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Finding Pesky Oil Leaks

You're sitting in your comfy recliner watching the game on TV when your cute little kitty cat jumps up onto your lap and starts to nuzzle you the way cats do.
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You're sitting in your comfy recliner watching the game on TV when your cute little kitty cat jumps up onto your lap and starts to nuzzle you the way cats do. Only this time she's leaving little black paw prints on you and your shirt has some nice, new, oil stains. So you do a little detective work and follow her footsteps back to find out where she got the oil. The trail takes you to the garage where some kind of fluid is now living under your car.

Now you have to put the kitty down and find out what kind of fluid it is and where it's coming from. So you jack up the car and put it on jack stands. Remember; never go under a car supported only by the jack. You crawl underneath and see there is a trail of oil from the engine to the rear bumper. Now you need to find out what kind of fluid and where it's coming from.

Start by determining what type of fluid is leaking. Most of the time you can determine this by the color of the fluid. Dribble a few drops of the mystery fluid onto a white sheet of paper. Engine oil is normally black. Automatic transmission fluid will be red as will be power steering fluid. But these fluids may turn brown or black and difficult to tell from engine oil. Windshield washer fluid will be blue in color and anti-freeze can be red, green, brown, orange or gold. It depends on the vehicle or the anti-freeze brand. Feel the fluid; if it's very oily feeling it's a lubricant. If it has a slightly oily feel, it's probably anti-freeze.

Okay, let's say it is oil, but you can't really determine the color. So the next thing to do is to start checking dipsticks. I usually start at the power steering pump reservoir. If it has little or no fluid, then the oil is probably power steering fluid. Then check the transmission fluid. If it's low, check the transmission cooler lines going to and from the radiator. If the transmission fluid is at it's proper level, that means it's engine oil.

If the oil is black and there is a puddle directly under the engine, you have an engine oil leak for sure. Engine oil leaks are by far, the most common type of leak. Now you have the daunting task of locating the leak. A slow leak, like from a valve cover gasket, will travel down along the manifolds, wires and vacuum lines and gets blown everywhere.

The first thing to do is get a light and look at the engine. You may get lucky and spot the source of the leak right off the bat. Don't start replacing anything unless you are absolutely sure of the location of the oil leak. Most of the gaskets in today's engines are very difficult to get to and are very expensive. It would be an expensive mistake to spend a lot of time and money to replace a gasket and still have the leak.

Spotting an oil leak is difficult at best and almost impossible when the engine is covered in oil. So the first thing I do is give the engine a through wash with engine cleaner. I use Gunk Engine Cleaner but any good cleaner will work. I follow the directions on the can, getting the engine hot, spraying on the cleaner paying special attention to heavy deposits and letting it sit for about 15 minutes. Since I have a lift in the shop I can get underneath the engine and car as well.

Once the engine is nice, clean and dry I have the customer pick up the car in the morning and bring it back in the afternoon. If the leak doesn't appear, I have the customer drive it another day, and another if necessary. About 70% of the time I can spot the leak and fix it on the first shot.

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Additional Information provided courtesy of
ALLDATAdiy.com and Warranty Direct
© 2000-2007 Vincent T. Ciulla

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