Forgotten Fluids: Maintaining Your Car’s Fluids

vehicle fluids

You’ve probably heard somewhere that engine oil is the life blood of your automobile, and most of us recognize that regular oil changes are essential to the longevity of our engines.  It is important to realize that your engine relies on a variety of fluids to operate at peak efficiency and checking and changing your oil is just one step in proper fluid maintenance.

Here, we take you through a variety of automobile fluids and offer tips on how to check and maintain them.

Engine Oil

Your engine’s oil serves several purposes and along with coolant and gasoline it is easily one of the most essential fluids.  Motor oil lubricates the engine’s internal moving parts, reducing wear and prevents the buildup of dirt. It also helps prevent engine overheating.

How to check engine oil

Make certain that your vehicle is on a level surface. For most cars you’ll want the engine to be cool although some manufacturers recommend the engine be warmed. Check your owners manual for the proper procedure.

With the engine off, open the hood and locate the oil dipstick. If you can not locate the dipstick  refer to your owner’s manual. Pull the dipstick all the way out and wipe it clean with a paper towel or disposable cloth. Every dipstick has some way of indicating the proper oil level, whether it be two pinholes, the letters L and H (low and high), the words MIN and MAX, or simply an area of crosshatching.

Reinsert the dipstick fully and remove it once again. Now check the end of the stick to determine if your oil level falls within the recommended range. If it does, you’re good. If not, top it off to bring it within range.

Transmission Fluid

Transmission fluid is a viscous, slippery solution that acts as a lubricant for the transmissions complex set of gears. It also contains detergents which hold on to loose contaminants until they are purged from the system. In automatic transmissions this fluid acts as a coolant, protecting the system from overheating.

Different transmissions require different fluids. While automatic transmission fluid (ATF) is used (yep you guessed it!) in automatic transmissions, it is also used in some manual transmissions. Other manual transmissions require motor oil or heavyweight hypoid gear oil. Your owners manual will tell you which fluid to use in your transmission.

How to check automatic transmission fluid

Procedures for checking your transmission fluid vary based on manufacturer and transmission type. Some manufacturers recommend checking the fluid while the engine is warm and running, others with it turned off; yours may need to be be in park while others need to be in neutral.  It is important to refer to your owner’s manual before checking the fluid level.

Some transmissions will have a dipstick which makes checking the fluid level much easier, others will have a fill plug which will require more effort. Regardless, checking the fluid level is a pretty straight forward task once you know the procedure.

In addition to checking the fluid level, you should also examine the fluid itself. If it is dark in color, or smell burned, it likely needs to be changed.

Recommended transmission fluid change intervals also vary based by make and model, and the type of fluid used. Again, consult your vehicle owner’s manual for recommendations.

Brake Fluid

Brake fluid is a hydraulic fluid that transfers force (your foot on the pedal) into pressure (pads pressed against the rotors). This amplifies the force of your foot on the pedal and allows you to more easily stop your car.

Brake fluid is also hydroscopic, meaning it attracts moisture, and moisture can be very detrimental to your car’s brake system. This is why most brake fluid reservoirs are tightly sealed. In fact, in many newer models the reservoir is transparent, allowing you to check the fluid level without exposing it to moisture.

The change interval, based on time and/or mileage, and specific type of brake fluid—there’s DOT 3, 4, 5 and even 5.1—is important, and like most vehicle fluids, dependent on vehicle manufacturer specifications found online or in the owner’s manual.

How to check brake fluid

First locate the reservoir (typically on the drivers side near the firewall). If the reservoir is transparent, just visually inspect the fluid without opening the reservoir. Fluid levels should be between the ‘Minumum’ and ‘Maximum’ level noted on the reservoir.

If your reservoir is not transparent, carefully clean the top of the reservoir before opening. You do not want dirt or other contaminants to mix with the fluid. Open the reservoir and ensure that the fluid level is at least a half inch from the top.

If you fluid is low, you’ll need to top it off. Do not leave the fluid reservoir open for an extended period of time. Moist air can ruin your brake fluid in less than fifteen minutes, so don’t dawdle.

Washer Fluid

Washer fluid is one of those fluids that you don’t know is low or empty until you need it and it’s not there. It’s also an important safety item, particularly in cold-weather climates where road slush and salt can quickly coat the windshield, instantly obscuring a driver’s vision. Washer fluid doesn’t need to be changed, mainly because it’s used and replaced frequently, but in cold-weather climates it’s important to ensure that the fluid won’t freeze. Most commercially available washer fluids< are pre-mixed and won’t freeze so long as you don’t add water to them.

How to check windshield washer fluid

In most vehicles, washer fluid is blue and housed in a white plastic tank. Look on the side of the tank to see if the fluid level falls between the recommended levels, or open the cap covering the tank to check the fluid level.

Power Steering Fluid

Power steering is pretty much standard equipment on modern automobiles and in most cases you will never need to change your power steering fluid. However, power steering fluid levels must be maintained in order to ensure proper steering and to avoid damage to the power steering pump.

How to check power steering fluid

If you are unable to find the power steering fluid reservoir in your vehicle, consult your owner’s manual. Depending on the vehicle make and model your power steering fluid reservoir may be transparent (allowing you to check fluid levels without opening the tank) or it will have a removable cap with a dipstick. Often the dipstick will have  ‘Hot’ and ‘Cold’ level indicators marking where the fluid level should be based on engine temperature.

If the level is low, you’ll need to top it off. Be sure to add the proper amount and type of power steering fluid as noted in your owner’s manual.

Fluids Can’t Be Ignored

Maintaining your vehicles essential fluids is one of the easiest ways to ensure safe and uninterrupted operation. If you have difficulty checking any of your vehicle’s fluids,or are unsure of recommended change intervals, consult your owner’s manual.

Did we miss any important fluids? Do you have questions about any of the fluids we listed? Let us know in the comments.