Safely Storing and Using Automotive Fluids at Home

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Source | Jay Wennington

Stop and think about the number of fluids your vehicle needs to function properly: motor oil, windshield washer fluid, transmission and brake fluids, antifreeze, etc. Now consider the other fluids used in automotive DIY repairs, including solvents like brake cleaner. Ever read these products' warning labels? You don't have to drink the stuff to suffer from unpleasant side effects like fatigue, dizziness, vomiting, or worse. Often inhaling fumes or skin contact can be enough.

Your vehicle can't run without 'em, but you don't have anything if you don't have your health—and if you do your own repair and maintenance work, the fluids can pile up quickly. Two oil changes means you've got two and a half gallons of waste oil lying around! But don't get nervous. We're here to show you the best ways to safely use, store, and dispose of common automotive fluids.

Read the bottle

Protecting yourself begins with the small print on a product's container. The manufacturer's health and safety information outlines safe use, including:

  • Known physical hazards if used improperly
  • What protective wear you'll need to use
  • The product's impact on the environment if released
  • Accident-prevention tips, like avoiding open flames or working in a well-ventilated area
  • How to properly store and dispose of the product.

    Ignore these warnings at your own risk. If you'd like more information about your favorite products, check out their OSHA safety data sheets. Most can be found with a simple internet search. Decode the safety data sheets with this handy guide from OSHA.

    Get the gear

    Exposure can come in several forms, including inhalation of fumes, swallowing, and skin absorption. Avoid coming into contact with automotive fluids by wearing the proper gear.

    • Disposable nitrile gloves provide an absorption-proof barrier between your skin and chemicals, and maximum protection against punctures and pinholes. They're also a good option if you have a latex allergy.
    • Sturdy work gloves offer an extra layer of protection from minor scrapes and abrasions that make you more susceptible to exposure.
    • Respirators guard your airway and lungs from inhalation of toxic fumes.
    • Overalls protect you and your clothes from accidental splash-back and spills.
    • Safety glasses shield your eyes and protect your vision.

    Even with the best protective wear, though, there's no replacement for common sense. Always wash your hands after working with automotive fluids and before eating or drinking. Use a hand cream to keep your hands from drying out and cracking and to strengthen your skin's natural protective barrier. Leave soiled overalls in the workshop and wash them well before wearing them again. Don't smoke when working with flammable products, and always work in a well-ventilated area.

    Chemical storage (aka lock it up)

    As a general rule, store opened containers of fluids in their original packaging and lock them up out of reach of kids or pets. Since packaging has a way of deteriorating over time and many fluids and chemicals are nearly indistinguishable from one another, it's a good idea to clearly label leftover products. Remember that a volatile substance like gasoline or solvent will quickly degrade and disintegrate many plastics (such as milk jugs)!

    You may also want to note the date the bottle was opened, which in some cases will tell you how long it will last. For example, brake fluid begins absorbing water from the atmosphere the moment the bottle is opened, diminishing its effectiveness. So most manufacturers recommend discarding or using leftover brake fluid within a year. Manufacturers have also started adding shelf-life dates to products like motor oil, so be sure to note those.

    Recycle fluids and oily rags

    Properly recycling or discarding automotive fluids reduces the risk of unknowingly exposing yourself or someone else to toxic chemicals and lowers the impact on the environment. Recycle used motor oil, considered a hazardous waste in many cases, for free at your closest Advanced Auto Parts store. For a list of other ways to recycle or dispose of automotive fluids, check out Earth911.com.

    Handle soiled or oily rags right away, too. Lay them out in a well-ventilated location until dry. Seal them in a non-flammable container filled with water until you can dispose of them. Leaving oily rags or solvent-soaked rags in a pile can be enough for them to spontaneously combust!

    Find safer alternatives

    Manufacturers are always working to improve the effectiveness and safety of their products, so shop around. For instance, chlorinated solvents like brake cleaner are highly carcinogenic, so look for a non-chlorinated version, like this one from CRC Brakleen or GUNK's Ultra Lo VOC. You can also switch to antifreeze with propylene glycol in place of the infamous ethylene glycol, which tastes sweet and can lead to kidney failure if ingested by pets or kids. Read the ingredient labels of antifreeze when you make your purchase—orange or pink antifreeze formulas often use propylene glycol instead of ethylene, but also remember that some newer vehicles require brand-specific antifreeze formulations.

    Responsible use of automotive fluids starts with understanding the product and taking precautions to protect yourself and the environment. You can safely dispose of or recycle used or leftover fluids. And you can use less-risky alternatives where available. That way, you can enjoy many more years of your favorite automotive DIY projects.

    Tell us about your experience with using safer automotive fluids in the garage. Leave a comment.

    Last updated August 3, 2017

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