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How to Check Fluid Levels and Top-Off Your Car

BY: Larry Witherspoon Jr.
Woman checking the engine and changing the oil of her car in a garage

A vehicle is a complex machine with a myriad of parts working perfectly together to propel you down the road at a high rate of speed. Even a single part under the hood that is out of working order can have detrimental effects on your vehicle as a whole. However, an often overlooked aspect of maintaining your vehicle’s health is paying attention to the fluid levels under the hood.

While the mechanical parts certainly keep your vehicle moving, the fluids running throughout your car act much like blood moving through the human body. Without adequate oil, engine coolant, brake fluid, and many other fluids, your vehicle will quickly come to a stop.

Learn how to check and top off the various crucial fluids in your vehicle to keep it in top shape.

Safety First: Preparing to Check Your Automotive Fluids

Before checking the fluids under the hood of your car, ensure you are taking precautionary safety measures. First and foremost, you want your vehicle to be on a completely flat surface so that the readings you take are accurate and not skewed.

Additionally, your car should be off for a moderate period of time so that the fluids have a chance to cool off in case they splash against your skin. Finally, get all the materials you will need, such as a dipstick, gloves, goggles, and other protective items, before starting the process.

Fluid Checks and Topping Off Engine Oil

One of the most important fluids under the hood is engine oil, and it is also one of the easiest fluids to check and change. For newer vehicles, you may simply be able to check the oil level from the dashboard of your vehicle.

However, for older models, to check the current level of your engine oil, pop the hood of your car. Locate the oil dipstick, which typically has an orange or yellow circular handle and is usually on the left side of the engine.

Pull the dipstick out, wipe it off with a cloth, and then put it back in. The stick will have a minimum and maximum mark. If the oil line is at least halfway between the minimum and maximum mark, you don’t need to add oil. If it is below that point or at the minimum line, you should add oil.

To top off on oil, locate the oil cap on the engine — this will typically be marked with the symbol of an oil can. With the correct oil for your vehicle (refer to your owner’s manual if you aren’t certain what type you need), pour in the oil a little bit at a time and use the dipstick to check the level until it is at a satisfactory level.

Maintaining Proper Coolant Levels

In most cases, you can find the coolant under the hood of your car stored in a translucent container on the upper right-hand side of your engine. There is a ‘L’ for low and a ‘F’ for full on the tank, which means you don’t even need to screw the top up in order to check the level.

To replace the fluid once it falls below the low line, simply unscrew the cap and fill it back up to the maximum level. As with the oil, refer to your owner’s manual for the type of coolant your vehicle uses.

Brake Fluid Inspection and Refill

Similar to the coolant container, there is also a brake reservoir container under the hood. Specifically, it can be located on the master cylinder, which you should refer to your owner’s manual for assistance locating on your specific vehicle. This reservoir will also have a maximum and minimum line.

Assuming your brake fluid is near the minimum line, you should first have your vehicle’s brakes inspected to ensure they haven’t been damaged by the fluid getting low. Once you are certain your brakes are fine, simply screw off the cap on the reservoir and refill the fluid.

Transmission Fluid: Ensuring Smooth Operation

Checking the level of transmission fluid under the hood is nearly the exact same process as looking at the car’s oil level. Generally, the dipstick for transmission fluid will be located on the back side of the car’s engine near where the transmission meets the engine block. As you would do with oil, remove the transmission fluid dipstick, wipe it off with a cloth, and put it back in. Remove the dipstick again and check where the line of liquid falls between the minimum and maximum lines. Top off your vehicle as needed.

Extended Warranties and Fluid Maintenance: Ensuring Long-Term Care

Regardless of whether you drive a new or old vehicle, it’s only natural to want to extend its lifespan. This want becomes a need when you have an extended warranty contract associated with your vehicle. Nearly all extended warranty contracts stipulate that to keep the policy active, you need to take care of preventative maintenance at the correct service intervals.

Naturally, extended warranty providers make their money off the price you pay for your contract, and the benefit you receive is financial coverage in the event of mechanical breakdowns. If your vehicle isn’t maintained, though, it can end up costing an extended warranty provider far more than it’s worth to issue the contract, which is why the stipulation is in place. Replacing the fluids under the hood of your car is one such task that qualifies as preventative maintenance. This is due to the fact that having adequate fluid keeps all the machinery working properly.

Documenting Your Maintenance for Warranty Purposes

If you have an extended warranty contract on your used car, the best practice is to document all of your maintenance tasks. Keep receipts for any fluids you purchase, and make a note of when you top off the fluids. Perhaps even take photos or videos as proof of what you are doing. In the event of a mechanical breakdown, the extended warranty provider you use may request proof that you have taken care of maintenance tasks.

When not taking your car to a dealership or mechanic for fluid replacements, the only proof you will have is what you retain. Therefore, save as much as possible so that you don’t run into issues during the claim submission process.

Vehicle Fluid FAQs

Drivers often have a myriad of questions when tackling fluid maintenance on their vehicles. The following five are among the most commonly asked questions to be aware of:

What are the 7 main fluids in a car?

There are many fluids under the hood of your car, but some are more vital than others. The seven main fluids within your vehicle are oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid, radiator fluid, power steering fluid, windshield washer fluid, and A/C coolant. Depending on the type of vehicle you own, it’s possible to have more, but the aforementioned are in all other vehicles.

How often are you supposed to check fluids under the hood?

As a general rule of thumb, it’s advised to check your car’s fluid levels at least once a month. The best time to DIY this is when you are filling up at the gas station, but it can really be handled at any point. This doesn’t mean the fluids need to be replaced once a month, but staying up to date on the levels is crucial.

How expensive is replacing fluids in a car?

Costs can vary dramatically depending on the type of fluid you are changing under the hood. Use the following guidance as a best practice:

  • Motor oil changes can cost somewhere between $35-$75
  • Transmission fluid changes can cost somewhere between $80-$250
  • Brake fluid changes can cost somewhere between $80-$130
  • Radiator fluid changes can cost somewhere between $131-$209
  • Power steering fluid changes can cost somewhere between $90-$125
  • Windshield wiper fluid changes can cost somewhere between $5-$10
  • A/C coolant changes can cost up to $200

Why is it important to check your vehicle’s fluids regularly?

Many of the parts under the hood of a car need to be lubricated regularly or are powered by the fluids themselves. With fluid levels being too low or entirely running out, the parts can potentially be damaged or not operate at peak performance.

Do you check car fluids hot or cold?

Almost every fluid under your car’s hood should only be checked when the car is off, and the fluid isn’t steaming hot. The only exception to this rule is windshield wiper fluid, which is not pressurized and will remain cool at all times, so it can also be checked at all times.

Protect Against Mechanical Breakdowns With Endurance

Even with a perfect car maintenance schedule, the best vehicles can still suffer from mechanical defects. Without an extended warranty for your vehicle, either a manufacturer one or a third-party warranty, you will be left on the hook for any costs of repairs. However, a comprehensive extended car warranty, such as plans offered by Endurance, can cover some of, if not all, the costs. That means you can save yourself both time and money.

From high-level stated coverage for only the most crucial components with the Secure Plus plan to near bumper-to-bumper coverage with the Supreme plan, along with a slew of customizable options in between, there’s something for everyone with Endurance. In addition to coverage for parts under the hood, each Endurance vehicle service contract comes with 24/7 roadside assistance, rental car reimbursement, and trip interruption coverage. Endurance customers can also activate more Elite Benefits*, including reimbursements for tires damaged due to road hazards, total loss protection, and so much more.

To learn more about how Endurance can protect you and your vehicle, contact our plan advisors at (800) 253-8203 or request a FREE quote. You can also shop online to see your price right away.

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