Monthly Archives: August 2016

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.

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.

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.

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.