Essential Tools for the Do-It-Yourself Mechanic

My brother (an ASE master technician who often has to clean up messes from projects done in home garages) would tell you that do-it-yourself is not a good idea when it comes to working on cars.  But everyone has to start somewhere.  If you’re going to work on a project car – or even your primary means of transportation – you probably carry your tools in a duffel bag rather affording one of those fancy triple decker tool boxes on wheels.  However you store them, what tools should you have in your set?  Here are some suggestions:

  • Floor Jack
  • Sturdy Jack Stands
  • Pliers
  • Hammer – Ball peen hammers will get most thing done
  • Crow bar
  • Ratchet set
  • Flat screwdriver
  • Phillips screwdriver
  • Automotive tweezers

Depending upon whether you’re overhauling your entire car instead of performing a simple fix, there may be quite a few other tools you’d need, including stuff to check electrical connections, power tools to speed things up, and other equipment to work on more recent car models. But if you’re making a list of the essentials, these items should cover the basics of most of your repair needs.

Oil Change for Saturn Cars

Like most car manufacturers, Saturn recommends that you change your oil every 3,000 miles or three months (whichever comes first).  Most of the newer Saturn cars have automatic indicators that will tell you when you need to have your car serviced with an oil change.  Authorized Saturn shops will reset your oil change indicator after they have finished changing the oil in your Saturn car.

It is recommended by Saturn that you (or your mechanic) replace the engine’s air filter during the oil change appointment after each 50,000 mile interval.  Since it is easy to forget when your air filter was last changed, it is a good idea to have your air filter checked when it seems like you’re coming up on 50,000 miles since the last filter change.  This means you should change your air filter roughly every 16 to 17 times your oil is changed, assuming you’ve kept up with the recommended oil change maintenance schedule.

The recommended oils for a Saturn conform to GM standard GM6094M.  Oils that meet this standard are ideal for servicing oil changes.  It is not recommended that any additives be combine with an oil that meets this standard.  If you don’t use what is called “Top Tier Detergent Gasoline” in your Saturn, a bottle of GM Fuel System Treatment PLUS should be added to the gas tank at each oil change to help clean performance inhibiting deposits from forming in fuel injectors and intake valves.

If you have more specific questions about changing the oil in your Saturn, you should be able to find the owners manual on the web site.

Replacing a Fuse on a 2004 Toyota Tundra

My wife and I were taking a long trip to visit my sister and her husband who live thirteen hours away.  In preparation for our trip, my wife bought an electrical outlet that plugs into a vehicle’s cigarette lighter.  After a few miles of being out of town, we opened the new portable outlet and plugged it in to the cigarette lighter outlet so my wife could work on her laptop.  Our new electrical plug appeared to be broken.  We tried switching it on and off a few times, but nothing happened.  On my 2004 Toyota Tundra, there are two additional 12V/100W receptors below and to the left of the glove box, so we tried each of those.  Neither of the extra outlets worked either.  That’s when it occurred to us that we’d likely spent $40 for a new charger that we didn’t need.  It was pretty obvious that something was wrong with the 12V outlets on my truck.  Our guess was that a fuse was blown.

My brother is an experienced Toyota technician, so I called him to have him walk me through my problem.  He told me there was a fuse blown that affected the three 12V outlets on the truck.  He then told me to open the fuse panel located on the driver side of the truck by the hood release handle.  I opened the fuse panel and noticed that on the back of the panel was a chart of fuses.  I found one labeled “PWR Outlet 15A”.  That was the one that seemed like it was affecting my electricity setup.

My brother told me that there are spare fuses located under the hood of Toyotas.  I popped the hood and checked there for what he described as a rectangular box with a lid that could be removed.  Under the hood of the truck I found the box I was looking for on the driver’s side in the upper right hand corner.  My brother told me how to find the fuse I needed, one labeled 15A.  There was also a small, white plastic device (a sort of tweezer) in the middle of the box that was intended for manipulating the fuses.  Using the tweezer, I pulled out the 15A replacement fuse.

The most difficult part of replacing the fuse was pulling out the old blown fuse.  I wasn’t able to remove the blown fuse with the Toyota-supplied fuse tweezers.  Instead I used a pair of tweezers provided by my wife from her makeup kit.  Inserting the replacement fuse was no easy task either.  It was a bit cumbersome trying to hold the fuse while trying to mash it into its place in the fuse box, but after a few tries, the new fuse snapped in.

After I changed the fuse, my wife plugged our charger into the outlet, and we flipped the switch to turn it on.  Voila.  We had power again.  It’s definitely a benefit to have a brother who can troubleshoot problems over the phone.  The lesson (one that cost me $40) I learned is this: If you’re ever in a situation where you have electrical issues on your car, the fuse box is a good place to start.  In addition to the PWR OUTLET label on the fuse chart, I noticed there were other ones, like HTR 10A, TAIL 15A, WSH 25A, 4WD 20A, WIP 25A, etc.  Replacing a fuse for any of those functions is the cheapest and quickest way to find the most probable cause of electrical problems.

Kudos to the Online Mechanic for Fixing Ford Expedition Heater Problem

Sometimes it pays to have family-level access to the Online Mechanic.  I took a trip with my wife and two kids recently (middle of March) to the San Antonio, Texas area (Boerne, specifically) to visit my in-laws down there.  We thought we were going to escape the Utah winter for a week, but our luck apparently wouldn’t allow it.  Along with the much-needed rain that fell in Texas while we were there, the temperatures dropped to the low 40’s.  Those kinds of temperatures in Texas feel like below freezing temperatures in Utah.

During our short trips around the San Antonio area, I noticed that the temperature in the Ford Expedition we were driving seemed to be the same chilling temperature as the outside air.  At first I thought my wife’s family was just so averse to Texas’ summer heat that they preferred to stay as cold as they could as long as they could.  The short trips around San Antonio were bearable anyway, so I didn’t complain.

Then we took a trip to Houston.  After a short while, I noticed that everyone in the car was trying to find ways to get warm.  My mother-in-law apologized that the heater hadn’t been working for the previous month or so.  When she asked for some gloves to keep her hands warm on the cold steering wheel, I figured it was time to go into troubleshooting mode.  I messed with the dials on the console for awhile with no success.  Then I opened the owners manual and read for awhile, finding no tips for what to do if your Ford Expedition’s heat fails to work.  I finally removed the temperature control dial to see if something was preventing the air from switching to hot from cold.  Still nothing obvious stood out.  Instead of dismantling the car from the inside out, I decided to call my dad, the Online Mechanic.

He told me that the first thing to check when an automobile’s heater isn’t working is the coolant level.  For some reason beyond my automotive expertise, if there isn’t enough coolant (water, antifreeze, or a combination of the two) in a car’s cooling system, the heat won’t work.  My mother-in-law’s Expedition helped us find that out the hard way.  I asked her if she’d had her oil changed recently, and she showed me the sticker that indicated she had.  I then asked if, during the oil change, the quick lube worker had checked the fluid levels on her car.  She didn’t know for sure what was done to her car during the oil change, so we decided to have a look at our next stop.  By that time, we were tired of switching the defrost off each time we were too cold to stand it any longer, then switching it back on when the windshield became too fogged up to see outside the car.

After eating lunch at a Whataburger in some town that’s about the halfway point between San Antonio and Houston, I refilled my soda cup with water, and I poured it into the coolant reservoir on the driver’s side of the car.  I tried to access the radiator cap, but apparently the designer’s of the Ford Expedition don’t want people accessing the radiator cap without at least a few handy tools, which is a few more than what I had.  After emptying a quart or so of water into the coolant reservoir, I went back into the restaurant to get more.  My father-in-law (who had been following behind us in another car), recognizing me as the “Wannabe Mechanic” practicing my automotive skills on a substantial investment of his, asked me what I was doing.  I explained what the Online Mechanic had suggested, and he asked me to make sure I was putting in a mixture of half antifreeze / half water, as recommended for most cars.

Since Whataburger doesn’t have a mixture of half antifreeze / half water at its soda refill station, I had to cross the street to a service station and pick some up there.  I brought the coolant back to the Whataburger parking lot, emptied it into the coolant reservoir, and watched it drain down into wherever it drains. (I’m guessing it goes into the radiator.)  I then cranked up the car and turned on the heat.  Voila!  We had heat. 

If you run into the same problem, I’d suggest you try what I did, except much earlier.  Apparently there are lots of people who bring their automobiles into repair shops after having endured significant periods of freezing only to learn that their coolant was low.  The simple addition of antifreeze and water could fix the problem.

How A Car Thermostat Works

How does a car’s thermostat work?

A car has an engine that creates a lot of heat that has to be gotten rid of and at the same time regulated so that the engine will perform efficiently and cause the least amount of air pollution. To accomplish this the car has to have a cooling system that will not only get rid of the heat, but maintain a reasonably constant temperature. In addition, the cooling system has to provide heat to the interior of the car to keep it warm in the winter.

The cooling of the engine and heating of the car is done by using a liquid that can carry the heat from the engine to a radiator where the heat can be dissipated into the air and to a heater core that transfers heat to the inside of the car. This liquid is carried from the engine to the radiator and heater core through hoses and inside one of the hoses is a device called a thermostat. The thermostat controls the flow of the liquid by opening and closing depending on the temperature of the liquid running through it. The thermostat creates a temporary blockage in the hoses that carry the liquid. Doing this causes the liquid to rise in temperature so that the engine will run more efficiently (an engine runs most efficiently at about 200 degrees Fahrenheit) and your heater will be warm enough to heat your car.

A cars thermostat is a round metal device that has the center of it attached to a metal coil that expands or contracts depending on the temperature of the liquid around it. It is located in the engine and when the temperature of the liquid in the engine reaches approximately 200 degrees Fahrenheit the metal coil expands and opens the center section of the thermostat to allow the heated liquid to flow to the radiator or heater core where the liquid is cooled. As the liquid in the engine becomes cooler the metal coil contracts and slows the flow of the liquid which in turn raises the temperature of the liquid. The metal coil is designed to open the thermostat just enough to keep the engine at about 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

If you have ever driven your car and the engine has over heated, the most probable cause is the thermostat has stuck closed. Or if you have driven around on a cold winters day and you heater just won’t heat up, then your thermostat is probably stuck open.


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