Wiper Fluid or Is Water OK

images-10If you live in a place where the temperature never gets down to freezing, you might be able to get by with plain water — but even then, water doesn’t have the cleaning power of wiper fluid for removing bugs, bird droppings, road grime and other crud that collects on windshields.

The main benefits of water are that it’s cheaper than wiper fluid and compatible with the environment. Its main drawbacks are its lack of cleaning solvents and detergents, and that it freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, rendering the windshield-washing system on your vehicle useless. So even if you live in a very warm climate, keep in mind those trips to Grandma’s in Minneapolis; you don’t want to get stuck in a snowstorm without the ability to clean your windshield.

Wiper fluids generally do a better job of cleaning than just water and usually won’t freeze until 20 degrees below zero or colder. The bad news about wiper fluid is that it’s typically made of ethanol or methanol, which are poisonous for people and animals and can be damaging to the environment. Wiper fluid also usually includes a dose of ethylene glycol, a toxic alcohol used in automotive antifreeze. Those substances can damage paint finishes as well as some plastic and rubber parts on vehicles.

Because of health and environmental concerns, some vehicle owners resort to making their own wiper fluid from non-toxic substances. We have no experience with these homemade brews and can’t vouch for their effectiveness.

Despite the toxicity of over-the-counter wiper fluids, it can be downright dangerous to drive without them in many parts of the country, especially during the winter. Snow, slush, ice and road salt can quickly make a windshield impossible to see through, and frequent washing with high-potency wiper fluid designed for winter conditions is the only way to clear away the muck so you can see where you’re going.

Car Heater Blow Cold Air

images-9When you’re getting a blast of cold air, especially one you don’t want, chances are that something has gone wrong in or around the heater core. It’s a small radiator that generates heat by allowing engine coolant to circulate so that the fan blows warmed air into the cabin to keep everyone toasty.

Because the heater core is usually placed in an inconvenient location (behind the dashboard) you might want to have a pro look elsewhere first to eliminate simpler possibilities.

First, check the coolant level when the engine is cold. If it’s really low, it might not be able to warm the heater core. The cooling system thermostat also may not be opening, preventing coolant from circulating. In these cases, there’s also a good chance your engine will be running hot, and be in danger of overheating.

If neither of those is the cause then the heater core and ancillary components are likely culprits. If water isn’t circulating through the heater core, perhaps a diverter or valve isn’t opening to allow that flow, or the core itself is leaking or clogged. Another possibility is that a door or diverter that is supposed to direct warm air into the interior is stuck.

On cars with automatic temperature control, a “set-and-forget” feature that is supposed to maintain a constant temperature, the computer that controls the system might be malfunctioning. It’s possible that the heater core and other parts are fine, but the computer has grown tired of constantly catering to your climate needs and stopped answering your calls.

Because diagnosing and fixing these kinds of problem can be complex, most consumers would likely be better off seeking a professional opinion. If you search the internet, you will find many instances in which do-it-yourselfers say they did this and tried that, but their heater still blows cold air.

Catalytic Converter Problems

images-8Catalytic converters are located in the exhaust system, between the engine and the muffler, and are one of the last lines of defense against air pollution from vehicles. They use ceramic-coded beads and various precious metals (the catalysts) to convert pollutants like unburned gas and nitrogen oxide into harmless gases.

They often last for 10 years or more but can be damaged by contamination, becoming clogged or overheating.

One potential contaminant is leaded gas, which can destroy the catalysts, although it is rarely found in the U.S. Others contaminants include engine coolant, which can leak into the combustion system because of a faulty cylinder head gasket, and engine oil. Those fluids can clog a catalytic converter so that exhaust gases are restricted from passing through. Car engines are like athletes in that they require lots of oxygen. If the exhaust is restricted it means less air can get into the engine, and performance suffers. If the engine responds sluggishly or quits after running for a while, a clogged catalytic converter could be to blame.

Catalytic converters can overheat because of excessive amounts of unburned gas caused by a misfiring spark plug or a leaky exhaust valve. In addition, a failed oxygen sensor can cause overheating.

On many vehicles, the “cat” is located under the vehicle, and like other parts of the exhaust system, it can be damaged by road debris or by running over a curb.

Refill Your Brake Fluid

You deserve a gold star if you check your brake fluid on a regular basis, because it plays such a vital role in stopping your car. However, if you have to regularly add fluid, it’s likely there’s a leak in your brake system that needs to be addressed, and pronto.

Ideally, the brake fluid reservoir (typically mounted near the firewall on the driver’s side) should always be at or near the full mark. Brake fluid is part of a closed hydraulic system, and under normal circumstances the level in the reservoir should not change significantly.

As brake pads wear, though, the fluid level may go down a little. That’s a sign that you need new brake pads. A soft or spongy pedal may also be caused by low brake fluid, which allows more air into the brake lines. The fluid provides the hydraulic force that causes the brake pads to be squeezed against discs or drums, stopping the car.

If the fluid level goes down frequently or drops a lot in a short time, that means you have a leak somewhere in the brake system, such as in the brake lines going to each wheel, the master cylinder or in the hardware at one or more wheels. If that’s the case, you need to make an appointment with a repair shop.

Topping off the fluid reservoir every week or two is only a stopgap measure, and further investigation by a mechanic is required to find out why the fluid level keeps dropping.

What You Need to Know About Transmission Fluid

Transmission fluid keeps the parts in your automatic transmission moving smoothly together. Like other vital automotive fluids, it can deteriorate over time. Hard use — such as frequent stop-and-go city driving, hauling heavy loads, trailer towing — will accelerate that deterioration. That kind of driving raises the operating temperature of the transmission, and heat puts more strain on the transmission and the fluid, which helps facilitate gear shifts, cools the transmission and lubricates moving parts.

How do I know if my transmission fluid or filter has gone bad?
Automatic transmission fluid darkens as it ages; if it becomes brown or almost black that is an indication it needs to be changed. Dirt or debris in the fluid and a burned odor also are signs. Many transmissions have filters that should be replaced or cleaned periodically, and because that usually requires removing a fluid pan, it should be checked when the fluid is changed. A clogged filter can prevent enough fluid from being pumped to vital parts of the transmission and cause gear slippage, sluggish shifting or a high-pitched whine when accelerating.

How often should I replace my transmission fluid or fluid filter?
Check the maintenance schedule in your owner’s manual because the recommended intervals from vehicle manufacturers are all over the board, from as early as 40,000 miles to as long as 150,000. Some even say it never has to be changed, though many mechanics advise that it should be done every 50,000 miles to be safe. As with engine oil, it doesn’t hurt to change transmission fluid more often than is recommended, but you might be paying extra for little benefit. If your transmission has a fluid filter, it should be changed every time the fluid is changed (although some filters can be cleaned).

Why do I have to replace my transmission fluid and filter?
Transmission fluid deteriorates over time, especially from hard use. Over years and thousands of miles, the fluid loses its ability to facilitate gear shifts, cool the transmission and lubricate moving parts. In addition, it picks up dirt and debris that can damage internal parts. Many transmissions have filters to catch that debris, but the filters can clog and prevent enough fluid from being pumped to vital parts of the transmission, causing gear slippage, sluggish shifting or a high-pitched whine when accelerating.

Heater Blow Cold Air

When you’re getting a blast of cold air, especially one you don’t want, chances are that something has gone wrong in or around the heater core. It’s a small radiator that generates heat by allowing engine coolant to circulate so that the fan blows warmed air into the cabin to keep everyone toasty.

Because the heater core is usually placed in an inconvenient location (behind the dashboard) you might want to have a pro look elsewhere first to eliminate simpler possibilities.

First, check the coolant level when the engine is cold. If it’s really low, it might not be able to warm the heater core. The cooling system thermostat also may not be opening, preventing coolant from circulating. In these cases, there’s also a good chance your engine will be running hot, and be in danger of overheating.

If neither of those is the cause then the heater core and ancillary components are likely culprits. If water isn’t circulating through the heater core, perhaps a diverter or valve isn’t opening to allow that flow, or the core itself is leaking or clogged. Another possibility is that a door or diverter that is supposed to direct warm air into the interior is stuck.

On cars with automatic temperature control, a “set-and-forget” feature that is supposed to maintain a constant temperature, the computer that controls the system might be malfunctioning. It’s possible that the heater core and other parts are fine, but the computer has grown tired of constantly catering to your climate needs and stopped answering your calls.

Synthetic Oil For Your Car

If your car’s owner’s manual says it does, you do.

For many consumers, whether to spend extra money for synthetic oil for an oil change is a difficult question to answer.

Manufacturers of synthetic oil promise more miles and better performance when compared with conventional motor oil, but it comes at a higher cost — sometimes twice as much per oil change. Is it worth the extra money?

Typically, high-performance vehicles will be more likely to require synthetic oil, as will vehicles that have a turbocharged or supercharged engine. However, if your vehicle does not require synthetic oil, the choice is trickier – and there is no clear answer.

Synthetic oil generally resists breaking down for longer than conventional motor oil (typically 7,500 miles to 10,000 miles, sometimes up to 15,000 miles, as opposed to 3,000 miles to 7,500 miles for conventional oil). That makes the extra cost a wash, if you have half the number of oil changes, but each one costs you twice as much. Other touted benefits include cleaner engines, better flow in cold temperatures, better protection when it’s hot outside and better performance with turbocharged engines.

There are also synthetic blends. As the name implies, these are blends of synthetic and conventional oils. They straddle a middle ground — they cost more than conventional oils but less than full synthetics, and are said to last longer than conventional oils but not quite as long as synthetics — but again, that’s a hard number to pin down since manufacturers are vague with their claims. An independent testing lab we spoke with said that synthetics often didn’t perform much better than conventional oils do.

Still, older engines may benefit from synthetics because it is less likely to form sludge.

If your car doesn’t require synthetic oil you should perform a cost/benefit analysis, but that can be difficult to do due to vague claims made by manufacturers. There may be no reason to spend more on synthetic oil, except for peace of mind.

You Need to Know About This

Oil-change intervals vary by manufacturer and engines, so consult your owner’s manual or maintenance schedule to see how often to change the oil in your vehicle and what type of oil to use. You may be surprised. We were surprised to learn that a Camry’s 2.5-liter engine requires 0W-20 synthetic oil, for instance. Manufacturers suggest you change oil more often for “severe” driving conditions, such as frequent trailer towing, extensive stop-and-go driving or idling in traffic, driving in extreme heat or cold, or frequent short-distance driving in which the engine doesn’t reach full operating temperature.

How do I know when it’s time for an oil change?
Time and mileage intervals vary by vehicle manufacturer and whether an engine requires synthetic oil (which is meant to last longer). Use the guidelines in your owner’s manual, including whether most of your driving qualifies as happening in “severe” conditions, such as frequent short trips and stop-and-go driving. Under those conditions, you should change the oil more frequently.

How often should I replace my oil?
You should change the oil at least as often as is recommended by the vehicle manufacturer (the information is in your owner’s manual). These days, that’s every 7,500 to 10,000 miles on many vehicles. Many mechanics recommend doing it more often, such as every 5,000 to 6,000 miles or every six months, whichever comes first. If you do mainly short trips and/or stop-and-go driving, you should change the oil more often. How about every 3,000 miles? Though that’s overkill, it can’t hurt, and it might extend the life of your engine.

Why do I need to change my oil?
Oil is the lifeblood of an engine; it lubricates and cleans moving parts and performs a vital cooling function as it circulates. Over time and repeated exposure to cold starts, short trips and engine heat, oil gets dirty, becomes thicker and loses its ability to prevent sludge and deposits from forming. Mechanics often say that changing the oil is the best preventive medicine for extending engine life.

How much should I pay?
The cost of repairs can depend on where you are as much as it does on what you need fixed. To get an estimate for your repair, go to our estimator, plug in your car’s year, make and model information, add your ZIP code, and choose the repair you need. We’ll give you a range for what your repairs should cost in your area.

B1 Service For Your Car

The B1 service indicator popped up on our 2015 Honda Fit at around 14,000 miles, signifying it was time for the Fit’s second oil change following the A1 oil change at 6,800 miles. The Fit’s maintenance minder system sends an alert when certain services are due based on miles traveled and engine-operating conditions.

Related: Follow Our Long-Term Fleet

The “B” represents an oil and filter change plus mechanical inspection, while the “1” means it’s time for a tire rotation. The B1 service should include the following inspection, according to the Fit’s owner’s manual:

  • Inspect front and rear brakes/service as necessary
  • Check parking brake adjustment
  • Inspect tie-rod ends, steering gearbox and boots
  • Inspect suspension components
  • Inspect driveshaft boots
  • Inspect brake hoses and lines (including the antilock braking and vehicle stability assist systems)
  • Inspect all fluid levels and condition of fluids
  • Inspect exhaust system
  • Inspect fuel lines and connections

Our local dealership had its own interpretation of the B1 scheduled maintenance that included a brake service at an elevated cost even before the inspection of the brakes. We declined this front rotor cleaning and front caliper slide pin lubrication considering our car’s low miles and owner’s manual only suggesting service if needed.

Change the Transmission Fluid

Yes, though how often this service should be performed varies by manufacturer and vehicle, and it’s open to debate.

The manufacturer’s maintenance schedule for many automatic transmissions doesn’t call for fresh fluid until 100,000 miles or, with some Ford transmissions, even 150,000 miles. A lot of mechanics say that is too long and it should be done at least every 50,000 miles. Manual transmissions may be on a different schedule, so it’s best to consult the maintenance schedule in the owner’s manual.

Like other vital automotive fluids, transmission fluid deteriorates over time. Hard use — such as frequent stop-and-go city driving, hauling heavy loads, trailer towing — will accelerate the deterioration. That kind of driving raises the operating temperature of the transmission, and heat puts more strain on the transmission and the fluid, which helps facilitate gear shifts, cools the transmission and lubricates moving parts.

If you do a lot of driving under high-stress conditions, you should check the transmission level more often and have a repair shop check the condition of the fluid. Transmission fluid often is red but can come in other colors, and as it deteriorates it tends to turn darker. It may also acquire a burned odor that could indicate it needs to be changed or that the transmission is developing mechanical problems. Another indication it needs changing is dirt or other debris in the fluid. When you take your vehicle in for an oil change or other routine service, the repair facility may urge you to pay for a transmission-fluid change or flush. Even if they can show you that the fluid is darker than original, that might not mean you need fresh fluid right now. Step back, check the maintenance schedule in your owner’s manual and see what the manufacturer recommends before you decide. This also will give you time to price shop.

Many repair shops use flush systems that force out the old fluid and pump in new fluid. Though that sounds good, some manufacturers say you shouldn’t do that (Honda is one; there are others), so you need to know this before you agree to a flush. Look in your owner’s manual. Some manufacturers, such as Honda, also call for their own type of transmission fluid and warn that using other types could cause damage. Moreover, some automatic transmissions have filters that should be cleaned or replaced when the fluid is changed. Make sure the repair facility is using the correct fluid and procedures for your vehicle.

Change Your Car Oil Tips

No, you don’t, according to every auto manufacturer we’ve talked to. The main advocates of the 3,000-mile oil change schedule are those who would profit by it: repair facilities, quick-lube chains and service departments at some new-car dealers.

Years ago it was a good idea to change the oil and filter frequently, but because of advances in engine materials and tighter tolerances, as well as the oil that goes into engines, most manufacturers recommend intervals of 7,500 miles or more.

Ford, Volkswagen and Porsche, for example, recommend oil changes every 10,000 miles. So does Toyota on several engines, including the Prius’ 1.8-liter four-cylinder and the Camry’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder. BMW says owners can go up to 15,000 miles between oil changes (with synthetic oil).

The intervals vary by manufacturer and engines, so consult your owner’s manual or maintenance schedule to see how often to change the oil in your vehicle and what type of oil to use. You may be surprised. We were surprised to learn that the Camry’s 2.5-liter engine requires 0W20 synthetic oil, for instance.

Manufacturers suggest you change oil more often for “severe” driving conditions, such as frequent trailer towing, extensive stop-go driving or idling in traffic, driving in extreme heat or cold, or frequent short-distance driving in which the engine doesn’t reach full operating temperature.

Some car companies, Ford and General Motors among them, equip most vehicles with oil life monitors that tell you when it’s time to change the oil based on vehicle speed, engine temperature, climate conditions, number of cold starts and other factors. They can all cite examples from owners who say the oil-life monitors indicated they could go even longer than the recommended change intervals.

If you’re nervous about going 10,000 miles or more between oil changes, then do it every six months, when you probably should also have your tires rotated (also explained in your owner’s manual). GM says to change your oil at least once a year even if the service indicator warning light doesn’t come on. With longer recommended intervals between oil changes, it’s more important to check the oil level at least once a month to make sure you have enough.

But to change oil every 3,000 miles is probably wasting money. Environmentalists say it also adds to the glut of used oil that must be recycled or disposed, and the state of California is trying to discourage the practice.