Car Maintenance Guide
With the abundance of self-service gas
stations, sometimes the only way to ensure your vehicle's fluids receive the
attention they need is for you to check them yourself. Maintaining appropriate
fluid levels is inexpensive. However, improper maintenance and low fluid levels
can make driving more difficult and lead to serious damage and shorter engine
If you have a question regarding any fluid not covered, contact a AAA
Approved Auto Repair facility or your local AAA club for assistance
Brakes are a critical system on your
vehicle, yet brake fluid is one of the most neglected fluids. A quick check of
the brake fluid reservoir will determine the current fluid level.
- Before removing the brake reservoir
cap to check the condition of the brake fluid, always clean away any dirt or
debris to ensure it doesn't get into the master cylinder.
- Only add brake fluid that is
designed for your specific vehicle. This information can be found in the owner's
manual and also may be located on the filler cap of the brake master cylinder
reservoir. Adding anything other than the recommended brake fluid can damage
brake components or cause brake failure.
- Do not mix fluids. For example, if
your vehicle has DOT 3 fluid, then add only DOT 3 fluid. If you are unsure which
fluid is in your vehicle, have a AAA Approve Auto Repair facility identify the
DOT fluid in your vehicle.
What Should My Brake Fluid Look
- The fluid should be clear to amber
in color (DOT 3 and DOT 4), or have a light purple tint (DOT 5).
- Dark brown or black brake fluid
indicates that it is time to replace the fluid.
The Department of Transportation designates fluid
grades as DOT 3 and DOT 4 (polyglycol), and DOT 5 (silicone). Most vehicle
manufacturers recommend DOT 3 brake fluid for use in their vehicles. DOT 5 is
not recommended for use in vehicles that have anti-lock brake
Coolant (also known as antifreeze)
prevents engine freeze-up in winter, reduces the engine temperature in the
summer, and protects the cooling system from rust and corrosion year
Engine oil is one of the most vital
fluids your vehicle needs to operate. It works as a lubricant for the engine and
as a means of cooling and cleaning internal engine parts.
Your engine oil is the most important fluid to check because
running your engine when it is low on oil can result in serious engine damage.
The best time to check your engine
oil is when your vehicle has not been running for a while. If you have been
driving your vehicle, waiting at least an hour will give you the best results.
This will give the engine time to cool down and the oil will drain back into the
oil pan. Cool oil stays on the dipstick better, making it easier to measure the
oil level. The cooler the engine, the less risk you have of incurring an
- The vehicle's engine should not be
- Make sure the vehicle is on level
- After opening your hood, find the
engine oil dipstick and remove it.
- Wipe off the end of the dipstick
with a rag, and notice the markings located near the end of the dipstick. You
will usually see a mark for "Full" and another mark for "Add."
- Insert the dipstick back into tube,
remove it immediately, and read the level.
- If the dipstick indicates the level
is at or below the "Add" mark, then add oil. Be sure to add only enough oil to
reach the "Full" mark. Do not overfill.
AAA recommends that consumers
change their oil between 5,000 and 7,500 miles, when driving under normal
What Should My Oil Look
- New engine oil will generally have
a light gold to brown tint and should be nearly transparent.
- Synthetic oil is normally darker in
color, sometimes almost black.
- If the oil appears milky or thick,
or if it is very thin and has a strong fuel odor, there may be a mechanical
problem with the engine. If this is the case, have the vehicle checked by a
Engine Oil Terms and Ratings
In 1993, the starburst symbol
(shown below) was introduced to help consumers identify engine oil that is
suitable for use in gasoline engines. This symbol, along with the American
Petroleum Institute (API) and Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) ratings,
will help you identify the correct motor oil that your manufacturer recommends
for your specific vehicle.
This two-letter classification signifies the type of
engine (gas or diesel) and the service class. The first letter will be either an
S (signifying a gasoline engine) or a C (signifying a diesel engine). The second
letter is the service class designator, which has been sequentially assigned
since the service classification system started. The letters range from "A"
through "J," with J signifying the most recent improvements in the quality of
the motor oil. For example, "SJ" motor oil is suitable for use in today's
gasoline engines, while "SA" motor oil is considered outdated and will not meet
the engine oil requirements for modern vehicles.
AAA recommends that motorists use
the highest designated oil in their vehicles.
Viscosity grade ratings indicate the oil's resistance to flow,
or "how thick or thin the oil is." SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers)
utilizes a numbering system to grade engine oil. An example of a single grade
oil is SAE 30, while an example of a multi-viscosity grade oil is SAE 10W-30.
(The "W" indicates that the oil's minimum viscosity grade was determined at 0
degrees Fahrenheit, assuring that this oil has been tested and rated for use in
Synthetic Oils and Oil
Synthetic engine oils possess performance characteristics
that are more desirable than conventional engine oil. However, synthetics should
still be changed at the same intervals as conventional oils. Synthetic oils
clean better than conventional oils because of their ability to hold more
detergents. However, the high cost of synthetic oils makes the benefits far less
appealing. If cost is not a concern and you desire protection beyond normal
driving conditions, synthetic oils may be for you. For the average driver, the
money you save may pay for your next oil change or two.
Don't Spend Money on Aftermarket Oil
Additives that can Diminish Oil Protection. Engine oil comes with additives
already blended into the formula. These additives are included to enhance the
oil's performance and to help meet the demands required by today's engines.
Aftermarket additives often contain the same additives that the oil
manufacturers have already formulated into their oil. There is no research that
substantiates that adding these "cure-all additives" will provide any greater
protection. In fact, by adding some of these products you may actually be
detracting from the protection that is already built into the oil.
Advancements in automotive
technology have allowed manufacturers to provide yet another feature on selected
makes and models of vehicles -- with a touch of a button it is possible to
monitor fuel mileage and actually see how driving habits are saving or costing
us at the gas pump. There is another way to save, and that's knowing what type
of gas is best for your vehicle. The following information should help you to
better understand the fuel requirements of your vehicle and the terms that are
associated with gasoline.
Which Fuel is Right for Your
The most expensive fuel may not be the best fuel for your
vehicle. In fact, "super" or "premium" fuel may actual hurt the performance of
your vehicle. Most modern economy cars are designed to operate with minimum
octane requirements, while most performance vehicles require a higher octane to
operate at peak performance. Simply said, follow the manufacturer's
recommendations for your specific vehicle.
The recommended octane rating can
be found in your vehicle owner's manual.
Octane Ratings and Engine
The octane ratings that most of us are familiar with are
regular, mid-grade, and premium/super. Premium/super is the highest octane-rated
fuel. These labels are representative of the numerical octane ratings, and are
usually affixed to the fuel pumps on a yellow and black tag.
Gasoline octane ratings can best be
described as the fuel's ability to resist engine knocks. Engine knock (also
known as pinging, pre-ignition, detonation and spark knock), is a result of
too-rapid or uneven burning of the air-fuel mixture in the engine's combustion
chamber. This results in an internal knocking noise in the engine. The higher
the octane rating, the slower the fuel burns, and the greater the resistance it
has to engine knock.
Engine knock also can be caused by
several other factors. In fact, in most cases an engine knock is a result of a
control problem, such as improper ignition timing, carbon deposits in the
engine, a malfunctioning exhaust gas recirculation valve system, an engine that
is running too hot, or simply an engine that has worn with age.
If your vehicle is knocking, and all
mechanical areas check out okay, it may be time to switch to another brand of
fuel. Octane ratings can vary from brand to brand, and simply switching brands
may be the answer to correcting that engine knock.
If the vehicle manufacturer
recommends regular gasoline, higher octane-rated fuel will not provide
more engine power, burn cleaner or improve fuel economy in vehicles that are in
good mechanical condition and do not have engine knock.
If the manufacturer recommends that mid-grade or
premium fuel should be used in your vehicle, it is important to follow that
recommendation. Most modern vehicles are equipped with a sensor that is able to
detect engine knock. If a lower rated fuel is used, and engine knock is
detected, the sensor will send a signal to the vehicle's computer and the
computer will react to that signal, resulting in adversely effected engine
- If you see that a fuel tanker has
just finished refilling a gas pump, you may want to try a different gas station
for your fill-up. Freshly filled fuel pumps are not your best option because
when the gasoline from the tanker is poured into the in-ground tanks, it stirs
up water and debris that has settled at the bottom of the in-ground tank. If you
fill your vehicle's tank with this, it will most likely contain the water and
POWER STEERING FLUID
Power steering fluid has special
additives to help protect the rubber hoses and seals located in the steering
system. Although some vehicles may use automatic transmission fluid, most
manufacturers recommend the use of a specific type of power steering fluid.
Refer to your owner's manual for the fluid that is recommended for your
- The power steering fluid reservoir
usually has a small dipstick attached to the cap.
- Although you can check the power
steering fluid when the vehicle is cold, it is more accurate to check the fluid
once the vehicle is fully warmed up.\
- The vehicle should be parked on a
level surface with the engine turned off.
- Remove the cap from the fluid
reservoir and check the fluid level. The level should be within the normal range
on the stick. Be sure to read the dipstick marking for either warm or cold
levels, depending on your engine's condition.
- If you have to add fluid more than
once a year, have the system checked for leaks.
- If you hear a buzzing noise when
you turn the steering wheel at slow speeds, that's a warning sign of low power
AUTOMATIC TRANSMISSION FLUID
Automatic transmission fluid serves
multiple functions. It provides lubrication, keeps seals soft, protects internal
parts and acts as a coolant for your transmission.
Checking Automatic Transmission
- Automatic transmissions in recent
model vehicles should be checked while the engine is running.
- Make sure the vehicle is on a level
surface with the emergency brake applied, and the transmission in park or
neutral. (Check your owner's manual for information on whether your vehicle
should be in park or neutral when checking the transmission fluid and where your
transmission's dipstick is located.)
- Raise the hood and locate your
transmission's dipstick, making sure to avoid any hot or moving parts of the
- Once you've located the dipstick,
remove it, wipe off the fluid, and re-insert it. Remove the dipstick again to
check the fluid level. The level should be within the "Full" range.
What Should My Automatic
Transmission Fluid Look Like?
- Clean automatic transmission fluid
should have a pink tint.
- Amber to brown fluid is a sign that
the fluid may need to be changed.
- Brown or black, burnt-smelling
fluid is a sign of internal failure or lack of proper maintenance. If your fluid
shows these signs, consult a AAA Approved Auto Repair facility for the proper
Manual Transmission and
On most models, finding an accessible way to check
the manual transmission and differential fluid level is very difficult. It is
recommended that service and inspection of these fluids be performed by a
qualified technician. Refer to your owner's manual for specific service
When it comes to maintaining your
vehicle, adding washer fluid is one the easiest tasks that you can perform.
Keeping the washer reservoir full of washer solvent will maximize your
visibility by keeping the windshield clean and clear, which ultimately makes
driving easier and safer.
Adding Washer Fluid
- Always add washer fluid
only to the reservoir. Plain water can grow algae or leave mineral
deposits that clog spray nozzles. Water also may freeze in cold weather. Washer
fluid provides added protection from these elements.
- Check the owner's manual to verify
the location of the washer solvent reservoir. Although the filler caps are
usually labeled, it may be hard to differentiate between the engine coolant and
washer reservoirs on some makes and models.
- Most washer fluid is sold in gallon
containers. There also is a concentrated formula available in a much smaller
container that is mixed with water and is just as suitable as the already mixed