Staying Safe With DIY Car Repairs

I’m incredibly excited to welcome Laurie from The Frugal Farmer here today. She’s got some really important thoughts on a topic that I still have much to learn about. Enjoy!

car repair

Greetings, Mom and Dad Money readers! I’ve been loving the great tips in Matt’s series on DIY car maintenance. This is an area where a fan of frugal can save tons of cash, as most auto shops charge at least $50-$100 an hour for labor costs alone. Of course, I’m not opposed to paying a good mechanic what he’s worth (my brother’s been a mechanic for over twenty years), but for those of us with strict financial goals, it’s helpful to save money wherever we can.

That being said, when it comes to DIY car maintenance, I can’t help but think of my husband. Mr. Frugal Farmer, Rick, was a firefighter/EMT/Safety Officer for a total of 23 years until he retired this spring and joined the Frugal Farmer family permanently on the hobby farm we bought a year ago. Rick’s seen more than his fair share of tragedies from DIY car maintenance buffs, and most all of them were avoidable. Today, via Rick’s experience, I’ll share some common home car maintenance dangers and how you can avoid them.

**Disclaimer: This article was not written by a car care expert and the author and blog/site owner retain no responsibility for the car care safety of its readers. Refer to professional car care sources for official car care safety rules.


Yep, it can happen. The battery explosion is the most common accident that Rick’s seen, along with radiator “explosions”. The radiator doesn’t really explode, but if you remove a radiator cap on a vehicle with a hot engine, you’re asking for trouble. From the Do It Yourself website:

One common task in any auto repair is being able to safely remove your automobile’s radiator cap. Every engine must be kept to a certain temperature to keep from overheating. The radiator does this along with a thermostat by circulating a mixture of anti-freeze and water to maintain a safe temperature (around 195 degrees F in most vehicles.) The radiator cap, in particular, keeps the entire cooling system under pressure by raising the coolant’s boiling point and allowing the engine to reach even higher temperatures safely. The cap of the radiator itself is a very important component of the radiator and should be removed and checked occasionally to make sure it is working properly.

The radiator’s heat and pressure build up to dangerous levels when a car is running. Serious injury can come from removing the cap from a hot engine. If too much pressure has built up, removing the cap can send boiling water and steam up and out in all directions

Obviously, the burns from coming in contact with fluids of this temp could be severely damaging, so never, ever take off a radiator cap on a car until the engine has fully cooled.

Battery explosions are also a valid concern. Batteries contain sulfuric acid, and as you might imagine, exploding sulfuric acid can not only be dangerous, it can be deadly. Some things that can cause battery explosions?

1. Over-charging a battery or “jump-starting” a dead battery.  It’s important when doing either of these two things that you proceed cautiously, following your car manufacturer’s instructions or the advice of a good car care book like the Haynes car care manuals, which are written for specific car types. We regularly get these manuals at the local library whenever Rick is doing a big or potentially dangerous maintenance task on our cars.

2. Laying tools across your battery.  From   Battery explosions have occurred as a result of tools being placed between the battery terminals. Some individuals test a battery by placing a screw driver across the terminals to see if an arc jumps, revealing whether the battery is supplying electrical energy or not. This can result in a battery explosion since the current through the screw driver is not regulated, can be very high and generate an electrical arc, causing an internal or external explosion.

Other things like corroded battery connections terminals or defective batteries can also cause battery explosions, so be sure to keep your battery terminals free of debris and corrosion, and watch for possible signs of internal defects like swollen sides of your battery as well.

Improper use of jacks/jack stands

This is one of the more common sources of injury Rick saw on the fire department. I remember one particular case of a beloved young husband and father who died as the result of his car falling off of the jack stands and crushing his chest. I worked at the local bank at the time, and I’ll never forget the look of shock on the face of the man’s young wife when she walked in a few days after his death to take his name off the accounts. It was his wife who found her husband succumbed to his injuries when she went to check on him in the garage.

The rules of proper jack use when working on your vehicle at home?

1.  Always use jacks and jack stands properly rated for the weight of your particular vehicle, i.e. don’t use jacks rated for a 2,000 pound vehicle when you’re working on a Suburban.

2. Make sure your jack stand is properly fitted on your car’s frame before heading under the car to work. Your car’s instruction manual or a Haynes manual should tell you where the proper place is on your vehicle to set your jack stands.

3. Never use a hydraulic jack as a jack stand.  A hydraulic jack is meant to be used for the purpose of jacking up your car so that you can properly place your jack stands under it. The jack itself should never be used as a jack stand, as the hydraulics can fail and drop the car and all of its weight on top of you in an instant.

4. Make sure your parking brake is on, so that you prevent the vehicle from rolling off of the jack stands, and strongly consider using wheel chocks as a back-up in case your parking brake fails.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

This is another common mistake that causes many unnecessary deaths or serious injuries to DIY car owners. How can you avoid Carbon Monoxide poisoning when you’re working on your vehicle?

1. Never run your vehicle’s engine in your garage. Period.

2. If you’re going to break this rule, make sure the garage door is open and the back end of the vehicle is outside of the garage. This is crucially important. Not too terribly long ago, a young teenager in the town where Rick served as an EMT died as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning. He had, or so he thought, followed the safe rules: he was working on the car with the garage door opened. However, the car’s front was facing the open garage door, and the back end of the car was close to the garage wall, forcing the carbon monoxide back into the car, where the young boy was sitting. He was dead within minutes. That’s the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning in the garage; it happens very, very quickly, often before DIY have a chance to realize what’s going on and escape the situation.

Use Proper Safety Gear

It’s also important to use proper safety gear when working on your vehicle at home.

1. Wear safety glasses, especially when working around fluids

2. Wear dust masks, especially when working around car brakes or doing body work

3. Always let someone know you’ll be working on your car, and have them check on you every so often to make sure you’re okay

Yes, DIY car care can save you tons of money, but it can also be dangerous, even deadly, if not done with the proper safety rules in order. Educate yourself thoroughly on these rules before doing your own car maintenance and repair.

What are your DIY car care safety tips?

Laurie is a wife, mother to 4, and homesteader who blogs about personal finance, self-sufficiency and life in general over at The Frugal Farmer. Part witty, part introspective and part silly, her goal in blogging is to help others find their way to financial freedom, and to a simpler, more peaceful life.

Photo courtesy of imallergic

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33 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Mike GetRichWithMe October 9, 2013

    That is a great point you make about not using a hydraulic jack as an axle stand while you are working under a car. Its something I’ve never really thought about before, and you are soooo right.
    All it takes is for the jack to give and you can get squashed under the car.
    A very very good point. Thanks

  • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer October 9, 2013

    Thanks, Mike. Yeah, it only takes a second for those jacks to release their pressure and accidents can happen very quickly.

  • DC @ Young Adult Money October 9, 2013

    Great tips, Laurie. I have more than once probably left a tool by the battery, and I’m a bit nervous of using jack stands because I worry about doing it improperly. One time when I was changing a flat the tire was really stuck on there and my friend went underneath the wheel and was pushing and pulling until it finally came off. A few of us were there and definitely were worried something was going to go wrong and the whole weight of the car would fall on him.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer October 9, 2013

      What a scary situation! Glad it turned out okay, and that there were plenty of guys there that could’ve lifted the car off if need be.

  • Edward - Entry Level Dilemma October 9, 2013

    My brother once had a car fall off a jack just seconds after getting out from under it. Ever since then, we have been a lot more careful. I don’t have jack stands out here, so I put the car up on blocks whenever I need to get underneath.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer October 9, 2013

      That’s terrible, Edward! Thank goodness he’s okay! So glad you learned the easy way, though.

  • jefferson @seedebtrun October 9, 2013

    Good post.. I try to do any repairs (both car and home) whenever I can.. But I do know my limits. I have had a car fall off of a hydraulic jack before when changing a tire, so please understand that there is a serious risk of injury there!!..

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer October 9, 2013

      You’re right, Jefferson – Rick’s seen it first hand. Not pretty stuff.

  • Holly Johnson October 9, 2013

    Car repairs are just not something that we do ourselves. We save it for the professionals! However, I think it’s awesome when people can do their own work. If you have the skills, why not?

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer October 9, 2013

      I think it’s also great, Holly, that you guys know your limits too. That’s important, even for the most frugal DIYers.

  • Andrew October 9, 2013

    Great tips Laurie, it is definitely good to know how to stay safe while making repairs. Carbon monoxide poisoning is really dangerous, and a good warning if for those not making repairs. I’ve heard too many stories where people died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer October 9, 2013

      Yeah, it’s sad stuff, because it’s so very preventable. Thanks, Andrew!

  • John S @ Frugal Rules October 9, 2013

    Great tips Laurie, though I think my best DIY tip for car repairs is paying the mechanic, Lol! 😉 Seriously though, if you have the skills I think it only makes sense to do it yourself. I’ve taught myself a lot of things around the house, but few have the risk of explosion. 🙂

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer October 9, 2013

      LOL, I know what you mean. Our gas oven recently went out, and after much discussion, Rick had me order the parts for him to fix it himself. I love the DIY stuff not only for the money saving aspect, but for the skillset improvements as well. But the danger risk is a little nerve-wracking sometimes. 🙂

  • Done by Forty October 9, 2013

    There is some great advice, especially about properly jacking & securing your car. That picture at the top of the article makes me uncomfortable just looking at it!

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer October 9, 2013

      I know – me too! It just makes me cringe.

  • E.M. October 9, 2013

    Thank you for these great tips, Laurie. I will be sure to keep this all in mind in case I ever have to do work on my car! My dad used to fix everything up, but since my parents have moved, I’ve had to become a bit more self-reliant. I will have to look into the Haynes manual at the library, too.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer October 9, 2013

      We love the Haynes manuals, E.M., and you can’t beat free advice. 🙂

  • krantcents October 9, 2013

    Great information, but I will stick with my mechanic.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer October 9, 2013

      I think it’s awesome when people know when that’s the right decision for them. I wonder if, when our debt is gone, whether or not we’ll end up doing less DIY stuff.

  • Lance@MoneyLife&More October 9, 2013

    My dad was a mechanic long ago and I’m sure he could tell many stories. With cars getting as advanced as they have, I’m sure there are lots of ways to mess things up and get hurt. Make sure you fully understand what you’re doing before you do it would be my #1 tip!

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer October 9, 2013

      Great tip, Lance! That should’ve been first on my list. 🙂 I’ll bet your dad has lots of good advice he could share with that kind of experience.

  • MoneySmartGuides October 10, 2013

    My advice is to take off your wedding ring before working on the car. This is especially true if you will be working near the battery. If your ring is able to conduct electricity and you accidentally touch a battery cable the result isn’t going to be fun.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer October 10, 2013

      Excellent reminder! That’s something I think a lot of us don’t think of, myself included!

  • Mike Collins - Wealthy Turtle October 10, 2013

    Great tips for staying safe while working on your car. My local paper recently had a story of a man who was nearly killed when his jack failed and his car fell on him. Luckily he wasn’t alone and his friends were able to get him out.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer October 10, 2013

      Wow, Mike, thanks for sharing that story. It happens more often than we like to believe, I think, and luckily the guy in your town had friends who were able to get the car off in time. Scary stuff!

  • Alexa Mason October 10, 2013

    Car care is over my head. This is one are that I am more than willing to pay an expert. I try to keep up with car maintenance so that my car will have a long life but I always to take it to the shop for routine maintenance.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer October 10, 2013

      And I think, Alexa, that it’s really great that you know that it’s something best left to the experts. We have those tasks too, the ones that, although we could save money by doing it ourselves, we know better. That’s smart money AND life management. 🙂

  • Grayson @ Debt Roundup October 10, 2013

    Excellent tips Laurie. I have seen many people get injured when doing car repairs. I have only had one close call with a jack stand, but that was way back in the day. The jack buckled and the car fell to the side toward me. I was out of the way, but that made me buy high quality and durable jacks for when I am working on my cars.

    • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer October 10, 2013

      Wow, Grayson, that must’ve been scary! You bring up a good point though, about buying high quality equipment. That’s a very important part of car safety – thank you!

  • Brook Hurd February 19, 2015

    Thanks for the tips! I can definitely testify of the importance of wearing goggles for certain car repairs. I’ve never had the need to use a dust mask, but I can see why that would come in handy. Do you have any tips on how to know whether or not a repair job is too big to do alone? My engine has been acting funny lately, and while I’m pretty decent with cars, I’m wondering if maybe I need professional help.

    • Matt Becker February 20, 2015

      Great question! To be honest I barely even qualify as a novice when it comes to car repairs, so take my advice here with a grain of salt. But if it were me, I would first try to get an idea of what might be wrong and what was involved in fixing it. Then I would want to know what the worst-case scenario would be if I messed it up. If I was risking doing real damage to the engine, I would probably just go to a professional. But if the worst case scenario was simply not fixing the problem, maybe I would give it a shot.

  • james February 21, 2019

    you should have mentioned never cross thread, under or over tighten wheel or other nuts.

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