Performing your own vehicle maintenance is a great way to save cash. But to do so, you’ll need to lift your vehicle off the ground in a safe, secure manner. Sure, you can run down to your local auto parts store and buy a floor jack, but do you really know how to safely use it?
When you’re underneath a vehicle, safety is paramount. Follow these steps and take all necessary precautions to prevent mishaps and empower yourself to work with confidence.
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CHOOSING THE RIGHT FLOOR JACK
When purchasing a floor jack, the first thing you need to know is the curb weight of the vehicle, as it will determine what the load rating of the jack should be. Buy a jack that is rated for no less than half of the vehicle’s curb weight – the higher the jack’s rating, the better. If you have an exceptionally low vehicle, look for a low-profile jack that can easily slip underneath. On the other hand, if you have a higher vehicle such as an SUV or a truck, make sure that the jack’s lifting arm is long enough to sufficiently raise the vehicle. And if your vehicle’s jacking points are difficult to reach, you’ll want a long-frame jack that extends far underneath.
USING A JACK
Examine and chock
Before you begin the lifting process, examine the area around your vehicle. Work only on a flat, level surface. If there is a slope of any kind, don’t even think about jacking the vehicle; either move it to a flat location or call a professional.
To prevent the vehicle from shifting, chock the wheels that will stay in contact with the ground during the jacking process by placing 4x4 blocks of wood or chocking wedges made specifically for this purpose both in front of and behind the tires. Then set the parking brake and engage the transmission. If the vehicle has an automatic transmission, simply shift it into park. If it’s a front-wheel-drive stick shift and you’re lifting the rear axle, place the transmission in reverse. If it’s a rear-wheel drive vehicle and you’re lifting the front axle, shift the car into either first or second gear.
Lift ’er up
Position the floor jack according to your vehicle’s recommended jacking points, which are listed in the owner’s manual. (Common jacking points include frame members or the rear differential.) If you’re working on a soft surface such as asphalt, place a ¼-in.-thick (minimum) section of plywood under the jack to prevent it from sinking into the asphalt as you raise the car.
Begin raising the vehicle using the floor jack. Watch for shifting or for any damage to the jacking points during the process. Do not get under the vehicle during this time — it could slip from the jack and crush you.
Once you’ve raised the vehicle, place two jack stands under factory-approved locations. Again, if you’re working on asphalt, place scraps of plywood under the jack stands just as you did under the floor jack.
Slowly lower the vehicle onto the jack stands while watching for any interference caused by the chassis, engine, driveline or suspension parts. Make any necessary adjustments now; never attempt to adjust the jack-stand positions from underneath the vehicle. Once you have double-checked everything, give the vehicle a slight nudge to ensure that the forces you will exert during your mechanical procedures will not cause the vehicle to shift or fall off of the jack stands.
Following these steps allows you to safely work under your vehicle with confidence. Now you can fearlessly tackle all those dirty little chores (such as changing the oil) that you’ve been paying someone else to perform for far too long.
OTHER JACKS FOR OTHER NEEDS
The type that usually comes with your vehicle, a scissors jack is a basic screw mechanism for raising one specific point of a vehicle, usually so that you can remove a tire in an emergency. It’s not to be used to support your vehicle during routine maintenance.
A hydraulic cylinder that resembles a small bottle, this type of jack is available in a variety of capacities: 1-1/2- through 5-ton models are common for cars and light trucks; 8- and 12-ton models are available for recreational vehicles and medium- to heavy-duty trucks.
These highly modified versions of standard floor jacks are designed to quickly lift a vehicle. They typically are made of aluminum, have larger pistons for greater lifting speed and often substitute a roller in place of the standard front wheels.
Designed specifically for lifting motorcycles and ATVs, these jacks feature double arms that cradle the entire vehicle as it’s lifted off the ground. Tie-down points enable you to strap the vehicle to the jack for safety. These jacks are also handy for lifting lawn tractors.