What To Know About Your Car’s Fluids

When it comes to maintaining your vehicle for performance and longevity, making sure you have a schedule and plan for checking fluids is essential.

Fluids affect most of the components of your car and how they function. For example, the AC system works by manipulating refrigerant from a gas to a liquid.

The good thing about fluids is that when you learn how to check them on your own, it’s easy to do, and you can get into a routine.

An older car needs more maintenance and checks because they often use more of the essential fluids as they age, and they can develop leaks.

Older cars have a benefit because their engine bays allow you to more easily identify where the fluid reservoirs are, and you have easier access to dipsticks for measurement.

A newer car will typically have a plastic engine cover, so your engine bay looks tidy, but it’s a little trickier to identify and then check your fluids.

The following are the key things to know about the fluids in a vehicle.

What Fluids Are In Your Car?

Your car contains:

  • Engine oil: Where your engine components are spinning rapidly, the oil is important. Oil makes sure your engine parts remain lubricated and can move together with one another. Your oil is arguably the most important of all the fluids in your car. If you drive with low oil or no oil, it can severely damage your engine. You should bring your car in for an oil check every 3,000 miles.
  • Transmission fluid: Like engine oil, your transmission fluid is very important to your vehicle’s overall functionality. Transmission fluid provides lubrication to the clutches, gears, and valves making up your transmission. It also cools key parts of the transmission. Some people believe the myth that your transmission has a lifetime’s worth of fluid that never needs to be replaced, but that’s not the reality for every car, especially older ones. It can take up to around 100,000 miles for it to need to be replaced, though. Check your transmission fluid periodically, especially if you have an older car.
  • Coolant: We’re approaching the hot months of summer, so your coolant will play a big role. Coolant helps keep your engine cool, but it also prevents the engine from freezing in the cold winter months. Coolant helps prevent the formation of deposits, foam, and corrosion. In newer cars, the coolant should be checked after 50,000 miles. Even if your coolant system seems like it’s working fine, you should check for acidity and both boiling and freezing protection.
  • Brake fluid: When you hit the brake pedal with your foot, it activates what’s called a brake plunger that’s located in the master cylinder. Then, the pressure that you’re applying is pushing brake fluid out of a reservoir and into the brake lines. That triggers your brake pads to slow your car down. As your brake pads experience wear, your fluid will go down too. If your fluid goes below the indicator, you can add more, and you should also plan to have your brakes checked.
  • Windshield washer fluid: You might underestimate the importance of windshield washer fluid, but it’s key, too. Don’t neglect it because your need your wipers to work properly to ensure you can drive safely.

Checking and Replacing Fluids

The following are tips for checking and replacing each of the above fluids.

Engine Oil

You can use the dipstick to check the engine oil. Before doing this, make sure you’re parked on a surface that’s level. Pull the dipstick out of the oil reservoir, wipe it clean, and put it back in. Then pull it out again. The fresh oil will be at the bottom of the dipstick.

You can also use the markings that show you if the reservoir has enough.

Older cars require the oil to be changed more often than newer cars. The frequency that you’ll need to check and change your oil also depends on how you drive. Check your owner’s manual to figure out how often your car needs oil changes.

Coolant

Don’t ever check your coolant levels when your engine is hot. Wait until it’s cold, and open the hood so you can inspect the reservoir. There should be an indicator line of how much is in your engine.

Aim to check your coolant every 50,000 miles or so.

If your coolant gets low, it can cause your car to overheat, and that can damage your engine. There’s a temperature gauge or a warning light on your dashboard that should tell you if your vehicle is overheating.

Transmission Fluid

The transmission has a lot of moving parts, and they create friction, which, again, is lubricated by your transmission fluid.

On an older car, there’s usually a dipstick so you can check both the level and quality of the fluid, similar to what you do for the oil.

On a newer car, you’re probably going to need a mechanic to check this fluid for you. Some new cars have transmissions that are entirely sealed, so you don’t need to check the fluid.

Brake Fluid

If your brake pedal feels “mushy,” you might check your brake fluid. The brake master cylinder reservoir is usually located on or near the firewall at the back of your engine compartment. It should be almost right in front of where your brake pedal is mounted on the other side.

On a newer vehicle, you should see a translucent reservoir with a full line. You can check this easily without taking the cap off.

On an older car, which would typically be cars older than the 1980s, you might see a metal reservoir. You would have to take off the spring-loaded clamp and then take the top off the see the fluid level.

Windshield Washer Fluid

Finally, for your windshield washer fluid, you’ll usually see a warning light, and your washer jets will stop working when you need to add more. You should fill the reservoir with actual washer fluid instead of water, which you can find easily at gas stations and car part stores.

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