Pickup Trucks 101: Basic Maintenance

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By Matthew Barnes

Owning a pickup truck provides a lot of freedom and capability that a car doesn't. A pickup has plenty of room, a commanding view of the road, and it can tow significant loads. Many also have four-wheel drive. The price of the added capability, as you might expect, is higher operational costs from fuel and maintenance. The harder a vehicle works, the more maintenance it needs.

For many pickup trucks and SUVs, the owner's manuals have two named service intervals: one for regular use and the other for "heavy" or "off-road" use. The heavy- or off-road-use service intervals are typically much shorter than the regular-use intervals. Here's what to keep in mind.

Fluids and Lubrications

Towing and hauling can add a lot of wear and tear on a vehicle, but having clean fluids will greatly reduce the amount of wear a vehicle suffers. Always check the owner's manual for fluid and filter change intervals and specifications. There are a variety of product and brand options out there, but it's always best to use what the manufacturer recommends -- especially to protect your warranty.

Most fluids will have a mileage or time interval for when they need to be changed. If a fluid level is low, get into the habit of thoroughly checking all the lines and components in which that fluid flows to find out if there's a leak. Remember, all fluids should be checked with the vehicle on level ground.

Engine oil: Oil keeps an engine cool, lubricated and protected. New vehicles often have oil-life gauges or readouts that let you know when to change the oil, and keep in mind that oil life can be cut in half when driving in rough and dusty conditions. The oil level and quality should be checked at least once a month after waiting a few minutes once the engine has been turned off.

For any fluid that is being checked with a dipstick, wipe the dipstick clean first, then fully insert it into its housing. Remove it immediately to check the level and color. With a diesel, the oil will turn black quickly. This doesn't necessarily mean the oil needs to be changed; however, if the oil is black in a gas engine, it probably does. Mileage and usage are the best ways to tell when the oil needs to be changed. Remember to always change the oil filter when the oil is changed.


Oil Life II


Transmission fluid: Transmission fluid cools the transmission, protects it and allows it to work properly. Transmission fluid should be checked at the same intervals as the engine oil. When checking automatic transmission fluid, the vehicle should be idling in Park. Check the dipstick the same way you would with engine oil. If the fluid is dark or black -- or if it smells bad or burnt -- it needs a change. Most manual transmissions (and some automatics) don't have dipsticks but can still be checked other ways. Note: Different vehicles have different transmission-fluid change intervals, and some even claim to be lifetime. The transmission filter should also be changed regularly.

Transmission Fluid Dipstick II


Coolant: Coolant levels should be checked at least once before winter and summer. It's a good idea to check it at every oil change and before any trips where the vehicle will be worked hard or driven long distances; dirty or old coolant can prevent the corrosion inhibitors from working properly.

When opening the radiator cap, make sure the coolant is cool. Clean the cap to ensure a proper seal. If it is opened when hot, it can spray liquid that is likely to be near boiling temperatures. Be aware that there is often a minimum and maximum marking on the coolant reservoir, and some have hot and cold levels, as well. Depending on the model, engine and use, the coolant should be changed somewhere between 15,000 and 100,000 miles.

Brake and power-steering fluid: These fluids should be checked at every oil change. Both brake and power-steering fluids can last a long time, but change intervals will vary by manufacturer. Moisture and heat can affect the quality of both fluids; if either absorbs water or is overheated for extended periods of time, they should be replaced. Water causes rust and heat degrades fluid quality.

Brake Fluid Reservoir II

Differential oil: Most vehicles will have between one and three differentials in the vehicle that will need to be checked and maintained. If the vehicle is front- or rear-wheel drive, there will only be one differential to be checked. If the vehicle is all- or four-wheel drive, there will most likely be three differentials: the front, center (inside the transfer case) and rear differential. The front and rear differentials often use the same type of gear oil, but not always. The transfer case typically uses a different type of oil than the front and rear differentials.

Hardware Checkups

For most vehicles, these components might last the life of the vehicle, but for vehicles used for towing and hauling, they may need to be inspected regularly. Again, check your owner's manual and follow manufacturer guidelines. At every oil change interval, all greaseable joints should be greased. This will protect the joints and push out old, degraded grease. Many people are unaware that most pickups have steering, suspension and drive-shaft joints with grease fittings that need to be greased regularly.

Suspension: When used heavily, the suspension runs the risk of sagging or breaking. It's a good idea to inspect the suspension before and after hauling any heavy loads or traveling long distances. Check the springs for cracks and make sure the bolts are properly tightened. Check the shock absorbers for any leaks or loose bolts, too.

Upper Control Arm Ball Joint Grease Point II

Spark Plugs: Spark plugs should be replaced regularly, with most lasting between 60,000 and 100,000 miles. Most vehicles have one spark plug per cylinder; however, some engines (such as Ram's 5.7-liter V-8 Hemi) have two. Inspecting the spark plugs when changing them allows for a look inside the engine. If you find any oil on the spark plug or if it's heavily blackened, there's probably an oil leak. If the plug is exceptionally clean, there may be a head gasket leak allowing coolant into the cylinder.

Steering: Loose steering components can cause the vehicle to wander and, in some conditions, create what is known as "death wobble." Death wobble happens when components are worn enough that the front wheels start to move side to side without any steering input. The wheels may toe in and out rapidly, causing loss of control. We recommend checking the steering components at every oil change interval and greasing the ball joints to keep things well-lubed.

Brakes: Brakes will wear significantly faster when stopping hard or heavy loads. Brake pads and shoes should be checked at every tire rotation interval (check your owner's manual for instructions). If heavy loads are moved regularly, a brake upgrade might be a good option.

Tie Rod Ball Joint Grease Point II

Frame: Frames are thought of as the biggest and strongest parts of a vehicle, but they can crack, bend and rust if neglected. It's a good idea to inspect the frame once a year to check for excessive rust and any areas that may be bent or cracked. If the vehicle is used for towing heavy loads often, then it's a good idea to check the frame where the trailer hitch receiver attaches, either near the bumper or under the bed. If the vehicle is used in an area with high salt content on the roads, it should be washed regularly or have an undercoating applied before winter to protect it from extra corrosion.

Air filter: Although the owner's manual will recommend a certain mileage interval, the air filter should be changed whenever it's dirty. Regular intervals can vary widely, but when driving on dusty roads, the air filter may need to be changed after just a few hundred miles. If the vehicle is consistently used in an extremely dusty environment, a snorkel might be a good upgrade to increase filter life.

Diesel Items

It's worth noting here that diesel engines require a few more maintenance items that gas engines don't. Here are a few things to keep in mind. 

DEF (diesel exhaust fluid): DEF greatly reduces diesel emissions out the tailpipe. It should be topped off at every oil change, if not more often, depending on usage. For some vehicles (Ford, Nissan and Ram), the DEF tank is filled from the same fuel filler door. Others (Chevrolet and GMC) have the fill port under the hood. Many truck stops have DEF at the pump, or it can be bought at most places that sell oil in 2.5-gallon boxes.

DEF Fill and Coolant II

Fuel filter: Both gas and diesel engines have fuel filters, but diesel engines require the filter be changed more often. The filter on a diesel engine will be placed somewhere easy to reach, whereas on gas vehicles, the filter is often in or close to the gas tank.

Water separator: Diesel engines have an additional filter that separates water out of the fuel. That water needs to be drained out of the separator regularly to keep it functioning properly. If it isn't drained, there will most likely be a warning light notifying the driver that it needs to be drained.

Final Thought

There are many important things to do to keep a pickup or SUV running strong for a long time, but driving it regularly and performing regular maintenance is the key. Sitting for long periods of time allows components to rust, dry up, crack or seize when they otherwise wouldn't. Take care of worn parts before they become a problem and damage other parts. Use high-quality, manufacturer-approved fluids and filters, and replace them regularly. By all means, use the vehicle for what it was intended for, but drive and maintain it with care. And as always, be prepared.

Cars.com photos by Matthew Barnes

 

Rear Differential Fluid Fill Bolt II

Fuel Filter Life II

 

Comments

Basic maintenance on a Ford is drive it for 10,000 miles then take it to a junk yard to be crushed and buy a new one. By time you hit 10,000 miles in a Ford its trashed and worn out.

I had bought a 2000 Chevy Silverado 1500 with the 5.3 in 2005, at the time it had a 104,000 miles on it,when I finally sold it in 2015 it had 275,000 miles on it, original engine and transmission no rebuilds! I used it as a 3/4 ton truck for my contracting business and did all the maintenance myself, only oil I used was Valvoline High Mileage. Right now I'm driving a 2005 F150 which we bought used with 80,000 miles on it and now I'm at 166,000 miles and going strong!

Was at my local Ford dealership yesterday and listened to a service consultant tell an owner that they needed to ensure their diesel additive was kept filled up of the engine would drop into 'limp mode' after a certain number of miles. Not a statement against Ford but rather a statement about some of the people who drive trucks unnecessarily.

Woopud has the right idea if your personal vehicle will be used for hard or dirty work, like construction. No point in buying new trucks unless paying more money per mile driven turns you on.

Buy a durable truck, maintain it. Use it hard if your requirements demand it. Keep the fluids clean. You will be rewarded with long vehicle life and good performance.

Many of the new trucks on the market do not have a transmission dip stick, as they are sealed units.

I've heard horror stories of people that had fluid changes done at the dealership (trans/diff/transfer case), and shortly after they have a failure. Either wrong fluid is put it, or changing the fluid stirred up all the crud and now it's circulating through the unit.

My dads 1997 K1500 has 272K on it as of last week when I was at shop to change oil. All he has done is change out head gaskets, alternator, and then routine maintenance. Still a great looking truck.

My nephew has a 2005 Ford with 5.4L with 120K on it, and it knocks when he starts it and its cam phaser has gone out of it, so he has to use a power programmer to by pass it in order for it to run properly. He is looking at a newer ford and I told him he "I thought you learned your lesson with this truck"? LOL

@johnny/tnt, you guys sound like someone who is chasing number 1. Oh thats right, you are chasing the far superior F series.

So sorry you need to continue to defend the twins.

@papa, spoken like a true non small business owner. Buying new pays off, vs used.

Drive a Toyota, you will have few issues, hence lowest maint. costs of any pickup!

spoken like a true non small business owner. Buying new pays off, vs used. Posted by: Nitro | Sep 27, 2017

@Nitro

spoken like a true idiot.

It's impossible to gauge new vs used because each truck is an individual. Some are crap and some are sweet regardless of whether your bought New or used. Grow up.

Either wrong fluid is put it, or changing the fluid stirred up all the crud and now it's circulating through the unit. Posted by: Tyler | Sep 27, 2017

@Tyler

People rarely take their car/truck to the dealer for a trans fluid change unless it's been acting funny.

Result? They blame the service dept personnel for something that was already getting ready to take a dump anyway.

The vast majority of the maintenance items listed cannot be done without lifting the vehicle. Very few people have a car lift in their garage. Ground clearance on most newer vehicles is so low that even reaching under for the oil drain plug is impossible. My son's 2005 Grand Cherokee has less than 5 inches of clearance. So much for off road capability.
Manufacturers need to start designing in accessibility for common maintenance items. A water pump shouldn't be an all day project necessitated by removal of half the engine to get access to a single bolt. Differentials should have a drain plug as well as an inspection plug.

@papa, everytime you call someone else a name, please look in the mirror, then it will be accurate. You make no sense, but thats no surprise. yes they are all different, but buying new is an asset with warranty and backing, the smart way to go in most cases. If you actually owned a business before you would learn. Same with education, go get some, I'm sure they offer it even at your age.

Save your money on GM maintenance.
The minute the warranty is up ,time to ditch it. Think of all the time you spent in the service waiting area when GM was footing the bill. Do you want now to pay, plus all that time. You drove for it for 10,000 miles, didn't you get the message with shaking and horrible 5.3. Better yet don't pass along your mistake take it to a junk yard to be crushed and buy a new built tough FORD.

Something I would like to see offered as an option, though it could be standard with hardly any effort, is a basic schedule monitor that alerts you when all regular maintenance is needed from oil changes to tire rotation to transmission fluid to diff fluid and everything in between, based purely off of time/mileage. With today's technology it could also easily calculate for heavy usage and compensate accordingly. Just a small reminder, something you could turn off if you didn't want to use it: DING! Don't forget to rotate your tires soon. DING! Schedule to replace your fuel filter. If you run a business like I do sometimes things are totally forgotten about, especially when someone else is using the vehicle, and a reminder in advance such as the oil change warning on my work truck makes it easy to schedule it to be done and not throw a wrench into the workweek while it is being worked on, or worse put off for too long.

Even from a manufacturer standpoint it would make sense to offer such a feature, so when the schedule chimes but is ignored by imbeciles and the vehicle is damaged by neglect then it is almost certainly an open and shut case. It helps responsible customers keep a regular maintenance schedule, might even encourage many to take it to a dealer and become loyal to that brand, and lets the irresponsible customers screw themselves over.

@johnny/tnt, you guys sound like someone who is chasing number 1. Oh thats right, you are chasing the far superior F series.

So sorry you need to continue to defend the twins.

@papa, spoken like a true non small business owner. Buying new pays off, vs used.


Posted by: Nitro | Sep 27, 2017 9:16:35 AM

Bunch of morons, twits deluxe.

@ Frank

There u go again name calling!

Trademark Frank at his or should we say HER finest

@ Frank

There u go again name calling!


Posted by: TNTGMC | Sep 27, 2017 11:43:58 AM

I just hurt her feelings, gtfo

@ Frank

Snappy Comeback!!

This coming from a "I think guy/man", but who knows, I won't judge!! Who defends the junk 5.4L saying its better than the 5.3L

You are delusional, mislead, and lied to for so long you probably can't tell what is up or down. Or maybe I should say what's you head to your @$$

buying new is an asset with warranty...the smart way to go in most cases.

@Nitro

Speaking of education, you have not been listening in class.

Last week I said that a warranty is a feature YOU pay for today, while the other guy sells you a promise to do something at HIS discretion in the future.

You pay, he decides. Smart business owners NEVER voluntarily enter into such agreements, EVER.

Class dismissed.

@papa, I cant respond to something laughable....other than HAHAHAHA. you buy a new truck, it comes with warranty, its an asset to your business. End of discussion. It may not always work, but in most cases it does. Sometimes actually doing something is how you best learn, advice you needed for the day. Always learn Papa, always learn.

Do any new trucks have grease fittings for the ball joints. I have them on my 99 S-10 along with grease fittings on the tie rods. I grease them every time I change the oil and filter. My Isuzu does not have any grease fittings and I have noticed most of the newer trucks that I have seen don't. I would rather have the grease fittings and know that I can grease them than wait for a suspension part to fail. Seems like not putting grease fittings on is more of a cost savings for the manufacture. They say that the parts are lubricated for life but that means that as soon as the lubricant is gone then the part will fail. I do have washable air filters on both my trucks. I use Castrol GTX in my S-10 and Mobil 1 in my Isuzu both require 5w30. I have noticed on my wife's CRV that the oil is 0w20 full synthetic. It seems that most of the newer engines require lighter weight and synthetic oil. None of my vehicles use oil.

can't find the power steering fluid container on my 2016 F-150

I use Castrol GTX in my S-10 and Mobil 1 in my Isuzu both require 5w30. It seems that most of the newer engines require lighter weight and synthetic oil. Posted by: Jeff S | Sep 28, 2017

@Jeff S

I use the oil that's recommended in the vehicle's owners manual.

Ditto for air filters and oil filters. On my GM's I use AC/Delco stuff or the equivalent. The fluids and parts are usually defined by a specific number that you can find in the manual.

There's nothing that says you can't use synthetic but it usually isn't needed. My 2009 Silverado manual calls for a 5w30 synthetic blend, which is a little cheaper than full synthetic. I use an ordinary oil filter and change the oil and filter 3 x per year.

I like full synthetic because it gives you a margin of error if the cooling system suffers a loss under hot conditions, like summer driving with the AC on. I've always liked Mobil 1.

These comments! I am not a small business owner. Nor do I own a business of any kind. I guess that means my opinions dont matter, and that I am not a man, or grown up either.

Sometimes I wish Admin would striaght up erase dumb, off topic comments that are meant to only insult other people. In other words, follow the rules. But hey, maybe some people on here are snowflakes and get their feelings hurt and feel like rules dont matter to them :(

These comments! I am not a small business owner. Nor do I own a business of any kind. I guess that means my opinions dont matter, and that I am not a man, or grown up either.

Sometimes I wish Admin would striaght up erase dumb, off topic comments that are meant to only insult other people. In other words, follow the rules. But hey, maybe some people on here are snowflakes and get their feelings hurt and feel like rules dont matter to them :(

These comments! I am not a small business owner. Nor do I own a business of any kind. I guess that means my opinions dont matter, and that I am not a man, or grown up either.

Sometimes I wish Admin would striaght up erase dumb, off topic comments that are meant to only insult other people. In other words, follow the rules. But hey, maybe some people on here are snowflakes and get their feelings hurt and feel like rules dont matter to them :(

@papa jim--Have a AEM 28-20408 DryFlow Air Filter on the Isuzu and a AEM 28-20042 DryFlow Air Filter on the S-10 both are life time and washable. Oil weight for both truck is 5W30. I use Castrol 5w30 on the S-10 which is for the most part what I have used for over 18 years (at a 113,550 miles I wasn't sure about switching the S-10 to full synthetic especially since it does not use any oil and seems to run fine). Otherwise most of what I use is AC/Delco since both trucks are GMs. I service both trucks on the severe usage schedule because I would rather err on the side of caution--oil is much cheaper than a new engine. I have had two vehicles in the past that went 200k and most likely these trucks will do that but I might not keep them as long--don't drive as much as I use to.

I am to fat to get under my truck, I tried once and got stuck.



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