A d v a n c e d   A u t o   M a i n t e n a n c e




 

Maintaining automotive fluids…


The fluids in your vehicle are its lifeblood.  These fluids include the engine oil, coolant, automatic transmission fluid or manual transmission fluid, differential fluid, brake fluid and power steering fluid.  These fluids are responsible for minimising wear and tear in the various different mechanical systems of your vehicle.  By paying close attention to the health of these fluids, you’ll actually increase the service life of your vehicle.  You’ll also increase its performance and reliability.


Be sure to use the correct fluids for your particular vehicle…

It’s critically important to check what the correct specification is for each type of fluid in your vehicle (ie. engine oil, coolant, automatic transmission fluid or manual transmission fluid, differential fluid, brake fluid and power steering fluid) by reading the owner’s manual that came with your vehicle and then choosing a brand and type of fluid that corresponds with the specification for each type of fluid.

It’s best to always choose the highest-quality brand and type of fluid that you possibly can.  It will pay big dividends because it will give your vehicle the best possible protection.

It’s also very useful to make a list of the correct specification of each type of fluid in your vehicle, together with the brand and type of fluid that you decide to use for each type of fluid.  If you keep this list on-hand with you in a place such as in your smartphone or PDA (personal digital assistant), you can refer to it whenever you need to.


Avoid mixing different brands or types of fluid...

Don’t mix different brands or types of fluid in your vehicle in relation to engine oil, coolant, automatic transmission fluid or manual transmission fluid, differential fluid, brake fluid or power steering fluid.  Once you decide upon a certain brand and type of fluid for a certain aspect of your vehicle such as engine oil, only use that brand and type of fluid.  If you decide to change the brand or type of fluid used, it really is best to drain off all of the existing fluid and even use a flush in the case of engine oil and coolant, before changing to another brand or type of fluid.

It’s simply not good practice to mix brands or types of fluid in your vehicle.  The manufacturers of these fluids design them to have specific properties in order to protect your vehicle from wear.  The effectiveness of these properties in protecting your vehicle from wear is diluted or, at worst, negated by mixing the fluid with another brand or type of fluid.


Use drip trays to detect fluid leaks…

It’s a good idea to keep two drip trays (side by side in the case of a front-wheel drive vehicle or end to end in the case of a rear-wheel drive vehicle) underneath the drive-train of your vehicle (ie. engine, transmission and differential) in the place in which it’s normally parked at your home.  This will quickly bring to your attention any fluid leaks from the vehicle (such as engine oil) because you’ll be able to see the leaked fluid in the drip tray.  (Even the most fastidiously maintained vehicles can develop fluid leaks.)  You’ll then be able to fix the leak quickly instead of being ignorant of its existence and letting it develop into a larger and more expensive problem.


Maintain vehicle fluids above their minimum levels…

It’s vitally important that no fluid in the vehicle be allowed to fall below its minimum level which can lead to damage to the part of the vehicle that is meant to be protected by that fluid.  This applies to:

  • Engine oil
  • Coolant
  • Automatic transmission fluid or manual transmission fluid
  • Differential fluid
  • Brake fluid
  • Clutch fluid for manual transmission
  • Power steering fluid
  • Battery electrolyte

Check most vehicle fluids weekly…

The following fluids should be checked on a weekly basis, either at the dipstick or visually:

  • Engine oil - At the dipstick when engine is completely cold.

    (Please see the section titled, Checking the Engine Oil Level, for critical information on how to avoid the very common mistake of over-filling the engine oil which will inevitably lead to crankshaft oil-seal leaks that are expensive and inconvenient to fix.)
  • Coolant - Visually in plastic, coolant reservoir when engine is completely cold and by taking the radiator cap off the radiator ONLY when the engine is completely cold to avoid being badly scalded or burned by hot coolant under pressure.  The best time to do this is in the morning when the vehicle has not been driven since the night before.
  • Brake fluid – Visually.
  • Clutch fluid for manual transmission – Visually.

Check the automatic transmission fluid level every 3 months or 5,000 kilometres…

The automatic transmission fluid level should be checked at the dipstick every 3 months or 5,000 kilometres (3,000 miles), whichever comes first.  It should be checked strictly according to the manufacturer’s instructions in the owner’s manual.  If you suspect that the automatic transmission fluid is leaking, then the fluid level should be checked more frequently.

You can find more information about checking the automatic transmission fluid level in the section titled, Checking the Automatic Transmission Fluid Level.


Check the power steering fluid level every 3 months or 5,000 kilometres…

The power steering fluid level should be checked at the dipstick every 3 months or 5,000 kilometres (3,000 miles), whichever comes first.  It should be checked strictly according to the manufacturer’s instructions in the owner’s manual.


Check the battery electrolyte fluid level every 3 months or 5,000 kilometres…

If the battery in your vehicle is of a type that requires maintenance, check the electrolyte fluid levels in the cells of the battery every 3 months or 5,000 kilometres (3,000 miles), whichever comes first.  (There are normally six cells in a twelve-volt, lead-acid automotive battery, each producing two volts of electricity.)  If the electrolyte level in any cell of the battery looks to be low, use distilled water to top up the electrolyte level to three millimetres (1/8 inch) above the highest metal part inside the cell.

It’s very important not to use tap water to top up the electrolyte level because tap water contains too many impurities like chlorine that will interfere with the chemical processes that take place inside the battery and reduce its service life.  You should be able to find distilled water at your local supermarket or hardware store.

When topping up a battery cell with distilled water, it’s important to avoid over-filling the cell.  The water level should only be topped up to three millimetres (1/8 inch) above the highest metal part inside the cell.  Over-filling the cell can lead to the electrolyte spilling up and out of the cell when the vehicle is in use through the tiny ventilation hole in the plastic cell cap.  Because the electrolyte is highly corrosive, it can cause extensive corrosion of the vehicle body surrounding the battery inside the engine bay (including the metal battery tray), especially if the problem isn’t detected quickly and rectified.  Prevention is better than cure by taking care not to over-fill any of the battery cells.


Check the manual transmission fluid level every 12 months or 20,000 kilometres...

The manual transmission fluid level should be checked every 12 months or 20,000 kilometres (12,000 miles), whichever comes first.  At that time, it’s a good idea to replace the fluid altogether because it’s almost as time-consuming to check the manual transmission fluid level (which requires jacking the entire vehicle up so that it’s elevated and level) as it is to replace the fluid altogether.


Check the differential fluid level every 12 months or 20,000 kilometres…

The differential fluid level should be checked once every 12 months or 20,000 kilometres (12,000 miles), whichever comes first.  At that time, it’s also a good idea to replace the fluid altogether because it’s often just as time-consuming to check the differential fluid level (which requires jacking the entire vehicle up so that it’s elevated and level) as it is to replace the fluid altogether.)


Keep dirt or other debris away from the fluids being checked or replaced…

When checking vehicle fluids such as engine oil, coolant, transmission fluid, differential fluid or brake fluid or when refilling those fluids if they’re being replaced, it’s good practice to prevent dirt or other foreign matter from entering the component or system that the fluid is being poured into and which is protected by that fluid.  For example, in the case of the engine oil or transmission fluid, dirt or foreign matter entering the engine or transmission will exacerbate wear, especially if these contaminants are not quickly filtered out.

The practice of paying attention to very high standards of cleanliness when checking or replacing fluids will pay large dividends in the form of a motor vehicle that develops fewer problems and runs more smoothly.  In fact, this practice goes right to the heart of the mentality underlying the procedures outlined in this book which are designed to keep your vehicle running at its best.  This mentality is about not tempting fate but rather staying as far away as possible from potential problems.

The kind of precautions that should be observed when checking or replacing fluids are as follows:

Use clean, lint-free rags to wipe dipsticks…

Use a clean, lint-free rag when wiping the dipstick for the fluid that you’re checking and inspect that dipstick for any contamination with dirt or other foreign matter after wiping it and before returning it to its place on the vehicle.  If you find any dirt or foreign matter on the dipstick after wiping it, be sure to remove it from the dipstick before returning the dipstick to its place on the vehicle.  In this way, you’ll stop that dirt or foreign matter from contaminating the fluid associated with that dipstick.

Don’t place dipstick rags down anywhere…

Don’t place a rag, which has been used to wipe a dipstick, down on any part of the vehicle, such as inside the engine bay, after it has been used, where it could easily become contaminated with dirt, dust or other contaminants from the surface it is placed on or from other airborne contaminants.  Rather, return the rag to a labelled, snap-lock bag after use in order to protect it from dirt and other contaminants.

Keep fluid entrances clean…

Ensure that the surrounds of an opening that you’re about to pour fluid into are clean before uncovering that opening, in order to prevent dirt, dust or other contaminants from entering the opening.  For example, before taking the cap off of the reservoir of the brake system master cylinder, in order to top up the brake fluid level or for any other reason, it’s important to first make sure that the cap and the surrounds of the top of the reservoir are clean of dirt or any other contamination.  If the surrounds are dirty, they should be washed down with water and that water should be blown off before taking the cap off.  Failure to do this could easily see dirt or other contaminants finding their way into the brake fluid in the reservoir and then in turn into the master cylinder, causing unnecessary wear.

Keep plastic funnels clean…

When using a plastic funnel to pour fluid into an opening on the vehicle (in order to avoid spillage), make sure that the funnel that you’re using is clean.  The funnel should be free of dirt, dust and other contaminants such as human hair.  If it’s not clean then clean it with kerosene, wash it with water and dry it before using it.  In fact, it’s probably easier to simply replace it altogether with a new one from your supply of consumables since plastic funnels are quite inexpensive.  Failure to ensure that the funnel being used is clean could easily see dirt or other contaminants being swept into the vehicle with the fluid being poured.

Don’t place plastic funnels down anywhere…

Don’t place a plastic funnel, used to pour fluid, down on any part of the vehicle, such as inside the engine bay, after it has been used, where it could easily become contaminated with dirt, dust or other contaminants from the surface it is set down on or from other airborne contaminants.  Rather, return the funnel to a labelled, snap-lock bag after use in order to protect it from dirt and other contaminants.

Keep fluid containers clean…

Make sure that the outsides of a container from which fluid is going to be poured are clean.  If they’re not clean, clean them by wiping them over with a damp cloth before opening the container and pouring the fluid.

Keep fluid containers closed…

Put the cap or lid back on all containers of fluid, from which fluid has been poured, as quickly as possible to prevent dirt, dust or other contaminants such as human hair from entering the container.


Purchase vehicle fluids in large 5 litre containers…

Purchase vehicle fluids such as engine oil, automatic transmission fluid, manual transmission fluid, differential fluid and coolant in the largest-sized containers you can such as 5 litre/quart containers.  This will result in a lower cost per litre/quart of the fluid you purchase and you’ll save money.  It will also mean that you’ll generally have some of the fluid on hand when you need it.  It’s really annoying to check your engine oil, find that you need to add 300mL (2/3 pint) but then realise that you don’t have any engine oil on hand.


Keep the empty fluid containers…

Keep the empty containers for engine oil, coolant, automatic transmission fluid or manual transmission fluid, differential fluid and brake fluid when all the fluid in them has been used because they’re useful for the following:

Holding spare fluid in your vehicle…

Keep some empty containers in the boot of your vehicle to hold small amounts of fluid to be used to replenish low fluid levels during regular checks of the fluids in your vehicle.  (The only exception to this is brake fluid.  To minimise the absorption of water from the outside air, brake fluid should not be poured into an empty brake-fluid container.  Rather, it should only be poured from its original container into the brake fluid reservoir on the vehicle.  In any case, brake fluid is generally packaged in small quantities of 500mL (1 pint) which is an ideal size already for keeping in the boot of the vehicle.)

Disposing of drained fluids…

Use the empty containers to dispose of depleted, contaminated fluids drained from your vehicle when replacing fluids in your vehicle as part of your scheduled routine auto maintenance.  These depleted, contaminated fluids will need to be disposed of at a waste and recycling facility or at your local mechanic.  The empty containers are the perfect way to get them there and also provide a means of identifying which fluid is which if you pour used engine oil into an empty engine oil container and used automatic transmission fluid into an empty automatic transmission fluid container, et cetera.

Note that an important benefit of purchasing fluids in larger volumes such as in 5 litre/quart containers for engine oil is that the larger empty 5 litre/quart containers are generally the ideal size for holding all the used engine oil from an oil drain, for example.  The alternative is to use two or more smaller containers which is less efficient and more time-consuming.



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Copyright 2016 Andrew Mackinnon.  All rights reserved.