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How To Check Fluid Levels

Take a look under the hood of your car, and you’ll see an engineering masterpiece that’s the result of a century of automotive innovation. While you can see the components that come together to create your engine, it’s a lot harder to see the liquid elements that make normal operation possible. Your vehicle relies on six different fluids for various vehicular systems:

  • Windshield wiper fluid
  • Transmission fluid
  • Antifreeze
  • Brake fluid
  • Engine oil
  • Power steering fluid

As a responsible vehicle owner, it’s important to know everything about each of these liquids so you can spot a small problem before it becomes something larger. You should always check your owner’s manual for specific instructions, but here’s an overview of how to check car fluid levels and refill if necessary.

Wiper Fluid

When you push the wash button on your windshield wiper control, dispensers shoot liquid that helps clear away dirt, dust, bugs and other road debris. Not only does it keep your glass clean, but it also cuts down on sun glare and melts ice from freezing rain. As this fluid is designed to be dispensed, it’s one of the most commonly replaced automotive components. Checking the level is easy enough, as there’s a semitransparent reservoir with a fill line that should be easy to see and top off if necessary.

Transmission Fluid

checking car's fluid levelsYour transmission’s job is to transfer the appropriate amount of energy from the motor to the wheels for a given speed, and this creates friction and heat. By checking transmission fluid regularly, you can ensure proper lubrication and cooling during operation. For automatic transmissions, there’s a dipstick in the engine compartment. Some manufacturers of newer vehicles, however, no longer include a dipstick for self-checks. In these cases, it is recommended you seek out a professional for an inspection. Manual vehicles need to be raised on hoists to access the reservoir from the bottom.

Put the car in neutral or park with the handbrake engaged and let the car run for a few minutes to warm up. With the motor still running, pull the dipstick out and rub some of the liquid between your thumb and forefinger to check for clarity and consistency. If you smell a burnt or acrid odor, have your mechanic drain and replace the fluid. Replace the dipstick and pull it back out to check the level and use a funnel to replenish if needed.


A combustion engine produces a lot of heat, and the radiator helps to keep temperatures out of the danger zone. If your vehicle is running too hot, you might need to replenish coolant levels. Like windshield wiper fluid, antifreeze has a convenient reservoir with a fill line. If you need to add more, do it with an even mixture of coolant and water.

Brake Fluid

Brakes are the most important piece of safety equipment on any vehicle, and they use lines full of liquid to deliver pressure from the pedal to all four rotors. If you’re experiencing difficulty slowing down, checking brake fluid should be one of your first steps. Before opening the reservoir, clean the area around the cap thoroughly to avoid introducing dirt. Once open, fill to within a half-inch of the top, but take care not to spill any, as it’s extremely toxic and corrosive. You should also work quickly, as the liquid pulls moisture out of the air, and water in your braking system will eventually cause failure.

Engine Oil

While your maintenance schedule lays out recommended mileage benchmarks for lubrication, it’s a good idea to get in the habit of checking oil levels regularly. Pull the dipstick and wipe it clean before inserting and removing again to check the fill level. If it looks low, top the reservoir off with the weight indicated in your owner’s manual.

Power Steering Fluid

Much like the braking system, your front wheels also use liquids to produce enough pressure to move while you steer. Checking power steering fluid is a good place to start if you’re finding it difficult to turn the wheel. Use your manual to locate the reservoir, unscrew the cap and either check the dipstick or fill line before refilling with the appropriate liquid.

While you can check and replenish many of these fluids at home, it’s no substitute for proper maintenance by certified technicians. No matter if you’re experiencing a problem or your mileage dictates a fluid change, schedule an appointment at any of Sun Devil Auto’s 19 Arizona service centers today.