The Color Of Trouble?

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

Red means stop and green means go — but what are the colors under the hood of your car trying to tell you to do?

Engine Oil

Fresh oil looks like honey, light to dark amber and translucent. This is how the oil should appear on the dipstick immediately after an oil change. Over time, it will turn darker in color due to contaminants being held in suspension. This is normal. And the oil should still be somewhat translucent. When the oil has turned black, it is probably time for an oil change — or getting close to it.

Watch out for:
Milky or cloudy-looking oil. This is a clue that engine coolant is getting into the oil, possibly from a leaking intake manifold gasket or more serious problem such as a failing head gasket. Get the car to a shop ASAP.

Automatic Transmission Fluid

Most, though not all, automatic transmission fluid is reddish in color when fresh and like engine oil, gets darker over time. But unlike engine oil, it should never look brown or (worse) black. If it does, it is likely the transmission overheated at some point and it may have internal damage. At minimum, the transmission should be thoroughly checked out and the old fluid (and filter) replaced.

Watch out for:
Small metallic shavings held in suspension in the fluid or present on the dipstick. Wipe the (cool) dipstick between your thumb and index finger. If you feel any grit, even just a little, it is very likely the transmission will need work — possible a major overhaul — in the near future.

Engine Coolant

Normal coolant used to be neon green in color but many late-model cars also use so-called “long-life” coolant that can be orange-reddish in color. What you want to be wary of is coolant that is brown or oily-looking. If the coolant just looks dirty, all the system may need is a thorough flush and refill with fresh coolant. If there’s oil in the coolant, it could be a more serious problem that will involve major work to the engine as well as the cooling system. Also watch for bubbles in the coolant, which you can check for by removing the radiator cap (engine cold) and then running the engine for a few minutes while you watch the filler neck. Bubbles in the coolant are a clue that an intake manifold or head gasket may be leaking.

Watch for:
The manufacturer’s recommendations about which type of coolant to use. If your car came from the factory with the orange-red colored long-life coolant, it may not be ok to top off or refill the system with standard green coolant. If it’s an emergency and nothing else is available, use straight water — ideally distilled water. Have the car serviced as soon as possible.

Crankcase Breather Element

In addition to the air filter, inside the air cleaner assembly in most late-model cars you will find a small, replaceable breather element. It filters the air that’s normally sucked into the engine’s crankcase as part of the Positive Crankcase Ventilation (PVC) system. It’s normal for this small filter element to look dusty and dirty — and when it does, it’s probably time to replace it. What’s not normal is for the breather element to look black and be sopping wet with oil. If it is, there’s either a problem with the PCV system (minor and easily fixed) or the engine is excessively worn and vaporized oil is “blowing back” past the leaky piston rings and up into the air cleaner assembly (bad and expensive).

Watch for:
Many owners forget to service this small but important little filter. Check its condition at least once a year and replace the breather element when indicated.

Brake Fluid

Like engine oil, brake fluid looks honey-like and translucent when fresh — and gets darker over time, as contaminants build up. Unlike engine oil, the contaminants in brake fluid don’t get caught by a filter. Brake fluid also tends to attract water, which can rust out the lines from the inside. This is why it is especially important to keep track of the condition of the brake fluid and have it changed out as necessary (usually, once every 3-4 years at least). Otherwise, you risk damaging expensive components, such as the ABS pump in cars equipped with anti-lock brakes. Braking performance will also be reduced, especially if any air has gotten into the system.

Watch for:
Spongy or soft pedal feel. This indicates low brake fluid level, or air in the system — either of which are potentially dangerous. Reduce your speed and leave extra stopping room between your car and other vehicles, just in case. Have the car looked at a soon as possible.


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