Teens learning to drive may think that their parents are obsessed with safety, with an emphasis on the car you’re driving protecting you in a crash.
But here’s one part of safety that gets left out: you could avoid risky roadside breakdowns by keeping up with basic car maintenance.
Follow these procedures to check your fluids, and you’ll probably know more about your car than your mom and dad.
A few safety notes before you start any of these procedures:
- Make sure your car is parked on a level surface. It helps give a more accurate reading when checking fluids, but the car is also less likely to roll on a flat surface.
- None of the procedures require safety goggles, but they’re never a bad idea.
- Keep a pair of gloves in the trunk, because engines can be hot and dirty.
- If you have long hair, be sure to tie it back to avoid getting it caught.
- For all of these procedures, set the parking brake.
Fluids like motor oil, coolant, brake fluid and power steering fluid are the lifeblood of your car. Depending on the age of your car, you might not be able to check transmission fluid or even oil level, but we’ll cover how to do it on cars that do have easy level indicators.
This is the easiest to check, and it’s something you should be doing at least monthly, if not every time you fill your gas tank.
It’s important because motor oil is what allows the internal parts in your engine to turn freely. By checking your oil level and it’s general condition, you have a good chance of avoiding catastrophic engine failure before it happens.
You can check your oil when the engine is cold, but it’s better to let it warm up a bit, especially when the weather is chilly, which is another reason to get in the habit of checking it when you go to the gas station.
To check the oil:
Step 1 – Raise the hood. The hood latch is usually located in the left-hand side of the driver’s footwell. In some cars, you might find the latch under lower dashboard. If you have questions about its location, check your owner’s manual. If you don’t have an owner’s manual, check online, using the resource at the end of this article.
Step 2 – Locate the oil level dipstick*. On most cars since the 1990s, the dipstick handle is yellow, but it can be dirty after years of use. Check your owner’s manual to find the location.
Step 3 – With a paper towel in one hand (another reason to visit the gas station), pull the dipstick out, while simultaneously wiping the dipstick of any oil that may be on it. You want to clean off any oil to get an accurate reading.
Step 4 – Reinsert the dipstick. Make sure it seats all the way into the dipstick tube.
Step 5 – Pull the dipstick out all the way again. Keep the paper towel ready to catch any drips, but don’t touch the dipstick with the towel.
Step 6 – Find the oil level on the dipstick. Most dipsticks will show an acceptable range of oil level. Don’t add oil unless the level is at or below the “Add 1 Qt.” line.
Step 7 – Inspect the oil on the dipstick. Is it black? Is it thick? Is it milky in consistency? Any of these conditions could indicate an engine problem that you should have looked at by a qualified mechanic.
Step 8 – If you need to add oil, check your owner’s manual to find out what grade of oil is recommended for your car. It will also tell you if it’s recommended to use petroleum-based or synthetic oil in your engine.
Step 9 – To add oil, find the oil fill cap. It’s usually indicated by an oil pictograph, but check your owner’s manual if you have any question. The oil filler is on the engine’s valve cover. You may need a funnel to reach the oil filler without spilling oil on the engine. Pour the oil in and wipe up any excess.
Step 10 – Replace the oil filler cap. Close the hood and you’re good to go!
More and more, cars are equipped with “lubed for life” automatic transmissions that don’t have transmission fluid dipsticks, but if you’re driving an older car or a car with a transmission fluid dipstick, the procedure is similar to checking your engine oil, with a few changes. Check your transmission fluid once a month:
Step 1 – Start the car. Most manufacturers recommend checking the transmission fluid with the engine running. Check your owner’s manual to be sure.
Step 2 – With your parking brake set, and your foot on the brake, shift the transmission through all of its gears (Park, Reverse, Neutral, Drive and any low ranges). Pause for a few seconds between each gear.
Step 3 – With the engine still running, the gear selector in Park and the parking brake set, raise the hood.
Step 4 – Locate the transmission level dipstick. On most cars with a dipstick, the dipstick handle is red, but that’s not a hard and fast rule. Check your owner’s manual to find the location.
Step 5 – With a paper towel in one hand (another reason to visit the gas station), pull the dipstick out. (Some transmission fluid dipsticks have a clip on the top which keeps the dipstick in place.) As you pull the dipstick out simultaneously wipe the dipstick of any transmission fluid that may be on it. You want to clean off any transmission fluid to get an accurate reading.
Step 6 – Reinsert the dipstick. Make sure it seats all the way into the dipstick tube.
Step 7 – Pull the dipstick out all the way again. Keep the paper towel ready to catch any drips, but don’t touch the dipstick with the towel.
Step 8 – Find the transmission fluid level on the dipstick. Most dipsticks will show an acceptable range of oil level. Don’t add oil unless the level is at or below the “Add” line. Be aware that some transmissions only require a PINT and not a QUART when the level reaches the “Add” line.
Step 9 – Being cautious of the hot fluid on the dipstick, inspect the fluid. It should be clear and pink, like strawberry sauce, and shouldn’t have any smell. If it’s thick, black and smells burned, you’ll want to visit a transmission shop for further advice.
Step 10 – If you need to add transmission fluid, check your owner’s manual to find out what type is recommended for your car. Most good auto parts stores will be able to tell you what’s right for your car.
Step 11 – Unlike the oil filler, most automatic transmissions are filled through the same tube that the dipstick came out of. Check your owner’s manual if you have any question. You’ll probably need a funnel to add fluid without spilling it. Add the recommended amount. Most transmission fluid bottles have graduated markings on the side that show ounces or milliliters. Don’t overfill the transmission.
Step 12 – Replace the dipstick and close the latch, if applicable. Close the hood and you’re good to go!
WARNING: Coolant runs through your engine near or above the boiling point, so it’s critical that you don’t open any caps that are under pressure. Be aware that even the plastic recovery tank can be pressurized, so don’t remove any caps unless the engine is cool. Carefully read your owners manual, and be aware of any warning stickers under the hood.
Most cars since the 1970s have a coolant recovery tank. As coolant expands in the pressurized cooling system, the system purges coolant into the plastic recovery tank. As fluid contracts, the system can suck fluid back in from the recovery tank. The tank also provides a safe way to check the coolant level without having to remove one of the pressurized caps.
Finally, a note on coolant: If you’re adding fluid, be sure to use premixed 50/50 antifreeze.
Step 1 – Open the hood.
Step 2 – Look for the coolant recovery tank. It’s generally plastic and marked in yellow on the cap. You should be able to see the coolant — a bright green fluid — along with markings that show cold and hot levels.
Step 3 – When checking the coolant level, note the fluid’s condition. If it’s dark or any color other than what originally came out of the bottle (most commonly green, occasionally yellow or orange), it’s probably due for a fluid change, so bring it to a shop.
Step 4 – ONLY WHEN THE CAR IS COMPLETELY COOL, remove the plastic coolant recovery tank’s cap and fill to the appropriate level.
Step 5 – Replace the cap and you’re on your way.
WARNING: Some types of brake fluid are caustic and will cause significant paint damage if it comes in contact with painted surfaces.
There are three types of brake fluid: DOT 3, DOT 4 and DOT 5. Both DOT 3 and DOT 4 are glycol based and will absorb water from the atmosphere. DOT 5 is silicon-based and doesn’t absorb water. The fluids can’t be mixed, so be sure to follow the recommendations from your owner’s manual.
To check your brake fluid level:
Step 1 – Open the hood.
Step 2 – Locate the brake fluid reservoir. On older cars, you may have to remove the brake fluid reservoir cap to check the level. Those reservoirs could have caps that are held in place with a wire bail, or with a regular twist cap.
Most modern cars have a transparent reservoir that allows you to check the level without removing the cap.
Step 3 – If the level is low, first take a rag or a paper towel and clean the top of the reservoir and the cap to keep dirt from falling inside.
Step 4 – Remove the cap.
Step 5 – Fill the reservoir to the “Full” line.
Power Steering Fluid
Many modern cars have electrically operated power steering systems that don’t require fluid checks and replacement, but most cars still use hydraulic systems that use fluid, driven by a pump connected to the crankshaft by a belt, to reduce the effort required to turn the steering wheel.
The system has a reservoir filled with power steering fluid that connects to a steering rack or a steering box. That fluid should be checked regularly.
Step 1 -With the car running and warm, turn the steering wheel from lock to lock several times.
Step 2 – Shut the car off.
Step 3 – Open the hood.
Step 4 – Locate the power steering fluid reservoir.
Step 5 – Clean the top of the reservoir and remove the cap. The fluid dipstick is generally attached to the underside of the power steering fluid reservoir cap.
Step 6 – Wipe the fluid off the dipstick and replace it, turning the cap to its fully inserted position.
Step 7 – Remove the cap and check the level on the dipstick.
Step 8 – If the level is below the “Full” mark, add power steering fluid until it reaches the mark. It likely will only take a few ounces.
Owner’s Manuals Online
Just about every manufacturer offers an online version of the owner’s manual that can help you learn about which fluids to use and how much. Some require a login, but most offer manuals back to the 1990s.