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Ask Joanne

What car maintenance can I do myself? Add to ...

I'd like to keep my car maintenance costs down, and I'm interested in doing more of it myself, but is this a good idea? - Miriam in Winnipeg

It's imperative that you attain a good degree of knowledge before attempting any automotive service or repair. Think about other areas of your life; just because you've turned on your television a thousand times doesn't mean it's a good idea to try to fix your flat-screen. There are certain automobile maintenance tasks, though, that are not off-limits for non-professionals.

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A recent survey conducted on behalf of Canadian Tire reveals the degree to which we're willing to tackle our own maintenance: 56 per cent of 1,012 Canadians surveyed say they'd take on more do-it-yourself maintenance to help offset money spent on high fuel prices.

According to the survey, the list of things the DIY Canucks are prepared to do includes checking and replacing their own air filters, changing tires and oil, and monitoring and topping up their vehicle's fluids. Thankfully, a healthy majority of those surveyed would stop short of performing their own brake jobs, and prefer to leave that to the professionals.

For those with no prior experience in performing the tasks noted above, is basic maintenance such as changing an air filter a realistic proposition, and what could go wrong?

"Of course you can learn to do it, but in a lot of the newer cars, if you don't put the air filter in and seal it properly in the container - which is like a suitcase where you snap it shut with the air filter inside - you can actually break the clips and have dirt bypassing the air filter," says Russ Perry, a veteran 40-year mechanic.

No matter which task you're thinking of tackling, it's essential to have the factory service repair manual for your vehicle. It contains the specifications for parts and fluids for your particular year and model.

"As for brake fluid, engine oil and transmission fluid - it's not just the brand names that are different, it's the chemical structure. Vehicles have varying requirements, and it's all in your owner's manual. If you fail to follow those things, you can cause a lot of problems," says Perry.

For an overview of the basics, perhaps attend a car clinic offered at many garages, or consult instructional videos and guide books. Depending on how far you want to go, enroll in a basic mechanics course and, for more specific advice, contact a professional mechanic.

Once you have the knowledge, you'll also need the right equipment to do the job. An oil change, for example, requires a funnel, filter wrench and a drain pan. If your vehicle is too low to the ground to shimmy under, you'll need a hoist or jack, axle stands and wheel chocks for safety.

Bear in mind that the absence of proper service records may lower a vehicle's resale value, but with the time and will to invest in gaining the proper knowledge, you can save maintenance dollars by doing more yourself. It comes down to common sense, your knowledge and your comfort zone. At the very least though, you should know how to check your fluid levels and tire pressure.

Send your questions for Joanne Will to globedrive@globeandmail.com

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