Auto Fluid Checking Tips

A sports car on the road.

Automobile tune-ups are funny things. When you take your car into the shop for a tune-up, you may feel like the mechanic isn’t doing everything they’re supposed to be doing with your car. But on the other hand, you aren’t really sure what’s involved in a tune-up. In truth, a tune-up is kind of a mystery.

We’ve all heard comments like, “That place just changes your spark plugs and calls it a tune-up.” Or, “Aren’t fluid’s supposed to be replenished during a tune-up? Because mine are still low!”

Here are some tips to help you learn how to check your vehicle’s fluids. Performing these jobs yourself will allow you to become more familiar with your vehicle and its preventive maintenance needs. And by keeping its fluid levels where they’re supposed to be, you’ll be minimizing your vehicle’s pain and suffering, which by the way, will be your pain and suffering down the road if it happens to break down on you.

Auto Fluid Checking Tips

Your vehicle has six essential fluids that need to be checked and replenished on a regular basis. These are:

Engine oil

Transmission fluid

Brake fluid

Radiator fluid

Battery fluid

Window washer fluid

Checking Your Vehicle’s Engine Oil

Checking the engine’s oil is not only one of the easiest jobs in maintaining a healthy engine, but it’s also one of the most important. How important is it? Well, if the engine is the vehicle’s heart, then the oil is its blood. Without oil, your car’s engine will die.

It’s recommended to drive your car for a few minutes before checking the oil. After warming up the engine, find a level spot, park the car, and allow it to sit for about five minutes. This will give the oil time to settle back into the sump.

Open the hood and locate the dipstick. The oil dipstick is found near the front of the engine, usually featuring a bright yellow handle. Pull it out and wipe the stick down with a clean cloth. Re-insert it back into its tube until it is fully seated. Then, pull it back out and take your reading. Follow these directions:

There are two indicator marks on the dipstick. Ideally, the oil level should be right between the two hash-marks.

If your oil level is below the bottom mark, then add a quart of oil.

Run your car for five minutes, let it sit for another five and then re-check the oil level.

If it’s still coming up low, add another quart and follow the same procedure.

If it’s still indicating low, you may want to have your engine checked out.

Don’t keep adding quarts of oil or you may overfill it, which can cause additional problems.

Checking Your Vehicle’s Transmission Fluid

Transmission fluid is just as important to the health of your vehicle as oil, and the longer you drive without the right amount, the more damage you can be causing to your transmission (which can cost a small fortune to repair). Checking the level of the transmission fluid is just like checking the oil, with the exception that the car should be running when you check it. Here are a few things you should consider when checking the transmission fluid:

The transmission fluid dipstick is usually found somewhere to the rear of the oil dipstick. Depending on the model of vehicle, it may also feature a brightly colored handle, although many are black.

Since the engine will be running, it is important to remove any loose-hanging clothes or jewelry before checking the dipstick as the dangling item may get caught in the engine’s moving parts.

Transmission fluid should never read low as it is a sealed system. If your reading comes up low, it may indicate that your system has a small leak.

The fluid should also be light in color, not dark. If it is dark, schedule an appointment to have the transmission fluid changed.

Checking Your Vehicle’s Brake Fluid

The brake system on a vehicle is similar to the transmission; it is a completely sealed system. Therefore, if there is a drop in the level of fluid, there may be a small leak somewhere. Here’s how to check your brake fluid.

The brake fluid is held in a small plastic reservoir in the engine area. If you can’t find it, consult your operator’s manual.

Remove the cap from the reservoir and check the level of the fluid inside. There will be a line that indicates “full.”

The reservoir should never be less than 2/3 full. Top the fluid off up to the full line and close the reservoir.

Keep an eye on your brake fluid level after you fill it. If you notice it dropping again, take the vehicle to a mechanic to have the brake system checked.

Checking Your Vehicle’s Radiator Fluid

Radiator fluid is the cooling agent that keeps your car from overheating; therefore it is very important that it be properly filled. Keep in mind that you should never check the radiator fluid while the vehicle is running or while the engine is hot. The engine should be completely cooled down before removing the radiator cap.

Remove the radiator cap by placing a rag over the cap, pushing it down, and twisting the cap counterclockwise.

Look inside the radiator to check the fluid level. If you can see fluid at or near the top, you don’t have to worry about adding more.

If the fluid is low, add a 50/50 mix of coolant and water to fill the radiator.

Check the reservoir that’s next to the radiator to check the fluid level in there as well. You should see two level indicators, one that reads “cool” and one that reads “hot.” If the fluid is below the cool indicator, fill it with the 50/50 mix until it hits the cool level indicator.

Checking Your Vehicle’s Battery Fluid

Many batteries sold today are maintenance-free, meaning that they are sealed batteries that don’t require fluid checks. But, if your vehicle has a battery that has the plastic caps on the top of it, then you will have to check the battery fluid on a regular basis.

Because automobile batteries feature sulfuric acid, it is important to wear eye and hand protection whenever checking the fluid level.

Pry the caps off with a flat-head screwdriver.

The water inside should be no higher or lower than the bottom of the fill hole.

If you need to top the cells off, use only distilled water. Tap water has contaminants that can cause corrosion.

Checking Your Vehicle’s Windshield Washing Fluid

Of all your vehicle’s fluids, this is the one that is always in need of replenishing, because we use it all the time. Maintaining a full windshield washing fluid reservoir is most important in the winter months, especially in the eastern part of the country where road salt can quickly gum up a windshield.

The most important thing to look out for here is that the windshield washer fluid reservoir can often be located very close to the radiator reservoir and they can often look very similar. In most cases though, the windshield washer reservoir is found closer to the windshield. Of course, you can always check the cap to make sure you have the right reservoir.

Large SUVs will sometimes have a second reservoir located at the rear of the vehicle that’s specifically for the rear window wiper. Check your operator’s manual to find the location so you can make sure that it is always filled as well.

Imagine how you feel when you’ve gone a while without water. You can get sluggish, tired and congested. This is exactly how your car or truck feels when you let its fluids get to unsafe levels. By maintaining your vehicle’s fluids, it will run longer, smoother, and provide you with years of worry-free service.