Save on Gas with Auto Maintenance

I'm awful at maintaining my vehicles. Spectacularly bad. I have always relied on someone else to take care of oil changes, check tire pressure, and whatever else cars need to have done on a regular basis. When it rains, I congratulate myself for having washed the car.

I'm not into cars, obviously — never have been. Vehicles simply get me from point A to point B.

The problem is that the other people I rely on, like my dad and husband, also have their own cars and maintenance schedules to remember. And, as I found out last week, not maintaining my car will cost more not only in the long run, but also every time I fill up my gas tank. Don't make fun — I really didn't know this! The mechanic helpfully explained how fuel injectors affect gas mileage. I knew it was time to start taking better care of my car.

Thinking that perhaps others might not know these things, and with gas at more than $4 a gallon in some places, I thought we all could use a maintenance schedule to help us squeeze every last mile out of each gallon of gas and improve fuel economy.

The following schedule will help improve engine performance and increase the miles per gallon, so you can save money on gas:

Once a month: Check your tire pressure.
Under-inflated tires can cause accidents; increase wear (meaning you'll be shelling out for new tires sooner than you should); and waste 5 million gallons of fuel per day, according to the U.S. The Department of Transportation.

Give your tires a visual once-over whenever you fuel up, and once a month use a digital tire gauge to make sure your tires have the pressure level required for your car. You can find pressure level on a sticker in the doorjamb on the driver side or in the owner's manual. You can improve your fuel economy by up to 3.3% by keeping your tires at the proper pressure, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Every three to six months: Change the oil.
Changing the oil is important, but make sure you're using the manufacturer's recommended grade of motor oil, which will improve fuel efficiency, according to the U.S. Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency.

Although the accepted rule of thumb has been to change oil every 3,000 miles, Edmunds says that's an outdated rule that wastes oil and money. The average car has an oil change interval of around 7,800 miles, but check your owner's manual to make sure you aren't going too long between changes, needlessly having them done too often.

Every four months: Rotate the tires.
Neglecting to rotate your tires leads to increased road noise, lower fuel economy, and decreased traction. You'll also be shelling out cash to replace your tires sooner. The general recommendation is to rotate your tires every four months or 5,000 miles, but some cars can go longer in between rotations.

Every year: Replace the air filter and get a tune-up.
According to The Department of Energy, cars manufactured before the 1980s (those with carbureted engines) will see anywhere from a 2% to 14% improvement in MPG by replacing the air filter, depending on the current condition of the filter. Replacing a clogged air filter on modern cars (those with fuel-injected, computer-controlled gasoline engines), however, improves performance, but not fuel economy, according to a new study.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a tune-up can improve a vehicle's gas mileage by an average of 4%, depending on the type of repair needed and how well it is done. A tune-up will include a comprehensive check of the car's systems and fluid levels. Specific to fuel efficiency are replacing or cleaning the spark plugs and wires; replacing the distributor cap, fuel filter, PCV valve, and oxygen sensor; and cleaning the fuel injectors, if needed.

These services can yield significant savings in terms of MPG. The Department of Energy reports that fixing a faulty oxygen sensor, for example, can improve mileage by as much as 40%. Clogged or restricted fuel filters will reduce engine performance and allow dirt into the system, which wears on the engine. (Some manufacturers recommend replacing fuel filters every 2 years or 24,000 miles, others every 3 years or 36,000 miles.)

Finally, remember that these are just general guidelines. Before setting a maintenance schedule, refer to your car's service manual. Some mechanics might push more frequent tune-ups or oil changes, but it's best to stick to the factory recommendations to make sure you're getting the maximum MPG and not overpaying for unnecessary services. Just because the sticker on your windshield says to get an oil change every 3,000 miles doesn't mean that's right for your vehicle!

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Moneycone
Moneycone
9 years ago

I do it once a year – when I have to change the stickers! I totally agree with the oil change rule – I’ve gone for 10K miles without a change!

Caroline
Caroline
9 years ago

What rule of thumb do you use if you drive irregularly? My husband and I take public transportation to work and generally use the car for grocery shopping on the weekends and occasional out of town trips. We probably put on 3,000 miles per year. This has always confused me with oil changes, tire rotations, etc.

Kate
Kate
9 years ago

Caroline, I’d say once a year on low mileage vehicles.

Anne
Anne
9 years ago

It works in reverse too – keep a good eye on your MPG and you’ll know if problems are due. Most of my family keeps a small notebook in the glove box. Every time we fuel the car (always filling the tank) we note the mileage, note & reset the trip odometer,and may note the tire pressure/if we re-inflated the tires. I think of my MPG as my car’s temperature – when it changes the car might be “sick.” My 99 Sentra gets 26+ MPG. The last time a tank dropped to 22 MPG the line to the exhaust finished… Read more »

Panda
Panda
9 years ago

With each vehicle I’m trying to be better about car maintenance. I find it endlessly frustrating that it’s pretty much the one area in which I don’t feel absolutely confident in my ability to make good decisions. I just don’t know enough. Where does the “recommended” become “required”, etc? I’m a little paranoid about oil changes though after I threw a rod in a Honda Civic. So now I change it every 3,750-4,000 miles. New learning on this car is about flushing the automatic transmission fluid. I didn’t have it done and now the service place was only willing to… Read more »

JRR
JRR
9 years ago

Definitely find a trustworthy mechanic if you’re going to pay for “tune ups” every year. While you certainly need to change the air filter occasionally, modern vehicles are actually required by law to go 100,000 miles without a tune-up (on average of course). You certainly don’t need to change all that stuff that often. I generally change everything at 100,000 miles even if it is marginal, and in the last 3 cars I change the fuel filter for the first time at 100,000 miles and it was actually totally unblocked and free-flowing. However, if you frequent gas stations that have… Read more »

Mary H
Mary H
9 years ago

What is “&mdsah”?

J.D.’s note: A common typographical error I make during editing. It produces an — when used correctly. Fixing now. Thanks.
Jan
Jan
9 years ago

There was a great special on NPR the other day. Tune ups are the thing of the past with injection engines. Flushes should be infrequent – if ever. Tire rotation should be more frequent if your tires are cheap. Otherwise they could go a year if you are a normal driver. All things are different IF you are a major city commuter. I think the article is a bit outdated—-but great for my brother in law who makes his money off of the people who follow these policies. He just bought a new Mercedes with some of his repair shop’s… Read more »

Jay
Jay
9 years ago

The first rule of car maintenance is follow the manual. The second rule of car maintenance is follow your manual. Seriously you need to be well versed in your manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule. They know your car best, they built it! For those of you who will say that they are just out to get your money remember that with today’s longer and longer warranty periods they can deny you coverage if you are lax in keeping up your end of the bargain on maintaining your vehicle. Also for the straight scoop on all things car maintenance try ‘Click and… Read more »

Eric
Eric
9 years ago

Maintaining a car is just like anything else – an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. After all, which would you rather pay – $20-50 for an oil change or $500-1000 to rebuild the engine after the old oil causes the engine to seize? I speak from painful experience on this one – when i was young and stupid, failing to make a $100 repair to a leaky differential resulted in a total loss on the insurance claim when the wheels seized up at highway speed and basically disemboweled the drive train. No one was hurt fortunately,… Read more »

PB
PB
9 years ago

Neither my husband nor I pay much attention to our cars. Then last year I drove his car and realized that he hadn’t changed the oil for over 13,000 miles! I didn’t even think that was possible! We had a few words about paying attention and scheduling after that …

JRR
JRR
9 years ago

@PB – 13,000 is only a real problem if your car burns oil and it gets very low (more than a quart low) in that time. Modern oil, in most driving conditions, will still be pretty much OK in that time. If the engine is older, the oil will get dirty. ALWAYS change the filter, not just the oil.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
9 years ago

Changing your oil frequently does not save gasoline. Making sure your tires are in good shape saves a very small amount of gasoline. If you want to save gasoline, slow down, and then drive a consistent speed (not a lot of braking and accelerating. Also, another tip that nobody seems to know: Do you have roof racks on your car that you only use seasonally (like for skis in the winter or kayaks in the summer)? Take them off the car when you wont be using them. This can improve your fuel economy 5-10% at highways speeds because of the… Read more »

fetu
fetu
9 years ago

I notice when the tires of by bicycle get soft it takes so much more energy to ride my bike. Made me realise how it must affect gas milage to have low air pressure in car tires.

tb
tb
9 years ago

i change the oil in my truck because it’s cheaper and i know it’s done properly. i don’t follow a hard and fast number of miles rule but i do check it on regular basis-for level, color and feel. i change it more according to the color and feel than the number of miles. i don’t drive a newer car so all that “modern engine and modern oil” stuff does not apply. i follow my dad and brothers’ advice to “pay attention, learn what it should sound like, and oil changes are the life of your car.” so far it… Read more »

JRR
JRR
9 years ago

Yes, driving more sanely is the single largest thing you can do to increase gas mileage. If you’re the type who’s always on someone’s bumper, and when approaching a red light you slow down quickly at the last minute, and take off quickly again, only to get to the next light before it turns green and have to stop again instead of coasting through, you’re burning FAR more gas than you need to, and guess what? You’re not getting there any faster. Checking tire pressure is important too. As fetu says, ride a bike any significant distance and try different… Read more »

elena
elena
9 years ago

I think my dad gave me the same advice when I was first learning to drive.
The last article here about the cost of owning cars a few weeks ago I pulled out all my records and figured out how much my car has cost me to date (more than I thought!) I’ve been much more aware of taking care of my car: reading the car manual, keeping it clean and junk free,etc.
I’m putting a MPG fuel/maintain notebook in my car today. Useful.

Ely
Ely
9 years ago

I always hated maintaining my car. I much prefer the bike. I can do more myself, and it’s much cheaper. 🙂

Andrew
Andrew
9 years ago

Tire pressure should be checked on every fill up, presumably more than once a month.

Also, driving habits can help MPG alot. Coasting to a stop rather than accelerating to a red light or stop sign not only saves gas, but saves brakes as well.

Lody
Lody
9 years ago

I’ll second Anne’s suggestion about tracking your mileage with every fill-up. That technique is pretty much the only reason my dad’s 1986 Ford pickup is still running — he’s caught lots of issues early by noting a drop in (the already extremely low) fuel mileage. Slightly off-topic but still related to vehicular maintenance: Starting next year, the vast majority of my driving will be within ~15 miles of my house (no more 45-minute commute!), so I’m thinking about getting an electric car when my current vehicle bites the dust. It seems to me, logically, that in addition to not needing… Read more »

Emily E
Emily E
9 years ago

I’d be interested to know how much of this maintenance can be DIY. I used to change the oil in my own car until I bought a vehicle where the oil filter is nearly impossible to get to.

Jeffrey
Jeffrey
9 years ago

I think a lot of the tips are important and money-saving in terms of gasoline. However, I think that the analysis here would be improved if the cost of all of these maintenance items were considered. If we’re strictly looking at saving on purchasing gas, the cost of these repairs might be equal or more than your gasoline savings. Changing the oil, rotating tires, and getting tune-up at the schedule shown all add up to hundreds of dollars. If you improve your gas mileage from 25 mpg to 30 mpg (20% increase) and drive 15,000 miles per year, your savings… Read more »

Brenton
Brenton
9 years ago

Regarding rotating the tires, if you go to the place where you bought the tires, they will usually rotate them for free.

Especially useful since rotating tires isnt something a regular person can do themselves.

KM
KM
9 years ago

Well, duh.

Tim Z
Tim Z
9 years ago

@Ely

I’m with you; biking is a wonderful way to do local transport. My wife, our child, and I travel primarily by bike… it’s lots of fun and absolutely the most frugal way to move around.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
9 years ago

It’s easy to remember to do car maintenance if you put it in your calendar. Every Saturday I check tires and fluid levels. Just because it is more likely you’ll catch a problem that way– e.g., a partially deflated tire not only wastes fuel but will wear out unevenly. Low brake fluids can point to a leak in the system. Coolant needs to be topped every now & then, especially in summer. Windshield wiper fluid can spare you an accident. Etc. I also check weekly because it’s an easy to remember ritual before running the weekend errands– once it’s a… Read more »

JRR
JRR
9 years ago

@Emily – DIY is a relative term. Personally I consider tire rotation to be an easy DIY, but clearly that’s not universal. And keep in mind that I consider engine rebuilds to be DIY projects, though certainly challenging ones, and ones that you need a garage to do. I always figure that if I can buy the tools for the same money it would cost to have the job done, I’ll buy the tools and do it myself. That way I get to learn something, I get to do something myself, and I still have the tools and the knowledge… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
9 years ago

I am trying to say this with love, but this article and some of the articles Sierra writes bother me because they seem to have been cut and pasted from articles the writers got from googling the internet without actually talking to any live humans for real life experiences and feedback. Thank goodness for the reader comments which I found much more interesting and informative than the article itself.

Des
Des
9 years ago

Like Jeffrey, I’d like to have seen the cost of the maintenance included in these calculations. You can’t get something for nothing.

I spend about $2400 a year in gas. If an annual tune up will save me 4%, I would save a whopping $96. Can you even get a tune up for $96? We’ve never had our car tuned up (10 years old, 250k miles and still going strong) so I don’t know how much these cost. I doubt it would be worth it, though.

Des
Des
9 years ago

@Catherine

+1

(Also, where did the Edit feature go on comments?)

KC
KC
9 years ago

For oil changes I go by my owner’s manual. I have an 07 (low mileage) that we change every 5k miles (per the manual). I have an 01 that the manual says change every 7k, but the car is older and has over 120k miles, so I change it about every 4k miles now. The best way to test, be it any car, is to look at the dipstick. It doesn’t lie. If the oil isn’t clean or if it is low it’s time for a change regardless of the mileage or months. I go in for a tune-up every… Read more »

PigPennies
PigPennies
9 years ago

@Catherine – this post is actually by April, who is usually very well written. I agree that this topic might have been a little out of her comfort zone, but it did spark a lot of useful comments! My husband chastised me a few years ago for driving about 12K without changing my oil. The car was a little over a year old. He thought he’d show me by example, so after changing his oil and showing me what good oil should look like, he popped my hood and was surprised to see my oil looked as good as his… Read more »

Derek
Derek
9 years ago

Good advice.

I know JD has mentioned it a few times in the past, but Fuelly allows you to track your mileage very easily.

http://www.fuelly.com

I have used this site for over 2 years and I just have a shortcut on my smartphone that allows you to enter all the information.

JRR
JRR
9 years ago

@Des – as I said earlier, tune ups are really not needed anymore, this is old info. You absolutely should change the air filter, this is cheap. And check the tire pressure, this is free, and free or cheap (< $2 if you have to pay for air) and makes a significant difference in your mileage. Those two items; keeping your tire pressure correct and replacing the air filter regularly, say once a year or two depending on driving conditions, are big deals and you can do them yourself for cheap, < $20/year. As a bonus, your tires will last… Read more »

Samantha
Samantha
9 years ago

I just got my oil changed after reading this. Thanks

Hunter
Hunter
9 years ago

What are your thoughts on pure electric vehicles?

I would assume the tire maintenance would be similar to conventional autos. But what about tune-ups, etc.

I think switching to an EV, if they meet your needs, would be a good way to also cut your maintenance costs.

Hunter.

Dan
Dan
9 years ago

“My” car is a 1999 Chevy Malibu that I bought just a few months shy of 10 years ago. I went 10,000 miles before my first oil change and thought the whole world would come to an end, but the shop barely made a peep. I went 1.5 years between oil changes not too long ago, but the shop did say my oil looked dirty and recommended a flush. (When you drive 6.3 miles each way to work, that’s less than 3500 miles annually.) I’m coming up on a year between changes in July, so I’m doing it then. We… Read more »

Pat S.
Pat S.
9 years ago

Remove as much weight as possible from the vehicle. Lots of people travel with way too much stuff in the trunk. This can absolutely crush your gas mileage.

S01
S01
9 years ago

I’d reiterate what a few have said:

~Follow your cars manual (it’s in that plastic sleeve normally in the glovebox)

~If you don’t want to pay for the oil change simply DIY it. I taught my wife and she couldn’t believe how simple and easy it was to do an oil change.

~ Something I haven’t seen mentioned regular oil changes/maintenance can extend the run life (reliability) of your engine and hence extend the time you can keep your car saving $$ on replacement.

JRR
JRR
9 years ago

@Dan – driving < 10 miles at a time is hard on the oil. As I said above, the water that naturally gets into the oil never gets boiled away, and that water causes the oil to turn to sludge, which gums up the passageways in the engine. If you still have decent oil pressure, personally I wouldn't bother with the flush, but I'd start to do preventive maintenance on it. On my old vehicles I throw in a half a can of SeaFoam about 100 miles before an oil change, doing this repeatedly should at least keep things from… Read more »

Sassy
Sassy
9 years ago

Wow! Only $4- per gallon of petrol. You guys are soooooo lucky.

I wonder why petrol is so cheap in America.

The cheapest I have found in Australia works out to be $5.14 per gallon.

Makes me envious!

JRR
JRR
9 years ago

@Sassy – because the government holds gas prices artificially low by funding gasoline externalities such as city, county and many state roadways, and health issues from lung disease through emergency services through non-gasoline-based taxes. Gas taxes only actually pay for interstate and a percentage of state roads. If all externalities of gasoline usage were included, we’d be in the $5 to $6 a gallon range as well. We’re still paying that much, but we don’t think we are because it’s hidden as income/property/etc taxes.

20 and Engaged
20 and Engaged
9 years ago

When I rotated my tires, I was amazed at how much smoother my car drove. We tend to neglect our cars and run them down to the ground. The least we can do is proper maintenance.

Alan@Moneysanity
9 years ago

Nice post – Many people can do most of these things themselves; certainly the tires, oil and belts.
My Honda’s have maintenance schedules in the owners manual. I take them out and transfer the information to an excel spreadsheet so I can check things off as they are done. Not sure all manufacturers provide that information.

Jacque'
Jacque'
9 years ago

There’s another way to get better fuel efficiency: buy better fuel. If you are only filling up at Walmart, your grocery store, or the cheapest unbranded gas you can find, you’re clogging your fuel injectors and dirtying your engine. These “white pumper” gasses are low quality, often extremely dirty, and have no engine and fuel system cleaning detergents. My advice to friends and family is if you pump the cheap gas, pump every 3rd tank full of Chevron. Even Chevron’s lowest grade has a full dose of detergents that will help your system stay cleaner and more efficient.

Marvin
Marvin
9 years ago

I agree, keep an eye on the MPG, I use http://www.fuelly.com to monitor my fuel consumption, driving 98 Accord with 170,000 miles, but with my TLC she’s giving me 31 mpg. I am very confident that we will be together for another 200k miles.

simple advise, take very good care of your car and it will reciprocate.

CincyCat
CincyCat
9 years ago

Be sure you are buying the correct grade of gas for your car, too. Many of us throw money away needlessly by buying higher-grade gasoline than the car REQUIRES. Many people falsely assume that a higher grade gas = “better”. Read the fine print in your owner’s manual. Ours actually plainly states that premium grade (93) gas is NOT recommended for our vehicle. It goes on to say our car is “designed” for 87-89 gas, but the manufacturer “recommends” 89 for “optimum” performance. They have a large “89” next to the paragraph, which is a little misleading if you don’t… Read more »

Elaine
Elaine
8 years ago

If you want to change your oil at home and save about $15-$20 per pop, here’s a really good walk-through that shows you all the steps:

http://youtu.be/_HjF_51ijWk

Should be able to change your oil in about 30 minutes!

Maxliner
Maxliner
7 years ago

As stated above, we need to check tire pressure once a month, I do it every week actually. I totally agree that underpressured tires consumed so much gasoline. Thank you for sharing this article. Very helpful indeed.

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