Oil & Filter… It’s a Start

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Imagine if all you did for exercise was bicep curls with your right arm. Or tried to lose weight by eating one moderate-sized/lower calorie meal a week. It might do some good – kind of like only changing your vehicle’s engine oil/filter regularly. But by neglecting the rest of it, you’re not doing as much as you could. Or should. Yet it’s exactly what a lot of people do – probably, because many of them don’t know much about – or think much about – other (and just as important) routine maintenance items. For instance:fix one

* PCV valve

This is a simple one-way valve that permits engine suction (vacuum) to scavenge combustion byproduct gasses from the crankcase (hence Positive Crankcase Ventilation) that would otherwise contaminate the oil rapidly or build up pressure inside the engine – and feeds these gasses back into the engine to be consumed harmlessly. But the valve does not last forever – and if it sticks or gets stuck, the PCV circuit no longer works as it should. Gasses can now build up – and in a modern, “closed system” emissions controlled engine, this can lead to problems that will cost you a lot more than the typical $10 or so replacement PCV valve costs. Check your owner’s manual for the factory recommendations as far as mileage/time intervals for replacement – and heed them. You might even try to replace the valve yourself as the job is often very DIY-doable, even for people who are not mechanically inclined. The PCV valve is commonly located on top of the engine, near (or built into) the cam/valve cover. It’s typically a press-fit part, secured by a clamp. Removal/replacement usually involves loosening the clamp(s) and twisting/pulling out the old valve and popping in the new one. But whether you do it or have someone else do it – just make sure it gets done!PCV

* Power steering fluid –

Talk about a wallflower – when it comes to people noticing (much less thinking about) this important service item. Well, it’s important if you’d prefer to spend maybe $10 on fresh power steering fluid once every four or five years vs. $200 (or more – probably a lot more) on a new power steering pump. Automotive fluids do not last forever (nothing does). They get heated – and cooled – and these cycles eventually result (along with the build up of contamination of the fluid with small particles, moisture, etc.) in fluid that ought to be replaced. If you don’t wait until the fluid is badly contaminated – which you can usually tell just by looking at it (if it’s turned black when it was originally clear or red, it’s gone bad) – you can DIY this job, too. Use a clean turkey baster – or syringe – to draw the old fluid out of the reservoir and top off (there will be a “full” line) with fresh fluid of the appropriate type. Check your owner’s manual or read the warning on the filler cap. Some cars use different fluids. Dexron automatic transmission fluid is one common type – but check before you add.steering

* Fuel filter –

This one used to be one that most people (well, many people) knew to keep track of because the filter was obvious – it was right there under the hood, usually spliced into the fuel line that led to the carburetor. But carburetors have been history since the late 1980s. All cars built since then are fuel injected. And the fuel filter is typically located out of sight – and so, out of mind. It is either (typically) underneath the car, or in/near the gas tank. Very easy to overlook. Yet changeout intervals have not changed. Gas is still gas (well, if you don’t count the 10 percent ethanol) and particles and other contaminants still get pumped into your gas tank from gas pumps – as well as accrue there from internal sources. But there’s a twist: With a modern fuel-injected car, the computer will sometimes shut the system down if pressure drops below a certain pre-set value, which can happen if the filter gets clogged up. That means you’re stuck – and because the filter is often not easily accessible it is not easily fixable by the side of the road, as in the good ol’ days. And – because so many people have dropped the fuel filter from their To-Do lists, it’s easy to forget about it – until the car reminds you. As a general rule, fuel filters last about two years and 15,000 miles. Check the “service and maintenance” chapter of your vehicle’s owner’s manual to know the score for your particular car. Then, don’t forget to do it – or have it done!fikter

 *  Gearbox (and axle) lube –

People often fixate on their car’s engine – forgetting about the half of the drivetrain. It doesn’t do you much good to have an engine that’s well-cared for … bolted up to a neglected transmission that just croaked on you. The happy – and sad – thing about this is maintenance is generally easy and inexpensive, yet very often not done. Or not done when it should be done. Maintenance consists of draining the case and refilling it with the appropriate quantity and type of lubricant. There are usually two plugs – one on the bottom of the transmission case, for draining the lube – the other higher up on the side of the case, for refilling it with fresh lube. Doing this service is often even easier than changing engine oil, because (usually) there is no filter to deal with and – usually – the drain/fill plugs are very easy to get at. The drain one especially so. If you have the ability/inclination to jack your vehicle up enough that you can slide underneath with a catch pan and some basic hand tools, you can probably handle this job yourself. Thus, the only expense will be $20 or $30 or so for the quantity of fresh lube you’ll need. Here again, be sure to use the right type – and be sure to add the right amount. For added protection – as well as smoother operation – you might consider using synthetic gear lube, if allowable. It’s more expensive, but you’ll more than get your money’s worth in the form of easier/smoother gear changes (especially in cold weather) reduced wear and tear and possibly a noticeable uptick in your gas mileage.  gearboxAs a general rule of thumb, gear lube should be changed out every 50,000 miles or so.

* Battery … and alternator

This one can sneak up on you – and your wallet. Batteries, like people, get weaker as they age. But the weakness may not be apparent. The cars starts normally – but because the battery is now at say 60 percent of its capacity after starting the engine, the alternator – which is a kind of mini-generator that is turned by the running engine and which produces both the electricity to power the car’s ignition and electrical systems as well as recharge the battery  –  works harder and harder to “refill” the dying battery after each start-up cycle. At a certain point, the battery is perpetually under-charge and the alternator therefore works harder to try to keep it charged up. The long and short of it is that eventually, the battery’s weakness will manifest in a no-start or weak start, but it may not become obvious for some time – during which time, your alternator has been picking up the slack. Alternators are expensivebatteryWith some late-model cars, you may be looking at $400 – or more. It’s therefore wise to  get as much life out of the one that came from the factory as possible. And you can do that, in part, by keeping abreast of your battery. Its condition (capacity to hold a charge) ought to be checked at least every two years  – and after about 4-5 years, it’s very likely you’re approaching (or have already reached) replacement time – even if there are no obvious external signs of a problem and the car seems to be starting up normally. Ideally, replace the battery before it croaks out.

Your alternator will thank you – and so will your wallet.

Throw it in the Woods?


  1. Some drain plugs come with a pre-installed magnet to catch metal particles, especially at rest overnight. Some higher grade oil filters came with a small magnet built in. These days I use neodymium magnets on the outside of the filter and on the drain plug, if it’s not fitted.

    The power steering fluid is a slightly different problem, but magnetic pickups can be bought for those. They look like a fuel filter and go inline with the hose. The last one I saw was basically an empty shell with a magnet held inside. Easy to clean out too.

  2. Thank you, Eric – Of course I knew the ideas in this article, but it was great to have them refreshed. Saved my girlfriend about $300.00 on her Honda CRV by extracting power steering fluid with a $5.00 syringe from Wal Mart and doing the same with the brake fluid. All you have to do is keep changing this fluid every 30,000 miles or so and you’re golden. Changing the cabin air filter is a $70 job which cost me about $20.00 for a new filter and about 5 minutes of my time.

    By the way, Hondas are very maintenance friendly. I suspect you could “destroy” one with a 10, 12, 14 and a 17 mm wrench.

    The next item is a drain and refill on the transmission. Very simple job that can be done every 20,000 miles or so as well. Also, need to replace coolant. I think that I will just drain and refill the radiator as well. If you catch it early, you don’t have to do that nasty flush.

  3. The most important part of battery maintenance is keeping the posts clean, as what looks like moisture on the top of the battery is actually acid spreading across the surface to the posts, where it will get between the post and cable end (out of sight for a while) and short out the battery. A little grease on the posts and the battery around the posts will protect against this for a while. I have saved many a battery simply by cleaning the posts and wires, and voila, it starts again.

    • Absolutely, Ted. One could even see the shorting of the battery while using a voltmeter, placing the leads on the battery acid. A tip to know how a battery is leaking: wipe a red shop rag across the top of the battery. If it turns the rag purple, it’s leaking. Protect those terminals!

    • Right on, Ted.

      I clean the terminals/connectors with a wire brush, then shoot WD-40 liberally. The WD-40 displaces any moisture and leaves a protective coating that will help keep the terminals free of rust/build-up.

  4. Great point about the battery…It is also wise to purchase a “name brand” and with the longest warranty which usually are better quality. Don’t go for the shortest warranty battery to try to save a few bucks.

    • I disagree. Buy your new battery from a hypermarket, not for economy, though this will tend to be cheaper, but because of faster throughput.

      If your car won’t start, a battery charger may help, without battery or alternator damage; jump-leads, or otherwise coaxing a near-flat battery to cooperate, can induce over-fast charging, setting both at risk.

      Have we any submariners? They’re the real experts.

      • The more expensive battery tends to be better constructed and have better CCA, RCM, and withstand heat better. There are really only a few manufacturers of all the brands in Amerika. Disgusting MBA “Branding” to the feeble-minded masses is what Amerika does best. Agreed with the hypermart…Batteries tend not to rot on the shelf for very long.

        • I’ve had good service out of the Sam’s Club ‘Duracell’ branded batteries. They cost a little less than the premium labeled auto store batteries, but seem to hold up better. Their battery stock turns over pretty quickly, too.

          When I’m checking out any battery related problem, I also run down all terminals for the battery cables to see if they’re securely connected and look over the insulation on the cables as well. What sounds like a weak battery can sometimes be a slightly loose and/or corroded connection at the starter end of the positive cable, or at one terminal or another along the way.

          Also, my local Sam’s Club has always put on new felt donuts for me. Those are the flat, fuzzy washers that absorb the acid that sweats out of the post once the coating spray that they use on the posts & terminals starts to erode.

  5. Your article inspired me to get some stuff to give my beater/spare B.O.V. 4×4 a tune up. I usually wait for stuff to break down before fixing my own ‘tools’, but with the way things have been going, and the way prices have been rising, I decided to be a bit proactive in my approach. Who knows, I might not be able to replace some of those things down the road a ways. So, I even got a new PVC valve even-though I’m usually like BrentP wrote above. Heh, it’s a SHTF PVC valve now. Heck, it’s a pre-SHTF tune up! Good until it drops, or the end of SHTF, whichever comes first.

    That was yesterday.

    I was $200.00 richer then.

    I didn’t notice the NAPA ad for a discount on oil and an oil filter,… yesterday.
    [Because I’m SILL not going to Autozone.]

    Note to self: widen your awareness scope while online like you do when walking down the street.

    Anyway, reading you guys talk about batteries got me to thinking about tires in the same way. I was reading a 4×4 forum about batteries (most seemed to get less than six years from a battery, so I felt great about getting seven from mine) and there were a few comments about replacing tires if they’re older than six years old. Especially the spare tire under the vehicle in heavily road salted areas.

    I wondered about that.

    I had trouble imagining eric replacing the tires on his Trans Am every six years. It’s probably a good idea for a spare tire under a vehicle though, but I suppose it depends if there’s cracks or rot and such? I’ll bet eric already wrote something about that, but I’m feeling lazy at the moment and have yet to do a search.

    … After writing that I felt guilty and did a search, got distracted by a couple of other interesting articles that had nothing to do with tires, now I’m out of time and still don’t have anything I trust to compare against my experience.
    … Maybe tomorrow.

    • On the tire thing:

      No, I don’t replace the TA’s tires every six years. This car is mostly under cover, in the garage. It sees maybe a couple hundred miles of road time annually. I’ll do a burnout every now and then, and some WOT roll-ons to clear the 455’s throat. But it doesn’t see sustained high-speed (high heat) driving, or high-load cornering… so it’s not a huge risk to drive around on older tires, provided they don’t have major problems such as dry rot or bulging sidewalls, etc.

      On the other hand, I’m pretty compulsive about the tires on my sport bike. Conveniently, these (Michelin Pilots) usually only last two seasons anyhow, but even if the tread still looked ok after three or four years, I’d probably swap ’em out regardless because at 150-plus, or leaned over in a tight curve, you don’t want to have a tire failure.

      • It’s especially useful to change out old tyres on bikes. Vulanised rubber hardens over time and exposure so no matter what the tread pattern, the grip is reduced.

        Back in ’87 I bought a Kawa Z750E and it had an old Avon tyre on the front which still had plenty of tread. I replaced the knackered back one with a new Dunlop. On a wet road the front tyre would always want to slide out. It was scary.

    • A mouse nest in the air filter housing.
      The PVC valve didn’t want to come out. Pry and pry, and lift and pry. That thing resisted for quite some time, I hardly lost any blood.
      Then I found out the hard way the previous owner had swapped out the engine with a nearly identical engine, meaning, most parts fit both engines so a person does not notice right away until changing things like the spark plug wires.

      I don’t know if there’s a point to that comment, other than maybe there’s someone out there who thought they had a bad time of it because they got their favorite shirt stained forever with oil.

      …The mouse actually chewed through the air filter to make nesting material.
      I’m just glad it wasn’t a rat with an affection for wires.

  6. I went to our local municipal auction a few years back and they had a ’91 Crown Vic with a “bad motor”. I picked it up for body parts for my taxi fleet but figured I’d see the problem with the motor. I put a battery in and it started right up but died when you gave it gas, it was just a fuel filter (it was still the original). When I told the towns “mechanic” ($60k a year and benefits by the way) he said he didn’t know fuel injected cars had fuel filters. $50.00 for the car, $10.00 for the filter, making a useless tax leach look stupid, priceless.

  7. Sorry if I’m interrupting, I was looking over my car yesterday when it refused to start. The most likely culprit appears to be the battery since turning the key in the ignition doesn’t power-up the dashboard and when I took a voltmeter to it I got a reading of 2.5-2.6 volts dc.

    (Oddly enough the doors were unlocked and my mom found the trunk open early that morning, though nothing is missing)

    Jumping the car however didn’t quite work, the engine would go through the motions of starting up but couldn’t quite turnover. However testing the battery found a charge of about 10.6 volts dc afterwords.

    Now thinking (and somewhat hoping) that the problem was electronic I started checking the fuses and relays which all appeared fine with one minor exception. A off white relay labeled as ICC-Enable had a very small light brown spot on the top of its casing.

    Now looking through google I found one definition for ICC being “Ignition Control Center” is that correct or does that relay do something else?

    In the meantime I’m taking the battery down to the auto store to get it tested.

    (as for the type of car its a 1998 Chevrolet Malibu with 6 cylinder 3.1L engine, if that helps any)

    • Hi James,

      It sounds like the battery discharged due to the trunk (and trunk light) being left on. Bear in mind that most fuel injected cars will not start if the voltage is below a certain level – not like in the old days when the thing might fire if you could get the starter to rotate.

      My guess/bet is if you recharge the battery (assuming it’s otherwise ok) the car will start normally.

      • Unfortunately I had to replace the battery.

        But even with the new one I still have no power to the dashboard (oddly enough the clock came on) and the motor wont quite turn over.

        Looks like I’m going to be checking a bunch of fuses and relays again….

  8. Have a ’94 Honda Accord. Mostly every part is accessible for the DIY owner. It is also manual transmission. My mechanic loves to servic drive this car. I have 325K on it and dread the day i need to buy another car. I have looked at a few. The new dashboards make me dizzy. Too many unnecessary distractions. Keeping my fingers crossed and the fluids and filters fresh.

    • My personal opinion is that the early-mid 1990s were the “sweet spot” of car design. They were modern enough (and well-built enough) to give us excellent driveability as well as excellent durability – but without excess complexity. Or cost.

      Current stuff is passing (has passed) the event horizon of reasonableness as far as I am concerned. Things like turbos on “economy” cars and oil levels you can’t check manually (consult the computer) and 6-8 air bags and all the rest of it. No thanks. Not for me.

      • In my opinion, the mid-1990s were also the sweet spot for diesels. I’m a big fan of the all mechanical diesel. Dodge Cummins in particular.

        • Ditto that, Chris –

          Dom and I have both been eyeballing diesels pick-ups from that era… have you checked prices lately? Stuff that was nearly worthless four or five years ago is now going for $5k and up….

          • Oh yeah, I watch Craigslist like a hawk. I’m definitely in the market for a ’89 to 98.5 Dodge Diesel. Granted, what I want is very particular, but I do usually look at all the trucks in my price range. You’re right that even junk is going for $5k and up. Generally, you can find a ’93 and under for $3k and below, if you want a truck that’s towed a horse trailer to the moon and back, and back again.

            I’d like a ’96-98.5 Dodge Diesel MT, but I will settle for an AT if I find the right deal. I’d also like a long bed non-dually. So that tends to limit my search. The trucks I’m looking at are usually in the $7k to $10k price range.

            This will be the last truck I buy. I have a little project in mind. I plan to run almost exclusively on ATF.

    • My “learner” car was my dads 76 civic. Manual five speed with the bare minimum of distractions. It later became my pizza delivery car and I miss it to this day.

  9. Hi Eric,

    I’ve been following your work for a long time now, and I’ve finally decided to comment. I’m an ASE Master Mechanic, and I’ve worked for Honda, Acura, Hyundai, Nissan, and Ford dealerships. Right now I’m at Honda, and that’s where I’ve decided to stay, because everyone’s got a Honda! Although, the Koreans are giving Honda a real run for their money!

    On the PCV concern: I’m glad you mentioned it first, because that little valve can cause all kinds of headaches, like major oil leaks. As you know, front crank seals, and rear main seals can be very costly to replace. Some maunfacturers like to bury the PCV valve, but if one knows how to find the component, and use a pair of pliers, then the job can be accomplished without going to the reapir shop.

    On the power steering fluid: I think the turkey baster method is a great way for the layman to service their own fluid. After all, that’s basically what we do on the professional side. We only have bigger machines that are pneumatically controlled. I would add that one should repeat the process a couple of times until the fluid you suck out is just as clean as the new fluid. It’s a good idea to put the new fluid in, and with the engine running, turn the wheel from stop to stop, shut the engine down, and evacuate the old fluid. Repeat until clean.

    On the Fuel filter: Yup, most newer vehicles have done away with the external in-line fuel filters. Most are internal in the tank now. And while we may not necessarily have to drop the tank, having to enter the tank through the trunk, or under the seat makes changing the filter way harder that it has(or used to!)be.

    Anyway, I’ve gotta go. I just got a repair order, but I reckon I’ll be commenting more. Along with your automotive commentary, I also enjoy your philosophical commentary. I am also a fellow State hater.

    • Hi Chris,

      Good to have you with us!

      Several have already commented about the relocation (or elimination) of the fuel filter. I’ve commented that it irks me – because it makes what ought to be an easy/simple/cheap (and very DIY-doable) job something that’s much harder – and more expensive (because most people will have to pay to have it done) than necessary or even reasonable.

      What are your thoughts on electric-assist power steering and the increasingly popular use of auto-stop?

      • Well, Honda has been using electric power steering for years now. In the Acura NSX as long as 20 years ago. To be honest, I like it. To me, it seems to be much more responsive. However, some of our client’s don’t agree with my statement. I will tell you this; I’ve never replaced an electric steering rack. I’ve been with Honda since ’07, and the ’06 and up Civic(sans the new Civic), have had terrible problems with their hydraulic racks. The elimination of the p/s pump, the hydraulic rack, and all corresponding plumbing, I think, is a good thing. We rarely see problems with electric p/s.

        On the auto-stop thing; I’m kinda torn about it. I live just outside DC, and everyone has a hybrid. As you know Honda has been using auto-stop for a long time now, and we rarely see failures in that system, other than the premature failures of the IMA batteries which makes the auto-stop function possible. Honda still uses manually adjustable intake and exhaust valves, and one would expect major oil sludging due to the constant engine stop/start, especially in the DC traffic. But, I rarely see hybrid engines that are sludged when I do routine valve adjustments. Most cylinder heads are clean with no baked oil. The DC area is really a true test of the auto-stop function. We regularly see Civic hybrids with well over 200k, and 300k on the clock with no major engine malfunctions. It’s the IMA batteries that can’t cope with the constant auto-stop, not the engines.

        • On the electric-assist steering: My experience has been that – as with CVTs – some are better (in terms of operating feel) than others. Of course, this is also true of engine-driven hydraulic-assist power steering.

          The tactile – and auditory – sensations are different. Not necessarily bad (or better). But, different.

          People who have grown up with and who are used to conventional power steering may take a bit longer to become used to it.

          That’s my 50, anyhow!

          • Eric,

            Honda only uses auto-stop on their hybrid vehicles. I know that there are manufacturers playing around with auto-stop on non-hybrids, and I’m not sure how that’s going to play out. Surely they will have to beef up the starting and charging systems to compensate for the added stress and load on these systems. The systems will be just strong enough to get them outside of factory warranty I’m sure. These stupid systems are only a response to insane Federal regulations. Regulations that will ultimately cost the customer much more money in up front cost of the vehicle, and the repair that will inevitably accomany it.

            • I’ve got a ’13 BMW X3 28i in the driveway right now that’s got it… I’m not a fan. First, there’s the slight – but noticeable – delay as the engine refires. For slow-motion Clovers, I suppose it’s not an issue. But if you’re like me – and like to go when the light turns green – it’s a small annoyance. There is also some slight – but again, noticeable – vibration as the engine kicks back on. Kind of unpleasant given this car has a sticker price of $53k. Which brings me to the final nit: Does a person who spends $53k on a new vehicle care one way or the other whether the vehicle returns 28.5 vs. 27.3 MPG? This is the likely range of improvement auto-stop gives (being generous).

              Of course not.

              The only reason this technology has been added is because of CAFE – in other words, to placate Uncle rather than please consumers.

    • PCV valve… I just check them now. I’ve replaced them just because in the past but now I just check that they still work and put them back in.

      On fuel filters… for my ’73 I got a glass one with replacable elements that I put inline before the fuel pump and of course the stock one on the carb. The ’97 I’ve replaced the fuel filter just because, but given other people’s experiences they haven’t had to. It’s a huge filter and probably will last ages. Which leads me to why I think they started becoming part of the fuel pump assembly, they just have a very long service life so the assembly cost was saved.

      What really concerns me though are clutch slave clyinders in the bell housing with no access to bleed them. First the design exposes them to clutch dust then they can’t be serviced easily. The old ones used to be on the outside where the cable or linkage would have been otherwise. Easy to get at and service.

  10. Eric,

    Could any of these potential issues kneecap the mileage on a 2006 Corolla with 56K? Keep in mind the oil and fuel filter have been recently replaced and my driving habits are relatively static (I’m usually the jerk getting passed because my acceleration is 0-60 in 8 years). I know the battery probably should be thrown in the woods at some point(yesterday?)…

    I was looking into an issue related to these cars with the intake manifold gasket, but will have to wait on that until the weather improves.

    • Hi Esk,

      If it were my car, I’d look into changing the transaxle fluid, even if Toyota says you’re ok for 100k. Here’s why: Car companies market “low maintenance” as part of their pitch to get you to buy their vehicles. And while it’s true maintenance intervals have increased, the importance of doing maintenance hasn’t been eliminated. A good example is “long life” coolant (and spark plugs and so on). This does not mean forever. While you can leave, say, coolant in the system for 100k (and spark plugs, etc.) if you want the car to last longer than 100k without causing you expensive headaches, it’s smart policy to change out these items before the maximum, pushing-the-envelope time/mileage limits. Keep in mind also that car companies tout their service intervals based on what they call “normal” use. The problem is that very few people drive in a way that meets the criteria for “normal” use. Most “normal” driving – as you and I would probably define it – is in fact “severe” or “heavy duty” driving, as the car companies define it for purposes of service/maintenance. This usually cuts down the recommended changeout intervals significantly. Basically, if you use the car to commute in traffic every day (lots of stop and go driving) or drive in a part of the country where the winters are cold and the summer are hot – you can probably bet your driving falls under “severe” or “heavy duty” – not “normal.” Adjust your service intervals accordingly, if you want the vehicle to give you the best service (including economy) and the longest life.

      • Amen to performing maintenance a lot sooner than the new car manuals call for.

        I bought a 1998 Ford Escort wagon new. The spark plugs were supposed to be good for 100,000 miles, but checking showed that the gap had worn way out of spec by 50,000. Ironically, that car was happiest with the specified Motorcraft/Autolite plugs, compared with Bosch and other aftermarket brands.

      • And the corporate-whore lying/thieving “perception is reality” maggot MBAs that run these companies and the terrorist scum in DC who regulate them are all filthy Keynesians and make liberal use of “Planned Obsolescence” so you are forced to replace your car at shortest preset intervals.

    • Esk,

      I don’t think these concerns would necessarily “kneecap” your Corolla, but they can cause costly repairs as Eric explained. Keep in mind that generally it is heat that kills a battery, and not necessarily the cold. That is a big misconception that is held by most. If you have a slow crank, replace your battery. Don’t wait until it just dies on you.

      On the intake manifold gasket. Toyota came out with an updated manifold gasket for that year Corolla. Usually when that gasket has failed, you will get a hard start, a rough idle, and a check engine light with a P0171 lean code. The engine is running leaner than usual, because the engine is sucking in unmetered air, and the PCM doesn’t quite know what to do with the extra air. It may be a good idea to replace it now using the updated gasket.

      • Chris,

        I had read about that error code related to the gasket, and I’ve yet to see the associated check engine light pop up. I’m just fairly lost here, and a car that used to scrape 400 miles to the take capping off at 300 makes me want to drive off a cliff.


        A quick internet shotgun blast indicates that these cars sometimes burn the transmission fluid out quickly…so maybe that’s A culprit. As with most things, I don’t expect a silver bullet to solve this problem. The best I can do is treat it as a learning experience and avoid it in the future. Knowledge through failure!

        • Hi Esk,

          With automatics, heat is your enemy. If the transmission runs hot for any extended period, the fluid will degrade at an exponential rate, leading to shorter transmission life and possibly (in extreme situations) outright failure of the transmission.

          A great way to pre-empt such problems is to measure how hot the transmission is running – unfortunately, only a few cars come with (or offer) a transmission temp. gauge. However, it is possible to check this using an aftermarket gauge, or even an infrared thermometer. If the temperature is on the high side of normal, adding an accessory transmission fluid cooler can be a huge help.

          And more frequent fluid/filter changes are a good idea, too.

          • You do know that “the fluid will degrade at an exponential rate” means that if its initial deterioration takes a certain time to double, then it doubles again in the same time, then again, and so on, right? Is that really what it does, or did you just mean “ever faster”?

          • You do know that “exponential” means that the deterioration gets ever worse ever faster with a fixed doubling time, not just faster and faster, right? Is that what you really meant?

          • I changed out my OEM Titan transmission pan to one with a 50% increase in fluid capacity along with heat sinks over external fins that carry away the heat. I’ve towed cross country many times to the near rated capacity of my 04 Titan and religiously change out the ATF every 30,000 miles.

            My baby still runs sweet. 170,000 and counting.

            This was a great article BTW, thanks man.

        • Esk,

          Keep in mind that colder temperatures demand more gasoline. The air is more dense when it’s colder, and the PCM responds to richen the mixture to account for the increased o2 molecules. Are you experiencing the lowered fuel mileage primarily in the winter? I guess all of this assumes that you actually live in colder climates.

          Your manifold gasket may be failing, but the PCM just hasn’t seen the right criteria to throw the light yet. You may be running lean, but just under the numbers that would cause the CEL to illuminate. With a lean condition, the PCM will constantly try to fatten the air fuel mixture to bring the fuel trim where it wants it to be. This could also be contributing to your excessive fuel consumption. Although, I don’t recommend this, a very quick and dirty way to test for a failed intake gasket is to spray gum cutter, or carb cleaner around the gasket and listen for an increase in RPMs. But, like I said, I DO NOT recommend this, because it CAN cause a fire. A better way is to just pay an hour labor at a shop you trust, and have them look at, and print off, the live engine data. If your short term fuel trims are higher than spec, there is a problem somewhere. However, this does not necessarily mean that it’s the intake manifold gasket. Engines do not like ethanol, and it makes them run lean.

  11. Unfortunately due to fed funny money, it is now next to impossiblw to keep your car maintained at anything near minimum wage. Im currently unemployed with 2 cars (suzuki grand vitarar an d chevy s10)to maintain. One car. doesnt have its proper slave tyags because I dont have enough money to show everyone im a good little compliant slave. I drive that praying I dont get pulled over and I drive other praying that some random part doesnt break at the most inconvenient time possible.

    Hopefully bitcoin will get even more popular as the cyprus model is taken worldwide. Then there would be sane prices and wages without having to work as dispensable cattle

    • Hi Hal,

      There is a lot of that going around, unfortunately. I also haven’t got current slave plates on several of my vehicles. It’s time to feed ourselves instead of feeding the beast.

      Good luck to you, sir.

  12. About batteries:

    My Miata (and Miatas in general) seem to have very long lasting batteries. I have heard stories of them lasting as long as ten years. I had my other Miata for 6 years and never had to replace the battery.

    I think there are a couple of reasons for this. One, Mazda puts the battery in the trunk. Obviously this shelters the battery from the vibration and heat of the engine. I don’t know why all car makers don’t do this. It also helps a bit with weight distribution.

    Two, the battery is not a regular lead acid, it is an AGM (absorption glass mat). I don’t really know what that means, but it seems to be a reliable long lived battery. It is also small and lightweight as batteries go.

    • Hi Darren,

      A battery – even a regular (non-AGM) battery – can last a surprisingly long time. A lot depends on the environmental stress it’s subjected to – such as extremes of heat and cold – as well as the number of start/charge cycles it’s subjected to. One of my bikes – a 2003 model – still has its factory battery. It leads a fairly easy life – very little use in extremely cold weather – and when not in use, it’s hooked to a battery tender to maintain it at full charge. So, it’s not in a weakened state when I eventually start up the bike again. Avoiding that – discharging the battery, then using a weakened battery to start the engine – is perhaps the single most controllable factor as regards battery longevity. That’s why I recommend tenders/trickle chargers – especially for vehicles not used daily or close to daily. Even a minor current draw will eventually weaken the battery – the trickle charger helps counter that.

      On AGMs: They have other advantages, including no leaks (so ideal for trunk mounting) and also that they’re typically more compact and lighter than a standard-type battery – in addition to offering high power. But, they are also usually significantly more expensive.

      • About the cost of the AGM battery:

        I had to buy a new battery when I got my current Miata, the thing was about dead when I bought it.

        I bought a new one from AAA for $116. That’s about what any car battery cost these days.

        The good ones like the Optimas are more of course.

    • My 2002 Grand Am went 10 years on the original battery. I tested it regularly and kept the posts clean, and it never tested below “very good.”

      The funny thing is, I’m a ham radio operator and had my 2 meter radio connected directly to the terminals. More than a few times I forgot to power off the radio and let it drain down to nothing. Every time I figured it would be the end, but the darn thing kept pugging away. Not to mention the Colorado winters (-15 to -20F on many mornings), driving on dirt/unimproved roads, etc. Too bad the rest of the car wasn’t built to that standard!

  13. In all my years of forklift and automotive repair, I’ve never seen a car battery last more than 7 years. The average is about 4.

    Since the “calcium” type batteries have become available, and their performance yields haven’t yet been adequately quantified in the field first-hand, I can’t comment on those.

    Topping up the levels, keeping them charged, if they’re being used or not, they only last about this length of time. Obviously, any abuse such as maintaining a discharged state for a few weeks can hasten this rapidly and have seen some die well within 2 years because of this.

    I haven’t found any “magic” formula or additive to make them last longer.

    It’s down to chemistry and physical construction. I pay scant regard to batteries advertised as “deep discharge” or “marine” since a lead-acid battery has a hard time surviving even 50% discharge regularly.

    The only lead-acid batteries I’ve seen last up to 20+ years are the large (200+kg) forklift ones. They’re pretty sick by this stage and a few cells are non-chargeable, but still kicking. But after some 2000 batteries checked, about 4 are 20+ years old.

    This seems to have nothing to do with brand but just “luck” – Seriously.

    Lead-acid batteries eventually sulphate, reducing electrical transfer between plates. They can fall apart over time, the sediment settling at the bottom of the cells and shorting them out.

    Commendations have to be made to Eric’s referral to alternators having to work harder to accommodate sick batteries, generating more heat and burning their windings, brushes etc.

    However, by this stage a battery that burns out an alternator shouldn’t have been able to start the car in the first place, but due to the above, still not impossible. I have only ever seen one instance of this.

    • Hi Rev,

      Hey, check this out:

      We got about six inches of “spring” weather earlier this week, so I went to hitch the plow to the tractor… which I’d taken off a few days before because hey, it’s “spring,” right? Well, no dice. Dead battery. I knew it was weak – but hadn’t done anything about it because, hell, the season’s over and I’ll get to it in a few weeks….

      Long story short, I bought a new battery. And it was dead, too. Would barely turn the engine over, even after I had it on a charger all night long.

      Back to the store today… receipt in hand.

      New batteries can be as bad as old batteries sometimes!

      • That sucks. I bought a “new” battery for my K100 years ago, they put the acid in – it barely lasted an hour.

        I always check the date of manufacture to make sure I get the newest one, but sometimes even that doesn’t help.

        These days I get them to load test it in front of me just to be sure. Every dedicated battery seller can do this and takes only a few seconds. If they refuse, I don’t buy.

        Lead acid batteries can be finicky things, but buying a bad “new” one is a rare event.

        Left in freezing conditions and/or in a discharged state, they die pretty quick. Once you start to have cranking trouble from a battery and it needs charging almost constantly, you’ve usually got anywhere from a couple of days to a week before it dies completely.

  14. Eric – I am glad you mentioned transmission fluid. I would bet that 1/20 people actually properly service their transmissions. That’s why I would never buy a car with more than 60,000 miles on it. That’s about the time that the trans fluid starts to degrade to the point that it would be worse to replace it than keep the old fluid in the car.

    The last three cars I’ve owned do not have PCV valves, but I always do a sniff test of the oil on the dipstick. If it has that distinctive “blow by” smell, I get the oil changed and start looking for a PCV valve as well.

    • Hi Swamp,

      That’s been my experience, too. It’s surprising to me, too – because it’s such a basic/simple/cheap thing to do. I cannot understand the mindset of people who spend $20k, $30k (or much more) on a vehicle but won’t spend $30 or $50 to change the gear lube in the transmission/axle….

        • Hi Joe,

          Unfortunately, a great many…

          I say “unfortunately,” because I’ve come to believe that there is an inverse relationship between being a “doer” and being a Clover. Generally, the people who are doers (polymath types) are not Clovers – or less so. Doers acquire skills – and competence; two things most standard-issue Clovers lack. And which they therefore resent when displayed by others.

          • There’s also the narrow focus. Far too many people take division of labor much too far. To the point they have no skills outside a very narrow area.

            These people are really focused on qualifications. Being an authority and so forth. They seem to despise generalists and people who can know things about a lot of things. Of course knowing much about much has its downsides.

            It’s a good way to ruin career prospects I’ve found out. Companies will pay bigger money to that one guy who knows a lot about a little but not the guy who knows a little about a lot. However the later can find a new gig easier so there is that.

  15. Have a new Hyundai. Fuel filter has no schedule, they said it will just fail to start some time after 100k miles then take it to them to be replaced. Retarded if you ask me. There is no steering fluid, they use motors that are “supposed” to last for the life of the car.

    • Hi Z,

      That’s just great, isn’t it? Don’t perform any routine maintenance. Just wait for an expensive failure to leave you stranded. This sort of thing makes me climb the walls. Like BMW’s not installing dipsticks in its engines anymore (you check the oil by checking what a computer tells you the level is).

      On the electric-assist steering: It’s another way we get to pay the freight for Uncle’s fuel economy fatwas. The car companies are dong every little (and big) thing they can to eke out a MPG here and another MPG there. One such thing is getting rid of engine-driven hydraulic-assist power steering, replacing it with electric-assist steering. As these are relatively new, no one really knows how long they will typically last.

      I guess we’ll find out, though.

  16. Amen as far as the transmission fluid. I purchased my 98 Civic hatchback with 150k miles on it. The transmission (manual) would grind lightly when shifting into 2nd gear. I replaced the transmission fluid with Redline MTL and after 100 miles of driving it felt like a brand new transmission.

    My previous 2 vehicles have had their tranny fluid swapped with redline MTL and I have had similar experiences. A brake and clutch fluid flush are next…the fluid looks like its been through hell and back plus the brakes are rather mushy.

    Eric…any chance of an article about bleeding brakes?

  17. Tell me about expensive alternator repair! I have a Ford Focus I bought used. Shortly thereafter the alternator went. Because of where it’s located, they had to pull the engine to replace it! Cost me more than a grand!

    • pull the engine?

      Sounds like repair shop BS to me. Either that or they didn’t know what to do so they just decided to charge you for doing it the hard way.

      Replacing the alternator on my mazda I got it loose and off the mounts but then found it trapped by the drive shaft and engine and fire wall. With a lot of turning and twisting I did find a way to get it out of there without pulling the drive shaft out. It’s about figuring it out.

      Anyway back to the Focus…. It’s excessively tight, but it doesn’t require pulling the engine:

      Just a lot of unbolt, wiggle, unbolt, wiggle, unplug, wiggle… etc… with top and bottom access. Step this guy took I don’t like is it looks like he bends PS or AC lines.

      • Yeah, sounds like BS to me. I once had to pull a front axle driveshaft (Late 90’s Civic) to replace an alternator but never an engine. Pulling a driveshaft is not too hard in most vehicles, and CERTAINLY not anywhere near as expensive as pulling an engine. The ONLY repairs in non-specialty cars that should require pulling an engine are: replacing the engine, transmission, or clutch. Several people advocate that it is better to pull the engine when replacing head gaskets in boxer-engined cars (I’m looking at you, Subaru), but I’ve seen people do even those with the engine in the car. But for an alternator, I’m calling incompetence on the repair shop’s part.

    • My pleasure!

      I got to thinking about it after we got six inches of unexpected “spring” weather the other day… and my tractor wouldn’t start. Ten year old battery finally gave up th’ ghost!

  18. Eric – A lot of new cars don’t have a fuel filter or a fuel filter maintenance schedule. Most probably just have the sock filter in the tank. My ’08 Lotus is one of those – no fuel filter listed in the manual. Posts in the Lotus discussion forums seem to confirm this.

    • Hi Mike,

      Yup – which means you’ve got to drop the tank (or close to it) to get at it. Might be ok for 30,000 or so miles… but after 50,000? 75,000?

      The thing’s gonna clog up, eventually.

      It’s absurd that they’ve made such a simple, basic maintenance item such a PITAS.

      • I miss my 1975 Saab 99 for its fuel system. The fuel pump was accessed from inside the trunk, rather than having to drop the gas tank. The fuel injection was easy to balance with nothing but an alen wrench, and …. well, I could go on and on.

        No computer what so ever, everything mechanical and kept in tune by me alone, weighed 4000 lbs and yet it still got 33mpg.

        And the forward opening clam-shell hood was just plain cool.

        • Older Saabs are cool! I love ’em, too.

          It’s tragic what happened to the company – and I blame GM for either gross negligence, possibly deliberate negligence.

          • Trivia: “saab” is the Arabic for “difficult” or “nuisance”, which gave Saab a problem in the Arab market.

            A few years ago I saw a young man in a restaurant who had “saab” tattooed in Arabic on his forearm. A little later I drew his girlfriend aside and asked if he knew what it meant. “Yes”, she said, “it means ‘tough'”. Well, sort of, at a stretch, but probably not in the sense he had in mind.

            • Ah! I’ve jotted that one down… .

              Here’s another: Pontiac Banshee. The car was never developed beyond the concept stage circa 1966 as a lower-cost, two-seater alternative to the Chevy Corvette. GM management kiboshed the car because they saw it as a threat to Corvette. And the name? It was almost recycled. The then-new 1967 Firebird came this close to being christened Banshee… until someone researched it and found it meant “herald of impending death.”

          • No doubt GM put Saab OUB deliberately, just like they did with the Tucker car in the 50s. Then GM introduced the Nova to Latin American in the 70s; translation was “doesn’t run”. No wonder it flunked out in L.A.

            • “No doubt GM put Saab OUB deliberately…”

              I have thought the same thought. Benign neglect… deliberate neglect, being more like it.

              The tragic thing is that after Saab got out from under, it began to produce very appealing cars again – like the last 900 turbo, which I was lucky enough to get for a week to review. But it was too late for Saab, unfortunately.

              The damage done was mortal.

          • SAAB’s own product development culture killed them from my understanding.

            They resisted doing things in the way GM wanted to cut costs. I’m not sure they even took advantage of GM’s parts bin for the things that just have to work but nobody cares about beyond that. Like the switches behind the buttons.

            No, SAAB died because they decided to continue doing things the same way and expecting different results.

          • “Trivia: “saab” is the Arabic for “difficult” or “nuisance”, which gave Saab a problem in the Arab market.”

            Heh. Got another for ya. The Aussie market has the Mitsubishi 4×4 “Pajero”. Apparently means “wanker” in Spanish slang.

    • My ’53 Lotus Elite (want a pic?) had a mechanical fuel pump; replacing it – as an anti-fire precaution – was a doddle, the fussist job was blanking off the hole in the block. A Huco is a good unit, at about a hundred bucks. Fitting one is preferable to even just removing the fuel tank. Don’t bother extracting the original, let it feed in parallel via a T-junction for as long as it keeps working.


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