By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Before you can change engine oil or do many other minor (and major) vehicle service, it’s usually necessary to raise the vehicle sufficiently to gain access. Even if all you’re doing is changing a tire, it’s important to raise (and support) the vehicle properly.
* Do not use the factory-supplied tire jack to raise the car except in emergencies (such as a flat tire) and even then, never get underneath the vehicle when it’s only supported by the factory tire jack. These jacks are often marginally safe, not particularly stable, even flimsy.
* Obtain a good-quality floor or bottle-type hydraulic jack with a load rating sufficient to safely raise the car. A jack with a 2 or 3 ton capacity is typically plenty for most passenger cars. Floor jacks (the ones that roll on four little wheels, etc.) are more expensive but more stable and thus safer than bottle-type jacks. They also have (typically) a larger contact pad and are easier to use.
* Obtain a pair of good-quality fixed jack stands to support the car once it’s been raised by the hydraulic jack. Hydraulic jacks can leak or fail, which is why it is very important to use fixed jack stands to support the weight of the vehicle. (The fixed stands are height-adjustable; once you set the height you need, you lock them into place with a ratcheting mechanism or pin.)
* Let someone know you are about to do some work on the vehicle — just in case.
* Park the vehicle on a level, firm surface such as a driveway pad. Avoid surfaces such as grass and loose sand/gravel, etc. which may shift or be compressed by the weight of the vehicle.
* Be sure the transmission is in “Park” and the parking brake fully applied to prevent the vehicle from rolling.
* Look underneath the vehicle and locate a structural hard point such as a frame rail. Be careful not to place the jack underneath non-structural sheetmetal (rocker panels, etc.) or relatively delicate suspension components. Never place the jack underneath the engine/oil pan. On unibody-type vehicles there will usually be an easily identifiable notched area on the underbody intended as a jacking point. Many owner’s manuals also will tell you where it’s safe to place the jack. Be absolutely sure about the place where you’re about to try to raise the vehicle. If it’s not a structural hard point and you try to jack up the car, you may cause damage.
* Be sure the jack’s pad — the part that contacts the vehicle’s frame/hard point — is centered on the jacking point.
* Gently raise the vehicle to the working height you need. Only raise the vehicle high enough to gain access as the higher off the ground it is, the less stable it may become as weight shifts, etc. Observe the jacking point as you proceed; if you see signs of crimpling metal or hear unusual sounds, stop and immediately release pressure on the jack. Re-check your hard point.
* Once the vehicle is at the working height you want, carefully slide a fixed jack stand underneath the frame/hard point and gently lower the hydraulic jack until the weight of the vehicle is on the jack stand, not the hydraulic jack. For maximum safety, it’s a good idea to use jack stands in pairs, so that the front (or rear) end of the vehicle is supported evenly.
* Be sure the car is securely supported and stable on the jack stand(s) before you crawl underneath.
* When you’re finished working, use the hydraulic jack to raise the vehicle enough so that you can safely remove the jack stands. Gently lower the vehicle.