What’s That Wet Spot? Quick Tips to Help Identify & Prevent Car Engine Leaks

If you drive a car long enough, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have one of those classic, “uh-oh” moments. For instance, you pull out of your parking space and there’s a puddle where your car used to be. If you do find a leak, there’s no need to panic. You do need to get to the bottom of the issue. With at least half a dozen fluids coursing through your car, there are countless gaskets, hoses, couplings and reservoirs that might be the culprit.

The good news is that a leak doesn’t necessarily indicate a major problem. In fact, it’s normal for a small amount of some fluids to leak out from time to time. It’s also possible to figure out which engine component is the culprit if you know what to look for.

Finding Where The Car Leak is Coming From

Depending on how big the car’s leak is, it may make sense to put down some newspaper or aluminum foil under the car the next time you park it. Then you’ll be able to clearly identify:

  • The color
  • The consistency
  • The location

With that information, you should be able to sort out what is causing the leak, and whether major repairs may be needed.

Let’s explore some common causes of car leakage based on the fluid color.

Brown Fluid

If you find a spot of amber/brown/black fluid underneath the car’s engine, it’s most likely engine oil. A bit of oil can drip out from time to time, especially in higher mileage cars. While a little bit of oil may not be a big deal, you should find out where the source is and fix it to avoid potentially bigger problems down the road. 

Red (sometimes brown and thick)

Reddish fluid pooling on the ground near the center of the car is most likely transmission fluid that’s leaking out of a failing transmission seal or gasket. You don’t want to ignore this issue as low fluid levels will grind your transmission gears that result in an expensive repair bill down the road.

Red (sometimes light brown)

Power steering fluid can look a lot like transmission fluid but can be more of a lighter brown, reddish color. In fact, some car models can use the exact same fluid for both systems. In this case, it’s important to look at where the spots are. If those reddish/brownish spots are up near the front of the car, then it’s probably a leak in the power steering system. This is another fluid leak that needs to be taken care of pronto.

Clear or Brown and Slick

If you find a clear or brown, slick fluid near your wheels, call a mechanic right away as it’s likely brake fluid. You may even want to get your car towed to the shop, rather than risk brake failure on the way over.

While other engine fluids are also brown, there are some clear differences between brake fluid and other engine fluids. New brake fluid starts out clear like mineral oil and turns brown over time. Brake fluid also feels a lot more slippery than either engine oil or steering/transmission fluids. The biggest indicator, though, is location: if it’s by the wheel, take it seriously.

Neon Yellow, Green or Pink

It’s hard to miss this one. If your leak is a rainbow-bright fluid, it will be engine coolant. Older cars are designed to blow off excess coolant when running in high-stress situations. However, newer cars are designed to recycle excess coolant. If you see a neon stain in newer vehicles, there’s a leak in the system that a mechanic will likely have to repair.

Get Covered for Repairs from Leaks

Every car will experience a leak at some point. While not all leaks result in major repair bills, you can’t ever be certain that your little puddle won’t lead to an urgent brake job or a pricey transmission overhaul.

As long as it’s not a pre-existing condition and you are beyond any waiting period when the breakdown occurs, you can alleviate the headaches of pricey repair bills that come with those moments and get peace of mind with a Vehicle Service Contract (VSC). A VSC is a promise from a provider to pay for covered auto repairs if/when they take place to your vehicle. (Deductible and plan limits apply.)