The First Step To Take When You Notice A Problem With Your Car

Mud season. A walk in the yard to enjoy the fresh spring air becomes a daunting trek across a land of muck where you struggle to keep your feet dry. You’re slightly worried that the earth will suck you in and swallow you whole.  Spring is also a rough time for vehicles, with roads becoming malleable from the soaked earth—especially dirt roads.  An innocent puddle could be hiding a pothole of unknown depth, lying in wait to test your suspension.

Speaking of which… taking a break from spring chores, we recently headed out for our first family hike with our new baby.  The car was jammed full with the adults in the front, the kids and their monstrous high tech car seats filling the backseat.  Our annoyed dog laid down in the meager space on the floor of the backseat, wearily eyeing the mud boots of our daughter directly overhead.  Fortunately for the dog, the trail was only 2 miles from our house, an easy trip on a few dirt roads to test the new seating arrangement.

One hundred yards from the trailhead, snowmelt had completely saturated the dirt road, with deep grooves from the tires of pickup trucks and SUVs carving the road into columns of mucky ridges.  I optimistically viewed this as nothing to worry about for our Honda Civic, having taken on much worse road conditions in the past with triumphant results.  This 10 foot patch of mud was nothing compared to the dismal, unmaintained logging roads in Pittsburg, NH that my brother and I visit in the summer to look for moose.

But of course, as I maintained firm pressure on the accelerator through the mud, the front end of the Civic bottomed out, giving us a bone jarring thud before we emerged on the other side of the mud.  Nothing seemed wrong as I pulled into the parking area at the trailhead, so, only slightly shaken up, I thought I could put the thud behind me.

The next day I was on a paved road, speed limit 55 mph (a glorious treat around here). As I accelerated to around 49 mph, the car started to shake.  Violently.  So much so that I pulled over and apprehensively opened the hood. I checked the two engine mounts that I could see to make sure they were not demolished and inspected what I could see of the suspension.

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Nothing seemed wrong.  For the rest of the day I drove slowly, never over 45 mph, and worried about the annoying prospect of having to take the car to a mechanic.

I hate taking the car to the mechanic, because they charge $80+/hour and don’t order parts at discount online stores like I do.  A repair that could cost a semi-skilled driveway mechanic like me under $100 could be as high as $1000 when done by an ASE Certified Technician.

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Here’s what I should have done first.

The First Step To Take When You Notice A Problem With Your Car

take a closer look at suspected problem areas so you can:

  1. Try to positively identify the problem or some aspect of the problem 
  2. Make sure it isn’t something you can easily take care of yourself

Here’s why you should do this:

If you can see a cracked part, or find leaking fluid, or identify any other signs that something is wrong with an area of the car, you can go to the mechanic without fear of trickery and deception. You know where the problem is and can tell the mechanic to look at that specific issue, eliminating the possibility that they will dream up other repairs you don’t necessarily need.  If you see a leaky strut and they tell you your transmission is bad, you know you’ve probably got a slimy character on your hands.  Plus, identifying an issue yourself in advance could help the mechanic immensely with troubleshooting, which will save him/her time and thus save you money on the labor.

And more often than you’d think, you can actually take action and fix your car yourself.  The check engine light coming doesn’t necessarily mean you need a new engine!  With a cheap code scanner you can see the error your car’s computer is reporting and then take to the internet to see what others did to fix it.  You might be able to tell that your gas cap is just cracked and needs to be replaced.  Surely you can handle screwing on a replacement gas cap!  Or maybe if you check the lug nuts and find that that one or two are just a bit loose, you can tighten them and your wheels are back in alignment (not what my issue was, but it’s certainly happened to others).

Here’s what I really did

I didn’t bother taking this simple first step this time.  Embarrassingly, it didn’t even cross my mind.  Instead, just like I would reluctantly do with a mysterious medical condition, I researched the symptoms online and identified 4 potential issues with the car that could cause shaking at highway speed.  Here they are in general order of estimated repair cost:

  • wheels need to be balanced (~$50)
  • wheels need alignment ($~80)
  • wheel rim is warped (~$100)
  • something is wrong with the suspension ($300+++)

The first three repairs require specialized equipment that I don’t have.  And since we only have one car right now, repairing the suspension myself was not really a good option either.  If I broke a bolt along the way (happens to me more more than I’d care to count), I wouldn’t be able to run out to the store in our other car.  If there was an emergency with one of the kids while the car was incapacitated, it would be awful.

So there I was, sitting at my computer, already accepting the necessity of involving a professional mechanic and eyeing the balance in our checking account nervously.  I looked at our schedule trying to find a time where we could be OK without a car for a several hour chunk.  We planned to rearrange our lives in case we had to go without a car for days.  The stress swelled.

Throwing in the towel, I called a local mechanic that specializes in alignments and was about to schedule an appointment when, as luck would have it, the call dropped.  Living in rural NH brought on a new level of frustration in that moment.  I simply did not want to deal with this any more, especially not by spending our precious money.  And I couldn’t even maintain a quick cell phone call.  I wanted nothing more than to have things work, to have things back in my control!

In all that frustration, I was forced to step back and think about the issue.  I even reflected on our goals here on the homestead.  We try to do as much as we can on our own without relying on specialists and expensive tools.  We raise our own chickens, for Pete’s sake, why would I automatically assume I can’t fix the car this time?  I’d done so much work on our last car without failure.  Maybe a lug nut WAS loose, or maybe I could at least see the problem if I took a wheel off!  At the very least, I’d be able to call the mechanic with some concrete information on the problem, having taken a closer look.

So instead of calling the mechanic back from a spot at higher elevation, I changed into my work jeans and headed to the driveway.  My hydraulic jack had recently bitten the dust, so I popped the trunk and pulled out the emergency car jack stowed with the spare tire.

Then I followed standard wheel removal procedure.  You can follow these steps if you ever need to change a tire, by the way.

First I loosened the lug nuts on my target wheel.

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Then I made sure the car was in gear and the parking break was fully engaged, put some logs in front of and behind the rear tires, then carefully jacked up the front end of the car, making sure the jack was making contact in the correct location on the frame.

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Then I completely removed the loosened lug nuts and took off the wheel.

Then I saw the problem. I found so much hard, caked mud, lining the wheel well like concrete.  It was maybe a half inch thick in some spots!

I suddenly felt very optimistic.  The mud was by no means evenly distributed, and I figured it could easily have enough mass to throw a wheel out of balance at high speeds!

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Unfortunately I did not think to take a picture of the thick sections of mud

So I knocked the mud off with the tire iron and wiped the wheel well clean, and reinstalled the wheel.

A test drive on a nearby highway allowed me to cruise past 50 mph up to almost 70.  Not once did the car shake.  I had saved the day. Or maybe my bad cell reception had…

Amy tells me that she could tell I was feeling triumphant by the way I zipped up the driveway in our perfectly operational car.  I was feeling pretty good, I’ll admit it. I’d probably saved a hundred bucks by wiping some mud off a wheel.

Before that cell call dropped, I had told the mechanic that I thought I needed an alignment.  What would have happened if I brought my muddy wheeled Civic to them?  Would they have seen the mud, wiped it off, and charged me a half hour labor and call it a day?  Not likely.  I had asked for an alignment, they’d give me an alignment!  I would have had to rearrange my schedule to get the car to them, and had to sit in their waiting room, smelling the mix of rubber, oil, Armor All, and coffee as I stared blankly at the wall.  But instead, I took about 15 minutes out of my day to pop the wheel off, and completely solved the issue on my own, free of charge.

So let this be a lesson to you all: cars are complicated, but sometimes the repairs they need aren’t.  Save yourself some money and at least take a look.

Bonus Tip: How to know if you can handle a VEHICLE repair ON YOUR OWN

If you were able to identify the problem with your car by a simple visual inspection, now you have to determine if you can fix it yourself.  Some repairs are easier than others, but it’s always good to know if you’re biting off more than you can chew before ordering parts.

I’ve found that there are two good ways to figure out if you can handle a repair on your own:

  1. Read about the repair and make a judgement call.  You can google around and try to find instructions or even people discussing the repair in a forum, or you can check in the vehicle’s service manual (you can find the official shop manual for your car at the dealer or on eBay sometimes)
  2. Another way to gauge the difficulty of a repair is to visit YouTube and see if anyone else has posted a how to video for that specific repair on your car. Believe it or not, there are a lot of videos out there for stuff like this!  These people are simply awesome for putting in the effort of sharing how to perform car repairs!  If you can watch someone doing the repair it’s a lot easier to determine how it sizes up next to your capabilities.
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