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What is that leaking from my car? Identifying car leaks

It is easy to go into panic on seeing oily spots on the floor where your car was parked. What could it be? Could there be a serious problem with the car? Will you be able to drive the car or will it have to be towed to a workshop? This article covers all you need to know about the most common fluid leaks in a car.

You pull out your car from the parking lot and notice a patch of fluid on the floor. It has you worried and you promptly contact the service centre to send a mechanic. It's true that some leaks can be perilous and cause the car to stall, leaving you stranded in the middle of the road.

It is always good to have some basic knowledge of how your car works and know what could be wrong when there are glitches. Being able to identify the cause of a fluid leak in your car and knowing how to arrest it, puts you in control.

Here is an insight into the different types of leaks that can happen and what each one of them signifies.

  • Engine oil
  • Coolant
  • Power steering fluid
  • Transmission fluid
  • Gear oil/differential fluid
  • Battery acid
  • Water
  • Brake fluid

The source & the colour of the fluid

The first step is to ascertain if the leak is from your car. Could something else or another car have stained the floor? Identify the source of the leak and the colour of the fluid. You can do two things - use a flashlight to physically examine the bottom of your car to ascertain that it's your car that is leaking or park the car in a different spot for a few hours and check the floor for spots.

Lay a few sheets of newspaper under the car to catch the drip.Doing so help can help you on two counts - it can help you to identify the colour of the fluid and determine the region from where the leak occurred.

So, let's get down to learning about the different leaks.

Water leaks from a car

The car's air-conditioning unit causes the water dripping from the car. It happens in warm and sultry conditions when the air is laden with moisture. Water leaks from cars are not a problem, for it's just the air-conditioning working and removing the moisture from the car's cabin.

The water drains from a hose fixed at the bottom of the car, in the front. Bigger vehicles, like SUVs and MUVs with front and rear air-conditioning controls, can have water outlets in the front and at the back, for the system to discharge the excess moisture from the cabin.

Engine Oil leaks

The colour of the engine oil depends on how old it is. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to identify, as it varies from a light yellowish-brown to dark brown. The leak would be directly under the engine, but you'll still need to identify the exact spot in the transmission system, where the leak is occurring. Engine oil leaks can occur at different places, such as at the crankshaft seal or from a valve cover gasket.

In case the car has a major leak, avoid driving the vehicle. It could cause the engine to overheat and lead to serious mechanical problems. It is best to have a mechanic fix the leak before you drive the car.

Coolant leaks

A car coolant fluid leak can be identified by its bluish-green colour. Further, car coolant smells like hard-boiled sweets and is easily identifiable by its odour.

Coolant hoses run all over, under the car's bonnet and a leak can happen anywhere. However, most leaks occur in the radiator, which is fitted, right behind the front grill of the car.
Here are a few precautions that you must take in case you detect a coolant leak –

  • Look for the plastic tank under the bonnet and check the level of the coolant in it. There are generally markings on the tank that display 'high' and 'low' levels. You mustn't drive your car if the coolant level is touching low or if the tank is empty
  • If your engine is heated, let it cool (keep the bonnet cover open) before examining the car any further
  • Don't attempt to unscrew the radiator cap, while the engine is hot, as it could release steam and cause injury
  • Unscrew the radiator cap when the engine has cooled, and peek into it to check if it contains coolant. If you spot no coolant you have a leak
  • Avoid driving your car if there is leak as it could overheat the engine
  • If you choose to drive it, keep an eye on the temperature gauge and park on the side if you find it shooting up
  • It is best to ask the service centre to send a tow truck to shift the car to the workshop

Transmission Fluid

High-end automatic transmission cars use ATF (automatic transmission fluid). This is a reddish pink fluid. An indication that your car has an ATF leak is that the vehicle will rev up, without falling into gear. The car will stall if the leak is significant.

Most cars on the Indian roads have a manual transmission and a front-wheel drive and use gear oil. This is thick, strong-odour oil. Transmission fuel leaks in these vehicles are generally found in the axle seals. If the leak is red or pink in colour, you know the cause.

Gear oil or Differential fluid leaks

Gear fluid, gear oil and differential fluid are different names for the same thing. It is a dense, viscous fluid, in hues of brown, looks like honey and smells like a mechanic's workshop. It has a strong, lingering smell, which makes identification easy.

A leak in the transmission or in the rear differential will cause the fluid to drip. However, gear fluid may leak at the rear axle seals or wheel bearing seals too. If you find grease oozing from the hub of the wheels(s) and spreading towards the rim, it is a gear fluid leak. Check your wheels for caked greasy muck. In four-wheel-drives, the leak can also occur at the front axle.

Power steering oil leaks

Power steering fluid is a slight variation of automatic transmission fluid. And a large number of car manufacturers recommend the use of ATF in the power steering circuit. The colour of the power steering fluid can vary, depending on what the manufacturer uses. Though the most common fluids are either colourless or in shades of pink and red.

You may be able to tell it's a power steering fluid by smelling the leak. If the odour is similar to that of oil burning in the kitchen, then you have a steering fluid leak, at hand. Driving with a power steering fluid leak is not recommended as it can harm the power steering pump.

If the leak is minor (just a few drops) you can check the reservoir located under the car's bonnet, to see the level. There are indications on the reservoir that will show you the level of fluid it holds. Top it, if it's low before you drive to a workshop to have the leak fixed.

Leaks generally occur at the ends of the steering rack, because of the wearing away of the end seals. If you experience a whining sound when making turns, it could be because of a leak. The steering wheel doesn't respond well and feels tight when making turns when the level of steering fluid is low.

DIY fixes for stopping leaks

I have seen commercials on telemarketing channels and have had vendors approach me at petrol bunks, selling these super products that can arrest car leaks in an emergency. Fascinating as they might appear, products that claim to arrest leaks can affect the vehicle's drivetrain. So, don't fall for such marketing gimmicks, call an authorised dealer instead, to fix the leak.

Drive carefully and use safety precautions while driving. This article is written to help you identify the leaks in your car. Is there any information that you would like to share with us? Please leave your remarks in the comment section. Share your knowledge and experience, so others can benefit from it.

Article by Juana
Juana is a freelance writer, with years of experience, creating content for varied online portals. She holds a degree in English Literature and has worked as a teacher and as a soft skill trainer. An avid reader, she writes on a variety of topics ranging from health, travel, education and personality development.

Follow Juana or read 609 articles authored by Juana

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