How to Teach Basic Car Maintenance to Your Teen

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Teen drivers should familiarize themselves with the basics of car maintenance, even if they would rather hand off their car to a service professional. (Photo: @Russell_Robinson via Twenty20)
Getting their own car is a right of passage for many teenagers. After getting a license and selecting the right car, the next step for them is to learn how to conduct simple car maintenance. Not only will it help teens assume greater responsibility for their car, but it can also keep them safer on the road.
In this in-depth article, you will learn everything you need to teach your teen about basic car maintenance.

Maintenance 101

Before doing any maintenance, have your teen read through the vehicle’s owner’s and/or service manual and pay careful attention to service needs and mileage. Some items, such as oil changes, vary depending on the make and age of the vehicle. Knowing the recommended intervals for your teen’s specific make and model can help keep the car running in optimal condition.
One of the most important parts of vehicle maintenance is ensuring that teens have all of the items or materials needed. Make sure your teen knows what the following basic maintenance items are, and how to use them correctly:
  • Jumper cables
  • Spare tire
  • Air pressure gauge
  • Penny (for tread wear test) or tread gauge
  • Fix-a-Flat or a related product (unless your tire is equipped with similar technology)
  • Tire iron
  • Torque wrench
  • Jack stand

Keep the Car Clean

One of the first basic maintenance tasks any teen can do is keeping their car clean and washed. Keeping your car clean inside can ensure that switches and knobs work, vents aren’t clogged, and storage compartments lock for safety. Keeping the outside of your vehicle clean can prevent damage to your paint job and allow you to better monitor the overall condition of your car.
Every teen should have basic car-washing items, such as sponges, soaps, and any other detailing items they would like. Car wash kits, including a bucket and car-cleaning items, are available. Keeping a car clean can bolster a teen’s sense of pride in their vehicle, leading to better overall care, too.

Check the Tire Pressure and Tread Wear

One of the easiest car maintenance tasks a teen can do is regularly checking their tire pressure and tire tread wear. A quick visual check each time before your teen drives can confirm that a tire hasn’t gone flat or is severely under-inflated.
A tire pressure gauge is an easy-to-use tool to check the actual pressure of the tire. These come in traditional “pencil-style” gauges and electronic gauge versions. To help a teen use a tire gauge, have them follow these steps:
Step 1: Check the air pressure label. Determine what the recommended air pressure is for their specific car by checking the label on the frame of the car inside the driver’s side door.
Step 2: Remove the tire valve cap.
Step 3: Use a tire pressure gauge. Push on the tire pressure gauge until you either get a digital reading or a small marker starts to rise and show the tire’s pressure level.
Step 4: Check the reading.
Step 5: Remove the pressure gauge and replace the valve cap.
Step 6: Repeat for all tires.
Step 7: Fill with air. Remember to fill to the recommended air pressure levels if the tires are low.
To check tread wear, a neat trick is the “penny test.” Have your teen keep a penny in their glove box so they can use it to check the tread depth of their tires. If you place a penny in the tread with Lincoln’s head down and you can see the top of his head, your tread is too shallow and the car could be dangerous to drive.
There are also other tools that can be used to check a tire’s tread depth, including digital tread depth gauge options for more precise wear measurements.
If the tire tread is too worn down, it can impact the car’s stopping and turning capabilities and make the tire prone to a blowout or other malfunction.

Change a Car Tire

Changing a tire may seem difficult and beyond a teen’s capabilities, but with the right tools and knowledge, they can easily accomplish this task.
Instruct a teen driver to only attempt a tire change when it’s safe to do so. If there is a lot of fast-moving traffic, if you do not have the proper tools, or if there is severe weather, for example, call a professional or roadside service for help. It’s also highly recommended to run through the process at home, before an incident occurs on the road.
To change a tire, teens should follow these steps:
Step 1: Check to make sure the car has a spare tire.
Step 2: Check your location. Make sure you are in a safe enough spot to change the tire and turn on your hazard lights.
Step 3: Apply your vehicle’s parking brake. If you have wheel wedges to further stop your vehicle from rolling, apply those as well.
Step 4: Remove and loosen. Remove the hub cap or wheel cover and loosen the lug nuts on the tire.
Step 5: Jack up your car. Place the jack under your vehicle (check your owner’s manual for specific placement for your car). Jack up the vehicle high enough to be able to remove the flat tire, about six inches.
Should anything roll or fall beneath the vehicle, completely lower it down to the ground before retrieving the item. It is never safe to go underneath a vehicle on a jack.
Step 6: Remove the lug nuts and tire. Completely unscrew the loosened lug nuts and remove the flat tire.
Step 7: Put on the replacement tire. Place the spare or new tire on by lining it up with the lug bolts, then tighten each bolt by hand.
Step 8: Lower and tighten. Lower the car so that the tire is just touching the ground, and tighten the lug nuts with your wrench.
Step 9: Fully place your car on the ground. Lower your car down completely and check that all lug nuts are fully tightened.
Step 10: Replace caps and covers. Put back on your hub caps or wheel covers and store your tools.
Step 11: Check for air pressure. Check your spare or new tire’s air pressure. If air is needed, proceed slowly to a gas station or mechanic.

Replace the Windshield Wiper Blades

Keeping windows streak free and wipers in top shape to ensure that your teen can see the road ahead is important. Once your teen starts to see streaks during the use of their windshield wipers, instruct them that it’s time to replace their blades.
To replace their blades, have your teen follow these steps:
Step 1: Check for the correct blade size. You can find this in the car’s owner’s manual, as well as at most wiper blade stations at an auto parts store. They usually have a book for each blade manufacturer with information listed by make, model, and model year.
Step 2: Remove the old blades. Check your car’s owner’s manual for the correct way to remove the wiper blades on your teen’s specific car. Some use a “hook” method and other simply have the blades snap into place. Instructions should also come with the wiper blades.
Step 3: Install the new blades. Reverse the process that you used to remove the old blades and install the new ones.

Check the Fluids

Staying on top of a car’s fluid levels is simple. There are typically five fluids your teen will need to check regularly. While there can be more fluids than those listed below, the most important ones to check, and how often, include:
  • Engine oil. Teens should check the engine oil at least once a month, or if possible, each time they fill up at the gas station. To check your engine oil:
Step 1: Find the right dipstick. Check your car’s owner’s or service manual to find out where the engine oil dipstick is located.
Step 2: Pull the dipstick out and wipe it clean.
Step 3: Replace the dipstick and pull it out again.
Step 4: Check the engine oil fluid level. If the fluid level is in the “safe” zone, no additional oil is needed. If it’s low, fill to the recommended levels.
  • Coolant. It is recommended to check your coolant levels at least every six months, once before the start of summer and again before the start of winter. To check your coolant levels:
Step 1: Locate the coolant. The coolant typically resides inside the radiator, but you can check your car’s owner’s or service manual for the specific location in your car.
Step 2: Wait for a cool car. Wait for your car to cool completely down before conducting your check.
Step 3: Remove the radiator cap.
Step 4: Check the coolant level. Look inside the radiator and find the line that denotes the recommended coolant level. If low, fill to the recommended levels.
  • Transmission fluid. Teens should check their car’s transmission fluid at least once a month. To check your transmission fluid level:
Step 1: Turn your car on. Make sure your car is running when you check your transmission fluid for an accurate reading.
Step 2: Find the transmission fluid. Check your owner’s or service manual for the exact location in your teen’s car.
Step 3: Check quality, not quantity. With transmission fluid, instruct the teen to look at the color and quality of the fluid, rather than the level. The fluid should be red in color and not smell burned. If it is brown or smells burned, it needs to be replaced. Transmission fluid should not be low. If it is, it is recommended to take the car to a mechanic or service center.
  • Brake fluid. Another easy fluid to check, brake fluid should also never be low. It should be checked for quality at least every time your car’s oil is changed. Typically, brake fluid is stored in a reservoir in the engine compartment on the driver’s side of the car. Look at the container and check that fluid is golden in color. If it is brown or low, it’s time to have it replaced or the brake system checked out. You should be able to do a visual check on this fluid through the container.
  • Power steering fluid. Teens should check their power steering fluid at least once a month. Locate the power steering reservoir and check to see if levels are low. Typically power steering fluid levels don’t drop very quickly, so if you see a large drop, it is recommended to take your car to a shop for diagnosis.

Check and Change the Air Filter

A car’s air filter helps to keep dirt and dust out of the air and keep them from contaminating your engine system. It is recommended to change an air filter every 10,000 to 15,000 miles, or more often if you are driving through dusty or more heavily traffic-congested areas.
Have your teen check their car owner’s or service manual for the location of the air filter. There should be an air filter housed in the car’s engine compartment. Wipe off the housing and remove the top. You may need to remove clamps or screws, depending on your specific vehicle. Remove the oil air filter and wipe clean the housing and seal to the filter. Install the new filter, replace any screws or clamps, and put the top of the housing back on.

Know When to Call a Pro

For teens who want to go beyond basic car maintenance, learning how to change their own oil, replace burnt out bulbs and fuses, fix scratches in their paint, and even replace and repair such components as brake pads is all possible. Beyond the basics, teens can also learn how to jumpstart their car and replace car batteries.
If your teen would rather stick with simple maintenance, then instruct them to take their car to the shop for anything beyond the basic maintenance items listed above. Service technicians are trained to quickly and easily perform oil changes (and dispose of used product properly) and tire alignments.
In the end, there really isn’t anything on the simple side of car maintenance that a teen can’t do but an adult can. Keeping a car maintained can go a long way toward keeping it — and your teen driver — safe on the road.