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Maintenance Check: Under the Hood
By Wayne Scraba/
Printable version
Degree of DifficultyEasy
Estimated Time120 minutes
120 minutes
Battery Condition
Sealed, maintenance free batteries have been in use for a number of years. Obviously, they require no maintenance, and have no filler caps, and you never need to add water. Many of these batteries have some form of test indicator (in essence, a built-in hydrometer) located on the top. Most will show a “green” color if the battery is in good working condition. If the hydrometer or test indicator is black, then the battery is discharged. A discharged battery is an indication it needs replacement or there is a defect in the charging (alternator) system.
Most batteries in use today are of the zero maintenance variety. That means they need no service. Many (such as this) do not have removable caps; they’re factory sealed.
Most Modern Batteries Are Sealed and Require No Service
Air Filter
Most vehicles use some sort of disposable paper type element. There are a number of air cleaner/air filter arrangements in use today. Follow the owner’s manual to determine how to gain access to the element. Once the element has been removed, lightly shake it to remove dust and dirt. Do not wash, oil or clean with an air hose. If the air filter element has dirt caked on, a new element is required. Today’s vehicles do not require overly frequent air filter element changes unless used in very dusty conditions. Some vehicles are designed with filters that only have to be changed after 50,000 miles.
Certain vehicles (for example, pickup trucks) are often equipped with “air filter restriction indicators.” These devices are usually located on the air cleaner/filter cover. If the indicator has turned to black or is in the “red” or “replace” zone, it’s time to service the filter.
Air filters too are now of the high mileage variety. To inspect the element, you have to remove the filter housing cover.
To Inspect the Air Filter Element, Remove the Filter Housing Cover
Power Steering
It is not necessary to check the power steering fluid unless you suspect there may be a leak in the system. If the fluid is leaking then you must have the system serviced by a mechanic as soon as possible. The power steering reservoir (often marked “POWER STEERING” on the reservoir cap) is either found directly on the steering box or rack, or remotely mounted very close to it, most often on the driver side of the car. The reservoir will have a removable dipstick tube. Unscrew the reservoir cap to access the fluid. In most cases, the reservoir cap will contain an integral dipstick. Before checking, determine if the fluid is hot or cold. Typically, if the fluid reservoir is hot to the touch (approximately 150° Fahrenheit) then you’ll have to look for the “hot” marks on the dipstick. If cold, then refer to the “cold” marks on the dipstick. Pull it out, and wipe it off with a paper towel or cloth. Reinstall all the way (which means turning the cap to the right). Remove it again, keeping the tip down and inspect the level. The idea here is for the oil to be on or very near to the “Full” line (“Full Hot” or “Full Cold”). If the level is on “Add” line you’ll have to add a small amount of fluid. You must use the appropriate fluid (type specified in the owner’s manual). This fluid does not require periodic changes.
Power steering reservoirs can either be mounted directly on the pump (as shown here) or remotely mounted. There is usually a dipstick under the cap.
There is Usually a Dipstick Under the Cap of the Power Steering Reservoir
Windshield Washer Fluid
Depending upon the vehicle, the windshield washer fluid is either contained in a transparent reservoir somewhere close to the wiper motor (usually on the driver side of the vehicle) or has a relatively large, clearly marked cap for a hidden reservoir (again, usually on the driver side of the vehicle). To add fluid, you simply unscrew or lift off the cap and pour in the washer fluid. When using concentrated washer fluid, follow the instructions for adding water. Do not mix water with ready-to-use fluid. This degrades the properties of the fluid and may also cause it to freeze in winter conditions. When encountering freezing conditions, many manufacturers recommend you fill the reservoir to only the 3/4-full point to allow for expansion should the fluid freeze. Only use washer fluid. Do not use radiator coolant (anti-freeze) since it may cause paint damage and can damage the washer system.
Don’t forget the windshield washer fluid level. It’s checked by viewing the level through the transparent reservoir.
Check the Windshield Washer Fluid by Viewing the Level Through the Transparent Reservoir
Belts & Hoses
Most newer cars require little or no attention to the belts or hoses. You should, however examine them to determine if they are in good working condition. The place to begin is the radiator (located at the front of the car). Be absolutely positive the engine is cold when examining hoses (or belts). Pay close attention to electric cooling fans, as they can operate without the engine operating. These fans function by coolant temperature and are independent from the engine in operation.
Belts and hoses should also be examined. There are two important radiator hoses (an upper and a lower) along with either one long serpentine belt (most common today) or a series of v-belts.
Belts and Hoses Should Also Be Examined
There are two large hoses attached to the radiator, one at the top and another at the bottom. Both lead to the engine. With the engine cold, squeeze each hose. If the hose feels brittle, it's old and needs replacing. Examine each hose for cracks, tears or blisters. If they exist, the hose will need replacement. Next, examine the clamps found on either end of each hose. If the hose is damp or wet in the area of the clamp, tighten the clamp. Each clamp must be sufficiently tight so that the hose cannot be moved (or even turned).
Locate the accessory drive belt(s). They’re located between the front of the engine and the radiator. Visually inspect the belt by turning it (slightly) inside out. In most cases, you will not be able to flip the belt completely, but the belt should allow for a minor “twist” so that you can examine the inside (pulley side). The reason for this is because deterioration almost always begins on the inside of the belt. When examining the belt, look for signs of cracking, fraying or splitting. You should also look for a surface that is hard and appears glazed. The cause of this is due to long periods of use and high under-hood temperatures. If the belt(s) shows any of the above signs of deterioration, it's time to have the belt replaced.
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