Your car runs on various fluids, and it is important to make sure that they are filled to the optimal levels at all times. Luckily for you, it is relatively easy to check your fluid levels from the comfort of your own home. Depending on what kind of car you have, there are five fairly standard fluids that you should keep an eye on to keep your vehicle running smoothly.
1. Windshield Wiper Fluid
This fluid doesn’t determine if your vehicle starts and runs well, but it is important to your safety. Luckily, all you have to do is look under the hood for a cap that has what looks like a windshield being sprayed with water. Check the reservoir to make sure that it’s full, and add more windshield wiper fluid as necessary.
Under the hood, there’s a little black cap that looks like it has a picture of Aladdin’s lamp on it. It may be marked with “engine oil” or what looks like little waves underneath, and somewhat nearby there should be a small, colorful ring. This little ring is the dipstick, and it’s an essential tool for helping you keep your engine oil clean and at the appropriate level.
When you pull the dipstick out of its sheath, first wipe it down with a clean cloth. You should notice a couple of markings on it – one that tells you the minimum acceptable level of oil and one for the maximum. Dip the dipstick back in its sheath and pull it out again. If the oil is at the maximum, you should be fine, but if it’s less than the minimum, you need to add oil as soon as possible. Rub a little bit of the oil between your fingers while you’re at it. If it feels smooth and is a yellowish color, it means that it’s in good shape. If it’s gritty, you can see particulates, or if it’s a dark brown color, you need to get an oil change and quick!
Another thing to note: when you check your oil, make sure that you’ve given the engine sufficient time to cool. Either do your check before you’ve started it for the day or wait at least 10-20 minutes after you’ve turned your engine off before pulling out the dipstick.
3. Power Steering
If you have biceps like a lumberjack, you might not understand the need for power steering, but for the rest of the world, this standard feature is a necessity. It lets you maneuver your vehicle with so little effort that you only notice the power steering when it’s suddenly difficult to turn.
To check your levels, look for a cap under your hood that either says “Power Steering Fluid” or has a picture of a steering wheel with waves underneath. Similar to your oil reservoir, there should be a little dipstick near the power steering reservoir that has minimum and maximum indicator lines. Pull the dipstick out of the sheath, wipe it down with a clean cloth, reinsert into the sheath, and pull it out again to monitor the levels. If it’s at or below the minimum line, add the appropriate amount power steering fluid.
Safely braking has more to it than brake pads and top-condition rotors. Your brake fluid plays a significant role in how quickly and consistently you are able to brake, so if you feel like your brake pedal is unresponsive or spongy, check your brake fluid as soon as possible.
You monitor your brake fluid the same way as your power steering and oil levels. Look for a cap that either has a hexagon or large letters labeling it as the brake fluid cap. It should also tell you which kind of brake fluid is appropriate for your vehicle. Check your levels and color using the same technique as your oil and power steering, and be aware that though brake fluid can vary in color, it should always be translucent and never dark or cloudy.
5. Coolant (Antifreeze)
If you learn nothing else from this section, at least know this: always wait until your engine is completely cool before checking your coolant levels. The very nature of coolant is to move heat away from the engine, so a lot of pressure and heat can build up around this component. If you’re not careful, scalding coolant could spray over you, causing severe burns.
This part of your engine doesn’t have a dipstick; instead, you can just look at the tank next to your radiator. It should appear translucent (though the color may vary from car to car), be between the max and min lines, and not have any visible oily residue or particulates. If you do see any grit in your tank, you should flush the system and add all new coolant.
If you’re unsure as to any of your fluid levels, don’t hesitate to consult with your trusted mechanic.