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How to Identify What Fluid Is Leaking From Your Car


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How to Identify What Fluid Is Leaking From Your Car

Photo: ShutterstockRealizing that your vehicle is dripping some sort of mystery liquid is very unsettling. Maybe it’s nothing, or maybe you’re about to face a costly visit to the mechanic. The good news is that it’s not too difficult to decipher these spots and tell whether the fluid leak is a harmless drip or a…

How to Identify What Fluid Is Leaking From Your Car

Photo: Shutterstock

Realizing that your vehicle is dripping some sort of mystery liquid is very unsettling. Maybe it’s nothing, or maybe you’re about to face a costly visit to the mechanic. The good news is that it’s not too difficult to decipher these spots and tell whether the fluid leak is a harmless drip or a serious problem to be fixed ASAP. Here’s how.

There are three things to consider when it comes to those car leaks: color, consistency and location (so you can tell if the leak happened from the front or back of the car). For the latter, The Car Guy says you can place newspaper or aluminum foil under your car in the evening and then “read” the spots the next day. This way, you can tell if the leak is power steering fluid (reddish or light brown, from the front of the car) versus auto transmission fluid (also often reddish or light brown, but dripping from the middle of the car).

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Screenshot: Allstate

The infographic above, from Allstate, is a handy reference guide to six common car puddles you might encounter. For example, if the drip is reddish or light brown and thin, then it’s probably power steering fluid. But if it’s brown and thick, then it’s probably transmission fluid. Clear liquids could be one of two things: if it’s thin, then it’s probably water. But if it’s slick, then it’s likely brake fluid.

Brake fluid is one of the most dangerous leaks to worry about, as Jalopnik points out. If you see that clear to brown and slick puddle under your car (it’ll be even more slippery to the touch than engine oil or transmission fluid), don’t even try driving it but get it towed right away. As the Art of Manliness says:

Your car’s brake system works on a hydraulic pressure system. Brake fluid serves as the hydraulic fluid that maintains that pressure. A leak in brake fluid will cause a drop in pressure, possibly resulting in brake failure. That’s not something you want to happen as you’re cruising down Dead Man’s Hill going 60 MPH.

Fortunately, in most modern cars, brake fluid leaks are rare. If you do have one, you’ll usually find it near the wheels or in the area directly under the brake pedal.

Knowing these leaks and getting them repaired if necessary can help you avoid more expensive repairs down the line (like replacing a grind-down transmission). It’s also something you should do before any trip.

This story was originally published on 1/3/14 and was updated on 10/11/19 to provide more thorough and current information

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