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Checking the Fluid Levels... An Important Part of Proper Car Maintenance

Tune up your car by checking its vital fluids according to your car’s owners manual. Keeping in mind that if your car is under warranty and you don’t check according to your owner manual’s recommended service intervals using recommended fluids, that you could void your car’s warranty. A good rule is to check your fluids at every oil change, whether you do-it-yourself or have a mechanic do it for you. Your car’s vitals are much like your own. If you begin to feel sluggish, you drink more water. If that doesn’t help, you get your blood checked at the doctor’s office. Think of your car as that same vein. Once it starts to get sluggish, or feels or sounds out of sorts, then you know something is amiss. The fluids to check include the engine oil, transmission fluid, coolant and brake fluid.

Engine Oil—Your Car’s Life Blood

You can improve your gas mileage by up to two percent by changing your oil according to your car’s recommended oil change schedule. It’s important to change your oil regularly to keep your engine’s moving parts well lubricated and protected from metal-on-metal contact, dirt and particle build-up. This helps your engine run more efficiently and cleaner, which is also better for the environment, reducing carbon and CO2 emissions. Checking your oil is simple:

  1. Park your car someplace level, not on an incline.

  2. Never check your oil while the engine is running or less than 15 minutes since you’ve switched off the ignition. You need to allow the oil to drain back into the crankcase oil pan to get an accurate reading level.

  3. Find your engine oil dipstick and remove it by pulling it out of its tube.

  4. Wipe it dry with a clean paper towel or shop rag, then reinsert the dipstick back into the tube and immediately pull it out again to read the oil level. The oil level markings are simply “LOW” (or “ADD”) and “FULL.” Ideally your oil will read at the “FULL” mark, or at least be between the two marks. If the oil is below the “LOW” or “ADD” mark, then your engine oil is severely low and you need to add some immediately. It is best to avoid driving under such conditions, or you risk injuring your engine. If your oil is above the “FULL” mark, then you risk damage to your spark plugs.

  5. Take note of the color and condition of the oil, as this will be an indicator if an oil change is needed.

Transmission Fluid

If your car still has a transmission dipstick and is not a sealed unit, you check your transmission fluid the same way that you check your engine oil, save one vital difference: you want to check your transmission fluid while your engine is running or is still hot after being parked. Check your owner's manual as some makes and models require you to keep your car in neutral. This can be extremely dangerous, so make sure that you are parked level and that you have your wheels chucked or set your parking brake. Always check your transmission fluid from the side of your car, not the front, making sure that you steer clear of any moving components such as pulleys, fans and belts. Remember that if your car is a rear-wheel drive then your transmission dipstick will be on the passenger side toward the back, and if your car is front-wheel drive then your dipstick will be on the driver’s side toward the back. Either way, your handle should be red, especially in newer model cars.

Brake Fluid

Having enough brake fluid is crucial to having enough stopping power in your braking system to stop your car. Checking your brake fluid is different as there’s no dipstick, you just have to eyeball how much brake fluid is in your brake fluid reservoir. The type of reservoir depends on what year, make and model car you have. Older cars tend to have a lidded small metal container atop of the master cylinder. That container may be held into place with a metal clamp. Newer cars will likely have the plastic reservoir atop the master cylinder. Many newer cars also have an anti-locking brake system (ABS brakes) that you may need to pump 25 to 30 times before checking the brake fluid. Consult your owner’s manual. Here’s the basics on how to check your brake fluid:

  1. Clean your reservoir top so that dirt doesn’t get into your brake fluid when you check it. If you get dirt in your brake fluid, this can cause the seals in your master cylinder to fail. Brake fluid also soaks up moisture and you don’t want water in your brake lines…if moisture soaks into the fluid for as little as 15 minutes, your brake fluid is ruined and will need replacement. So once the reservoir is opened, you have to be quick about checking the fluid so that the brake fluid in the reservoir doesn’t get contaminated.

  2. For the newer plastic reservoirs, simply unscrew the cap after cleaning the area thoroughly. Make sure that your engine is off. The old metal reservoirs may need a screwdriver to pry the retaining clamp off.

  3. Look to see where your brake fluid lies in the reservoir. It should be within a half-inch or so from the cap. If not, add brake fluid according to your car manual’s specifications. Dark brake fluid needs to be replaced. If there’s no brake fluid in the reservoir, you may need to bleed your brake system to get any air out.

Checking the Coolant or Antifreeze

Cooling system failure is the number one cause of mechanical breakdowns on the highway, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. You have to check the level regularly, along with the strength and condition of the coolant or antifreeze. Never check your coolant or antifreeze while the engine is hot. Your radiator must be cold or you risk burn injury. Never check it inside the radiator, as the radiator will always have some pulsing through its system somewhere, so you won’t get an accurate check. Check at the coolant reservoir. You will have to eyeball it like you do your brake fluid, making sure that it is between the low and full levels. If your fluid is low, you need to find out where it is going. The most obvious place is a leak and you can hear coolant or antifreeze on the hot radiator if it has a leak –it hisses. You can also smell it. The smell is unmistakable, hot, sweet, almost like pancake syrup. Combine that with the hissing noise and you need to get to a mechanic or get a tow right away. If you refill the coolant on your own, keep it to a 50-50 mixture of coolant and water. Check your radiator cap and all the hoses and belts while you’re at it.

Other Fluids

You want to check and add the other fluids in your car periodically. This includes the power steering fluid, the windshield washer fluid and water for your battery, if it needs it and is not a sealed system. Your air conditioner doesn’t really have a fluid, it is gaseous, so you will need a mechanic to check it out.

Finally, don’t forget that all changed fluids need to be recycled properly. Keep oil in sealed containers and not in the drip pan if you’ve changed the oil in your car. Take it to a local gas station or store it until you have a hazardous waste day in your community. Remember also that brake fluid and coolant is toxic and dispose of them the same way. Most communities have hazardous fluid drop-off days twice a year. Call your local sanitation department or check with your car dealer or mechanic to find out the dates.

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