Keep Your Fluid Levels Up

Competitive runners know that the intake and monitoring of fluids is important to winning races and staying healthy. Just like a top-level runner, your vehicle also needs fluids to survive and thrive. Unfortunately, many people fail to maintain their vehicle's fluids on a regular basis, which can ultimately cause expensive damage to their vehicle. To ensure that your vehicle runs at peak performance, keeping the following fluids and their service intervals top of mind is key to the continued health of your car.

According to Kit Johnson, 2007 NAPA Technician of the Year from East Helena, Mont., there are five basic fluids that every car owner should maintain regularly -- coolant, automatic transmission fluid, power steering fluid, brake fluid and differential fluids for all-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Coolant should be flushed every 30,000 to 60,000 miles, depending on whether it is extended life or regular. When new, coolant should be vivid red, green or yellow color. When coolant is nearing the end of its useful life it will often, but not always, appear diluted or rust-colored.

"It's a good idea to have coolant tested for protection breakdown because color isn't always a reliable indicator when it comes to coolant," Johnson said.

Automatic transmission fluid should be light red in color. Johnson recommends that it be flushed every 30,000 miles, though other experts say automatic transmission fluid can last at least twice as long. One thing there is no controversy on is this: if the transmission fluid turns a dark brown, black or smells burnt, you should take your vehicle to a mechanic as soon as possible.

"Automatic transmissions are very expensive to replace," Johnson said. "Regular preventive maintenance is a good idea and will keep you from having to pay for costly repairs."

If your vehicle makes a buzzing or grinding sound when you turn the steering wheel while driving at slow speeds, this is most likely an indication that the power steering fluid is low. Healthy power steering fluids should appear clear or red, while black is a definite danger sign. NAPA's Johnson recommends replacement of power steering fluid every 60,000 to 90,000 miles to prolong the life of your power steering system.

"Brake fluid is hydroscopic, meaning it attracts water," Johnson said. "Therefore, it absorbs water so that water can't rust the brake system. Healthy brake fluid should be clear or have a light purple tint, and as it becomes saturated with water, it will begin to turn black. The darker the brake fluid, the more need to flush the system."

Nowadays, Copper contamination of brake fluid is a common issue. It's a good idea to have your brake fluid tested for copper content, because copper sticks to the lining and anti-lock braking system modules, so it's best to have a service schedule to clean this out at least by the 90,000 mile mark.

All cars and trucks have differentials, but the differentials in all-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive vehicles generally get a more thorough workout. Because of this, lubrication for gears, bearings, shafts and other internal components can break down. Heat, pressure and friction can sap the lubricating abilities of differential fluid, so it's a good idea to flush out the vehicle's differential fluids every 60,000 miles.

And while you're at it, why not have a glass of water or two?

Cleveland-based auto writer Luigi Fraschini frequently covers vehicle maintenance issues.