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How to service a car safely

How to service a car safely

Servicing your car or fixing a problem yourself rather than using a garage is a rewarding experience, not to mention a money-saving one. However, a car is a complex piece of equipment and a heavy one, too.

So it makes sense that if you’re going to work on it, that you take nothing for granted and do all you can to stay safe.

A good way to do that is by thinking how a professional mechanic would work on your car. They’d be attentive, vigilant and focused on the job. They’d understand the task from beginning to end, and use the right tools.

They’d remain calm and unflustered, allowing them to think through any challenges and resolve them rationally. Finally, they’d have a highly developed instinct for safe working.

Here we run through the techniques you need to know to service your car safely, just like a pro.

Do your homework

Study your Haynes Owners Workshop Manual beforehand, away from the workshop. Make sure you leave nothing to chance and understand exactly what the job involves.

Make time

This is where you have an advantage over a professional mechanic who is often working against the clock. Set aside all the time you need to do the job.

Spare parts

If you need any parts, make sure you get them now rather than having to break off from the job, interrupting your concentration and causing you stress, especially if they aren’t all available.

Prepare your working space­

De-clutter the area and have your tools laid out ready, just like an operating theatre. That includes having waste fluid containers at the ready, as well as all spare parts.

Dress for the job

Working on your car is a messy and potentially dangerous business, so dress for it. Remove or secure any loose clothing that might get entangled in moving parts such as the drive belt. If you’re going to be loosening or lifting heavy components, wear strong shoes or boots.

Tie back long hair

Obvious really but long hair caught in a spinning drive belt could have very serious consequences.

Keep children away

A workshop is no place for young children who can be a distraction to you and a danger to themselves. Coolant can look like a tasty drink to a toddler but will cause them serious harm if they drink it.

Let there be light 

Make sure you have plenty of light, especially if you’re working in the shorter winter months.

Keep calm and carry on 

Face every challenge positively, and think rationally. A stressed and anxious mind will simply make more mistakes and exaggerate the significance of others. If it’s all getting too much, take time out and unwind before restarting once you’re fresh again.

Don’t smoke!

Not only is smoking damaging to your health but a car’s engine and workshop are no places for cigarettes and naked flames.

How to use ramps, jacks and axle stands safely

Make sure the car is on level ground. Apply the car’s handbrake, put it in gear and then place wheel chocks at the opposite end of the vehicle from where you intend to work.

Now use a sturdy trolley or scissor jack that is rated to take the weight of your car, making sure it’s supporting the vehicle at the strongest place as shown in the car’s handbook. Don’t use your car’s spare wheel jack. It’s simply not made to support a car in this way.

Having raised the car, you can now position your two axle stands under the correct jacking points as indicated in the car’s handbook.  Having done so, lower the car gently onto them. Leave the jack in contract with the car as an extra precaution.

Alternatively, you can use ramps of the correct specification to support the car. Since they support a wider area, some mechanics prefer to use these over axle stands.

How to undo a radiator cap safely

If you car has a clear coolant expansion bottle enabling you to check the coolant level, there should be little reason to undo the radiator cap. Reasons for doing so might be to check the cap itself is working, to flush out the system or to check for oil and water deposits on the neck of the filler indicating possible head gasket failure.

Still, if you must undo it, make sure the engine is cold, or at least allow 15 to 20 minutes to elapse after you switch it off. A radiator operates under pressure and if you undo the cap when the coolant is still hot, it will spurt out, possibly scalding you.

As an extra precaution, make sure that when the cap is loose it is angled away from you to direct any residual pressure in the opposite direction.

Safety tip: Never undo the radiator cap of a hot engine.

How to disconnect the battery

Locate the battery and check which are its negative and positive terminals (there’s one of each). The former will generally have a negative (-) symbol and the former, a positive (+) one.

The power lead to the negative terminal may also be blue or black, and the positive one, red. If you’re in doubt, check the car’s handbook.

Put on safety goggles at this point because if the battery is faulty, it may leak acid.

Using a spanner to undo the terminal clamp, remove the negative lead first. If you remove the positive lead first you could create an electrical circuit if, for example, a spanner touches the terminal and the car’s body. This could short the battery and even electrocute you.

Once both clamps are released, tie them away from anything metal on the car.  It’s a good idea to label them as well so you don’t mix them up.

To reinstall the battery, connect the positive terminal first, followed by the negative. There may be a spark from the negative cable as you do so but it’s normal and perfectly safe, unless flammable liquid such as petrol is close by.

Safety tip: Disconnect the battery’s negative terminal first but reconnect the positive terminal first.

How to service your car safely

In summary, to service your car safely you will want to:

  1. Use insulated tools if you’re working on the electrical supply
  2. Make sure the areas you’re working on  – for example, the exhaust – are cold. Engines work at very high temperatures.
  3. If it’s possible, pull rather than push a spanner to free a nut that is stuck to avoid your hand hitting a solid metal part when it suddenly untightens.
  4. When working on the fuel system, double-check there are no naked flames, hot engine parts or live electrical connections in the vicinity.
  5. Always have a fire extinguisher to hand.