Working on Your Car Safely

Let’s Talk About Working On Your Car Safely

If you’re like a lot of Car Talk visitors, your first instinct when something goes wrong with your car is to fix it yourself. That’s a great way to save money and develop skills while getting the vehicle back on the road. But the cash savings can turn into an expensive and painful hospital stay, or worse, if we’re not careful about being safe. One of the first places a lot of home wrenchers stumble on safety is right at the beginning, when they jack up the car. Do that step wrong, and the whole job can go south in a hurry. And there are plenty of ways to do it wrong, from using unsafe equipment, to using good equipment unsafely.

Equipment

First step? Before you start lifting, you need to make sure the car won’t roll. Setting the parking brake isn’t good enough. They’re notoriously weak and often adjusted improperly which means the car could still roll, even when the brake is on.

Chocks

Instead, you want to chock a wheel. You can get perfectly good chocks for very little money at just about any auto parts or hardware store. Placed in front of and behind a wheel, they’ll keep it from rolling and tipping your car off the jack.

Jacks

Image of a jack for a car

Leave the scissor jack that came with your car in the trunk. That jack is meant for emergency tire changes only. Its base is very small, which makes it less stable. And it’s designed to be just barely adequate to the task of lifting your car. You don’t want a cheap, lightweight piece of metal to be the only thing stopping your car from slamming to the ground.

I don’t even use factory scissor jacks when I do have a roadside flat; I call my roadside assistance service and have them change the wheel. That’s safer for a number of reasons even beyond not having to use the lousy factory jack. After all, it’s a lot safer to be out working on the car if there’s a tow truck sitting between you and the guy about to slam into your car.

For similar reasons, bottle jacks aren’t very safe either. Like scissor jacks, their bases are small, which makes them easier to tip over. If your car happens to shift while you’re jacking it up, it could tip the jack over, making your car crash back to the ground.

The best jacking solution is a floor jack, but even they have varying degrees of safety and quality. The small floor jacks you often find at big box hardware stores aren’t necessarily terrible, but they also don’t get very high, so you might have trouble getting your car high enough off the ground to work on it. And they tend to be slow-lifting, which means you’ll have to pump them a lot to get the car high enough.

Floor Jack

The best solution is a full-sized floor jack. Here’s the one I use:

Image of  a floor jack

I picked it up at a tool store for around $120. It’s a good, strong jack that’s hard to tip over because the base is nice and wide. And it’s capable of lifting 2.5 tons, which is a lot more than I ask of it with the cars I use it on. It’s never a bad idea to use equipment that’s rated for higher loads than you plan to stress it with.

Jack Stands

There’s another piece of equipment that’s very important, especially if you plan to slide under the car to work on it, and that’s the jack stand. Jacks - even the good ones - don’t lock in place. When you lift a car with a floor jack, the only thing keeping the car in the air is the hydraulic pressure pushing the jack upwards. If a hydraulic seal fails, the jack can collapse, and the car will drop. Jacking the car up and then lowering it onto a jack stand eliminates the danger of hydraulic failure.

You should never, under any circumstances, get under a car that’s lifted like this:

Image of a jack stand

Don’t even do it just to take a picture. I didn’t. It’s too dangerous! I photoshopped the jack stand out, but it was there as soon as I lifted the car, even only for the few seconds it took to snap the photo:

Image of a jack stand

You’ll want a set of good quality jack stands - preferably ones that are rated to hold a lot more weight than your car will actually put on them. Bear in mind that jack stands are usually sold in pairs, and their weight ratings are calculated based on what both of them can hold together. If you’re only using one jack stand, you should cut that weight rating in half to figure out how much it can really hold.

Many pros recommend avoiding triangular, 3-footed jack stands and instead buying more stable, 4-footed ones. And be aware that some Pittsburgh-branded jack stands sold at Harbor Freight stores have been recalled because they can drop suddenly. If you have a Pittsburgh 3-ton or 6-ton jack stand, check this page to see if yours is one of them.

Another Option, Car Ramps

If you don’t need to remove a wheel to do the work, a solid alternative to jacks and jack stands is an old fashioned set of car ramps. You simply drive the end of the car you need to fix up on the ramps, then chock the wheels that stay on the ground. Ramps can be challenging, though, especially if your car is low to the ground. Folks with sports cars often have trouble using ramps because the bumper is so low that it hits the ramps before the wheels do. And, of course, your driving needs to be very good so you don’t steer the car right off the ramps.

Technique

Now that we’ve got our equipment sorted, let’s talk technique. Even with the safest equipment, poor technique can lead to problems like damaging your vehicle. Or yourself.

Surface

Image of a grass and a cemented surface

Your first step is to choose a good surface to park your car. It needs to be flat and hard, like a garage floor. You don’t want to lift the car on a slope, because that will put sideways pressure on your jack and jack stands, which increases the chance that the car will slip off of its supports, and onto you. You also want to avoid soft surfaces. The lawn might be comfortable to lay on, but the ground can sink under the lift supports, trapping you underneath a slowly descending car. If it sinks unevenly, it could even tip the supports enough to make the car drop off entirely.

Keep in mind that a surface might be soft even if it looks hard. Asphalt, especially when the weather is hot, is very prone to sinking under a jack stand. If you must work on the car while it’s parked on asphalt, you should put weight-distributing pieces of solid wood under the jack stands so they won’t sink in. But ideally, move the car to a better hard surface, like concrete.

Next, make sure that the hard, flat surface is also clean where the jack and jack stands will be. Debris underneath support equipment can make the car shift suddenly. Run over the area you’ll be working in with a shop broom just to make sure.

Chock it!

Once you’ve found a solid, flat surface to work on, grab the chocks. If you’re only jacking one side of the car, slide the chocks behind and in front of the wheel that’s on the opposite corner of where you’ll be jacking the car from. That’ll help make sure the car won’t roll off the jack. If you’re jacking the whole front or the whole back end of the car, it’s best to use two sets of chocks, and secure both of the wheels that will remain on the ground.

Lift it!

Next, dig your owners manual out of the glovebox. It’ll show you where the jack points are - you want to use jack points when lifting the car because they’re specially reinforced so you won’t damage the vehicle.

Image of a manual for using a jack

Most cars have 6 jack points. two behind the front wheels, two in front of the rear wheels, and one each on the centerline of the car in the front and back. If you’re just changing a tire, it’s usually fine to just use one of the side jack points. But if you’re doing work that requires you to slide under the car, it’s really best to jack it up with a center point. If nothing else, it gives you more room to work.

If you lift the car with a side jack point, as soon as you get it high enough you’ll want to slide a jack stand next to the jack, then gently lower the car onto it. Once the car’s weight is fully on the stand, pump the jack back up until it’s just touching the car. That way, if the jack stand should collapse, the jack is ready to catch the car.

If you lift it with a center point then slide a jack stand under each of the two side jack points once the car is high enough, and slowly lower it onto the stands.

If the job calls for you to take a wheel off, it’s never a bad idea to slide the wheel under the car. That gives you yet another backup that will catch the vehicle if the jack stands should fail.

Try To Break Things

Once you’ve got the car in the air, supported properly on jack stands, and preferably with the jack ready to catch it if it should fall, it’s time to test the setup. Shake the car. Hard! You’re trying to make it fall off the supports. You want to discover any problems with your equipment or placement now, while you’re standing next to the car. Not later, when you’re trapped under it. If the car shifts, you know you need to redo your setup before you crawl underneath.

Final Notes

Before any job, inspect your equipment. Make sure the floor jack lifts well when you pump it. Make sure any welds on the jack stands are solid, and that there aren’t any creases that shouldn’t be there in the metal.

Above all, operate from a safety-first mindset. It’s more important that you not get hurt than that the car gets fixed. If you don’t have the right equipment to do the job safely, either get it, or let the pros handle it.

FAQ

How do you jack a car on soft ground?

Quite simply, you don’t. Move the car to a solid, hard surface before you use that jack.

Where is the jack point on a car?

Check your owner’s manual. It will have a diagram that shows you exactly where you can safely use the jack.

Can jack stands fail?

It’s quite rare, but yes they can. That’s why you always want a failsafe, like a wheel or solid wood, under the car as a backup if the jack stand fails.

Can I leave my car on a jack stand overnight?

Yes. Many jobs take more than a day to do. As long as the jack stand is stable, it’s fine to leave the car on it as long as necessary.

Is jacking up a car dangerous?

Yes. Humans are squishy. 2,000+ pound cars are not. There’s always an element of danger when you’re working under a car, but with proper technique and equipment you can reduce the risk to acceptable levels.

Editor's note and disclaimer: Car Talk is supported by our fans, readers and listeners. When you click on some of the links on our website, we may receive referral compensation. However, you should know that the recommendations we make are based on our independent editorial review and analyses.

Todays Car-o-Scope

What the stars say about your car for 10/16/2021
Potential roadkill looms on the horizon, but the immutable laws of physics will provide a simple solution.
Select your sign
  1. Aries
  2. Taurus
  3. Gemini
  4. Cancer
  5. Leo
  6. Virgo
  7. Libra
  8. Scorpio
  9. Sagittarius
  10. Capricorn
  11. Aquarius
  12. Pisces