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Kate on Cars May 2013 - What To Do When Your Car Leaks Fluid

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What To Do When Your Car 
Leaks Fluid, Part 1

by Kate Jonasse

It’s happened to all of us. You look down at the driveway, and there’s a dark spot right where your car was parked. Is your car leaking oil? Or maybe you parked your car in the grocery store parking lot, went shopping, and when you came out you saw some fluid underneath your car. Is that from your car, or was it there before you parked? What should you do? Just ignore it if it drives ok? Cross your fingers and hope it’s not from your car? Call your best friend? Visit your trusted repair shop?

I won’t hold you in suspense. If you suspect you have a fluid leak, call your repair shop and schedule an inspection immediately. If the leak looks really bad or is dripping, it’s best to play it safe and call a tow truck. The only exception is the normal “leak” of water condensation from your air-conditioning. Keep in mind, your air-conditioning runs not only in the summer but in the winter as well, particularly when you turn the front defroster on. This normal a/c condensation usually leaks out in the middle of the car from the drain tubes. Not sure if it’s water? One thing I do when I’m not sure whether the automotive fluid I’m looking at is water or not is the old school taste test. If it looks like water, feels like water, and tastes like water, it’s probably water.

The three most common leaks we see on passenger vehicles are engine oil, transmission fluid and coolant. Engine oil feels oily, has little or no smell, and is usually gold or brown. Transmission fluid feels oily, has a slight plastic-y smell, and is usually red or reddish-brown. Coolant is usually watery or sticky, tastes sweet, and can be any color from green to purple to red.

There are many types of fluids that can leak on a car, and hundreds if not thousands of places the leak can originate from. Some are more common that others. Your car has many moving parts with lots of seals and gaskets that all have their opportunity to leak, so having leaks repaired is something that every car owner will need to deal with eventually. It’s the nature of the beast – I mean car.

What do leaks mean? Broadly, leaks mean that something is wrong with your vehicle, and it needs to be fixed. Assuming the fluid did in fact come from your car and not the person parked there before you, of course.

All leaks can lead to more expensive repairs if they are ignored, so they should be addressed as early on as possible. Oil can easily get on any of the rubber and electrical components on or near the engine. If engine oil or another type of fluid gets onto something rubber, like an engine mount, a hose, or a control arm bushing, it will soften the rubber and the rubber will deteriorate and fail prematurely. This can absolutely be a safety issue. Oil can destroy expensive electrical sensors and actuators, too.

You will probably not see most fluid leaks dripping on the ground. This is because it can take months for a leak at the top of the engine to get to the point where even a single drop is visible on the ground. In many cases, you never see a drop of fluid, because it blows away while you’re driving or gets trapped in a crevice somewhere and never reaches the ground. In that time span, although the driver doesn’t see the oil leak, it is causing damage to other components on the car.

Your first line of defense against surprise fluid leaks is to check your car’s fluids monthly, and get to know your engine compartment. Your second line of defense is to have your vehicle inspected regularly by a certified technician. The most convenient time to do this is usually every 3 months with your oil changes (5 months if you run synthetic oil). Choose a reputable shop where the technicians are certified and knowledgeable. A thorough inspection and oil service by a certified technician usually takes about an hour.

I’ll continue this topic in Part 2 of this article next month. I hope this gives you something to think about until then. As always, email me if you have questions in the meantime, or if you have a topic you’d like to see me write about in the near future.