Forgotten Fluids: Checking and Maintaining Lesser-Known Vehicle Fluids

Photo credit: www.flickr.com/photos/hardchessesandyou

Photo credit: www.flickr.com/photos/hardchessesandyou

You’ve probably heard a saying similar to this: just like your body, your car needs fluids to keep going. That’s a truth many of us car owners grew up knowing. But we want to be more specific here—your vehicle also needs the right fluids; fluid chambers filled to the proper level; and fluids and filters changed based on the vehicle manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule. Not as catchy, sure, but equally true.

Most DIYers know that ignoring fluid levels and fluid-change intervals virtually guarantees that a mechanical breakdown and shortened vehicle life are in your car’s not-too-distant future. Engine oil and coolant are probably the two fluids most vehicle owners think of, hear about, and check most frequently, but there are several other fluids just as vital to a vehicle’s operation and longevity that many drivers inadvertently overlook. Here, we take you through those lesser-known fluids and how to check them.

Automatic Transmission Fluid

Automatic transmission fluid (ATF) lubricates and protects the transmission’s complex gears and also contains detergents that trap potentially destructive contaminants, holding onto them until they’re removed during a transmission fluid change. For the transmission to work properly, the right type of transmission fluid has to be used (there are many, and they are highly dependent on vehicle manufacturer specifications) and it has to be maintained at the proper level. Your car will tell you the ATF needs changing when you notice it is missing gears, its fuel economy is getting worse, or it revs up inconsistently.

How to check automatic transmission fluid

Consult your vehicle owner’s manual to locate the transmission fluid dipstick and for instructions on how to check the fluid level. Based on manufacturer, there could be differences in whether the fluid level should be checked when the vehicle is hot or cold, while it’s in park or neutral, and while it’s running or turned off.

The recommended transmission fluid change interval varies from vehicle to vehicle, and can also depend on whether synthetic or conventional ATF is being used. Consult your vehicle owner’s manual for the proper change interval—it could be as often as every 30,000 miles or as infrequently as every 100,000 miles. And while you’re at it, determine whether the maintenance schedule calls for changing the transmission fluid filter at the same time. A sure indication that the transmission fluid needs to be changed is if it’s dark or smells burned.

Brake Fluid

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Photo credit: www.flickr.com/photos/moto_club4ag

Brake fluid is hygroscopic, which means it attracts moisture. And moisture in brake fluid is a very destructive contaminant—it will corrode brake parts and eventually lead to system failure. 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

The reason the under-hood, brake-fluid reservoir on most vehicles is usually see-through is so that it can be checked at a glance, without removing the cap and introducing atmospheric moisture into the fluid. There will be “minimum” and “maximum” levels indicated. The fluid level should be in between. If the brake fluid looks dark brown and dirty it needs to be changed as well.

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 used to be an expensive add-on option for older vehicles, but today, nearly every vehicle comes equipped with it as a standard feature, making it much easier to turn the steering wheel without feeling as though you’re doing an upper-body workout. The system depends on a power steering pump and power steering fluid, and if you’ve ever turned the wheel and heard a loud groaning or moaning sound under the hood, chances are the power steering fluid was low. How often or even whether power steering fluid ever needs to be changed is vehicle-specific, but it always needs to be maintained at the proper level to prevent damage to the power steering pump and so that the vehicle can be steered properly.

How to check power steering fluid

If you can’t find the power steering fluid reservoir, consult the owner’s manual for its location. It’ll either be an opaque tank where you can see the fluid level through the tank’s side, or the tank will have a removable cap and dipstick, possibly with a “hot” or “cold” marking indicating where the fluid level should be based on the engine temperature. Add the right amount, and the right type of power steering fluid.

Differential, Transfer Case, and Transaxle Fluids

Depending on the type of vehicle you’re driving, and possibly whether it’s all-wheel, four-wheel or front-wheel drive, there are other fluids related to the vehicle’s drivetrain (the system that transfers power between the engine, transmission, axles, and wheels) that you may not be aware of but that need to be checked and maintained. Once again, consult your owner’s manual or ask your trusted mechanic if your vehicle has these components, how to check their fluids, and when those fluids need to be changed.

Fluids Can’t Be Ignored

Fluids are a vehicle’s lifeblood and your vehicle is an expensive asset. Fluid maintenance is one of the easiest and most important ways you can protect it and help ensure miles and years of trouble-free driving.

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

 

Top 5 DIY Projects to Tackle Yourself

father_son_work_under_hoodWhen minor things go wrong with our cars, most of us just bite the bullet and consult a trusted mechanic. But have you ever considered that you might be selling yourself short? Fact is, if you’ve got a little patience, you can resolve a lot of these issues without even leaving home. And that means extra money in your pocket, not to mention the satisfaction of a job well done.

In this post, I want to share a few common DIY (“Do It Yourself”) procedures with you. Remember, even if you did every single one of these jobs, you’d still only be scratching the surface of your potential. There isn’t much about a car that you can’t fix on your own. But sometimes, the hardest part is just getting started. Read on for some simple ways to get that DIY ball rolling.

1. Headlight Restoration

If your car’s more than a few years old, chances are its headlight lenses could use some TLC — particularly if you deal with inclement weather on a regular basis. You’ll notice cloudiness on the plastic lens surface and maybe some yellowing as well. Fortunately, a number of reputable brands sell headlight restoration kits that can make those lenses look new again. I’m always a fan of Meguiar’s products, and some of my neighborhood friends have responded well to the 3M kits, too.

Don’t get intimidated if your kit requires a power drill, by the way; that’s just because you need more power to get that crud off than a human arm can muster. In my experience, the job may take an hour or two to do properly, but there’s nothing tricky about it.

2. Headlight Replacement

Mechanics love when customers come in with blown-out headlights. I’m telling you, folks, repair jobs under the hood don’t get much simpler than this one; it’s like giving that friendly mechanic a free lunch. There are tons of replacement headlights and headlight bulbs for sale right here on Advance Auto Parts, and we’ve even got some handy step-by-step tutorials to help you along the way. Be sure to check your owner’s manual, too, as there’s often a How-To in there for the headlight replacement procedure.

A word of advice, though, and this goes for any job that involves disassembly or removal: remember the order in which you take things apart. If you have to remove your headlight assembly, for example, you may end up unscrewing and pulling out a number of pieces. Please don’t forget how to put everything back together.

3. Replace Your Wipers

This is actually a simpler job than headlight replacement, because you don’t even have to pop the hood. Windshield-wiper blades typically just snap into place, so replacing them is as easy as flipping the wiper shafts up off the windshield, popping the old blades off and snapping the new ones on. Your owner’s manual should have specific information about the removal and replacement process.

As for your blade selection, it depends on several different factors–the kind of car you have, where you live and the type of driving you do. You can learn more at this informational page on windshield wiper installation.

4. Replenish Your Fluids

Fluids are the lifeblood of an internal combustion engine. Without enough motor oil, the engine will wear down more quickly and may even seize. Without enough power steering fluid, the pump, bearings and other parts are in imminent danger. Without enough brake fluid…well, you get the point. Bottom line, it’s crucial to make sure that all fluids are always up to spec. To do it yourself, just check your owner’s manual for the location of each fluid reservoir or dipstick, and make a habit of inspecting those fluid levels. I do it every other time I get gas. If you need replacement fluids, the Advance Auto Parts website has got every imaginable variety; just plug what you’re looking for into the search field.

5. Wash & Wax Your Ride

Ever find yourself shaking your head at the price of a car wash? I’ll tell you one thing: it definitely costs more than you’d pay to do it yourself. So why not get up close and personal with your car’s finish? My favorite product is called “waterless car wash,” because you don’t need water or a bucket or anything like that — just grab a microfiber cloth and a bottle of Griot’s finest, and 15 minutes later your car will be shining like it just came from the detailer. Of course, if you want to get more serious with waxing, clay-bar treatments and so forth, there’s a whole world of at-home detailing products to explore.

“Wait, why should I DIY again?”

Let’s recap. When you do simple jobs like these yourselves, you definitely save money, and you’ll also know your car’s being treated with the love it deserves. Plus, you’re gonna learn a thing or two along the way. What’s not to like?

By the way, give me a shout in the comments if you try any of these DIYs, or if you have any other suggestions for all the aspiring driveway mechanics out there.

Editor’s note: Check out the Advance Auto Parts YouTube Channel for more great DIY project tips.