Okay, so here's the scenario: Your car starts to act up and isn't running quite right. You pop the hood and try to look as if you know what you are looking for. You start by doing what you see every one else do, you check your fluids. Maybe somewhere in those dark, slippery substances you will find the answer as to why your car isn't running the way it should. But do you really know what you are looking for or even what you are looking at? Even though your fluids won't direct you to most of the problems today's engines could have, they can help alleviate some of the guesswork and help you to know what is going on inside your engine. To do that, you first have to know what you are looking at, and secondly, what you are looking for. In the list below, we here at GIC Car Clinic have simplified checking your own car's fluids and are confident that with our tutorial, you will learn more about the vital fluids that flow through your engine, braking system, cooling system and transmission.

  • The first thing you want to do is grab your owner's manual out of the glove box and give it a read. In it you will find some valuable information about your car's fluids including maintenance intervals for each of them. A good way to remember these intervals is to go ahead and mark them on your calendar.
  • You will want to check your car's fluids with the car on level ground and slightly cooled down. A hot engine could cause severe burns and if your car is parked on uneven ground, you may get an inaccurate reading.
  • The first, and probably most important, fluid to check is the engine's oil. You should see the oil dipstick near the front of the engine bay, most of them are marked "Oil" and are a bright color. Pull out the oil dipstick and wipe it with a clean rag. Then re-insert it and check the oil level on the stick. You will usually see markings on the dipstick such as dots, notches or even scribe marks to indicate where the oil level is at.
  • When you check your oil, you are not just checking the oil level in the engine but also the condition of the oil. Clean, new oil is a clear, amber color. If the oil is dark and black, it might need changed and you should check your own maintenance records to see when it was changed last. If your oil looks like chocolate milk you should have your car taken to a reputable repair shop like GIC Car Clinic where it can be inspected for possible major engine problems.
  • Next fluid on our list is the transmission fluid. The dipstick for this is usually on the driver's side of the engine bay and most commonly colored red. To check this fluid, start the engine and leave it in idle. For your own safety, be sure to set the parking brake and shift into Park position. Now you can pull out the dipstick. Wipe it off with a clean rag and re-insert it. Now pull it back out and check the level, again, you will see some sort of marking on the dipstick to indicate low or full. After checking the level, take a look at the condition of it. Clean transmission fluid should be red and you should be able to see through it. If it is brown or blackish, you need to have it changed.
  • To check your power steering fluid, you simply remove the power steering reservoir cap and look at the reading on the dipstick attached to the cap. There should be two lines on it, one for a hot engine and one for a cold engine. Determine which one is the case in your situation and go with that. Good power steering fluid will be an amber to gold color and not smell burnt or look dirty.
  • Check your brake fluid by locating the master cylinder which is always mounted on the driver's side of the car at the firewall. Clean the cap and area around it with a clean rag before opening it. You should be able to check the brake fluid level without opening the cap by looking on the side of the master cylinder but you will still want to open it to check the condition of the fluid. It should be clean and free of any dirt. If the fluid is low, only add more if it is below the lowest marking on the master cylinder. Adding too much will cause it to overflow when you have your brakes serviced. Low fluid could indicate a leak in the system or worn brake surfaces and you will need repairs done very soon.
  • To check the coolant you want to make sure the car is completely cooled down so you don't burn yourself. On most models of cars the coolant can be checked at the coolant reservoir mounted on the wheel-well. As with the brake master cylinder, you should be able to check the coolant level by looking on the side of the reservoir. If it is low, you will need to add the proper coolant at the proper mix ratio. To find this information, check your owner's manual. Your coolant should be clean and not dirty or oily. If your coolant looks like it has oil in it or is full of thick sludge, take it to a repair shop right away to prevent future engine damage.
  • Checking your windshield washer fluid is just as important as any of the other fluids you have just checked. If your washer fluid is low or empty, you may not be able to clean debris off of your windshield and this could cause an accident. If it is low, refill it with windshield washer solvent. Never use water or try to make your own windshield washer solvent. The results are usually not worth the effort. There are even specially formulated washer solvents available for colder climates and some that even help remove bugs from your windshield.

We here at GIC Car Clinic believe that armed with the knowledge above, you will be better prepared to make repair decisions about your car. Our technicians are ASE-certified and can answer any questions you might have.