Your car relies on various fluids to keep the engine cool, powered, and well-lubricated. Sometimes, you find these fluids in a puddle underneath your vehicle instead. Certain fluid leaks require immediate attention and repair, while others aren't as serious and can wait a bit. But how do you know what fluid leaks are the important ones? How can you tell what fluids are leaking, where they come from, or how to take care of them until you can get to a mechanic?
This blog will give you all the basics you need to know to identify fluid leaks, where they could come from and why, and when they pose a danger to you as a driver and must be dealt with immediately.
Types of Fluid That May Leak
Car leaks can come from various sources, all of which could be signs of different problems in your vehicle. Some car leaks have unique characteristics like color or placement to help you identify them. In contrast, others are a bit harder to place because of overlapping leaks or similar arrangements in a vehicle.
While you may assume that the liquid dripping from your car is gasoline or engine oil, several varieties of vehicle fluids can leak out and end up underneath your vehicle at some point. Therefore, being able to identify what kinds of fluids are present in car leaks is essential for finding out which ones are dangerous and which you can take care of by yourself.
Common fluids found in leaks include:
- Brake fluid. If you’ve got yellow fluid leaking from your car, it’s most likely brake fluid. It ranges in color from yellow when fresh to brown when dirty or too old. Luckily, finding yellow fluid leaking from your car is pretty rare in modern cars, so if you see some, it may well be one of the other fluid leaks with a yellow tinge.
- Coolant. Also known as antifreeze, coolant may appear pink, orange, or green. On rare occasions, it can also be yellow due to dilution from its green color. This sticky, sweet-smelling liquid is one of the most frequent vehicle leaks.
- Engine oil. Depending on your oil's age, the puddle may look dark yellow or blackish brown. This would be the other yellow fluid leaking from your car, but its smell makes it distinct from brake fluid despite potential color similarities. Engine oil leaks may smell like burning rubber, making its smell distinct enough to identify even without seeing a puddle of dark liquid immediately.
- Gasoline. The liquid is probably gasoline if your vehicle's leak smells like a gas station. A puddle near the back bumper may indicate a faulty tank, while a leak near the front bumper could be due to fuel pump damage.
If you’ve got gas leaking from the front of your car and suspect fuel pump damage, avoid turning it on and instead have the vehicle towed to a mechanic. If the amount of gas leaking from the front of the car is minimal, and you can find the source, you may be able to temporarily plug it. This way, you don’t lose any more gas while transporting the vehicle or waiting to get it fixed. You also reduce some of the danger of gas leaking from your vehicle.
- Power steering fluid. Power steering fluid leaks may look reddish. If you have one of these leaks, you may also notice that taking sharp turns in your vehicle is harder.
- Transmission fluid. Like power steering fluid, transmission leaks are usually red. Your car will usually spring a transmission leak near the front or middle of the vehicle.
- Water. Most steady dripping leaks under a car are water from the climate control system.
The severity of the leak often depends on what the puddle under your car consists of, so identifying the possible fluids involved is an important first step.
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Common Signs of Fluid Leaks
While an active drip or standing puddle can clue you into the presence of a leak, not all leaks are immediately visible. If you suspect a leak but haven't seen the problem in action, first check your fluid reservoirs.
Slow or small leaks may affect your fluid levels over a long period of time, so it's important to know what fluid consumption is normal for your vehicle. If your dashboard lights recommend fluid changes too often, this issue may also indicate the presence of a leak.
If you suspect a leak, place a ground covering underneath your car overnight. If there is a strong odor of gasoline, you may wish to move it outside the garage to protect against a potential fire hazard. Coverings like aluminum foil or even paper may work because motor fluids show up clearly on the surface.
If you can't explain why your car loses fluids so quickly, visit a mechanic. You may have an engine inefficiency or other mechanical problem rather than a fluid leak.
When to Worry About a Fluid Leak
Certain fluid leaks are considered normal. For example, water condensation often drips from underneath cars that use their air conditioning in warm weather. In most cases, leaks that do not cause sudden and dangerously significant drops in fluid levels or large puddles aren't serious.
Potential dangers of fluid shortages:
- Brake fluid. A shortage of brake fluid is a potential safety hazard. If you suspect a leak, have your car towed to a shop as soon as possible, regardless of how much fluid actually escapes. Do not attempt to drive a car with a suspected brake fluid leak since a drop in fluid pressure can cause your brakes to stop functioning unexpectedly and cause accidents.
- Coolant. A shortage of coolant will affect your engine's ability to perform in a safe operating temperature range. Look at your instrument panel to determine if your vehicle is running at an abnormal temperature. An overheated engine will soon fail, and the repair is extremely expensive.
- Gasoline. Easily recognized by its odor, gasoline is explosive, and an accumulation is extremely dangerous and a safety hazard. Call your mechanic immediately to determine the severity level so that its repair can be expedited. If you’ve got a gas leak in your car, do not turn it on. Gas leaks in cars cause issues ranging from lung problems after inhaling the fumes, intense fires if the excess gas overheats or is ignited with a spark, and general damage to property if gas gets absorbed into the ground. Treat gas leaks in cars as seriously as possible, and act accordingly to fix them quickly and properly to avoid these issues.
- Engine oil. A shortage of engine oil will result in internal engine components not receiving sufficient lubrication, and the engine will overheat and eventually fail - an extremely expensive repair.
- Power steering fluid. Insufficient power steering fluid will make your vehicle difficult to steer, which has the potential for a driving safety hazard. Much like braking problems, issues with power steering fluid should be taken very seriously. Have it checked out immediately by your mechanic.
- Transmission fluid. If you feel any abnormality in your vehicle shifting, it may be a result of low transmission fluid. If it is not replaced to the appropriate level, it could result in gear slipping. Gear slipping is often a failure to accelerate properly, so you may notice your vehicle moving sluggishly even though your RPM is rising. While it can feel alarming, you can simply drive very carefully to the nearest mechanic to get it fixed if it occurs while on the road.
Always refer to your owner's manual to determine appropriate fluids and your car's maintenance schedule. Timely care and attention to your vehicle's operating symptoms can save you a lot of money and allow you to avoid downtime.
If your car springs a leak and you decide to trade up, consider donating your current car to Newgate School. We use vehicles in varying conditions to teach our students the basics of car mechanics.