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Do It Yourself: Vehicle Fluid Checks
There are many different fluids in your car that keep it running smoothly and accurately. The most commonly known are of course the engine oil and radiator fluid, but there are still other fluids that need to be properly checked and maintained to ensure the proper functioning and longevity of your vehicle. Many people don't know that there is oil in your AC Compressor - though you do not need to check it as part of regular vehicle maintenance.
Your owner’s manual can help you locate all of the dipsticks for checking fluids in your car, the necessary fluid changes to keep your warranty, and the proper levels of fluid that should be in your car. Keep your owner’s manual handy for reference if you’re having trouble locating one of the fluid dipsticks or reservoirs in your vehicle.
First step is to park your car on a flat, level surface and set the emergency brake. Then, make sure you have a clean paper towel or shop towel handy – white ones are easier to use as they show the color of the fluids better. Open the hood, and use the stand to keep it open.
I think it’s easier to check your transmission fluid first, as the car has to be warmed up and running in order to check it properly. After your car is warmed up, leave it in park with the emergency brake on, but running. Locate the transmission fluid dipstick, hook your finger in the loop (and release any clips, if applicable) and pull it out completely. Wipe it off with a clean rag, put it back into its opening, and push it all the way down until it stops. Remove it completely and look at the fluid on the dipstick. There will be indicators on the dipstick if the fluid is within the proper parameters. Wipe this fluid off on your clean, white paper towel or shop towel – it should be a clear, reddish color. If the transmission fluid is very grey or black, it hasn’t been changed in a long time. You’ll need to schedule a mechanic to drop the pan and change your transmission fluid.
The next and most important fluid to check is your engine oil. Your car needs to be cool in order to properly measure engine oil, so turn off the car and let it sit for awhile; the car needs time for all the oil in your car to drain down into the oil pan. There will be an oil dipstick – hook your finger in the loop of the dipstick and pull it all the way out. Use a clean rag and wipe it clean, then place it back into its opening and push it all the way down until it stops. Take it out again, this time looking carefully at the level of oil on the dipstick. The dipstick has markings indicating an acceptable oil level range –if the level is down by the indicator for “low,” you need to add more oil. If the oil is around the opposite end by “full” or within the properly marked acceptable range, you’re fine.
Take the oil dipstick and wipe it on your clean, white paper towel or shop towel. Pay close attention to the color of the oil. Clean engine oil is clear, and golden. Dirty engine oil is dark brown or black. Aside from engine oil color, your owner’s manual should indicate how many miles you should go between oil changes – it’s best to heed this advice and change the oil at the proper mileage, and not when it looks particularly dirty.
The rest of the fluids can be checked by looking at their respective reservoirs. Most of these fluid reservoirs are plastic, and you can see the fluid level through the plastic itself. On the plastic housing there will be fluid indicator lines, much like the dipstick, that read low or full. If you are having trouble seeing the fluid line on the reservoir, jiggle it a little so you can see it more clearly.
Find the brake fluid reservoir using your owner’s manual. Look at the fluid level in the reservoir and see if it falls within the indicator limits on the reservoir itself. Your car should not consume brake fluid – therefore it should not be low. If it is low, it means you have a leak somewhere along your brake lines. Have your car checked by a licensed mechanic to see what is going on. Next find your power steering fluid reservoir. Look at the fluid level, and see if it falls within the lines indicated on the reservoir, same as the brake fluid. With power steering fluid there may be two sets of indicator lines – one for a hot engine, and one for cold. Make sure to read the level of your car’s current state.
Now check the car’s coolant. VERY IMPORTANT – make sure the engine is completely cool before checking the coolant. Opening the coolant reservoir when the engine is hot can cause searing hot coolant to come spraying out, burning you. You do not want this to happen. Make sure the engine is cool before continuing. The coolant will most likely be in a reservoir up front, by the radiator. Check the fluid and the indicator lines to make sure you have enough coolant. If not, you’ll need to top it off.
Cars are designed to operate with antifreeze as coolant, not water. Antifreeze is a mixture that has a lower freezing and boiling point than water so it can handle more extreme weather conditions. Many people will tell you to just top off your coolant with water – it is much better to heed the advice of your owner’s manual and buy the correct fluid for your vehicle. Keeping your engine properly cool is essential. Read the label on the antifreeze you buy – some require to be mixed half and half with water, some go directly in.
Lastly, check your windshield washer fluid. It won’t affect the performance of your car, and there are no indicator levels for it, but it is nice to have fluid in the reservoir so you can clean your windshield while driving. Washer fluid that is formulated to clean off bugs and road grime is cheap and works significantly better than water, but you can use water as well. If winter is coming, make sure you use a washer fluid that has a lower freezing point than water – it will be indicated on the washer fluid bottle itself. Hope this guide helps you maintain your vehicle and address any problems you might be having early.