The technology in today’s vehicles has become so sophisticated, many drivers are unaware of how their vehicle’s systems actually work. Although it is not important for drivers to completely understand these systems, it is important to have a basic understanding of the systems and components that have the greatest impact on safety, dependability and performance. Regular maintenance is the key to continued performance and safety, as well as protection from costly repairs.
Below is a list of some of the important systems you should have serviced and inspected on a regular basis. Always refer to your vehicle’s owner’s manual for detailed recommended service intervals.
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All vehicles use either disc brakes or drum brakes.
Disc brakes work by squeezing a pair of brake pads together against a rotating brake disc, or rotor. The device that squeezes the pads together is called the brake caliper. Disc brakes can develop problems such as warped rotors – which cause the steering wheel to shake when the brakes are applied, or may become rusted and fail to apply and/or release evenly, causing uneven or accelerated brake pad wear.
Drum brakes work by pressing the brake shoes outwards against a rotating drum. The device that applies outward pressure is called the wheel cylinder, and similar to the brake caliper found with disc brakes, is generally activated with hydraulic pressure. Failure of drum brakes include routine brake shoe wear – the friction material wears away a little bit every time the brakes are applied. The hydraulic wheel cylinder can develop leaks and the springs that hold the shoes in place can become worn or broken.
Clearly, brakes are an important safety device. You should have your brakes inspected as part of your routine service. Any sign of poor braking performance should be addressed immediately. We recommend having your brakes checked every 20,000 Km. or once a year, whichever comes first. Also keep in mind, that brake fluid is just like every other fluid in your car and needs to be changed on a consistent basis. We recommend every 45,000 Km.
Engine Management System
Virtually all vehicles have an engine management system that performs a series of automated self-checks to ensure that all components are functioning correctly. Any time an engine management related repair is performed and the “Service Engine Soon” light is reset to the off position, the vehicle performs self-checks to ensure that all components are functioning correctly.
The province’s Driveclean program is undergoing many changes in 2013: one of which will require all engine management system components to be functioning correctly. Even if this light is reset and the self-checks are not completed, the vehicle will fail the emission test.
It is imperative that problems in this system are address promptly so that your vehicle will remain reliable, maximize fuel efficiency, and meet the standards set out by Ontario’s Driveclean program.
Tires are the very component that keeps your vehicle on the road. Having tires that are in good condition is vital for safety, traction, handling and comfort.
Tread depth refers to how deep the grooves are in the tire and how well it is able to handle/displace water, snow or slush. As the tire becomes worn, the tread depth decreases and these substances are not as easily dispersed from underneath the vehicle. This effect is often referred to as “aquaplaning.” Most tire manufacturers clearly state that tires need to be replaced once the tread depth is 4/32″ or less.
Irregular tire wear is caused by several factors such as: alignment problems, worn suspension and/or steering components, over-inflation, under-inflation and lack of sufficient rotations. Tires should be rotated every 8,000 – 10,000km. Since misalignment is the leading cause of premature tire-wear, it is recommended to have the alignment checked once per year.
Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems can be found on most vehicles manufactured in more recent years. The purpose of this system is to help drivers use less fuel and to maximize vehicle stability by warning the driver if the pressures are out of the recommended range. Each tire has a sensor that transmits data to the main computer which, when it detects a problem, the computer will notify the driver by illuminating a warning light on the dash.
Engine Cooling System
Incredible heat is generated by the friction and chemical reactions occurring while your engine is running. Without an engine cooling system, it would take minutes (if not seconds) for the metals and gaskets to literally melt and cause irreversible internal engine damage.
Often referred to as “antifreeze” (due to this fluid’s necessary ability to withstand very cold Canadian temperatures!) engine coolant is a fluid that travels throughout the engine and radiator by the fins of a component called the water pump.
The water pump generates coolant flow, the thermostat is a valve that ensures optimal operating temperatures, the radiator keeps the fluid from getting too hot and the heater core takes the heat captured by the engine coolant and makes it available for the passengers in the cabin.
Engine coolant must be evaluated regularly by 3 criteria: 1) The level of the fluid must remain at its proper level. 2) The pH balance and alkalinity must be in check to avoid corrosion or deterioration of metals & gaskets. 3) The freezing properties of the coolant must be sufficient so that it doesn’t freeze.
The gears inside the transmission control how fast the vehicle will go for each rotation of the engine. Very similar to how fast your bicycle will go with every pump of the pedal – depending on what gear you have it in.
Transmissions can be manually controlled (stick shift) or shifting can be controlled through a variety of versions of the automatic transmission. From the conventional torque converter style to the CVT (continuously variable transmissions)… or the latest dual clutch transmissions.
Regardless of the type of transmission, fluid is required for 2 primary reasons: 1) The moving parts require lots of lubrication. 2) Heat! Especially in automatic transmissions, there is an incredible amount of heat that is generated as energy is transferred from the engine to wheels.
Regular maintenance of this fluid is required to help ensure the transmission has maximum life and performance.
The driveline/differential components are responsible for driving the wheels. The engine generates power/energy, the transmission transfers that energy to the driveline/differential which then spins the wheels.
CV (constant velocity) axles are generally found in the front of all-wheel drive vehicles or front wheel drive vehicles. They connect the transmission to the wheels, causing rotational force. Since these axles need to drive the wheels rotationally while allowing for vertical movement and steering, they include a special bearing designed to move in all directions while maintaining a constant speed, or, velocity. Failure of this component can be caused by the protective boot getting damaged, thus exposing the bearing to destructive elements such as water, sand, or debris from the road.
Drivelines also include gear boxes called transfer-cases or differentials which are generally found on rear wheel drive and all wheel drive vehicles. These gear boxes are sealed and need to be well lubricated with oil, just like the engine or transmission. This fluid needs to be checked regularly for contamination and quantity and will require servicing as per the manufacturer’s suggested service intervals.
Starting & Charging
As technology continues to advance at break-neck speeds in today’s vehicles, we are seeing and incredible dependency on electronics. Sensors and computers are responsible for virtually every single function you can imagine. From controlling the fuel/air ratio in the engine, to operating parking aid and gps technology, airbags, traction control, seats and windows, lights… the list goes on and on.
The components responsible for starting and charging your vehicle are essentially the vital heartbeat required to just open the door and turn the key (if yours even still requires a key!)
The key, or electronic fob, activates an electric motor which begins engine rotation while also notifying the computer to begin providing fuel & spark to the engine. Many other features are activated at this point, thanks to the power stored in the battery. After the engine is started, the responsibility for power supply transfers to the alternator.
Alternators and batteries generally give very little warning before a failure. Sometimes you may notice a battery light on the dash or you may experience accessories ceasing to function. These are possible signs of problems with the charging system.
Despite the impressive innovation that has occurred creating a very high dependency on electronics, there are still oils & fluids which much be maintained to ensure your vehicle remains dependable and efficient.
Power Steering Fluid is still found in most vehicles today and it is used to make steering easy through hydraulic pressure. This fluid operates at very high pressures – sometimes as high as 3000 psi – and can get very, very hot. Replacing the power steering fluid at periodic intervals can help prevent damage to seals on the rack and pinion and to keep the pump lubricated.
Brake Fluid is a hydraulic fluid that transfers the pressure from the driver’s foot on the brake pedal to the pistons that apply braking power at each wheel. Brake fluid absorbs moisture over time and contains corrosion inhibitors to prevent the fluid from corroding the metal on the inside of the brake lines. To ensure that there are sufficient corrosion inhibitors, and to minimize seal-damaging moisture, brake fluid should be replaced periodically. Some manufacturers recommend as often as every 2 years.
Fuel System Services come in many shapes and sizes. “Over-the-counter” additives may help maintain a perfectly clean combustion chamber, but they are far too weak/diluted to make significant improvements after carbon has been built up over time. Using a machine to feed a mixed pressurized fuel & cleaning solution directly through the fuel injectors is the most effective way to decarbon the engine – and avoid expensive future repairs while maintaining maximum fuel efficiency.
Differential Fluid lubricates and cools the gears that direct the engine’s power to the wheels on most rear wheel drive cars, trucks and SUVs. This fluid/oil should be replaced periodically to preserve the life of the gears.
Transmission Fluid is responsible for keeping the moving parts inside the transmission lubricated & cool. Overheating and/or lack of lubrication causes damage very quickly in transmissions so it is very important to completely change the fluid at the manufacturer recommended intervals. Performing drain & fill services as opposed to proper services with a machine has minimal effect because the drain & fill procedure only changes about 25% of the dirty, contaminated fluid.
Coolant, otherwise known as antifreeze, is responsible for keeping the engine from overheating – which can cause serious internal damage. As coolant deteriorates, it’s pH balance (level of acidity) falls out of range and the fluid will begin to cause gaskets and internal metals to corrode. The freezing point and the pH balance of the coolant must be monitored regularly (at oil change intervals).
The job of the exhaust system is to take the gases produced through combustion and channel them out the rear of the vehicle. First the fumes enter the manifold (collects from all the cylinders and compiles into one pipe), then they enter the flex pipe (allows the exhaust to move with engine & suspension movement), then they flow through the catalytic converter (reduces chemicals that are especially harmful to the environment such as: carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides), after that they sometimes enter a resonator and a muffler (drastically reduces noise pollution) and finally, the remnants of the exhaust fumes leave the tail pipe – far away from the people inside the cabin.
There are also oxygen sensors that dip into the exhaust system at different points to measure the level of oxygen in the combustion gases. This information is communicated back to the main computer which will then compute the best fuel/air ratio.
Oxygen sensors can lose functionality over time and the exhaust system will corrode overtime. Keep in mind… these components are subjected to incredibly high temperatures and are situated inches from the ground, exposing them to salt, sand, water or debris from the road.
With the exception of the newest vehicle designs that use electric power steering, most power assisted steering systems use a hydraulic pump and valves to make it easier to turn the steering wheel. The pump is turned continuously when the engine is turning, generating high pressures in the power steering fluid. When the steering wheel is turned, a valve in the steering rack and pinion assembly directs the high pressure fluid into one of the chambers inside the rack. The pressurized fluid helps push the rack in the direction the driver is turning. Worn pumps can become noisy, have inadequate pressure, or develop leaks. Power steering fluid should be replaced periodically to ensure long life of the seals inside the power steering system.
As you turn the wheel, and the rack assists your steering with hydraulic pressure, it presses the wheels in the direction you want to go through inner & outer tie rod ends. Both the inner & outer tie rod ends are a ball and socket joint that attach together to connect the rack to the wheel. A worn inner or worn outer tie rod end may cause a clunking noise, looseness in the steering wheel, and uneven tire wear. When either of these components are replaced, the vehicle will need an alignment to ensure they are adjusted properly to that tire wear can be minimized and fuel efficiency can be maximized.
Tie rod ends are found on electric power steering systems as well.
Heating & Cooling
Similar to your home, there is ducting in your car that channel air into the cabin. The temperature and the vents used to deposit hot or cold air into the cabin is controlled through little doors and flaps controlled through buttons, knobs or switches on the dashboard.
The heater core allows hot antifreeze to pass through and the fan brings this heat into the cabin when the driver selects heat. When the driver selects cool air, however, the air then passes through the evaporator which then removes heat from the air leaving it refreshingly cool.
The air conditioning system is made of several components that are accessible independently, unlike your home unit that is likely enclosed in one box. The compressor pulls refrigerant out of the evaporator, pressurizes it to 250 psi (from 30 psi) and pushes it into the condenser. At this point, due to the high pressure (and high temperature) the refrigerant is in a gas state.
Once it enters the condenser (a radiator-looking unit at the front of your vehicle) outside air rushes against it, cooling the refrigerant, therefore converting it into liquid. This effect causes the temperature of the refrigerant to drop significantly as it moves through the dryer and eventually back to the evaporator.
The dryer filters out moisture from the refrigerant (moisture can damage the compressor and cause internal corrosion to other components) and the evaporator brings the cool air into the cabin.
As the fan blows the cool air from the evaporator into the cabin, the refrigerant warms up again and converts the liquid back into a gas. At this point it is sucked back into the compressor and the cycle starts all over again!
The engine is essentially the power plant that generates the energy required to propel your vehicle. Fuel and spark combine to create combustion – combustion is the force that propels the piston downward and begins the rotation of the crankshaft. Once you have 4, 6, 8, 10 or even 12 pistons in action, the rotational force on the crankshaft is sufficient to propel the whole vehicle. Movement is initiated by the starter (powered by the battery), but once the engine is running it creates its own electricity, causes the coolant to flow as needed, and virtually supplies the energy required for all other functions on your vehicle to work.
The engine is capable of generating enough heat and/or friction to self-destruct in minutes (if not seconds) so regular maintenance is absolutely paramount. The engine oil & filter must be changed frequently and the coolant must checked just as often.
Periodically, the engine needs to be ‘tuned-up’ which generally refers to replacing and/or service the components responsible for the combustion: fuel supply and spark supply. Spark plugs, fuel filter, ignition wires and sometimes coils need to be replaced periodically. The fuel injection system needs to be serviced once per year as carbon deposits naturally accumulate over time inside the engine.
Gaskets seal the many different components together and separate the coolant and oil channels so that these fluids do not cross-contaminate. Regular maintenance of the oil & coolant helps to avoid gasket failure.
We all know that without fuel, our vehicle goes nowhere. The fuel system is designed to supply just enough gas to the engine so that it can perform as needed. Much of the innovation with regards to technology today is spent on maximizing fuel efficiency.
The Fuel Pump is submerged in fuel which helps keep the electric motor from overheating. Fuel is pumped at high pressures through a fuel filter to the fuel injectors. Electric fuel pumps can fail suddenly without warning signs, or may fail partially – with a drop in the amount of the fuel the pump is able to deliver. This will result in a loss of power under extreme load conditions, such as when driving up a steep hill, or accelerating to join a fast moving road.
The Fuel Filter prevents tiny particles of dirt from clogging up the fuel injectors. Fuel filters should be replaced regularly to keep the fuel system flowing freely. Clogged filters can put a heavy strain on the fuel pump, and can result in a loss of power when driving.
The Fuel Pressure Regulator alters how much pressure is being delivered to the injectors, depending on the demand required by the driver or the vehicle’s computer. Under idle or light driving conditions, the fuel pressure regulator allows more fuel to return to the tank and lowers the pressure of fuel in the fuel rail. Under heavy acceleration, the regulator increases the pressure at the injectors so that more fuel can get into the engine quickly. The most common failure of a pressure regulator is an internal leak, which allows fuel to be sucked into the air intake on the engine, causing the engine to use excessive amounts of fuel, and potentially be difficult to start.
The Fuel Injector is a simple electric valve. High pressure flows into the top of the injector, and when the computer wants fuel to flow into the engine, it sends power to the injector which then opens the valve. The fuel sprays as a fine mist in order to burn more efficiently. Because the passages inside the injector are very small, any dirt that accumulates inside the injector can restrict the flow of fuel, and dirty fuel injectors can prevent the engine from running smoothly.
The suspension system on your vehicle is made up of many different components which, when they are in good working order, provide you with a ride that is smooth yet responsive.
Shock Absorbers & Springs are used to absorb bumps, dips and other imperfections in the road and they provide smooth recovery (don’t allow the vehicle to continue bouncing after a bump). When these components fail, stopping distance decreases, handing decreases and irregular/excessive tire wear develops.
Control Arms attach the wheel to the frame. At the end that attaches to the wheel there is generally a ball joint, at the end where it is fastened to the frame there are generally rubber bushings. These components allow the control arm to float with the suspension while providing structural stability. Worn control arm bushings can cause clunk noises and can cause irregular/excessive tire wear.
Ball Joints connect the control arm to the wheel, via the steering knuckle. The ball joint allows multi-directional movement: the wheel can be steered while the vehicle goes over bumps. Worn ball joints can also cause clunking noises over bumps, squeaking noises when turning and they can cause irregular/excessive tire wear.
The Stabilizer System is made up of a stabilizer bar, links and bushings – its job is to minimize how much the vehicle rolls or sways around a corner. A broken link or a link with a worn joint will inhibit the stabilizer (sway) bar from transferring the weight evenly as a car corners and may cause a knocking noise while driving over bumps.