At first sight modern cars are complicated and have to be maintained by your car service provider. Open the hood and all you will see are plastic covers and parts that you have little to no idea of their purpose. This does not look like something that an amateur should mess around with.

It is no wonder why most people will take their vehicles to the dealer or a mechanic shop for repairs and servicing. It will also make you think that the do-it-yourself maintenance and repair days are behind us, right? Well, you would be wrong. No matter how complicated today’s cars seem at first, there are still things that you can do on your own that will save you time and money.  Let’s see what you can do by yourself.

Do It Yourself Starter Pack

If you are going to do some work on your car, you will need some tools. Don’t be put off by thinking that this calls for some special or expensive pieces of equipment. Most of the work covered here requires only basic tools, some of which you probably already have. 

  • Tool set, with 1/4″ pieces and 1/2″ pieces
  • Hammer
  • Pliers
  • Screwdriver (flathead and phillips)
  • Oil filter wrench
  • WD 40
  • Brake cleaner
  • Jack
  • Jack stands
  • Rubber working gloves
  • Latex gloves

Will You Need A Code Reader Or A Scan Tool?

At some point in life while driving a car you are bound to have a check engine light displayed on the dashboard. The check engine light comes on for all kinds of reasons, and it is important that when it comes on, to check and find out what it means.

To check it you can either use a code reader or scan tool. To learn more about what each of these devices does and the difference between them continue to read this article. Once you are finished reading, you will know which tool is best for your needs when you need to check your OBD2 system in your car.

What is OBD2 System?

The OBD2 system is the onboard diagnostic system in your car.

It monitors everything that is going on while your car is running to make sure it is functioning properly. It consists of the computer and a bunch of sensors. When something goes wrong it triggers a ‘check engine’ light.

The issue could be something as simple as your oil getting old or something worse such as a major part not functioning properly.

The good thing is if you catch issues early and fix them when they first occur it will save you money in the long run. In order to fix any issues though you have to know what the issues are.

All you need is an obd2 code reader or an obd2 scan tool. Both do similar things, but some can do more than others. It is important to get a tool with all the functionality you need and will use, but there is no point in getting an expensive one if you aren’t going to use it to its full function.

What is OBD2 Code Reader?

A code reader is a simple device to check what is wrong with your car.
It is able to tell you the basic, such as which code is being put out by the obd2 system and also able to clear codes. It doesn’t do much else though. The good thing about code readers is they are simple to use and are a very cost-effective way to find out what is wrong with your car. Pretty much anyone can use a code reader.

You just plug it into the obd2 port below the steering wheel and it will read the code. They typically will tell you how many codes there are and you can press the arrows to scroll through them. You can write down the code and then look it up later.

Once you have all the codes written down you can leave them on the computer or press a button to delete them. Most code readers only have three or four buttons, so they are really simple to use, but if you want more in-depth features, then a code reader may not be right for you.

What About OBD2 Scan Tool

A scan tool is similar to a code reader because it plugs in the same port and does the same basic thing. It tells you the codes that are on the computer and can clear them, but it can also do a lot more.

Scan tools can read and display live data, tell you what the code means, display freeze frame data, display readiness monitor status, and reset readiness monitors. Scan tools can also graph data, send it to other devices such as a computer or phone, provide information that can be printed out, and even read pending codes.

Not all scan tools can do all these things, but the more expensive ones can do everything listed. A scan tool is like a full body Cat Scan whereas a code reader is more of just an x-ray.

The scan tool goes a lot more in-depth and provides you with a fuller picture of what is wrong with your vehicle, but they can be harder to use. Most come with good instruction manuals so you can learn how to use all the functions they have. Also, scan tools cost more than code readers but they do alot more. There are still different levels of scan tool so you don’t necessarily have to get the most expensive one if you aren’t going to use all the features listed.

Which To Get Between Scan Tool vs Code Reader?

Figuring out what to get between a code reader and a scan tool can be hard for some people, but here are a few basic things to keep in mind. Firstly, how much you are going to use it? If you are an everyday person who isn’t going to do your own work on your car, then you will probably be fine with just a basic code reader. That way you can know the issue and decide if it is worth fixing before taking it to your car service provider or dealership.

If you work on your own car, or even more so, if you are a mechanic then you probably want to get something that can do a little more, therefore getting a scan tool might work for you. The one you get depends on how much car work you do as well as your budget.

Budget is the second thing to keep in mind when picking out a code reader or scan tool. If you are on a smaller budget, then a scan tool just may not fit into your picture and you might have to get a code reader. If you find the code reader isn’t doing everything you need, then you can save some money and upgrade to a scan tool later. This method is also good if you don’t really know how often you are going to use it or the features you really need.

Get a code reader first and if you need more features or even want to experiment, and you can afford it, then go ahead and get yourself a scan tool to perform car service work on your vehicle.

Change Your Motor Oil and Oil Filter

a man hand can be seen holding a motor oil filter in front of a car engine.

Car engines have really evolved over the past hundred years. And yet, they still need an oil change every once in a while. This is one of the jobs that are still well within an average DIY scope.

Several things you will have to find out:

  • Oil change intervals,
  • The oil grade & specification and
  • Its quantity

The easiest way to find out is to check your owner’s manual, if you have one. If not, look it up on the Internet on trusted sites.

You will need:

  • New oil
  • Oil filter or oil filter insert
  • Appropriate socket (to release a oil drain plug)
  • Ratchet
  • Oil filter wrench
  • A drain pan (make sure it is large enough)
  • Car jack and jack stand (for vehicles with lower ground clearance)

Procedure:

  • If needed, jack up the car and place jack stands under the lifting points. If you are not sure where they are, just make sure that you have put the stand below a structural member.
  • Position the pan below the drain plug hole
  • Using an appropriate socket and ratchet, release the oil drain plug, and let the oil drain into the pan.
  • Undo the oil filter / filter housing cap, and remove the oil filter.

Tips & tricks:

  • When buying new oil, make sure that you get a correct one for your engine. There are two things to check. First thing is the oil grade, represented by numeration such as 10W40 or 5W30 or similar. In addition, many manufacturers have their specifications such as BMW LL04, MB-Approval 226.5, VW 501 01 and so on.
  • If possible, warm up the engine before changing the oil. Drive it a bit harder for about 15 minutes.

Change Your Spark Plugs

A hand holding a car enging spark plug.

Spark plugs and ignition coils are a couple of key engine components. One needs to make sure that they are in good shape. Usual intervals for preventive spark plug replacement vary from 30,000 miles for older engines to 100,000 miles for newer engines.

It is possible to have problems with spark plugs before that interval though. This can be caused by poor quality fuel, high oil consumption, or fuel injection system related problems.

Symptoms of bad spark plugs or ignition coils include: 

–          Rough idle

–          Hard starting

–          Engine judder (misfire)

–          Power loss

–          ‘Check engine’ light

–          High fuel consumption

Changing spark plugs is quite easy and straightforward. All you need is a basic set of tools, and some elbow grease. This is a great job for a novice DIY-er looking to get some experience.

You will need:

  • Set of new spark plugs
  • Appropriate deep hex socket (for all engines except direct injection)
  • 1/2″ long extension
  • 1/2″ Ratchet
  • Torque wrench (1/2″ optional)
  • 3/8“ or 9mm rubber hose, 1/2 feet long (highly recommended)
  • Socket set
  • Phillips and flathead screwdrivers

Procedure:

  • If you have a scan tool, read and store the codes from your BMW, and then clear them.
  • Turn the ignition OFF and open the hood.
  • On some models, access to spark plugs is obstructed by various parts, such as scuttle drain, intake hoses or similar. Remove all easily removable parts that are in the way to gain access.
  • Remove the engine cover. If it is held in place with screws, unscrew them. If there are no screws visible, just pull the cover off.
  • Some engines have a distributor and ignition leads, others have separate ignition coils for every spark plug. 
  • Pull the ignition coil or lead out. If it is stuck, do not use excessive force. You might break it, or the silicon insulator might come off.  Wiggle it a bit and twist it back and forth, while pulling out at the same time, until it ‘pops-out’.
  • If you are reusing ignition coils/leads, inspect them for cracks or contamination. If you spot any of these, do not reuse them.
  • Check the plug hole for debris or oil and clean if needed before taking the spark plug out.
  • Using appropriate socket, extension and ratchet, undo the spark plug and pull it carefully out of the plug hole.
  • Visually inspect the spark plug. It can tell you a lot about the state of the engine and that cylinder in particular.
  • Push the upper side of the spark plug into the 3/8″ rubber hose. Using 3/8″ rubber hose as a hand tool, screw spark plug hand-tight into cylinder head plug thread as far as it will go.
  • Tighten spark plugs to a specified torque, using torque wrench, extension and appropriate socket.
  • Reinstall ignition coils / leads. Push it onto the spark plug until you hear a ‘pop’.
  • Reinstall engine cover, scuttle drain and any eventual other parts in reverse order to removal
  • Start your engine and observe how it operates.

Tips & tricks:

  • Traces of engine oil on the ignition coil boot indicates leaking camcover seal. Oil is very aggressive on silicon boot insulation, therefore camcover seal must be renewed before reinstalling ignition coils.
  • Spark plug holes are deep and usually angled. Access to some parts of the engine can be limited. This means that you can easily cross-thread a new spark plug while installing it. To prevent this, use a rubber hose as a flexible tool that will allow you to safely install the spark plug. This way, if plug starts to cross-thread, rubber hose will slip.

Change Your Air and Cabin Filter

a man holding car filters with both of his hands
Replacing cabin air filter for the car

Your engine needs enough fresh and clean air to run properly. This is where the air filter steps in. Its purpose is to prevent dirt and dust from being sucked into the engine. So it is very important to change it periodically. If you drive in dusty areas, check them often.

Symptoms of a dirty air filter:

–          Smell of petrol when starting

–          Engine misfire

–          Power loss

–          ‘Check engine’ light

–          High fuel consumption

You will need:

  • a new air filter
  • Phillips and flathead screwdrivers
  • Socket set and a ratchet (on some models)

Procedure:

  • In most cases, changing your air filter is a simple job.
  • Pop up the hood, and locate the air filter box.
  • Open it by either releasing the retaining clips or by unbolting the screws, depending on the model.
  • Air filters are usually just seated into a groove on the air filter box, so you just need to pull it out.
  • When installing a new air filter, take extra care that it seats correctly into its grooves.
  • Reinstall in order prevent removal.

Change Your Coolant

a person is pouring green coolant into their engine radiator.

Engine coolant is one of those things that is easily overlooked at regular tune-ups.  Over time, the effectiveness of the coolant fluid in a car’s cooling system deteriorates. For that reason, periodically, the cooling system should be drained, flushed, and refilled to replenish the antifreeze mixture and prevent formation of rust and corrosion, which can impair the performance of the cooling system and cause engine damage.

The antifreeze chemicals in the coolant lose their effectiveness, especially if you top up the coolant with water regularly. In harsh winter weather this can lead to the coolant freezing and expanding, which can damage components. Always consult your vehicle’s handbook for recommended intervals, but mechanics often suggest that every two years is a suitable period. If you can’t remember the last time the coolant was changed, and it’s looking cloudy and discoloured, change it now.

You will need:

  • Appropriate amount of engine coolant
  • Distilled water (at least 5 liters)

Procedure:

  • Pop up the engine hood
  • Remove the coolant expansion tank cap
  • If necessary, jack up the car and lay it on jack stand
  • Position a drain pan under a coolant radiator
  • Locate a drain plug on the bottom side of the radiator
  • Undo a drain plug and let the coolant drain into the pan
  • In case that you can’t locate a drain plug, remove the bottom radiator hose
  • Let all the coolant drain into the pan, and reinstall the drain plug or radiator hose.
  • Make an appropriate mixture of coolant (antifreeze) and distilled water.
  • Check if your car has coolant vent plugs, and remove them. They are usually located at the highest coolant piping points.
  • Slowly pour in the coolant mixture into the expansion tank. Allow for air to escape from the cooling system.
  • If your car has coolant vent plugs, wait until the coolant starts flowing out, and then bolt them back in.
  • Start your car and let it warm up to operating temperature. You may take it for a quick ride, but observe engine temperature while doing so.
  • After reaching operating temperature, let the engine cool down. Check the coolant level and top up if needed.

Tips & tricks:

  • Leave your car to cool down completely before you open the expansion tank or start disconnecting hoses. Coolant system is under a high temperature and pressure.
  • Take extra caution with drained coolant. This is a mixture of water and antifreeze (glycol), and it is very poisonous. Yet, as it has a sweet taste, pets can be tempted to drink it.
  • Different types of coolants should not be mixed. You can tell by the color. Always use the same color coolant.

Change Your Brake Discs and Pads

Brake pads and discs are a classical wear and tear item. No matter how you drive, sooner or later you will have to replace your brake pads. They can last for up to 40,000 miles, but they can wear out in as little as little as 10,000 miles depending on the car and driving conditions. If your car is equipped with brake pad sensors, it will alert you when they approach minimum thickness. For cars without brake pad sensors, visual inspection is a best method. In both cases, a scratching sound while braking indicates metal-to-metal contact, caused by totally worn out pads. This means you will need to replace your brakes as soon as possible.

Symptoms of worn brake pads and discs:

  • Squeaky noise when brakes
  • Vibrations when braking
  • Brake pad warning light
  • Brake pedal feels ‘spongy’

Changing your brake pads, and discs if necessary, is a job that requires a bit more muscle.

You will need:

  • set of new brake pads
  • new discs (if needed)
  • Jack and jack-stand
  • Appropriate wheel lug wrench
  • Socket set
  • 1/2″ ratchet
  • WD40 or penetrating oil
  • Brake return set or C-clamp
  • S shaped hook (made from a piece of wire)
  • Wire brush

The procedure:

  • While the car is still on ground, loosen the wheel lugs with a wheel lug wrench
  • Open the hood
  • Jack up the car and place jack stands under the lifting points.
  • Unbolt the wheel lugs and remove the wheel.
  • If your car has brake pad sensors, locate them and carefully remove them from the caliper.
  • Using appropriate socket, extension and ratchet, undo the bolts that connect the brake caliper to the bracket.
  • Pull off the caliper. Most calipers have guiding pins with rubber boots. If they are cracked or corroded, replace them.
  • Visually check if a brake line doesn’t have any cracks or wear marks. 
  • Hang up the caliper up a convenient place with a wire made S-hook
  • Remove the brake pads.
  • Check your discs for excessive wear. Discs that are below minimum thickness must be replaced.
  • Using a wire brush, clean the surface on the bracket where the pads are seated
  • Install new pads into bracket seats.
  • Locate the brake fluid reservoir in the engine bay, and remove the cap
  • Using an appropriate method, push the caliper piston back enough, so it can be reinstalled on new seats.
  • Reinstall in order reverse to removal.

Tips & tricks:

  • When you install new pads, they are far thicker than old ones. This means that you will need to return the caliper piston in to ‘make room’ for new pads. Some calipers need to be pushed in using force. Others are rotated clockwise or counterclockwise. Caliper return set is very helpful for this job, but it can be done with a C-clamp or a screwdriver.
  • When returning caliper pistons, make sure that you remove a cap from a brake fluid reservoir tank.
  • Most discs have a ‘minimum thickness’ value written on them. Never use discs that are below minimum thickness.