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To keep your car working efficiently and to prevent major breakdowns, it needs preventative maintenance. One of the easiest forms of preventative maintenance that you can do is to check and maintain your car’s fluid levels.

Checking Your Car's Fluids

Pretty much everyone knows the importance of changing the oil in their car, but not everyone is aware of the other types of fluids that keep their car running. Are you aware of the different types of fluids in your car? Are you aware of how often they should be checked and/or changed? You can use this as a guide for information that you may need in order to know what fluids to check and when to check them.

*Before working on your car, the first thing you need to do every time is to check your owner’s manual. Though most cars have the same types of fluids, how often they need to be changed differs from manufacturer to manufacturer. The information for your specific car care needs can be found in the manual. Starting off by checking your manual helps you know exactly which fluids in your car needs to be changed and how often.

Here is a list of five important fluids you should become familiar with:

  1. Engine/Motor Oil-  Oil is the lifeblood of your car. There are a lot of moving parts under the hood of your car, and the oil is there to reduce friction and keep the engine from overheating. Basically, oil lubricates your engine. This process also prevents your engine from rusting by blocking oxygen from getting to the metal.  The oil is also responsible for trapping dirt and other particles then leaving them behind in the oil filter.

It used to be recommended that you check your oil level every time you get gas, but with modern cars, you are safe checking it at least once a month. When you are checking the fluid levels of any fluid in your car try and park on a flat surface for the best results.  For checking the oil, you should drive the car first to get the best reading. Allow the car to cool for about an hour to avoid any burns, then locate the oil dipstick. Pull out the dipstick and wipe the oil at the bottom off with a rag, then reinsert the dipstick and remove it again. This is an important process as it ensures an accurate reading of the oil level. If you base your results on the first time you pull the dipstick out, you are likely to have a false reading from the oil splashing further up the dipstick while you were driving. The dipstick has markings on it indicating how much oil is currently in the car. Check the level yours is at against the recommendation found in the owner’s manual. Add more if the levels are low. 

It is typically recommended that you change the oil completely every 3,000 miles. However, some cars are more, some are less so check your owner’s manual for the exact recommendation for your vehicle.

  1. Transmission Fluid- The transmission fluid moves through the automatic transmission and gets pressurized, which then provides the hydraulic power that is needed to perform the transmission’s functions, like shifting gears.

In order to check the transmission fluid, the engine should be on and the fluid needs to be warmed up. So it is best to check right after you have driven it. The process is very similar to checking the oil. You need to locate the transmission fluid dipstick and follow the steps above. With the transmission fluid, how it looks is as important as how much there is, so pay attention to the color of the fluid. New transmission fluid is bright red in color, and it turns to a brown/black color as it ages. If your fluid is low or looks old, check with your repair tech to see if it is time to have it replaced.

You should be checking your transmission fluid monthly, and it is recommended that it be changed between every 50,000-100,000 miles. Check your owner’s manual for your car’s specifics.

  1. Power Steering Fluid-  The power steering fluid is there to lubricate the steering gear, which makes it easier to steer your car. When it gets low, you may hear some weird sounds, and/or feel a “creaking” or resistance in the steering wheel.

To check the power steering fluid all you need to do is pop the hood and locate the reservoir. You should do this once a month. You can usually check it just by looking at the side of the reservoir. If the levels are much lower than they should be based on the information you find in your owner’s manual, take your car into the shop and have a mechanic look at it for a leak.

Most car manuals suggest that you keep the power steering fluid levels topped off, but rarely suggest you flush and replace them. Check your owner’s manual to be certain how long you can go without flushing it. If your levels are low and you suspect a leak, your mechanic may want to do complete power steering fluid flush and inspect all components for wear, leaks and proper operation.

  1. Brake Fluid- When one pushes on the brake pedal a plunger in the master brake cylinder is engaged forcing the brake fluid through hoses and tubes then finally into the braking unit of each wheel. Without it your breaks fail to function properly.

The brake fluid reservoir is usually in the engine compartment.  Your owner’s manual can help you locate it. The reservoir should be at least two-thirds full. If it is not, add brake fluid to the “full” line. The color is important with brake fluid as well. It should be a golden color. If it is brown, it is time to replace it. It is important not to get water into the braking system, so never do this procedure in the rain. If you find your brake fluid gets low repeatedly, it is time to find the source of the problem. Take your car into your mechanic and see what needs to be done.

Check your brake fluid as often as you check your oil. A flush and change are usually recommended every 30,000 miles.        

5. Antifreeze aka Coolant-   The antifreeze provides lubrication for the water pump as well as prevents corrosion. A 50/50 mix of antifreeze and water in the radiator lowers the freezing temperature of the water to prevent freezing in cold weather. It will also protect the water from boiling in the heat (hence its alternate name, coolant). If your car ever runs low on coolant it will probably overheat.

You will need to locate your radiator cap to check the fluid levels. It is usually in the center of the engine compartment, in the front. Use a rag to remove the cap. Do this when the engine is cool or lukewarm. Never check it when the engine is running. Look into the radiator and see if you can spot fluid, if it is near the top it is fine, if not you should add some.

Check it at least twice yearly, once before summer and again before winter is best. You should have it completely replaced every two to three years. Check your owner’s manual for specifics.

Maintaining proper fluid levels helps to ensure trouble-free driving.  It only takes a few minutes and can help to catch and prevent problems- and keep them from becoming an expensive crisis. If you are ever in doubt, bring your car in to a trusted mechanic.