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What Fluid is Leaking from My Car?

Closeup to the Rear Spare Wheel of a Land Rover Defender

Unless you happen to be an auto mechanic or married to one, figuring out the source of a fluid leak can be like solving a riddle. Those pesky drips on your driveway come from some place – but the major question is where? They could be coming from the engine or the transmission or from any number of other places.

Of course, anything dripping from your vehicle should be taken seriously as it could indicate a dangerous issue that requires your immediate attention. You don’t want to get stranded because you neglected a simple drip on your driveway one morning that turns into expensive repairs or an accident that affects your auto insurance rates.

By knowing what to look for, you can keep your vehicle running safely on the road and possibly save yourself a ton of cash.

How to Determine What Fluid is Leaking

As we mentioned, the question is what is leaking and from where. There’s a simple cardboard test you can do to help determine the answer. If you’ve noticed a drip, then you should have an idea of where it is originating. The easiest way is to place a piece of white cardboard under your car drip to determine the color. Once you’ve answered that question, it becomes much easier to figure out.

If you are buying a new-to-you car, always check underneath for any leaks. You can do this with a flashlight. It may keep you from buying a car with an expensive issue.

Six Major Fluids

First, you have to be aware that there are six fluids you may need to address either right away or at the earliest convenience. Brake fluid is not included in the list, but is still an important component. Brake fluid doesn’t typically leak, but if it does, it’s a serious matter that needs immediate attention. You’ll know it’s brake fluid because it smells like fish (you can experience this yourself by taking the cap off the reservoir and smelling it). You’ll also know your problem is brake fluid if you start having issues while braking.

Below are six other important – and possibly leaking – fluids:

·         Water

Of all the potential fluid leaks, water should be the least concerning. The reason for this is your air conditioner, through its normal operation, will drain the moisture it removes from the air inside your passenger compartment. Typically, a puddle forms on the ground near where the passenger rests his feet. So, if you see water after running your a/c, it shouldn’t be anything to worry about.

Hot Tip: If your car has the option, leave your air conditioner mode in the “on” mode, rather than the “fresh air” mode. Recycling your cabin air will remove humidity faster.

·         Motor Oil

Motor oil will come from your engine and an occasional little drop is no reason to panic. While the color may vary, depending on how you maintain your vehicle, it will range from a light amber color to a dark brown. It may not be immediately obvious from what part of the engine the drips are coming from, but an engine oil leak can be the beginning of a bigger problem and should be checked out by a mechanic. In the meantime, pull out the dipstick for a quick visual inspection and maintain the oil level.

Hot Tip: It’s not always clear where oil is coming from since it could be from a crankshaft seal or a valve cover gasket. That’s why it’s probably a good idea to let a mechanic take a look if you suspect oil.

·         Automatic Transmission fluid

If you have an automatic transmission and you spot red or pink fluid under your car, it’s often the first sign your transmission will start slipping and eventually stop moving should you wait to have the leak repaired. Your tranny could be dripping from axle seals (front wheel drive) or the shaft seals (rear wheel drive).

As with engine oil, pull the transmission dipstick and check your fluid level. The more fluid on your driveway – the more serious the problem. Therefore, consult a mechanic as soon as possible to avoid further damage. Some car makers don’t want owners to do this themselves, so if you have one of these cars, you won’t be able to check it yourself.

Standard (“manual”) four, five, and six-speed transmissions use gear oil, which is heavier and stronger-smelling than engine oil. In most cases, checking the level on a manual transmission will have to be performed by a mechanic unless you know what you’re doing.

Hot Tip: Keep in mind that some manufacturers specify a certain type of transmission fluid. You must use this type or risk voiding your warranty.

Reddish fluid leaking from car

·         Coolant

Coolant – also known as antifreeze – leaks will typically come from the radiator, the hoses to and from the radiator or heater hoses, which go into the passenger compartment. Because it’s mixed with water, the actual color of the coolant may be hard to distinguish at first.

Although coolant or antifreeze used to be green, it now comes in many colors with each car manufacturer using different colors, ranging from blue to red to orange. Coolant is generally recognizable because it has a sweet smell. Take a peek at the coolant overflow tank to see if the level is at the “high” or “low” mark.

It may be challenging to answer the question of where the drip is coming from, since coolant and antifreeze hoses are all around the engine.

Hot Tip: Never remove the radiator cap when the engine is hot. Also, avoid driving the vehicle if your temperature gauge is pegging in the “red” or you risk major damage.

·         Gear oil or differential fluid

The differential is your rear axle gear box that powers the rear wheels. Gear oil and differential fluid are one and the same. Look for a thick, greasy smelling, dark brown or dark amber stain at the rear of your vehicle between the back wheels – unless you own a four-wheel drive vehicle, in which case, gear oil could also leak from the front axle.

Some of the signs that you may have a gear oil leak is a whining or noisy transmission. This may get louder as you increase speed. Another sign is a jerky transmission – we’ve all felt that awful jolt when you put the car in gear. Although this can be a sign of several problems, one of those is gear oil drip. Another sign is a burning smell, although again, this could have another cause. Any of these symptoms should have you hurrying to a mechanic.

Hot Tip: Neglecting to have your gear or differential oil checked may lead to an expensive transmission repair.

·         Power steering fluid

While some car manufacturers use their own power steering fluid, others use transmission fluid. One of the first indicators you may have a leak is the whiny or squealing sound the power steering pump will make when the fluid level drops dramatically. This normally happens when turning the steering wheel. Increased difficulty turning and steering at low speeds could lead to a complete loss of steering, which could result in a serious crash.

This particular matter can smell like burnt cooking oil, but the color and smell may change, depending on your car model.

Hot Tip: The first place to check if your power steering starts acting up is the reservoir. The power steering reservoir will have high and low marks, so you can check it easily.

Can I Drive My Car With a Drip?

It depends on the drip! If you vehicle is saturating your driveway with oil, it’s best to get that fixed immediately or risk major damage to the engine. If condensation from the a/c is causing a puddle, it’s not a problem. A coolant leak may cause your engine to melt, so that’s one you should take care of in a timely fashion.

Windshield wiper fluid can also leak, but that’s an annoyance not something that may cause major damage. However, anytime something is dripping from your car, it’s best to ask questions sooner rather than later.

Find Affordable Car Insurance to Stay on the Road

Although car insurance won’t pay for regular maintenance and repairs, it’s still important to be legal when you drive. Car repairs can be expensive, but having a little insight on what to look for can go a long way to keeping those repairs to a minimum.

Cheap car insurance doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice quality coverage in order to get a lower rate. Get a fast and free online car insurance quote, give us a call at (800) 777-5620 or stop by one of our locations.

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