Automotive 101: Extend Engine Life

Automotive 101: Extend Engine Life

“Oh yeah, I need to check my oil. I’ll do it this weekend.” Navigating the demands of daily life with work, family and commitments, it’s easy to overlook checking the fluids in your vehicle regularly. And for some of us, checking the fluids feels a little daunting. Below we highlight a few basics for prolonging the life of your engine, maximizing fuel efficiency, keeping those gears running and engine cool.

Checking the fluids in your car doesn’t just mean checking the little mileage sticker in the upper corner of your windshield since your last oil change. Though that is important, checking other fluids like transmission and power steering are critical for avoiding major repairs in the future.

Additionally:

Be mindful to also keep an eye on your driveway or regular parking spot. This is your easiest indicator of any minor or major leaks. Take a picture of the leak marks on the ground to help identify where the leak is landing and how much fluid is leaking. This will help you better knowledgeably communicate any concerns with your mechanic and help your mechanic quickly identify the type of leak. Also, if you feel brave enough, touch the leak puddle with a finger to determine if greasy, odorous or watery. This can also help determine what type of leak is present. If you smell gasoline, do not drive the car! Request immediate professional assistance! 

To check most fluids:

When the car is cool, simply remove the dipstick, wipe it with a cloth or towel, and then dip it all the way back into the same reserve line you removed it from. Delicately remove it again to see where the fluid line is. There should be a notch in the dipstick to indicate where the fluid level should be.

Fluids to check include:

1. Oil

Check that dipstick! Oil is critical to keep engine parts lubricated and prevent major repairs like head gasket issues. If it’s low, make sure you know what type of oil to add to your particular vehicle. Some engines will say directly on the oil reservoir cap what type of oil your car needs (i.e. many older sedans need 5w-30 synthetic), or it will be listed in the owner’s manual. If you’re not sure, you can always ask Ein Gedi Spring or your local automotive parts store.

2. Coolant/Radiator

Keep that radiator fluid full! What happens if your car runs out of coolant? Insufficient coolant can damage the cylinder head(s) and engine block causing catastrophic engine failure. There isn’t usually a dipstick for checking radiator fluid, so look for a tank or coolant reservoir. Do not open when engine has been running and is still hot, the pressure can cause serious injury! Open it carefully with a rag, and look into the tank to see if you can see the coolant. You may need to use a flashlight. If you can’t see it near the top, you’ll need to add more. But don’t overfill, a little more than halfway to three quarters full is just right.

What’s the difference between coolant and anti-freeze? What about using water? If the coolant level is low, add the correct coolant to the reservoir. You can check your owner’s manual to determine what type of coolant. You can use diluted coolant (aka anti-freeze) by itself, or a 50/50 mixture of concentrated coolant and distilled water, or in warm weather temperatures if no other options, just water. Water helps keep the engine cool but boils faster and at a lower temperature than coolant. If it is winter, running the engine with only plain water and no anti-freeze can result in thousands of dollars of repairs from a cracked engine block.

3. Transmission

Don’t get lost in transmission! Avoid the dreaded clunking of a worn or malfunctioning transmission. Keeping your transmission fluid full and fresh can prevent major damage to your car and keep your transmission running smoothly. For automatic transmissions, locate the other dipstick (not the oil) under the hood to find the transmission fluid level. Check the owner’s manual to determine the type of transmission fluid for your vehicle make and model. In addition to checking the transmission fluid level, also check the quality of the fluid. Rub a tiny bit between your fingers to see if it is pinkish or clear, which means it’s running through the transmission adequately. If it looks dark, smells burnt or has particles in it, it’s probably time to change it.

4. Power Steering

Besides regularly checking your power steering fluid, here are some obvious signs you might need to add more:

  1. Noisy steering, especially when moving slowly.
  2. Jumpy or jerky power steering.
  3. Difficult to turn the steering wheel.
  4. Screeching sounds while steering.
  5. Drip, leak or puddle stains under the vehicle.

Too little power steering fluid can damage the pump, creating another costly repair. Leaks can also indicate major issues like rack and pinion problems (the rack and pinion is the mechanism that turns the wheels from side-to-side when steering the wheel.) Find the power steering cap to check the levels when engine is cooled down. Check your owner’s manual to determine the appropriate type of power steering fluid for your vehicle. Use a funnel to add fluid. Make sure the cap is sealed tightly back in place when finished. Do a quick look-over around the reservoir to examine for any obvious leaks around reservoir as well.

5. Brake

Stop, before you brake something! Keeping brakes working properly is crucial for helping prevent accidents and injury. Brake fluid shouldn’t have to be replaced as frequently as oil, but does require that you check the levels periodically. The brake fluid tank is usually near the back of the engine compartment. Make sure to wipe off the outside before opening the tank as any particles, dirt, or debris that enter the open tank can be dangerous for the system.  Unscrew the cap. If the cap is clamped, use a screwdriver or leveraging tool to pry it off. Look inside to check where the fluid level is, you may want to use a flashlight. The brake fluid should be about a half-inch from the cap. Check your owner’s manual to determine what type of fluid to add. Also check the color of the brake fluid—if it looks dark in color, you should have a mechanic replace it.

Brake fluid expires over time as it absorbs water from outside humidity, causing a rust-like build-up. If braking really hard, water could boil in the lines carrying the brake fluid to the brake mechanisms. If your brakes “go out” – the pedal might drop onto the floor, and the car won’t stop. The brake fluid change period varies depending on the needs of the car, but a general rule is to change it every other year.

6. Air Conditioning

Staying cool inside your vehicle during those hot summer months may be a necessity for some but less of a priority for others. You’ll know when you need an A.C. recharge (refill) if your A.C. starts blowing warm air instead of cold. For the average car owner, checking your A.C. coolant (also known as refrigerant or freon) can get a little more complicated than the fluid checks mentioned above. While home A.C. pressure checks are possible, you will need to have the correct tools such as those featured here.

Self-refilling/replacing your A.C. is highly discouraged. To prevent extraneous greenhouse emissions, environmental regulations must be followed, and specialized technical equipment is critical to service an air conditioner correctly. Ask your mechanic for assistance on this one!

7. Washer

Ah, the often forgotten and overlooked washer fluid…non-essential for a working engine, but absolutely essential for visibility while driving. Good news, checking washer fluid is simple. Most cars have opaque washer fluid reservoirs labeled “windshield” or “washer” on the cap. If you can’t see inside without removing the cap, twist it off and look inside. If you need more fluid, a mixture of water with a tiny bit of liquid soap is acceptable. However, pre-mixed washer fluid may be more effective for removing bugs and tough residues. Home-use window cleaner solutions can also serve temporarily until refilling the reservoir with washer fluid.

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