check engine light means that the onboard diagnostic system has detected a problem affecting the emission controls. There are dozens of possibilities as to why it has illuminated. It could be something as simple as a loose gas cap, bad airflow, a bad oxygen sensor or a faulty catalytic converter. When this warning light comes on, it generates a trouble code that can be read by connecting a diagnostic scanner to the vehicle's onboard diagnostic system; that will steer your mechanic to specific areas and help find the cause. A flashing check engine light means the problem is serious enough that it warrants immediate attention to prevent expensive repairs. Stop as soon as it is safe to do so. The only way to find out what caused the check engine light to illuminate is to have a mechanic connect a diagnostic scanner to the onboard diagnostics system to extract trouble codes that will help locate the source. The sooner that's done the better.

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Check the maintenance schedule in your owner's manual because the recommended intervals from vehicle manufacturers are all over the board, from as early as 40,000 miles to as long as 150,000. Some even say it never has to be changed, though many mechanics advise that it should be done every 50,000 miles to be safe. As with engine oil, it doesn’t hurt to change transmission fluid more often than is recommended, but you might be paying for extra for little benefit. If your transmission has a fluid filter, it should be changed every time the fluid is changed (although some filters can be cleaned).

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When your air conditioner blows only mildly cool air or no cool air at all, it's probably low on refrigerant. That means it's probably time for an air-conditioning recharge, but there's more to it than just filling up. Because the refrigerant operates in a closed system, the most likely cause for low levels is a leak in the air-conditioning system. Most repair shops have a qualified technician inspect the system for obvious leaks in hoses, pipes or the air-conditioning compressor, and make repairs as necessary.

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