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Self-service: more than just pumping gas

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Has your car lost a good friend - the service-station man who used to fill the gas tank, check the oil, and wash the windshield? A good worker also would keep the battery from going dry, show you where the fan belt was cracked and worn, and tell you if the water hose was about to let go. He'd even cast an eye at the tires and add air if he thought it was required.

Now if you pump your own gas, the extras are up to you. Carmakers complain that too many motorists pay scant attention to what goes on under the hood, and their cars are the worse for it.

What you may need is a mini-course in auto anatomy. To start, you can take the owner's manual out of the glovebox and read it carefully. Auto manuals are not always written for the uninitiated, but you can at least find out where the dipstick is.

Nothing is guaranteed to ruin a car quicker than letting it get too low on oil. The older the car, the more frequently you should check the dipstick. It's a good thing, in fact, to check the oil yourself, even if you have just had the oil changed by a mechanic.

When you take a car in for repair, make sure all the scheduled work has actually been done.

I once took my car to a trusted mechanic for an oil change and some other minor work. About a month later, the low-oil light suddenly came on, and I discovered that the car was almost out of oil. The mechanic had done the other work but had forgotten the oil change.

Also, be sure to check those bills. Ask questions. If I had checked the bill, I would have seen that an oil change was not listed.

Incidentally, your car manual will tell you what kind of oil should be put into the car. You can buy oil at discount stores and add it yourself if you wish. In areas where gasoline stations are mostly self-serve, you're going to have to add it yourself anyway.

Remember that it is important to see that it's done. Running out of fuel isn't half as serious a problem as running out of oil.

If you have an older car, check the radiator water sometimes before you start up; in other words, before the water gets hot. Take a look at the water hose. If the hose is cracked and worn, have it replaced. It is disconcerting to have a cloud of steam suddenly erupt from under the hood.

Should the car start to steam, however, do not immediately add cold water because it can crack the engine block. No matter how hurried you may be, first let the engine cool down.

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