Drip drop drop goes the engine
December 14, 2009 10:23 AM   Subscribe

My car appears to be leaking oil..or some other fluid. Is it safe to drive until I can get to a mechanic?

So the other day I was walking across a rainy parking lot when I noticed a attractive trail of iridescent spots trailing across the ground. i thought "heh, some sucker is leaking oil".... then I followed the trail to my car. Who knows how long this has been happening for....I think I just noticed b/c of the wet ground.

Here's the relevant info: 1995 Jeep Wrangler, manual trans, @130K miles, gets regularly scheduled oil changes @ every 3-4 months. Since I got laid off in April, I've probably averaged driving less than 20 miles a week, with some longer trips here and there.

Here's what else I know: car appears to only be leaking when the engine is running. I checked the oil level on the dipstick, which looks perfect. There is an oil gauge on the dashboard that indicates 50 out of a possible 80. This also seems normal (Is this gauging pressure?)

I can't get to a mechanic until Friday at the earliest. Is it safe to run errands until then? Could I be leaking some other fluid?
posted by gnutron to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total)
Check your fluid levels -- oil, transmission fluid, water -- before driving. If they're good, you're good to go.

Cars leak oil all the time. It's bad for the environment, and it's a waste of oil, but they'll run.
posted by musofire at 10:28 AM on December 14, 2009

I wouldn't... the great variable being "oil or some other fluid"
posted by jerseygirl at 10:28 AM on December 14, 2009

I'm sorta with musofire on this one - check your oil and other fluids and if they look ok, you should be good until Friday (note: not indefinitely). Make sure to keep an eye on the temp gauge.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:30 AM on December 14, 2009

Also check your brake fluid and power steering fluid levels. Running out of either would make driving a lot less fun. If they are low, refill them until you can get to the shop.
posted by JeffK at 10:33 AM on December 14, 2009

I'd say yes but keep a very close eye on the temperature gauge. If it goes past the middle, stop immediately and let the engine cool. Check coolant, brake fluid level and your dipstick daily.

My car leaked out for a month or two before I got it fixed. I made sure to top off the oil when it got low.
posted by special-k at 10:33 AM on December 14, 2009

Check the level on your brake fluid in particular. If a brake line is what's leaking, then the results can be disconcerting at best (soft brake peddle) and tragic (crash into something when you are expecting your brakes to stop you) at worst.
posted by chiefthe at 10:34 AM on December 14, 2009

Check all your fluids, and know that many of them require the car to be warmed up to get an accurate gauge. I suspect it's either transmission fluid or brake fluid you're leaking, although, since it's hard to tell from the description "iridescent," it could also be anti-freeze. If it is anti-freeze, you could be in for a terrible surprise.

And, unrelated, don't get your oil changed so often.
posted by General Malaise at 10:50 AM on December 14, 2009

IANAMechanic, but from my own experience, it's okay only as long as you check the levels of the fluids every day. You might be able to tell which one it is... if you have your own driveway, it's pretty easy to see where the drips are and what color they are. If you don't, can you put a big sheet of cardboard underneath the front end of your card - hold it with some bricks, or drive onto it with one of your tires?

If the fluid is black, it's probably oil. If it's pinkish, it's probably transmission fluid. I don't know about brake fluid. You can also tell what it is by where under the car it falls, then figure out what exactly is above that spot.

Anyway - what you don't want to do is let it all run out and keep driving. Your engine will seize up, and chunks of metal will just barely miss your head as they go flying out of your engine when you raise the hood to figure out what's wrong.
posted by CathyG at 10:52 AM on December 14, 2009

If you are leaking engine oil the one important thing to know is this: If you rely on the oil gauge to tell you when you are out of oil, you are going to kill your engine. You must learn how to find and read the dipstick, and how to add oil if you are low. Also important: Do not overfill with engine oil. If the level is too high, the crank shaft may churn the oil into foam, which can blow the oil seals, and worse.

Many car owners have kept cars going (and dripping) for years, with leaks, by checking the oil level often. However, there is the risk of forgetting, and killing your engine, if the leak suddenly gets worse.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 10:59 AM on December 14, 2009

Many car owners have kept cars going (and dripping) for years, with leaks, by checking the oil level often. However, there is the risk of forgetting, and killing your engine, if the leak suddenly gets worse.

I can vouch for that, personally.

Although I have little to add, I wanted to throw my support behind everyone else who says to check your fluids frequently, especially if you can't isolate what exactly is leaking.
posted by owtytrof at 11:23 AM on December 14, 2009

This JUSt happened to me last week. All of my fluid levels were good and yet my car was still leaking something on the driveway. It turned out to the the heater core which is sooo difficult to get to - labor intensive - $850.00
posted by pamspanda at 11:27 AM on December 14, 2009

Check all your engine oil, coolant, transmission (if possible), brake fluid levels and if they are within the min/max marks you are fine to drive the car. If you go further than 20 miles, I'd expect to check the levels again just to be sure.

HOWEVER, this is the belt and braces solution (although a worthwhile precaution). Of note is that a tiny, tiny (impossibly tiny) amount of oil will leave coloured spots on the floor. Unless you were slipping over on oil and you could see great globs of it, it is unlikely that this is anything of concern and may not even show up on regular dipstick checks. It is shocking how small a leak can be - invisible under a dry car - yet show as a scary slick on wet roads.

If there is just coloured spots, I'd not even sweat it. If there was a pool of oil (to the point you wouldn't step in it for fear of ruining your shoes), then maximum caution. Anything in between is a sliding scale.
posted by Brockles at 11:28 AM on December 14, 2009

Could be antifreeze, which is easy enough to check. Pop the hood, check the overflow tank. It should have levels marked "Hot" and "Cold" on it.
posted by electroboy at 11:34 AM on December 14, 2009

Thanks for the answers all. Just took a short ride, and now that it's dry I could scoot under the car and watch the leak. At this point I'm pretty sure it's oil, looks like it's coming from the vicinity of the filter....hopefully won't be too expensive of a fix!
posted by gnutron at 12:10 PM on December 14, 2009

Nthing the guess that it's oil. Here's a chart that describes car fluid colors in case you're curious.

You're right that the gauge measures oil pressure (not oil level).
posted by Iggley at 12:16 PM on December 14, 2009

It's not uncommon for the filter gasket to not seal properly. You could try tightening the filter to see if that helps. Use your hands to avoid over tightening.
posted by VanCityChica at 12:47 PM on December 14, 2009

Also possible that during the last oil change the old filter gasket didn't come off, and the new one got seated on top of it, although that usually manifests pretty immediately.
posted by electroboy at 1:04 PM on December 14, 2009

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