The cost of vehicle maintenance is on the rise. A 2021 study from AAA showed the average driver spent around $9,000 in maintenance costs.
This is before you factor in additional vehicle costs, like insurance, fuel and taxes, each of which cost anywhere from $500 to $2,000. Compared to 2020, the cost of vehicle ownership increased by almost five percent.
Because of the increasing costs, more drivers are delaying maintenance. As a result, common problems are more likely to spiral out of control, risking serious damage to your vehicle, which costs even more to repair.
One of the ways you may be able to save money and keep your vehicle in top shape is learning to perform your own maintenance. Even if you have no real experience working on a car, there are many steps you can take to keep your car running.
A great way to start maintaining your car is learning how to check the fluid levels.
When to Check your Fluid Levels
There are several different fluid levels to check with your vehicle.
Most drivers know about checking their oil, but there are several other fluids to keep an eye on. The process is similar for each of the fluids, so if you are checking one, it makes sense to check the others as well.
How often you test your fluids varies depending on how well your vehicle performs. If there are no issues, it is recommended to check your fluids at least once a month. If your vehicle has issues, you may want to check your fluids more frequently until you have an opportunity to make repairs.
Checking your Oil
The oil in your car keeps all the essential components lubricated. This prevents your parts from sticking and grinding, which can lead to your vehicle malfunctioning.
Repeatedly running your vehicle with limited oil can do lasting damage to your parts, and may even cause your engine to break down.
Learning how to check your own oil can be a great way to cut down on maintenance costs because it is one of the most common reasons a vehicle breaks down.
The exact process to check your oil may vary slightly depending on your vehicle. Most cars have an oil dipstick inside of the engine bay.
There are some newer variants which do not have a dipstick, but instead monitor oil levels through an onboard computer. For these vehicles, you can check your owner’s manual for more details.
Before you check your oil, make sure your engine has been off for at least 15 minutes. When you are ready, clean the dipstick with a rag and insert the dipstick into your oil pan.
In most vehicles, the pan is located at the bottom of your engine. Oil is pumped through the pan to the rest of your vehicle. They are commonly made out of steel or aluminum, with enough space to store around four to six quarts of oil.
After a few seconds, withdraw your dipstick so you can see how much oil is left in your engine. The dipstick should have markings along the length which indicate whether your oil is in a healthy range or if you need to add or change your oil.
In addition to checking whether there is enough oil, look at the quality of the oil. If the oil is very dark or appears thick, this generally means the oil is old and needs to be changed.
Another warning sign is if the oil feels gritty, which may indicate an issue with your engine. If the oil has a milky appearance, other fluids, most likely coolant, are leaking into your engine.
Checking your Coolant
Cars naturally produce heat when they are running. Too much heat can cause damage to the interior of your car, leading to breakdowns.
The temperatures are managed by your coolant, also known as antifreeze. The coolant absorbs heat from the engine and disperses it through the radiator to prevent any overheating.
As with other fluids, you want to check your coolant levels after your car is turned off for at least 15 minutes. If the engine still feels warm, give it a few more minutes to settle.
On average, you should check your coolant levels every 50,000 miles. There are a few different ways to check the coolant levels, based on your vehicle.
If you have a coolant expansion tank, the levels are marked directly on the tank. If there are no marks, you may need to open the radiator cap to see whether the coolant is filled along the top.
If you need to top off your coolant, check your owner’s manual to see which type of coolant is compatible with your vehicle.
Power Steering Fluid
Power steering fluid is responsible for making your steering wheel operate smoothly. A common sign you are running low on fluid is when turning feels clunky, or your wheel creaks whenever you turn it.
Modern vehicles may use advanced power steering systems that do not require fluid checks. Otherwise, you need to check your fluid roughly every 30,000 miles.
Some vehicles have a fluid reservoir, which has marks to indicate whether your power steering is full. If your car does not have a reservoir, you may need to use the dipstick like you previously did with your oil.
As with coolant, vehicles need different types of power steering fluid.
Cars use a hydraulic system for braking. Whenever you press down on the brake, fluids push through your system and enter the brake lines, which tells your car to activate the brake pads.
Brake fluid is stored inside of a tank within the engine bay. In addition to checking whether the bay is filled, check whether the fluid is translucent.
If it is not translucent, that’s a sign you might need to replace the fluid. Some warning signs you are running low on brake fluid include a grinding sensation when you change speeds or a screeching noise whenever you come to a quick stop.
Your transmission fluid is similar to oil. Both fluids lubricate and cool down your vehicle.
Transmission fluid keeps all the gears, clutches and valves operating smoothly. Transmission fluid typically does not need to be replaced.
Because of this, it can be difficult to check. Some vehicles use a dipstick system to measure the fluids.
Unlike with other fluids, turn your engine on and leave your car in either park or neutral before inspecting the fluids. If the fluid looks dark, gritty or cloudy, the fluid may need to be replaced.
If your vehicle does not have a dipstick for your transmission, bring it to a mechanic to check.