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Non-verbal communication

As owner-drivers, we expect faithful service from our automobiles whenever we start their engines.  For the most part, they dutifully fulfill those expectations, supplying convenience, dependability, and safety.

What do we offer in return?  Too often, drivers take a use-and-abuse approach to vehicle operation, while ignoring maintenance.  Even owners with good intentions may miss warning signals and defer repair of their complex driving machines.

While they don’t talk, our cars and trucks offer non-verbal communication indicating their needs.

The gauges monitor crucial items like coolant temperature, oil pressure, charging system, and fuel level.  Know the normal operating ranges of these indicators, and keep an eye on them for advance warnings of potential disaster.  In addition to gauges, the “catch-all” check-engine light should be heeded if lit.  Depending on your vehicle, warning lights (in lieu of or in addition to gauges) may monitor some of the functions above, along with tire pressure, air bag function and others.

Besides these built-in alerts, there are many visual cues that can indicate vehicle needs.

Stay acutely aware of unusual noises or vibrations while driving.  So you can tell your service advisor about them, decide if you are hearing a thump, click, clang, bang, whir, buzz, scrape, or pop, and take note when they occur.  Some car noises are only heard when either cold or hot, at certain speeds, when accelerating, when braking, or at other specific times.  An accurate description of the sound, along with where it is coming from will aid a technician’s diagnosis.

Fluid drips indicate potential auto problems and learning to “read” them is helpful.  Fuel leaks are detected by smell as much as sight — if you smell fuel during normal operation, it is not normal.  Coolant leaks are not normal either, and often appear as greenish-yellow puddles under the engine area.  Newer autos use a reddish coolant that appears much like automatic transmission fluid when it makes a puddle.  Older cars may leak a bit of oil or transmission fluid without much harm, but a fix is in order if excessive.

The state of runability is a good indicator of condition in modern cars.  With electronic fuel injection and multi-sensored, computer-controlled engine/transmission management, today’s vehicles perform flawlessly in the full range of operating conditions.  It follows, then, that when you experience hard starting, surging, fluctuating idle, or irregular shifting, something is wrong.  When any change occurs in the way that your vehicle runs, head to your favorite shop before it worsens, since one problem can easily lead to another. Even one faulty electronic sensor can leave you stranded.

Stick with a service and repair facility that you trust.  Even the sharpest owner can’t do everything themselves these days — diagnostics for newer vehicles requires substantial equipment investment and trained technicians.  So whether you choose an independent shop or a franchised dealer facility for service and repair, check to be sure that they are equipped with the instruments and personnel to properly work on your specific vehicle.

Increasing knowledge of your vehicle’s operation and maintenance is the best hedge against trouble.  The owner’s manual is a good place to begin this education — a wealth of information is contained therein, such as detailed operational instructions, required fluid recommendations, maintenance intervals, driving tips, and visual inspection procedures.  You might even consider taking a basic auto information class through our community college system if you feel mechanically inept.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at

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