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Leaks What are those drips and puddles under your car?

by Larry E. Hall There are nearly a dozen liquids that can leak out of your car. Only one type of leak is desirable and one other is of minor importance. Leakage of other fluids, however, can lead to an expensive breakdown if not corrected. Some leaks affect driving safety. Gases leaking from the exhaust system can let deadly carbon monoxide enter the passenger compartment. Air leaking out of a tire can create a serious handling problem. Of the liquid leaks, fuel and brake fluid are the most serious, windshield-washer solution the least. A puddle of clear water under your vehicle on a warm day is probably condensation from the air conditioner the only desirable liquid that vehicles produce. If no condensation is formed, the air conditioner is not dehumidifying the air inside the car. Leaks make themselves known in various ways. Oil leaks can slowly coat the outside of an engine. Or perhaps you've noticed a spot or puddle on the garage floor or frequently used parking space. A frustrating thing about fluid leaks is they do not always show up in obvious places. Sometimes brake fluid or oil will run along the outside of a pipe or body flange to drip at a point several feet away from the source. Fluid in Motion When you see the telltale signs of a leak, don't ignore it. The first thing you should do is identify the type of fluid so you can identify the source. If you are lucky, simply tightening a clamp may yield a permanent repair. If you're not sure what liquid is leaking, first check all fluids in the car to see if any are obviously low. If this fluid check doesn't reveal anything, place a large piece of cardboard on the ground and park the car over it. Some leaks are only apparent when the engine is operating, so run the motor for several minutes, revving it occasionally. After letting the car sit overnight, carefully inspect any spots that have appeared. Familiarize yourself with these common types of fluids and what (if anything) to do about them. Black or dark-brown slippery fluid most likely is motor oil. A few drops once in a while is OK, but if your car starts to leave puddles, have it checked out. Oil leaks are most often found under the front of the vehicle under the engine, but can occur the length of the vehicle. Clear, oily liquid with a pungent odor is usually brake fluid that shows up around the wheels. Consult your mechanic immediately it could lead to brake failure. Pink, red or clear drops may be either automatic transmission fluid (ATF) or power steering fluid. ATF will leak under the front seats; power steering fluid leaks are under the front of the engine compartment. Check both reservoirs and refill them as necessary. If such leaks are a regular occurrence, see your mechanic. Green, yellowish or redish spots with a faint, sweet smell indicates that antifreeze is leaking from the cooling system and is usually found under the front center of the car. Check the coolant level in the overflow tank immediately, and have the system checked for leaks. Too little coolant causes overheating and serious engine damage. Heavy, light tan or black oily liquid is a sign that gear oil is leaking from the steering gearbox, manual transmission, axle or differential. Because of the various types of components, gear oil can appear anywhere under a vehicle. Delaying repairs will become expensive.

A dark stain on the shock absorber body gives this away as shock absorber fluid. This fluid usually does not appear under a vehicle. The shock needs to be replaced. (Shock absorbers are best replaced in pairs.) Thin fluid that smells like gasoline probably is. It can leak from the tank (generally in the rear of the car), from a fuel line that runs from the tank to the engine, or from the engine itself. This leak needs to be repaired immediately. Fuel leaks are a leading cause of car fires. Light oil that smells like home heating oil is diesel fuel and should be treated like a gasoline leak above. Blue or pink tinted water points to a leak of windshield washer solution and will be found in a broad area under the engine compartment. It many not seem important, but when you need the streaks on the windshield cleaned on a dark rainy night, you will most likely wish you had taken care of this. A clear fluid that smells like rotten eggs is probably sulfuric acid leaking from the battery and can appear in a number of locations under a vehicle. Sulfuric acid is corrosive and poisonous; if it touches skin, wash it off immediately and flush with water immediately. Have the battery replaced at once. Clear water is just condensation from the air conditioner that drips under the front of engine. Don't worry about it. Larry Hall writes extensively about cars and the automotive industry. He lives in Seattle.