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Your car's service schedule – what to check and when

Your car's service schedule – what to check and when

Cars need maintenance, and not just when something goes wrong. Regular servicing is important for three reasons.

First, it reduces the risk of breakdowns and possibly dangerous component failures and it alerts you to wear on items with a finite life brake pads, for example, or tires.

Second, it helps your vehicle run more efficiently, so that the cost of a new air filter, for example, could soon be recouped with increased fuel efficiency.

Third, it helps your vehicle’s resale value, since new buyers will want to see evidence of full and systematic maintenance.

It’s worth pointing out, too, that if you’re unfortunate enough to be involved in an accident, your car’s state of repair, or lack of it, could leave you liable for an insurance claim or even prosecution. Servicing is not an optional expense, it’s an essential part of car ownership.

What’s in a service?

If you have your car serviced by a motor repair shop, the work will fall into three main categories, below. Fixed-price servicing includes the first two, but the third – ad hoc repairs – will be extra. If you do your own servicing, you should adopt the same rigorous approach to vehicle checks and service intervals – it reminds you what needs doing in a systematic way.

1) Inspection: This the backbone of any service routine, a checklist of items to tick off. This is how motor repair shops work, and how they price up their service schedules. This can include checking for oil leaks and coolant leaks, checking belts and tensioners, battery condition and terminals, the condition of the exhaust system, suspension, brakes and tires.

2) Routine replacement: Many of the items on the service checklist will be routine replacements. These items include oil and oil filters, air filters, brake fluid, spark plugs and even timing belts.

It means discarding components that appear to be working perfectly well, but old oil no longer protects your engine properly, blocked air filters and worn spark plugs reduce engine efficiency, old brake fluid reduces braking efficiency and timing belts have a fixed life – you need to replace it before it breaks, because if you wait until it fails, it's likely to take the entire engine with it.

3) Ad hoc repairs: Unexpected repairs are a fact of life with older cars. There are many car components which do not have a known life expectancy but will probably fail eventually.

This is why a proper inspection is so important, because it can reveal excessive wear and the need for replacement before it becomes a safety issue. Suspension parts fall into this category, as do wheel bearings, turbochargers, catalytic converters and a host of other major components.

How do service intervals work?

The easiest way to visualise this is with a table that lists the jobs to be done and the mileage or time interval when they need to be carried out.

There are some basic checks you need to do at every service, some that you would only do in an annual service, and a few that happen only occasionally at a fixed mileage or time interval in a major service.

Makers often recommend services at fixed mileages or every year, whichever comes first. It’s done this way for a reason, because even if you haven’t driven anywhere near the mileage quoted, your vehicle’s components can still degrade and lose efficiency through age alone.

Not only that, a lower-than-average mileage often indicates a lot of short journeys, and these cause disproportionate wear and tear which makes an annual service all the more important.

Different car makes and models will have different servicing requirements and it’s a good idea to check the manual or the manufacturer’s online advice.

What follows is only a generic guide to routine replacements – the list of possible inspection points is too long to reproduce here.

Interim service

This is sometimes recommended for high mileage drivers who would go well beyond the usual annual service interval mileage long before the end of the year. It’s a kind of ‘top-up’ service to keep you going until the regular annual service. Apart from a routine inspection, the main interim service jobs is likely to be:

  • Replace engine oil and oil filter

Annual service

This is the real backbone of any car servicing schedule. Assuming you don’t do enough miles to need an interim service, this is the  time to give your car a proper once-over to check for problems and wear and carry out the following routine jobs:

  • Replace engine oil and filter
  • Replace air filter
  • Check and top up all fluids as required, e.g. coolant, brake fluid, power steering fluid, gearbox/transmission oil, windscreen washers

Major service

This may be needed at two-year intervals or fixed mileages and extra jobs can include:

  • Drain, flush and refill cooling system
  • Replace spark plugs
  • Replace fuel filter (depending on model)
  • Replace timing belt (at longer intervals/higher mileages, but still a routine service item

Service extras

These are items that will definitely need replacement at some point, but it’s impossible to give a service interval because the wear rate varies according to driver, journey types and vehicle:

  • Brake pads and discs
  • Exhaust
  • Tyres
  • Drive belts

This is only a guide, and remember that servicing also includes a comprehensive set of vehicle checks. The Halfords car servicing checklist has a really good table listing key service items and intervals, and this is a great starting point. But do check the specific servicing recommendations for your own vehicle too.

The trick to servicing your own vehicle is to be organised. And remember, servicing isn’t just about routine replacements, and that a point-by-point inspection is vital for identifying problems before they develop into mechanical catastrophes...