How To Maintain Your Car's Fluids

People invest large amounts of money on cars, from car washes to buying new tires, and regular maintenance and tune-ups will keep cars from breakdowns. However, owners may have overlooked checking their car fluids. Checking all fluid levels is important and will provide assurance of a working, trouble-free vehicle - and it only takes a few minutes. It will save time, miles, expenses and of course, prevent accidents that may happen.

Proper maintenance may not require too much work; sometimes it will involve a mere oil change. Regular maintenance should be performed every 3,000 miles. Having your vehicle systems checked before heading off on a vacation is also important.

The following are some systems that need to be checked:

  • Engine oil. All internal combustion engines operate on this, the "lifeblood" of your car. Having your oil and filter levels changed regularly every three months or 3,000 miles (whichever comes first) reduces oil-related problems. If not maintained, it will cause major damage more than any other fluid, including gas and water. More frequent changes are needed during extreme weather conditions or for extreme driving conditions like stop-and-go traffic.
  • Engine coolant reservoir.  It is typically located around one of the edges of your engine. Driving around for a while makes the engine coolant heat up, expand, and become pressurized. Do not remove the cap when the system is hot, or it will spray hot engine coolant. The green fluid contains ethylene glycol, a chemical that extends the freezing and boiling point of water. A 50-50 mix of coolant and water is recommended at minimum.
  • Windshield washer fluid. Sometimes, using a specific type of washer solvent for the time of year and region you live in is important. It will help counter dangerous driving conditions. A winter version of a washer solvent is useful when it gets cold, especially in northern states (from November through early March is practical). Yellow-colored fluids are rated -34 degrees. The other version is the summer version. The cheaper blue colored fluid is rated for 5 degrees. Using this fluid during cold weather will result in frozen solvent and perhaps crack the fluid reservoir; it may even push the solvent pump out, so use the appropriate fluid.
  • Brake fluid. It is located in the reservoir on top of the master cylinder and is generally located directly behind the steering wheel. Remove the cap and take a look at the fluid level inside the car. Use a finger and take a small sample. A "DOT 3" fluid is a nice and clear amber color. The red brake light comes on when fluids are low. Each vehicle takes a specific kind of fluid, ranging from DOT 3 to DOT 6 (DOT 6 is military exclusive and cannot be bought by civilians). Civilian types of vehicles use DOT 3 to DOT 5, the kind of fluid your vehicle needs is written on the reservoir cap or the master cylinder itself. Do not mix the fluids, being that they have different hydraulic standards. 
  • Battery fluid. A low maintenance battery is serviceable and is different from a "maintenance free" battery; it is sealed and contains no caps. It is also important to remember to keep it away from any sparks and flames; a battery produces hydrogen gasses, which are very flammable. Battery acid is highly caustic to the epidermis and the eyes. It will also burn the clothes you're wearing. Use goggles and gloves when dealing with the batteries. Fill the battery cells with distilled water; it lacks contaminants and trace elements which might cause corrosive build-up around the terminals.
  • Power steering fluid. The power steering fluid, in a reservoir with a red cap that says "power steering fluid", is located inside the engine bay. Check the fluid color and see if it is clear. If the fluid is dark brown or black, have it changed. The solvent comes in a container that looks like a container of motor oil and should say Power Steering Fluid; some products recondition seals. Look at the side of the reservoir, and pour the fluid between the "upper level" marking and "lower level" marking.
  • Transmission fluid. In a standard transmission, check it with the engine off. Get under the car and remove the plug by using a wrench. If you feel the fluids with your fingertips, the fluids are fine. Also, note the color of the fluid, and consult the owner's manual for procedures and service intervals. A lot of vehicles feature a hydraulic clutch system, so you may need to use brake fluid there to keep the parts lubricated.

    Automatic transmission fluids are checked with the engine on. Dipsticks are located behind the oil dipstick. Be careful not to wear loose clothing hanging from the neck, as it's possible to get caught in a running fan belt since the engine is running. Having low fluid with automatic transmissions is very unlikely, since it's a sealed system and requires little maintenance. If low on fluid, you have a leak in the system (seeing an oily patch of reddish-brown fluid on the ground gives it away). Consult a mechanic.


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