Introduction: How to Check Car Fluids

Picture of How to Check Car Fluids

Every car uses a variety of different fluids to keep its different systems working. Being able to check your car's fluid levels is a good skill to have. By checking the fluids you are not only checking the fluid level, but also their condition, which can help prevent issues and costly repairs further down the road. This guide from YourMechanic will explain how to check the various fluids in your car.

Step 1: Consult Your Owner's Manual

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The owner's manual is the first thing to look at before checking your car's fluids. It will give you instructions and illustrations specific to your particular vehicle, as well as:

  • How to read the various dipsticks and reservoir fill lines
  • Types and brands of fluid the manufacturer recommends
  • Locations of different fluid tanks and reservoirs
  • Conditions for checking fluids

The process of checking fluids can vary significantly between different vehicles, so consulting the owner's manual for your car is the best place to start.

Step 2: Setting Up

Picture of Setting Up

There are a few items you'll need to gather and steps you'll need to take before checking your car's fluids.

You will need:

  • Clean rags
  • Funnels
  • Fluid catch pans
  • Rubber or latex gloves
  • Protective glasses
  • Supplies of new fluids you may need to top up

To set up, you should:

  1. Park on a flat, level surface. This will ensure accurate fluid level measurements.
  2. Engage the parking brake to prevent the car from moving.
  3. Open the hood and prop it open.

Now that you've consulted the owner's manual and have set up, you're ready to begin checking your car's fluids.

Step 3: Check the Engine Oil

Picture of Check the Engine Oil

Engine oil is probably the most common and most important fluid in keeping your engine running well (after fuel). Always refer to your owner's manual for the correct procedures and operating conditions for checking your car's oil level. Most cars have a dipstick used for checking the engine oil.

  1. Locate the dipstick. Dipsticks usually have a yellow or orange handle.
  2. Pull out the dipstick.
  3. Wipe off the dipstick with a clean rag.
  4. Push the dipstick all the way back in, then pull it out again.
  5. Examine the oil level. Holding the dipstick in a horizontal position, look at where the oil is on the dipstick. It should be between the upper and lower indicator marks. If it's below the lower indicator mark, more oil needs to be added. If it's above the upper indicator mark, some oil needs to be drained.

If the oil is between the indicator marks, it means the level is correct, and you can push the dipstick all the way back in to finish the job.

It's more common that the oil level is too low than too high. If this is the case, add more oil to your car's engine. Always pour oil into the oil filler cap on the engine, and never attempt to pour oil into the dipstick hole. Use the steps above to gradually add to and check the oil level in your engine.

Step 4: Check the Transmission Fluid

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There are fewer and fewer cars that need transmission fluid checks, or even have a dipstick to check the fluid. Many new cars are equipped with lifetime fluid that's intended to never be checked. However, knowing how to check transmission fluid is still an important skill.

The process is similar to checking engine oil, however the engine will usually be turned on and warmed up, and the transmission will be in park or neutral. Again, check your owner's manual for specific instructions.

  1. Locate the transmission fluid dipstick.
  2. Pull out the dipstick.
  3. Wipe the dipstick off with a clean rag.
  4. Push the dipstick all the way in, then pull it out again.
  5. Examine the fluid level. The level should fall between the indicator lines
  6. Examine the fluid color. Transmission fluid that is dark in color or smells burnt may need to be changed. If the fluid has particles in it or is a milky color, it could indicate damage within the transmission or fluid contamination.

If the fluid level is low, you may be able to add more by pouring new fluid into the dipstick hole. If you suspect damage or contamination, it's best to get an inspection by a qualified mechanic.

Step 5: Check the Brake Fluid

Picture of Check the Brake Fluid

If your car is losing or consuming brake fluid, there's a good chance there's a leak somewhere in the brake system. While the best thing to do is to get the brake system checked by a mechanic to find the source of the leak, it's important to know how to check and fill your car's brake fluid.

  1. Consult your owner's manual to find the brake fluid reservoir.
  2. Wipe off the outside of the brake fluid reservoir with a clean rag. This will help you see the fill level indicators, and help prevent any outside contaminants from getting into the brake fluid.
  3. If the brake fluid level is low, pour more in to the reservoir. The fluid level should fall between the minimum and maximum fill level indicators.
  4. Check the brake fluid condition. It should be a light blue or amber color (if DOT 5 fluid). If the fluid is a dark color, it's an indication that moisture is getting into the brake fluid, which can damage metal surfaces in the brake system.

If the brake fluid is contaminated, or you frequently have to top off the reservoir, get the brake system checked by a qualified mechanic.

Step 6: Check the Power Steering Fluid

Picture of Check the Power Steering Fluid

Having the right level of fluid is vital to the power steering system. If you hear a groaning noise when you turn the steering wheel, or if the steering wheel is hard to turn, it's a sign the system is low on fluid.

Like with transmission fluid, many newer cars have lifetime fluid that requires no refilling or maintenance. However, if you don't have one of those cars, it's a good idea to know how to fill up the power steering fluid.

  1. Consult your owner's manual to ensure that you're using the correct type of fluid.
  2. Wipe off the outside of the reservoir with a clean rag so you can see the fluid level indicators.
  3. Remove the fluid reservoir cap and wipe off any excess fluid with a clean rag.
  4. Pour in more power steering fluid as necessary, making sure not to exceed the maximum fill line.
  5. Replace the fluid reservoir cap.
  6. Turn on the car, and turn the steering wheel lock-to-lock a few times in order to purge any air from the system.

Some power steering reservoirs use a dipstick, in which case you will check to make sure it falls between the dipstick indicator lines, like in checking your engine oil or transmission fluid. If the steering fluid is leaking or is black or brown in color, get the steering system checked by a qualified mechanic.

Step 7: Check the Windshield Washer Fluid

Depending on the environment where you drive, you may use windshield washer fluid more or less frequently. Fortunately it's very easy to fill up, so feel free to spray away to keep your windshield clear.

  1. Locate the washer fluid reservoir. Consult your owner's manual if you're not sure.
  2. Remove the cap and fill the reservoir. A funnel might come in handy for this.
  3. Replace the cap. Make sure it's on tight and secure.

You can also make your own windshield washer fluid at home.

These fluid checks will help prevent undue wear, tear, and repair bills. They're quick and easy, so it's a good idea to check them every few thousand miles. If you need any help, or if you suspect there's a problem with any of these fluid systems, get an inspection from a qualified mechanic.

YourMechanic offers car repair and maintenance services at the convenience of your home or office, 7 days a week, and saves you up to 30%. A version of this Instructable originally appeared on YourMechanic.com: How to Check Car Fluids.

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