The old “pay me now or pay me later” adage still holds true for auto service. Putting off regular maintenance or ignoring signs of mechanical trouble can turn an affordable shop bill into a budget-buster that makes you pay for your procrastination. A squealing belt or shaky steering wheel are signs of trouble you should get squared away pronto. Veteran auto technicians contributed to this list of symptoms to watch for.
The low tire pressure warning light indicates that a tire-pressure monitoring system sensor has detected a tire that is significantly underinflated. The sensors are located within the air valve on each wheel and will typically warn when air pressure drops 25 percent below the recommended level. The TPMS will issue an instant warning in the case of sudden loss of pressure, such as from a puncture. If the TPMS light illuminates while you’re driving, pull over as soon as possible and inspect your tires. Continuing on an underinflated tire is unsafe and can ruin a tire that could otherwise be repaired. Repairing a nail hole might cost $20, while a new tire could be $200. Tires will always lose a little pressure over time, and if your tire pressure has not been maintained it will eventually drop low enough to trigger the TPMS warning, often on a cold morning. Use a pressure gauge to check each tire. If they are uniformly low, it’s time to fill them to the pressure specifications posted on a sticker inside the driver’s door. Driving on low tire pressure hurts fuel mileage, handling, accelerates tire wear and can even lead to tire failure. If only one tire is low, you may have a slow leak and should get that tire checked soon.
The check engine light (often in the shape of an engine) indicates that there’s an issue with the vehicle’s emissions control system. Two common problems are a failed oxygen sensor in the exhaust or an air leak in the fuel system, which can be as simple as a loose or missing fuel tank cap. The check engine light is easy to ignore because the car may seem to be functioning normally, but if left untended a minor issue with the emissions system can get much worse. A failed oxygen sensor can be replaced for about $200, but if it’s ignored for long it can cause excessive fuel in the exhaust to ruin the catalyst, which can cost $1,000 or more to replace. A professional scan of the vehicle diagnostic computer will help a technician pinpoint the problem.
A hyperactive turn signal indicator is usually a sign that the signal bulb on the erratically flashing side of the car is burned out. On some vehicles the “blinker” won’t blink if the light is out. A new bulb may cost about $4, and you can often change it yourself following instructions in the owners manual. The alternative could be a visit with the police and a $50 fine for an equipment violation.
The service engine light (often the shape of a wrench) indicates that it’s time for an oil change or other routine service, including changing the air filter,
rotating tires and changing the differential or transmission fluids. There may be a code that appears with this light, and you can check the owners manual to see what the code indicates. Ignoring this service — by putting off an oil change for thousands of miles — can lead to more expensive repairs down the road.
The low washer fluid warning means it’s time to invest $2 in a jug of bug juice and the few minutes it will take to fill the underhood reservoir. Your owners manual will show you how. It’s a safety issue, of course, if you can’t see through a dirty windshield. Do not keep pushing the washer button if the reservoir is empty. The fluid often cools and lubricates the pump. You’ll burn out the pump if it has run dry; expect a $100 bill to replace it.
Sounds like trouble
A squealing sound from under the hood is usually caused by a slipping belt. Older cars and trucks may have a separate belt for the fan, power steering pump, alternator and air conditioner. If one of these belts is loose or extremely worn, it will slip and squeal, often as the car is started or accelerated. A mechanic can tighten the belt in minutes, or replace one for $15 plus labor. If the belt fails, it could leave you stranded with an overheated engine or a dead battery. Newer cars use a single “serpentine” belt that uses a pulley to maintain its tension, but these belts can still get worn, or may slip if contaminated with coolant leaking from a bad water pump. A new serpentine belt costs about $100 plus labor to install, which is probably cheaper than a tow truck ride to the shop if one breaks.
The brake warning indicator on many vehicles will make a high-pitched scraping or squealing sound when the brake pads are almost worn out. The indicator is a metal tab that actually contacts the brake disc. The brake warning may be faint or intermittent at first, but it will get louder as the pads wear. If you hear the indicator, it’s time for immediate brake service, which typically costs $200 to $300 for the front or rear brakes. Let it go and the discs will soon be ruined, adding $200 or more to the repair bill — if you don’t crash first because braking performance is compromised.
The constant velocity (or CV) joints allow the axles of a front-wheel-drive car to rotate and bend as the wheels turn and steer. They are protected with a grease-filled rubber boot, and if that boot fails — it’s often torn by road debris — the grease leaks out and the joint will become contaminated with road grit and salt and begin to wear out. You will notice a faint tick-tick-tick sound when making a sharp turn at a low speed, perhaps in a parking lot or when pulling away from an intersection. A good technician will inspect the CV joint boots at each oil change, and sometimes a torn boot can be replaced if the CV joint is not damaged. Replacing an axle and its CV joint will cost about $200 to $300. Ignore this repair and the CV joint will eventually fail, locking up tight and leaving you stranded and waiting for an expensive tow.
Feels like trouble
If the steering wheel shakes only when you apply the brakes, it’s likely that the front brake discs are warped and need to be machined true or replaced — a job that can cost $200 to $400. Ignore this one and you’ll be putting stress on the tie-rod ends, front suspension and other components, including the tires, which will cost more money in later repairs. And you may have compromised braking performance, which is incredibly irresponsible.
A shimmy in the steering wheel at moderate speeds when you’re not braking could mean that a front wheel is out of balance. It’s not uncommon for one of the balance weights to fall off, or for the wheel to become unbalanced due to tire wear or damage. It will cost $20 to get the wheel rebalanced, or the tire may need to be replaced. Another cause could be worn tie-rod ends, which will cost $200 to $400 to replace. Once again, ignoring this warning sign will
accelerate wear of all the other front-end components and triple the eventual repair bill.
You can replace your own worn windshield wiper blades (see your owners manual) when they stutter across the glass and leave you peering through streaks. New blades are $5 to $15 each. The accident you cause because you can’t see will cost much, much more. Change them once a year.
If your car marks its territory
A puddle of green or gold liquid under your car is probably coolant. It will feel sticky between your fingers and smell sweet. A coolant leak could be as simple as a loose hose clamp, or as complicated as a failing water pump. The source is often tricky to locate because the leaking coolant can trickle along the frame and engine before dripping to the ground. Check the coolant level in the plastic reservoir located under the hood (see the owners manual). If it’s very low or empty, it’s another sign your car is leaking coolant. Ignored, a bad water pump or leaky radiator will eventually fail completely or cause the coolant level to get unacceptably low. In either case, ignoring a $300 repair can lead to an overheated and damaged engine and a bill for thousands of dollars to make it right.
Oil leaking from a modern car or truck will look golden or dark brown and feel slick between the fingers. Most oil leaks are caused by sloppy oil changes or the use of cheap filters. The oil filter gasket may have torn away and is leaking, or the old gasket was left on the engine. The drain plug may have been replaced without a washer, or with the wrong washer. Sometimes it’s simply spilled oil that was not wiped off the frame and is now dripping onto your driveway. These are basic, inexpensive issues to fix, but the car will have to go up on a rack to find the problem. Have the leaked checked before it gets worse, the oil level drops and your engine is ruined. If the cause was sloppy work, find a new service garage.
If the puddle under your car appears to be water — if it’s colorless and odorless — do not worry. It’s simply condensation from the air conditioner and a normal sight on hot, humid days. Don’t freak out.