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How to check your oil, coolant and windscreen washer levels

Keeping an eye on the oil, cooland and washer fluid in your car can help you avoid problems down the track.
Graham Smith
Contributing Journalist

8 May 2015 • 6 min read

There are few things on today's cars that we can check, but those that remain are vital to your car's long-term health and wellbeing, which makes them worth spending a few minutes doing.

Ignore them at your peril, you could miss important pointers to a problem, ones that if left to develop could develop into serious problems and possibly cost you thousands of dollars in repairs.

Checking your car's vitals doesn't take long, so spend a minute or two each week to check the engine oil and the coolant level, it could literally save thousands of dollars in the long term.

Before you open the bonnet

Before you open the bonnet open the owner's manual and read up on the things the manufacturer recommends you should check on a regular basis.

Most owner's manuals will contain a diagram of the engine compartment pointing out the main things you need to find. It will not only show you where to find them, it will also show you what they look like.

Checking your engine's oil

First park your car on a flat spot, don't attempt to check the oil when the car is parked on a slope, up or down, or side-to-side.

The engine shouldn't be running while you do your check.

The best time to check your engine oil is when the engine is cold. That way the oil will have drained back from the top of the engine into the sump and you will get the most accurate reading of the amount of oil in your engine.

If you check it after the engine has warmed-up turn the engine off and wait a few minutes so the oil has a chance to run back into the sump. Checking after you've paid for fuel at the servo is a realistic scenario.

The oil level should always be between the two lines

After locating the engine oil dipstick remove it, wipe it clean, reinsert it, and remove it again.

There are two lines scribed on the dipstick. The higher one shows the level the oil should be when the engine is full. The lower one is shows when oil needs to be added. The oil level should always be between the two lines.

The gap between the two lines usually represents one litre of oil. This is worth double checking in your owner's manual though, as this figure can vary.

Check your owner's manual to find out where you should add oil, do not try to add it through the dipstick tube. You will find a cap on the top of the engine; remove it and add the oil through that.

Add oil once the level has dropped to the lower line, do not let it drop any lower. Do not add more oil than is needed to reach the full line.

Use the gap between the two lines as a guide to know how much to put in. Do not use the lines as a measure while pouring, as it takes some time for oil to drain down to the sump and can easily result in overfilling and cause expensive damage.

What oil should I use?

To find out what oil is recommended by your carmaker refer to the owner's manual, which will give you the appropriate grade of oil.

There are many brands of oil you could use; the important thing is to use the correct grade.

If you are unsure ask for help from your mechanic, or at your local auto store.

Checking the engine coolant

Most cars today use a separate coolant reservoir located alongside the radiator. Refer to your owner's manual to find out where it is on your car.

Before you actually check the coolant, check the markings on the reservoir.

The coolant should only be checked when the engine has cooled down, checking when the engine is hot is dangerous, and can result in severe burns.

With the engine cooled down the coolant should come up to the line on the reservoir marked COLD. If it's below that line add enough coolant to bring it up to the line. Don't add more than that, it will only be lost through the overflow.

It's very important that you use the correct coolant as recommended by your carmaker. To find out what that is refer to your owner's manual.

Do not add water alone. Coolant is a mix of water, anti-freeze and corrosion inhibitor. Adding water alone could lead to freezing in low temperatures, such as when you go to the snowfields in winter, and it could cause corrosion in the alloy parts of your engine.

You can buy coolant at your local service station or auto store and mix it yourself, or you can buy pre-mixed coolant that doesn't need to be mixed.

While you're at it

While you've got the bonnet open check the level of fluid in the windscreen washer reservoir.

Refer to your owner's manual to find out where the reservoir is situated.

Fill the reservoir with a mix of water and anti-freeze or windscreen cleaning solution as per the carmaker's recommendations. Refer to the owner's manual if you're unsure of what they are.

Anti-freeze is used to prevent the windscreen washers from freezing in cold conditions, so never add water alone.