ShedHelp

Low Fluids on Car

So you want to start doing more of your own routine car maintenance in your garage or workshop. Great!

Preventative car maintenance can be a pain. Or a hassle. Or a headache. But you know what’s more of a pain in the ass? Dropping hundreds (or thousands) of dollars and having your car stuck at a mechanic’s shop. THAT is a hassle. THAT is a headache. And a lot of the problems that can land your car in the automobile hospital can be prevented.

I’m assuming just now that you’re terribly excited to learn how to solve the problems before they happen. Just by simply taking the time to check the levels of your vehicle’s fluids and knowing the correct way in getting rid of low levels or old fluids.

Necessary Tools

For all of these fluid checks/maintenance/getting rid of low levels, you’ll want to outfit your garage or workshop have the following handy:check engine light

  • Rags
  • Cleaner (usually an ammonia based window cleaner will cut through any grim you come across)
  • Gloves
  • Heavy duty soap if you decide to forgo the gloves (Lava is my favorite brand, but any soap that is says something like “removes auto oil” is a good one. An ex of mine accidentally found that those Rockstar energy drinks can remove tough auto grime off your hands, so if you have a case of those lying around…)
  • Flashlight (we’d recommend a Maglite like one sold on Amazon)
  • Flathead screwdriver or a putty knife or anything that can help pry the tops of gaskets
  • Tarp (a bit excessive for me, but if you are in a very nice and clean garage and going about this, it might be worth considering)

Safety Warning & a PSA about Auto Fluids:

I am no professional mechanic. And I do not play one of T.V. (score if you got that reference!) I am, however, a person who feels it is a good idea to know how to do some basic vehicle maintenance on your own. That being said, please be smart and safe. Don’t do anything stupid like jack up your vehicle and not use jack stands to support your vehicle. And wear the right gear – closed toe shoes, long pants, and a shirt (you know who you are).

And if you do not feel comfortable with any of this, PLEASE PLEASE go to a professional mechanic and have them service your vehicle (that is what they are getting paid for after all).

Once you’ve gone about getting rid of your vehicle’s low fluid levels and if you find yourself with used and old fluids (especially if you decided to go full steam ahead and change your oil instead of topping it off), it is important to dispose of them properly. Many county garages in rural communities and city garages in larger areas have scheduled times during the year when you can drop off old vehicle fluids for FREE. Or go to a site like earth911.com to find a place near you to drop your fluids off.

Now, onto vehicle maintenance and getting rid of low fluid levels!

Fluid #1: Windshield Washer Fluid

This is as easy as making a PB&J. Seriously. My eight year old cousin can do it when she’s around and wants to help, so I know you can too.

When to Check: It’s a good idea to check once a month. But if the air is dirtier than normal where you are, definitely check it once a week.

Things you need:

Windshield Wiper Fluid (you can find this at any big box store, gas station, even some grocery stores. I usually go with an all-weather and season type – it just covers all the bases, if you want to upgrade, you can always get Prestone’s Bugwash at Amazon)
Rags

1. You’ll need to locate the windshield fluid reservoir.

1. You’ll need to locate the windshield fluid reservoir.

2. Now, open up the washer fluid reservoir.

And take a look inside. Since the fluid is a blue color, it is really easy to see if it is low. If it’s low, you’ll need to get that jug of fluid and open it.

3. Fill the reservoir.

Pour in the washer fluid until the level is at the bottom of the neck where the gasket top fits on to.

4. Replace the gasket top and wipe up any spills that might have happened.

Put away the fluid jug or recycle it if it is empty.

Fluid #2: Power Steering Fluid

This is a fluid that never has to be replaced, according the professional vehicle fixing people. And this fluid should never really drop drastically, so if it is REALLY low go to a mechanic to check it out.

When to Check: Once a month is plenty often. But if you hear grinding or feel a creaking when you turn, check it out. Just in case.

Things you need:

  • Power Steering Fluid (consult either your mechanic or the owner’s manual for the kind that is preferred for your particular vehicle)
  • Rags
1. Locate the power steering fluid reservoir.

1. Locate the power steering fluid reservoir.

2. Check the fluids.

Slowly remove the cap since there is a small dipstick looking thing usually attached to the inside of the cap. Take a look inside the reservoir and see how the level is.

3. Fill the reservoir until full.

If there’s a LOT of fluid gone, you’ll want to contact your local repair shop to get to the root of the problem.

4. Replace the gasket top and wipe up any spills that might have happened.

Fluid #3: Coolant/Antifreeze

This is a fluid you definitely want to keep tabs on, I mean, you want to keep an eye on all your vehicle’s fluid levels, but coolant is a big one. Without it, your vehicle will overheat and some serious damage can happen.

When to Check:
Minimum of 2 times a year – when Winter turns to Spring and when Fall turns to Winter. But it’s a good idea to check it every once in a while if Summer is particularly hot.

Things you need:

  • Coolant/Antifreeze (please make sure that you use the same brand that is already in the reservoir – ask your mechanic what they normally use)
  • Rags
1. Locate the reservoir.

1. Locate the reservoir.

As with the other two, you’ll want to look for the cap to locate the reservoir.

Either way, please please PLEASE note that it will say in big shouty words “DO NOT OPEN HOT”. Follow that command. Wait until your vehicle has had a chance to cool for a bit or do this before you start your vehicle so the engine and radiator are cold. Otherwise you could get hurt (read: bad burns).

Check the fluid.

Okay, so. Once you’ve got that cap off, look inside the reservoir. There will be lines on the inside of it to indicate at what level the coolant should be.

3. Replace the fluid.

Fill the reservoir up to the line – there’s no need to overfill. It’s not going to help anything.

4. Clean up.

Replace the cap and clean up any spills you might have accidently made while pouring the fluid in.

Fluid #4: Motor Oil

This is most likely the VERY first thing you learned to check when you first got your license and a vehicle all your own. Remember your dad, grandpa, or your version of Uncle Buck showing you? No? That’s okay. A refresher is never a bad thing.

motor oilThis one is a biggie.  You can run without wiper/washer fluid, but you can’t run a car without motor oil.

When to Check: The mechanically inclined professionals say it’s a good idea to check oil every time you fill up with gas. But, to me that’s a bit too much. However, if you have an older car (say, over 200,000 miles), it might be a good thing to check every third gas fill-up.

But for newer cars, once a month is plenty frequent.

Things you need:

  • Motor Oil – This can get a bit complicated for those unknowing of the motor oil world. A Synthetic or Synthetic-blend is your best bet, unless the owner’s manual and your mechanic tell you otherwise. There are also types for high mileage cars, like my Park Avenue who is hitting over the 350,000-mile mark. If you’ve never checked/changed your oil on your own, that little sticker the mechanic gives you should say the type. Write it down and look for it. And if you get lost in the motor oil jungle, find one of the helpful Sherpa (read: employees) who navigate these wilds frequently, they’ll get you what you need.
  • Rags

1. Find the dipstick.

You’ll need to find the motor oil dipstick first. Don’t freak if it doesn’t look exactly like this. The thing to look for is a bright yellow loop handle (or T bar handle) that can either have “MOTOR OIL” or “ENG OIL” written on it somehow. The stick will always ALWAYS be near the cap for the oil reservoir.

2. Check the oil.

Found it? Woot! Now, have a rag handy. Pull the dipstick out and wipe off any oil that is on it. I know this sounds silly, but you need to.
Re-insert the dipstick. Pause for a second, then pull it back out. Now read the level your motor oil is at. Now. You’ve pulled out the dipstick for the reading, right? Awesome!

Check The Color

Check The Color

It is important to look for three things: color, texture, and level. The darker the color, the more important it is to REPLACE the oil. Texture: motor oil should have about the same texture as a cooking oil. Kind of thick, but not gummy. The thicker your oil is, the more likely you need and oil change. Level: As you saw in the diagram in step 4, the dipstick has a “low level” a “good level” and an “over fill” level. Look to see where your oil level lands.

3. Add fluid.

Is it low? Yes? Does it need to be changed? No? Okay. Time to replace your dipstick (after wiping it off again) and grab your oil. When you located your dipstick, you probably noticed the knob right by it. That is the cap to the motor oil reservoir. Open it up and place it in a safe place for the moment. If you are new to topping off your motor oil, you will need to do some trial-and-error the first few times. No biggie. Start with one or two bottles. Let it sit a minute. Then check your dipstick again. Still not at the “good”? Keep repeating this process until your dipstick reads at the “good” level.

4. Recap the reservoir.

Replace the oil reservoir cap and count the number of bottled you used. Write this number down, along with the date and the mileage your car is reading at. This will give you a good idea of how much you will need at this point of your motor oil’s life.
It is also a good idea that for every time that you check your oil, to write down the level and the mileage and date. Just until you get more of an intuitive feeling and ability to read your dipstick levels.

How Often to Replace: This depends on the car, manufacturer, and year. Naturally. But that “every 2-3,000 miles and/or every 6 months” is kind is pretty much out of date. Newer cars (according to the advice of your mechanic and the owner’s manual) can go longer. Some older cars can’t go that long between changes.

Fluid #5: Transmission Fluid

Transmission fluid is what keeps your gears from grinding…in your car at least. Unlike motor oil, transmission fluid is part of a closed system (read: it circulates itself again and again),working on car so it should never be low. If it is, TAKE IT TO A MECHANIC. But, if you are aware that your transmission might have a small crack and your mechanic is aware as well, it is okay to top it off when it gets a little low.
What you are really looking at is color and quality, not volume when you are checking your transmission oil. Odor too ties into the color and quality. A good rule of thumb is the browner and burnt the fluid, the closer you are to needing to replace it. Transmission fluid should be red and free of odor if it is fresh.
When to Check: Once a month is plenty often. But if you are feeling that your car is shifting hard or is slipping gears (if you are driving an automatic vehicle), take a look ASAP.

Things you need:

  • Transmission Fluid (consult either your mechanic or the owner’s manual for the kind that is preferred for your particular vehicle, then you can choose your weapon from Amazon’s list of Transmission Fluid)
  • Rags

1. Keep your car running.

This process is very VERY similar to checking motor oil, only you need your car running to check it.

2. Locate the transmission dipstick.

2. Locate the transmission dipstick.

Have a rag handy.

3. Check fluid levels.

Once you found it, pull it out and clean it off with your rag. Replace the dipstick and wait a second. Pull the dipstick out and look to see where the transmission fluid level is at. A typical transmission dipstick will look something like this

4. Add fluid.

Is the fluid level just a tiny bit low? That’s okay. You can top it off. Grab the transmission fluid that your mechanic recommended. If you’ve never topped off your transmission fluid, it will be a trial-and-error, much like the motor oil is for your first few times. Keep the engine running and add some fluid (maybe like 1/3 of a bottle). Check the fluid level again with the dipstick. Pull it out, wipe it off, then replace it and pull it out again for an accurate reading. Does it fall in the “good” level? Yes? Cool – you’re done topping off your transmission fluid. If it isn’t at the “good” level yet, keep repeating step 7 until it is. Once you reach that “good” level, replace the reservoir cap and turn off your engine. You’re done!

REMEMBER: if there is A LOT of transmission fluid gone, take your vehicle to your mechanic. ASAP.

How Often to Replace: It varies with the car and the transmission type, but typically between every 50,000-100,000 miles. But, a full flush is hardly ever recommended (a full flush means they clean it and replace the fluid) – especially on older cars. Talk to your mechanic about what is best for your vehicle.

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About James Morgan

James Morgan is the Founder of ShedHelp.com, and an avid builder, handyman, and home and yard maintenance enthusiast. He has been writing about home maintenance, home improvement, and other how-to guidance for more than 10 years. He previously operated the popular website GetRidofThings.com, and has been cited by Readers Digest, Realtor.com, and numerous other sources for his home and yard maintenance expertise.

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