Basics of Vehicle Fluids

To keep your car running like a well-oiled machine, you’ve got to keep tabs on your fluids. They keep things running smoothly. The most frequently checked fluids have a dipstick somewhere in the engine bay with a label stamped into the handle. Check your owner’s manual for specific locations or, if you don’t have one, consider buying a manual at your local autoparts retailer. These books are inexpensive and provide a wealth of information on just about all your vehicle’s systems, so they’re very good to have around.

Engine and transmission oils reduce friction between the moving parts inside these parts of the car. Letting these fluids go can result in severe engine damage and expensive repairs. Make sure the vehicle is warmed up (check the temperature gauge), then remove the dipstick and wipe it off with a clean rag.
Re-insert the dipstick and pull it back out. Using the rag to keep the dipstick steady, look down at the end of it for the markings.
You want to make sure the oil is between the full and add marks. If the level is on the low side, you can add more oil through the appropriate filler cap, which will also be labeled. Engine oil should be changed every 3000-6000 miles, depending on what kind of oil you use and how/where you drive. These oils are also filtered and, depending on the vehicle, changing the filter can be done at the oil change with minimal effort.

Also important is the coolant/anti-freeze. Coolant/anti-freeze absorbs the heat from all that internal combustion and carries it to the radiator, where air cools it back down.
It also stays in liquid form at temperatures below freezing. When water freezes, it expands, so picture your engine as that can of Coke someone left in the freezer. Not good!
Coolant doesn’t need changed as often as the oil, but it is still very important. Without good (or enough) coolant, the engine can not shed the heat generated during operation and you can, again, run into severe engine damage.
When your car is warmed up, the coolant is about 200 degrees Fahrenheit. It doesn’t take much to let that temperature get out of control. You can generally check the coolant level by looking at the overflow bottle in the engine bay. It will have “hot” and “cold” stamped or printed on the side. If the car has been running, make sure the level is closer to the hot mark. Too much fluid and the system will pump the excess out in a steamy mess. Not enough, and the engine will overheat, drastically reducing its lifespan. Replacing the coolant is often as simple as draining the old stuff and pouring in fresh.

With all fluids, it is important to remember that they are often toxic to the environment. Fortunately, many retail locations that sell these fluids also take back the old stuff for recycling. This makes being eco-friendly much easier. For the most part, changing the oil or other fluids in a modern vehicle isn’t much harder than replacing a light bulb. It’s just that getting to that light bulb can be a bit tricky. The hardest part about fluid maintenance is finding the drain and fill locations (and maybe getting dirty in the process), but if you get the manual at the store, you’ll be armed with pictures and step by step instructions specific to your vehicle.

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