Auto Maintenance: How To Check Oil, Transmission, And Other Fluid Levels

An overview of the most basic fluids, and how to top them off and check them. Tips on preventing injury, the importance of maintenance.

If you are one of those people who looks on in awe as someone else flings open the hood of your car and expertly twists, turns and fills, then this article is for you. You no longer have to be intimidated by all those things under the hood, and better yet, you might actually save yourself a couple of bucks by reading this simple how-to guide.

The first thing you should know about are the so-called "╦ťidiot lights'. I don't agree with that terminology, because I, for one, never took a maintenance class in driver's ed. That was standard training for the shop class. Oh well.

The main one is the oil light. If you ignore it, really serious things can happen to your engine. If you let it go long enough that your car actually shuts down and refuses to start, you can, at that point, kiss your engine goodbye. The engine needs oil to keep it running. Later model cars usually suggest synthetic oil, but check your glove compartment for an owner's manual to find out which oil your car takes. If the owner's manual is gone, then just ask the guy at the counter of the auto parts store. They can usually help you with fluid types for your transmission and brakes, also. More on that later. Once you get the oil type, the next thing to do is buy at least five quarts. If it's more than you need, just store it in your garage or trunk for next time. Also, buy a funnel and a couple of shop cloths. A funnel will save you from unbelievably embarrassing moments, and the shop cloths are for wiping up any spills.

First, with the engine turned off, open the hood of your car. You may have to look up in your owner's manual the exact location of your car's hood release. Usually, it is found somewhere in the front grille, under the lip of the hood. There is sometimes a hood release inside the car, near the gas cap release. Try looking on the floor of the driver's side. Once the hood is opened, and secured in place with the handy pull down rod, which fits conveniently into one of the holes on the inside of the front of the hood, then its is time to check the oil. Look for a ring which, when pulled, is actually a handle for a long strip of metal. This is called a dipstick. Using one of your new shop cloths, wipe the stick dry, and then reinsert it into the hole that you took it out of. Pull it out again, and see if the oil level corresponds with the words add or fill. If so, you need to add oil. Replace the dipstick, and locate the oil tank cover. It usually has a picture of an oilcan on it. Open the tank by removing the cap, insert the funnel into the hole, and slowly pour one quart of oil into the tank. Check your oil again. If it is still at the fill line, add another quart, until your level is at the full line. That's all there is to it.

Transmission fluid checking works the same way, except the engine must be running when you check the level and the fluid is usually poured, using a funnel, into the same hole that the dipstick resides in. Remove the stick after checking, fill, and then replace the dipstick.

Windshield wiper fluid is simple. Just look and see if it's at the line. It's usually a clear container, and you can just uncap it and fill up to the line. The only difference is in some car, mostly SUVs, there is another reservoir in the back to be filled for the back window. Your owner's manual should tell you about this.



Brake fluid is only added if needed. It doesn't hurt to check, though. Just uncap the little tank and peer inside. If the tank isn't full, just add some. It should not, however, be filled to overflowing.

Antifreeze should only be checked when the car is cold. Do not attempt to remove your radiator cap unless your car has been sitting without running for at least 3 hours. Steam, which builds up in the radiator, can force fluid out when released, causing serious injury.

However, you may have a reservoir tank, very similar in appearance to your windshield wiper fluid tank. It is advised that you add your antifreeze to this tank, and it will be used by the radiator as needed.

A word on antifreeze. Most manufacturers suggest that a 1:1 ratio of antifreeze to water is used. Unless you don't mind measuring antifreeze, I suggest you buy the pre-mixed kind.

It's about the same price, and honestly, much easier to use, as all you have to do is pour it in.

After you go through this a couple of times, you will be amazed at how empowering it is to be in control of your vehicle's routine maintenance. You may even choose an additive for your fuel in winter. Some people like to add a bottle of dry gas to the tank in winter, to rid the tank of any water that may build up in cold weather, while others prefer a more high-end fuel additive. Whichever you choose, remember; just ask the guy behind the parts counter, and happy motoring!

© High Speed Ventures 2011