Want to stay safe while getting down and dirty with your car? Here’s how to put a car on jack stands before you dive in.
Many auto repair and maintenance tasks, from changing your oil to replacing your brakes or exhaust, need to be done from underneath your car. Most of us aren’t skinny enough to crawl under there, so we need to raise the car to reach these items. A jack will take care of that, but jack stands are critical for supporting the car and keeping you safe while you’re under there.
Even if you don’t need to crawl under the car, you should still use jack stands anytime you jack up your car. Never crawl under a car supported only by a jack. Jacks can fail, and if you’re down there when that happens you’re going to have a bad day.
Buy the Right Jack Stands
You can buy jack stands anywhere that sells tools and auto parts. They come in different sizes and weight ratings, so choose a pair (or two pairs if you plan to lift the entire car off the ground) that’s not too big or too small for your car.
For safety, choose jack stands rated to handle at least twice as much weight as they’ll actually be supporting. Most jack stands support at least two tons or 4,000 pounds, which will be fine for any vehicle weighing less than 8,000 pounds, or roughly 2,000 pounds per corner. If you have a larger or heavier truck or van, consider something a bit stronger. For example, my two-ton jack stands work great with my Mazda 6 as shown here. Even though they can handle the extra weight of my Ford E250 van, however, they are too short to reach the frame, even at full extension. I have a pair of taller three-ton jack stands that I use for my van instead.
While you’re at the store, invest in a decent floor jack as well. The one that comes with your car is fine for roadside emergencies, but a good hydraulic floor jack is much easier to use. It will also lift higher than the jack that comes with your car. Sometimes you can buy a floor jack and a pair of jack stands in one convenient package. Again, choose a jack that can handle twice as much weight as you’ll actually be lifting.
Secure the Vehicle
You certainly don’t want the car to start rolling away when you jack it up. To prevent this, park on level ground, not on a hill. If possible, make sure you’re on a paved surface as well so the jack and jack stands don’t sink into the soft ground. If you must work on dirt, I’ve used a piece of plywood under the jack to prevent the ground from swallowing it up.
Set the parking brake before you begin. Also make sure the transmission is in Park, or in first gear if it’s a manual transmission. Basically, you want to stop all of the wheels from rolling on their own.
For good measure, stick a wheel chock behind the wheel or wheels opposite from where you’re lifting the car. For example, if you’re raising the left rear corner of the car, stick the chock in front of the right front wheel. If you’re lifting the entire front of the car, put chocks behind the back wheels. Wheel chocks are cheap, but if you don’t have one, a block of wood will work.
Read the Friendly Manual
Before jacking up your car, make sure you’re using jacking locations designed to handle the weight. Your owner’s manual should list where these are.
Typically, there are four jacking points near each wheel (these are what you use for a roadside tire change), plus one at the front and one at the back to lift half of the car at once. Your manual will give you specifics, but generally speaking, use the front and rear locations for your floor jack, and the lift points by the wheels to place your jack stands.
Jack Up the Car and Place the Jack Stands
Roll the floor jack under the recommended jacking point. Lift the car slightly and make sure it doesn’t move. If it’s stable, slowly lift the car just high enough for the work you want to do. For example, if you’re just changing brakes, you only need the car high enough to remove the wheels. An exhaust replacement, however, may need more room to work under the car, so you’d want to jack it higher.
When you reach your desired height, place the jack stands under the jacking points near the wheels. Raise them to the desired height, and make sure they are locked into position. Slowly lower the car onto them until they are supporting the car’s weight. If the jack stands shift at all, raise the car, reposition the stands, and try again.
If you are only lifting one end of the car, you’re done. If you’re using four jack stands to support the entire car, move the floor jack to the other end and repeat the process.
Give It a Shake
Now that the car is up on jack stands, make sure it’s going to stay there, especially if you’re going to crawl under it. Push against the car and give it a good firm shake in several places. It shouldn’t wiggle or move at all. If it does, figure out which jack stand is wiggling, jack the car back up, and reposition the stand. This may seem tedious and paranoid, but if the car is going to shift, you want it to happen now, not when you’re working under it.
The More Support, the Better
Once the car is up on jack stands and doesn’t move when you push on it, you’re ready to crawl underneath and do your work. Depending on the job you’re doing, you may be able to buy yourself some extra insurance by not relying entirely on the jack stands. If you don’t need to use the jack elsewhere, you can leave it at one of the jacking points. The jack stands should be doing most of the work, but it’s perfectly fine to let the jack help a little.
If you’re removing one or more wheels, set it down flat on the ground and slide it underneath the car. Obviously you don’t want to hold up the car with them, but if a jack stand was to fail, the car would land on top of the wheel instead of crashing down on the ground. Every little bit of protection and redundancy is good when it comes to your safety.
Drop It Down
When you’re ready to put your car back on the ground, use the floor jack to lift one end just high enough to clear the jack stands. Remove them from under the car, then slowly lower the car to the ground. If you lifted the entire car into the air, repeat this process for the other end. Remove your wheel chock, and you’re good to go.
Clear Car Problems with FIXD
If you are repairing a problem that caused your Check Engine light to turn on, such as a bad oxygen sensor, use the FIXD Sensor and free mobile app to clear the code and shut the light off. If you made the repair properly, the light will remain off and you have addressed the problem. If the light turns back on, open the FIXD app for Android and iOS to see if it is the same code or a new problem.
Recovering autocross and track day enthusiast. Once turned a VW Jetta into a pickup truck. Lives in a van down by the river. Dream car: 2001 Subaru WRC rally car.