Under the Hood

Identify What Fluid Is Leaking from Your Car by Color

July 10, 2019

What’s black, white, and red all over? If you said, “my driveway,” then your car may be leaking…something. But what, exactly, is that hideous pool of liquid?

Don’t go dipping your pinky in a puddle of driveway-goo. There’s an easier way to figure out what your car is leaking; unless you’re colorblind, you can probably identify car fluid drips by eye. In fact, you don’t even need a particularly well-trained eye to get to the bottom of a car leak, as there are only a handful of fluids that could be the culprit.

Dark or Black Fluid Leaks

Brown, amber, or black fluids, especially when sludgy or thick, usually indicate an engine oil leak. (The smoking gun is if soaks into the ground and stains it black.)

Cars can leak oil – this is just a fact. Typically, a little drop of engine oil is not serious enough to warrant a trip to your auto mechanic. Your car’s oil may seep out of your oil filter’s gasket or seal if it’s not fastened well enough. Apply some elbow grease and you should be good to go.

However, drips can be a sign that something is awry under your car. If your car continues to leak oil, you could have a punctured oil pan, faulty oil filter, corroded drain plug, or any number of damaged car parts. A visit to your auto service center or a local oil change shop should set you straight.

Orange, Pink or Green Fluid Leaks

Notice some green fluid leaking from your car? You’ll find slimy-looking, bright-colored fluid if your car is leaking coolant or antifreeze.

Some older vehicles will naturally let some coolant out if there’s an overheating engine (that’s another issue for another blog). A “top off” of antifreeze is usually all that’s needed.

Newer cars, however, re-utilize that excess coolant. If you own a late-model vehicle, any pink or green coolant leaks should be considered suspect. A blown or cracked head gasket will, among other things, leak antifreeze and may result in a seized-up engine. A car radiator leak, caused by anything from a worn-out seal to torn radiator tubes, is also common. Antifreeze leaks can even come from loose or brittle hoses linked to your engine, water pump, or heater.

Red Fluid Leaks

Thin, red fluid leaking from your car is a common sign of a power steering issue, usually related to the power steering pump. Puddles of red fluid will oftentimes be located near the front of the vehicle, as that’s where power steering pumps are typically installed.

You can add fluid to the reservoir in a pinch, but it’s very dangerous to drive a car without proper power steering. You’d best get a professional to fix those leaks.

Yellow or Gray Fluid Leaks

The most difficult leaking fluid to identify is brake fluid. Brake fluid colors progress from a neutral yellow to a darker brown, much like engine oil. The key difference between the two is texture: brake fluid is thinner and slicker than oil, and you can sometimes see your reflection in a puddle of brake fluid.

A car leaking brake fluid is 100% not safe to drive. Don’t even try.

Orange or Red Fluid Leaks

Transmission fluid is usually red or orangish-brown, and can sometimes be confused with rusty radiator fluid or power steering fluid. However, transmission fluid can be identified by the location of the drip; it normally emanates from the center of your car.

So why is your car leaking transmission fluid? The usual suspects are gaps in your transmission – including spaces around torque converters or cooler lines – bad transmission seals, holes in return lines, and damaged pan gaskets. In any event, it’s dangerous to drive your car if it’s leaking transmission fluid. You should have your vehicle towed to a transmission repair shop for an evaluation.

Light Brown Fluid Leaks

Newer motor oil can appear as a light-brown; however, if you haven’t changed your oil recently, you could be seeing drips of gear lubricant or lube oil. The best way to identify gear lubricant is by smell – it stinks like someone left an Easter egg out for too long. A prompt call to your mechanic, as well as a thorough shower, is in your future.

Blue Fluid Leaks

Windshield wiper fluid is just about the only blue liquid that’s in your car. Over time, the reservoir that holds windshield fluid, as well as the internal tubes, can degrade, resulting in leaks. Leaking windshield wiper fluid is not an emergency.

Rainbow Fluid Leaks

Thin, slick-looking fluid that appears to be “rainbow” colored is probably gasoline. If you can’t start your car or seem to be using more fuel than normal, you may want to have someone check your gas tank or fuel lines for leaks.

Clear Fluid Leaks

Water – your car is leaking water (sort of). Clear fluid leaks are almost always just condensation caused by your air-conditioning system. Nothing to see here.

Got any other tips to help identify the cause of a leaking car? I’m all ears. Leave a comment below.

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