How Do I Check the Fluids on My Car?

I always hear that I should check the fluids on my car.  What fluids are there to check, and where do I find them? 

While every car is just a little bit different, there are 6 main fluids you should regularly check on your vehicle:

  1. Engine Oil
    While this one seems obvious, it is often forgotten.  No matter how new your car is, it is always a good idea to check your oil level every few times you fill up.  The oil dipstick is usually located toward the front of the engine, and (most of the time) has a yellow handle.

    To check the level, pull out the dipstick, wipe it off, and reinsert it again to get an accurate reading.  Most dipsticks will have a “Low” and “High” line.  If it is in between those two lines it is within a safe operating zone.  Add 1 quart of oil if the level is below the “Low” line (there is often an oil cap on the top of the engine where you would add the oil).  Once you add a quart, always recheck the level on the dipstick to make sure it doesn’t need any more.

  2. Coolant
    Most cars have a coolant overflow bottle that is usually located close to the radiator, towards the front of the engine.  These are often designed with the same idea as the oil dipstick – there’s a “High” line and a “Low” line.  You want to make sure the level is in between those two lines.  If the level is slightly low, you can often add only water to top off the level.  If the level is significantly low, or the overflow bottle is completely empty, you may want to add a 50/50 mixture of coolant and water to make sure the coolant doesn’t get too diluted.

    Also keep in mind that if the overflow bottle is completely empty, you may need to open the radiator to see if the level is low in the radiator itself.  If you have never done this before, it is usually a good idea to have a mechanic inspect the fluid level since the radiator can build up quite a bit of pressure once the engine is warmed up (the last thing you want to do is take off the radiator cap and get hot antifreeze spray up at you!)

  3. Brake Fluid
    The brake fluid has a smaller container that is located towards the back of the engine, usually on the driver’s side.  This fluid is pretty simple to check.  Just like the coolant bottle, if the level is below the “Low” line, then you’ll want to add fluid to get it up to the proper level.  If you find that the fluid level is low, be sure to have your brake system checked at your next service.
  4. Washer Fluid
    This bottle can often be confused with the coolant overflow bottle, because they can often be the same size and/or shape.  Some of these bottles will actually have a dipstick attached to the cap that will show you how full the level is.  There is no need to worry about overfilling this fluid.  Simply top off the fluid with water, or add washer fluid concentrate to the mixture if the level is very low.
  5. Transmission Fluid
    If your car has a manual transmission, there isn’t an easy way to check the fluid under the hood.  It is usually needs to be checked from underneath the vehicle.  If, however, your vehicle has an automatic transmission, it is usually possible to check the fluid level.  Many vehicles will be equipped with a dipstick that is similar to the engine oil dipstick, except that it is usually located more towards the side or rear of the engine, and will often have a red handle instead of a yellow one.

    To check the level, first make sure the engine is running, and the car is in Park.  Pull out the dipstick, and clean it off (just like you do with the engine oil), reinsert it, and then pull it out again to get an accurate reading on the level.  There will be a “Low” and a “High” line.  Follow the same rule of thumb as engine oil when adding oil – only add more when it’s below the “Low” line.  The big difference here is that you will often need to add the fluid through the same tube that the dipstick is located.  So, if you ever need to add fluid, you’ll want to make sure you have a funnel handy

  6. Power Steering Fluid
    This fluid usually has a smaller reservoir (usually a black color) with a small cap on the top.  It is often located on the passenger side of the engine, but can vary a lot depending on the car.  This fluid is pretty simple to check – just unscrew the cap, pull it out of the reservoir, and you’ll see a little mini “dipstick” that will show you if the fluid level is low or not.  Just like with the other fluids, it will have a “Low” and a “High” line.  Some cars will even have a clear bottle that has the markings on the side, so you don’t even need to unscrew the cap.

Final Words
When adding fluid to your vehicle, always be careful to not overfill the fluid.  Fuller is not always better.  Always shoot to have your fluid level remain within the “Low” and “High” zones, and you’ll be on the right track.

Every car is a little different.  Some cars don’t even have some of these fluids, or don’t provide a means to easily check them .  If you ever need help learning where these items on your specific car, we’re always happy to show you where they’re located

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