The Service You Deserve, The Quality You Expect

Ignoring these fluids is a sure-fire way to invite near-disaster, or at least make your repair bills soar

January 19th, 2016

Losing your cool over coolant. One noticeable area of marked improvement in automotive design and engineering has to be the lowly engine cooling system. Not that many years ago, coolant required replacement at two-year intervals, and hoses and belts weren’t far behind. Today, five-year coolant is the norm, while radiator and heater hoses tend to outlast the sheet metal on even the cheapest rides. But there’s always Murphy to throw in a few wrenches with his (or is it hers?) myriad of laws.

While today’s engine cooling systems may be more robust than in the past, they still have some inherent weaknesses. Radiators are still placed at the very front of the vehicle, where they are prone to impacts from road debris. On many sedans they are also low to the ground, where curbs and other hazards can threaten their structure. And the biggest drawback is the fact that many automakers have relegated the engine temp gauge to their museums, leaving drivers with little or no warning of impending engine doom. If your ride has a coolant leak and you’ve been topping it up from time to time, your first warning that things are heading south will be a lack of heat from the HVAC system. The average vehicle holds about 10 to 12 liters of coolant, and losing as little as a few liters will cause the heater core under the dash to run low, reducing the output temperatures at the vents.

Waiting until a dash light gives you a warning means priming the credit card for a large bill. As most engines now use aluminum and lighter cast metals in their construction, they can’t take much heat before heading out of the kitchen; as soon as a coolant warning light comes on, the damage is usually done. The first thing to fail under this stress is usually a cylinder head gasket, which can cost hundreds to rectify. Leave it long enough and the engine will seize altogether, leading to a bill in the thousands.


Powerless steering? Unlike cooling systems, power steering components have changed little in the decades since their introduction, and they are still prone to failures stemming from leaks. The most common culprit is corrosion which eats away at the steel sections of fluid lines. Unlike coolant leaks, however, power steering fluid drips usually give some warning of total failure with a unique buzzing/drone noise that the belt-driven pump emanates when the fluid is low. When this audible warning occurs, head immediately to the nearest auto-parts store for some fluid, as the pump is not designed to circulate air and the fluid is used to protect internal components from wear. Pump replacements can set you back $400 to $1,000 or more, and are completely avoidable.

Automatic transmissions don’t automatically refill themselves. If your chariot has a transmission fluid leak, it has a fool-proof method of protecting itself; when the fluid is low enough, the vehicle simply refuses to move. The fluid is used to “connect” the clutches inside to the drivetrain and transmit power from the engine to the axles. Leaks can occur from rusted cooler lines and various external seals and gaskets.

One of the biggest barriers to DIY fluid top-ups is the lack of dipsticks on many modern vehicles. Many autos now require you to take them to a shop to have a tech measure the fluid with a special tool. Some CVTs (continuously variable transmissions) can only have their fluid level measured by means of an electronic scanner. Even if you wanted to add fluid yourself, a dip-stickless transmission can only have fluid added through a fill port located under the vehicle. Carmakers will quote various reasons for eliminating the dipstick, and the most common is that consumers often overfilled their gearboxes — causing more problems than they were trying to solve. But it really boils down to cost: Those sticks cost pennies, after all, and a penny saved is a reason to drive business to a repair shop.

Them’s the brakes. Really, if you need a reason to make sure your vehicle’s number one safety system is kept in working order, then you might want to consider public transport. Brake fluid levels will fluctuate with brake lining wear; as brake pads and shoes wear, their hydraulic actuators (calipers and wheel cylinders) must travel farther to do their job. This will displace the fluid in the reservoir, which is why most cars now have a minimum/maximum fill line. The big warning here is to make sure you use the right fluid if you have to top up the brake fluid. It’s mineral-based oil that is compatible with the many rubber components in the system. Add something different like, say, transmission or steering fluid, and you can earn yourself a major repair bill when every hydraulic part of the system has to be replaced.

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