What Do I Do? My Car is Leaking!

Today's cars and trucks use a lot of fluids. You have radiator coolant, engine oil, brake fluid, power steering fluid and windshield-washing solution. While automotive engineers work hard to keep these fluids inside their respective systems, we all know that sometimes they end up on the floor. And what's maddening is that unless you are skilled at identifying fluids, it's hard to know what the devil is leaking.

In this article, we will look at the most common things that leak in automobiles —from the leaks that mean that something is failing, to the leaks that really mean absolutely nothing. Let's try to figure out what fluid is leaking from your car and what you should do about it.

An Old Trick

An old trick is to slide a sheet of white poster board under your car and let it collect drips overnight. The next day, not only will see the color of the fluid, you'll see the location of where its dripping from.

Oil Leaks

Engine oil is generally dark brown. Engine oil leaks aren't terribly serious unless a lot of oil is dripping out. If that is the case, get your car to a mechanic for evaluation.

Reedman-Toll Subaru of Langhorne, a local Subaru dealer in Langhorne, PA, says that one kind of leak - leaks from the rear main seal of an engine- can cause problems in cars with standard transmissions. Even though the oil leak itself can be very minor, the oil can get flung around onto the clutch disc and cause it to slip. This generally means "a clutch job" which can be expensive to repair.

Water leaks

Air conditioners take the warm air inside the passenger compartment and blow it through an evaporator core which cools it down. When they do this, water condenses out of the humid air and drained under the car.  Obviously, this is a fluid leak that you don't have to do anything about.

Coolant Leaks

Radiator coolant is usually a 50-50 mixture of antifreeze and water. In the old days, this mixture was a light green color. Today, it comes in all sorts of colors.  The main component of antifreeze is a chemical called ethylene glycol and it has a sweet smell and also a sweet taste. If you have a lot of antifreeze pooling under your car, do not let animals or small children anywhere near it. They are likely to lick it and ingest enough to poison themselves.

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By the way, you don't want to drive a car that has lost a lot of coolant. It can overheat and some cars are quickly ruined when this happens. If your coolant is low, keep an eagle eye on the temperature gauge and don't let it get "into the red." Or better yet, tow it to where it can be fixed.

Transmission Fluid Leaks

Automatic transmissions use a red, oily fluid. The most common place for a transmission fluid leak on a front-wheel drive car is by the axle seals. On a rear-wheel-drive car it is on the output shaft seal. If you see red, oily fluid under your car, it's a good idea to check the level of your transmission fluid.

Gear Oil Leaks

Gear oil in manual transmissions and differentials fluid is very thick, has a sulfur smell and is usually dark brown. Gear oil leaks are generally from old seals and they usually are small leaks.

Power Steering Fluid Leaks

Power steering fluid can be hard to describe because some manufacturers use transmission fluid (which is red) and some use their own brand of power steering fluid (which can be many colors.) If you think you might have a power steering fluid leak, the first place you should look is at the power steering reservoir. It should be easy to see whether the fluid is low.