Before heading off on a big caravan trip, it’s a good idea to undertake a tow vehicle basic vehicle service. And with some mechanical knowledge and a basic understanding of how your vehicle works, you could do this job yourself. An important caveat, though: we would recommend a second set of experienced eyes. Book in with a workshop for an hour so the mechanic can go over everything you’ve done to give you additional piece of mind. You’ll still save money but you’ll retain the sense of achievement derived from having done the job yourself.
A basic vehicle service should include the following: an engine oil change, checking the air and fuel filters, checking the brake fluid, the power steering fluid, coolant levels and drive belt condition, checking the tyres for any cracks, excessive wear and correct pressures, checking the brake pads for wear, and a general look around the underside of the vehicle and under the bonnet in search of leaks or loose components.
We describe the basic vehicle service process in a bit of detail then for those of us who prefer to learn in short format, we finish this article with a summary of the steps.
1. GETTING STARTED
First, get the vehicle up to operating temperature. The best way to do this is to take it for a 15-minute drive. On this drive, you should listen for unusual noises coming from the vehicle and anything else you notice that is out of the ordinary. It is worth asking having a friend sit in on the drive to listen out for unusual noises as we become used to the sounds of our own car and may not pick up on anything out of the ordinary.
Check that the brakes pull up the vehicle evenly (make sure nobody is behind you first) and that engine performance is on par with what you expect from your vehicle. Once you’ve returned home, park on level ground with the handbrake firmly applied. If it’s an automatic, put it in Park and if it’s a manual, put it in first gear or reverse. Set chocks against the back wheels.
2. GET TO WORK
Now you’re ready for the oil and oil filter change. Remove the oil filler cap, then get underneath the vehicle and remove the oil sump plug with an oil pan at the ready. If it’s a 4WD, you will probably have enough clearance underneath to do this job without raising the vehicle; if not, make sure you use proper vehicle stands and ensure the vehicle is securely supported by them. Also bear in mind the engine and its oil will be hot; wearing gloves and avoiding contact with the oil is a good idea.
Inspect the oil for condition and contaminants. If the oil is milky, burnt or contains metal shavings, inspection by a mechanic is warranted.
With the oil drained, replace the sump plug. Some vehicles have a reusable washer; others will require a new washer to avoid leaks at the sump plug. While you are underneath, check for any fluid leaks and any signs of wear or damage. Dispose of the old engine oil thoughtfully; you can refill your empty oil container (after filling the engine) and take it to a waste disposal centre. Most will take old engine oil in such quantities for free.
With the sump plug replaced, now you can refill the engine with fresh oil. Make sure you don’t overfill; make note of the engine oil capacity and when you think you are within a litre of filling to capacity, start checking the dipstick for oil level. Top it up, check again and replace the filler cap. That’s the oil change done. While you’re mucking around under the bonnet, it’s a good time to check fluid levels and belt and filter condition. The power steering will have a screw-on cap to remove and usually a dipstick for you to see if the fluid is between ‘min’ and ‘max’ levels; the brake fluid reservoir should be translucent so that you can view the fluid level is between its minimum and maximum level; the coolant overflow reservoir will be similarly constructed and marked as the brake fluid reservoir, so that also should be easy to check.
If any of the fluids are on the low side, find the correct replacement for your vehicle (be warned that some vehicles are very sensitive to fluids used, so get advice on this for your vehicle) and top them up. If any measurement is below the minimum level, this is not a good sign – get professional advice immediately. It could be a simple problem but also a sign of something far more serious.Check the condition of the drive belt (or belts), looking for cracks or any other signs of wear to the rubber. See if you can check the inner (driven) side of the rubber, because that’s where fatigue cracks are likely to occur first. Remove the air filter and tap it gently on a hard surface. If a lot of dust and grit fall out, it should be replaced. We don’t recommend blowing the air filter out with compressed air as this does not necessarily clean the air filter. The air filter is a standard replacement item in any case, so if it’s been more than 10,000km, replace it as a matter of course.
3. WHEELS AND BRAKES
Now you can get down to the wheels. First check the tyre pressures, making sure that they are up to maximum pressures as recommended by the vehicle manufacturer. Have a close look at the tyre tread, looking for cracks or other damage and excessive wear. Find the spare wheel, making sure you can get access to it (vehicles such as the LandCruiser and also many utes have a drop-down spare under the rear that require you to wind down the wheel on a chain – make sure this works) and also think about how difficult it would be to reach once you’ve packed (you may have to live with this one for vehicles that have their spare under or in the cargo area). Do the same pressure and condition checks as the other tyres.
Now for the final check: the brake pads. For this you will need to take off each individual road wheel, so make sure you have jacked and supported the vehicle properly before removing each wheel. With the wheel off, you can inspect disc brake pads for wear easily.
Just look for the brake caliper and there will be an opening for such inspection or you can look at each end of the caliper and see the pads. Drum brakes are a little more involved; you’ll have to make sure at least one other wheel is chocked, the handbrake is off, and remove both a road wheel and a wheel drum to get to the brake shoes.
Once you can see the shoes, check that they are not worn down to the backing plates and that there is no wetness in the shoe area indicating a fluid leak, and also that there is no glazing on the shoes.
STEP BY STEP
1. Check the brake fluid level is between ‘max’ and ‘min’ levels in the reservoir.
2. Remove the air filter and tap it gently to see how much dust falls out. Check for discolouration on the element. If dust falls out or the element looks dark, replace it. Also replace the filter if it’s been more than 10,000km since the last replacement.
3. Check the coolant level, noting that when the engine is cold it won’t be at the maximum level. If there is no coolant in the reservoir, you could have a major problem.
4. Check the power steering fluid either with the dipstick-in-cap or visually, such as in this case, through the translucent reservoir.
5. Start the oil change by removing the oil filler cap.
6. Place an oil pan underneath the sump, remove the sump plug and drain oil.
7. With the sump plug refitted, fill oil of correct grade and quantity via the oil filler. Start the engine to check the oil pressure rises properly and check for any oil leaks.
8. While checking underneath for any engine oil leaks, also check for any other unusual oil leaks or damage to components.
9. Check tyre pressures are at placard level.
10. Check tyres carefully for cracks or other damage.
11. Check the rear brake shoes for wear or oil contamination. Disc brake pads are easier to check. Once road wheel is removed, look at each side of the brake caliper to assess wear.
Need advice on servicing and maintaining your caravan? Read our top tips on Servicing And Maintaining Your Caravan Motorhome.