Published on May 10th, 2014 | by Jordan

Everything You Need to Know About Vehicle Fluids

Keeping up regular vehicle maintenance can make the difference between your 10th year on the road and your 10th tow of the year. If you’re new to vehicle care or prefer to leave it to the professionals, don’t worry; what’s under our hoods is a mystery to a lot of folks. Trips to your neighborhood oil change experts are a good start, but it’s in every vehicle owner’s best interest to understand how best to care for their investment themselves. If you’re low on oil sooner than your windshield sticker suggests, or your tire pressure unexpectedly drops, finding out early could save you from mechanical damage or even an expensive tow and repair.

This post focuses on the fluids that lubricate, operate and protect your vehicle: transmission, brake and power steering fluid as well as engine coolant and motor oil. Integral to the smooth operation of any motor vehicle, these fluids require regular inspection and replacement; depletion of one or more could cause serious trouble on the road. Your owner’s manual will tell you when to check these fluids in two ways: kilometers driven and time elapsed. If you commute to work or just spend a lot of time driving, it’s best to proceed according to kilometers driven, but if you drive sparingly or only short distances, it might help to mark your calendar for your next inspection. All of your fluid levels are located under the hood, so refer to your owner’s manual for a model-specific how-to on getting it open.

Motor oil

This is the lifeblood of each and every motor vehicle.

Checking your motor oil should occur after your vehicle has been off and cooled down for at least an hour; engine components need to fully drain to ensure the most accurate reading. Locate the dipstick (refer to your owner’s manual) and pull it all the way out, releasing any clips that might be holding it in place. With a paper towel or rag, wipe the dipstick clean, place it back into its opening (as far as it will go) and let it sit for a few seconds before pulling it back out. The bottom of the dipstick should be covered in oil and marked with two indicators; if it looks clean and falls between them, you’re good to go! If the oil looks dirty or falls at or below the minimum mark, you need a top up or even a full replacement.

Transmission fluid

This lubricates – you guessed it – your transmission.

Checking your transmission fluid is very similar to checking your motor oil. A key difference however is that transmission fluid should be checked while the engine is running and fully warmed up, as opposed to off and cooled down. Just like checking your motor oil, locate and remove the transmission fluid dipstick with the help of your owner’s manual, wipe it clean, push it back into its housing and remove it again to read the level. Optimally, the fluid should reach somewhere between the two markers.

Brake fluid

This is essential to your vehicles braking system. Cars do not consume this fluid, so being low can indicate a leak in the brake line or worn brake surfaces.

As with every model-specific aspect of this process, refer to your owner’s manual to find the location of your brake fluid reservoir. For most cars manufactured in the past 30 years, it will be translucent with an easy-to-read level indicator; at all times, the fluid level should sit at the “full” marker.

Power steering fluid

This hydraulic liquid is what your car uses to transfer power to your steering wheel in order to help make turns.

Much like brake fluid, power steering fluid is most often housed in a translucent plastic reservoir. By reading the fluid level through it, you’ll be able to determine whether or not you need a top-up. Note that some reservoirs may have lines for both hot and cold engines, so make sure to either measure your fluid soon after driving or at least an hour afterwards for the most accurate reading.

Engine coolants

These are specially treated liquids that work to reduce the temperature of your engine during use.

Housed in a reservoir often marked “engine coolant only,” it is imperative that you allow your vehicle to cool down before checking coolant levels; hot, pressurized liquid can spray out if your vehicle is not given enough time to cool. Lines on the side of your reservoir will be marked “COLD,” “FULL” or “WARM.” If coolant levels dip below the “COLD” line, it’s time for a refill.

Car maintenance can be daunting, but staying informed and keeping a close eye on your fluid levels is an easy way to help keep your wheels on the road. If you choose to top up these fluids yourself, reference your owner’s manual to determine the proper fluid type (there are many) and process involved with doing so.

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