You don’t want to, but if you're a car owner it's inevitable that at some point you will experience car troubles. It's also fairly certain that the machine you rely on will cause you grief when you least expect it. At the very least, you'll be late, frazzled, frustrated, and have an empty wallet. So what can you do about it? Be prepared!
Know your vehicle, and know what to do when something goes wrong, because it will. The following list of the 10 most common car problems drivers encounter can assist you in being better able to cope:
1. The Check Engine Light - As you drive your car, you blindly trust that everything is going to work for you the same as it did the last time you drove. It’s human nature; we all do it. When that little yellow light illuminates, that one shaped like an engine, the tendency is to panic. Maybe you feel a cold sweat and need to breathe into a paper bag to prevent hyperventilation. Maybe its appearance is just an annoyance to you. Either way, you have no idea what caused that little yellow check engine light to come on.
As malfunction indicators go, the Check Engine Light is vague to the vehicle operator. It will need to be scanned and diagnosed by a trained mechanic. What can you do about it? Perform the regular maintenance as scheduled by the manufacturer. Replace the spark plugs when the time comes. Have the fluids changed when they should be done. A thorough inspection by a trained technician will include checking for codes stored in the computer that could trigger that engine light down the road. Preventative maintenance won't prevent every occurrence of the check engine light, but it can ward off some of the common neglect issues that cause vehicle trouble.
2. Dead battery - You have no electrical power. You try to start your car, and the lights are dim. All you hear is a click, or maybe not even a click. You may anticipate this day after you’ve had your car for a few years, and carry booster cables in the trunk for such an occasion. A dead battery is a pain to deal with, because once you've boosted it, you never know whether your car will start up normally the next time.
The average usable life of a car battery is three to five years. It may not seem long, but think about the stress you put on it every time you start your car. Most people start their car a dozen times or so per day. Those starts add up very quickly. When you have the regular check-up done on your car, ask to have the battery checked. If the battery test shows it is near the end of its life cycle, have it replaced before it becomes a problem. No one likes a dead battery.
3. Shaky steering wheel - It often goes unnoticed until you drive on the highway or interstate. The shaky steering wheel is hard to detect at city speeds, but once you reach 40 miles per hour and higher, the vibration increases. Your eyeballs feel like you’re using a jackhammer, and the feeling in your hands on the steering wheel feels the same. You can’t drive a vehicle like this very long, can you? You might get motion sickness.
Steering wheel vibrations are very common because of the multitude of causes. The symptom can be brought on by issues in the steering, suspension, or even your tires. To narrow it down, the different components need to be inspected by a qualified mechanic. A thorough inspection of the suspension, steering, and other components will yield an accurate diagnosis of the problem; at which point YourMechanic can advise on any necessary repairs. If you are able to, remember or write down (not while you’re driving) the conditions where you first feel the vibration like the road surface and speed, and if the shakiness goes away at a particular speed. This information is valuable for helping the mechanic find the issue speedily.
4. Brake pulsation - Have you ever felt the heat emanating from your wheels after a long drive? Don’t touch them! They’re hot. It’s from the friction created when the brake pads make contact with the brake rotor. Stop and go traffic and hard braking conditions create more heat than easy, controlled braking. When the brake rotors overheat, they can, and often do, warp. It’s not visible to the naked eye, but the surface is no longer totally flat, and the result is a nerve-racking, tooth-shaking vibration in the steering wheel or body of the vehicle.
Brake pulsation doesn’t improve on its own. The only solution once it occurs is to have it corrected. Most commonly the brake rotors need to be replaced with new ones so the pads aren’t chattering on an uneven surface anymore. When brake pulsation occurs, have a qualified mechanic, such as one from YourMechanic, inspect, properly diagnose, and fix the problem right away. Brake pulsations can increase stopping distance and braking effectiveness, and can compromise the safety of your vehicle.
5. Bald tires - It’s when you stop for gas and happen to glance down at your wheels while you wait for the pump, and alarm bells go off in your head. You notice bare spots of no tread on your tire! In a frenzy, you look at the rest of them to see if they are all like that; maybe they are and maybe they aren’t. You know you’ve got to get that looked at, and it can’t wait.
Abnormal tire wear and premature tire wear are indicators of underlying conditions. That condition might be that you have a heavy foot, or it may be a mechanical issue with your suspension, steering, or brakes. In any case, it needs to be addressed. Have YouMechanic thoroughly scour your vehicle to identify any issues that may be causing your tire wear and have them repaired.
6. Stumbling or stalling engine - You know what this is. You come to a stop and it feels like your engine is burping and bucking. The RPMs get so low it seems like the engine is going to stall. You use your left foot to hold the brake pedal and your right foot feathers the gas to keep the engine running. It’s a delicate maneuver that feels like you could lose control any moment.
Engine stalling issues don’t usually manifest themselves without warning signs. The occasional Check Engine Light coming on, then going off again, the rough run you feel on startup sometimes, or the clack-clack-clack of your engine in cold temperatures are hints your car is feeling sick. Regular maintenance and servicing can prevent the issues of misfires that cause stalling, and having YourMechanic check over your car when those annoying symptoms begin to show up can ward off larger problems down the road.
7. Lost keys - If you haven’t experienced it yet, you will one day soon. You’re going to misplace your keys and it won’t be when you have an hour to search for them. (Check the butter dish) You’re destined to take the bus or call a cab today because you can’t unlock your doors, let alone start the engine. And when you get home after a long, frustrating day of public transportation, your keys will greet you at the door in Fido’s mouth.
The simplest solution is to have a spare. Everyone intends to have a spare key tucked away in a safe location for this exact occasion, but seldom does that intention ever come to fruition. It’s a simple process to get an extra key made that can open the door and start your car, and for the low cost of an extra key you will prevent a full day of high stress.
8. An oil leak - You’re leaving home in the morning ten minutes late. In your rush to put your laptop bag in the passenger seat you step in something. Blackish-brown drips. That’s weird. You hop in the driver’s seat and back out, until you notice the long trail of those same drips and a huge puddle of black on your driveway. Then the oil light comes on. Do you chance the drive to work?
The sinking feeling you get when you know something is going to cost money you haven’t budgeted for is never pleasant. In the case of oil leaks, prevention is nearly impossible, however addressing a minor leak you’ve been informed about will prevent it from becoming a major issue down the road. Have your vehicle thoroughly inspected every oil change to identify possible upcoming issues.
9. No emergency kit - Your child has a gash on her finger that won’t stop bleeding. You’ve run out of gas on a back country road in a snowstorm without cell reception. You’ve got a flat tire on the interstate with traffic buzzing by at light speed. And as usual, you can’t find anything in your vehicle to help.
Always have a safety kit inside your vehicle. Equip it with the basics, and a few often neglected supplies that will save your skin in a pinch. Keep a small first aid kit in the glove box with bandaids, gauze, and fabric tape for the minor emergencies. If you know you will be traveling off the main roads, bring a small jerry can of fuel along. Keep a road safety kit in the back of your vehicle with the tire jack. They usually contain safety triangles for less-than-ideal stopping conditions, as well as flares, an emergency blanket, and other safety essentials.
10. Air conditioning failure - It’s going to happen on the hottest day of summer, or on the dampest, rainiest day in recent memory. Your air conditioning is going to quit. It could be something simple like a belt breaking, or it could be a leak in a hose or a major component failure.
Have your air conditioning system checked annually for leaks and to ensure a full refrigerant charge. Make sure your air conditioning system can keep up on the most sweltering of days, and clear your windows in the humid conditions of the heaviest rainstorm.
This article originally appeared on YourMechanic.com as 10 Biggest Car-Related Headaches and What to Do About Them and was authored by Jason Unrau.