It can be tempting to panic at the first sign of an engine oil leak. Many of us have backed out of a parking spot and been surprised to see a puddle of oil, wondering if it’s safe to drive our vehicle or not. Any time you detect a fluid leak, it is important to react, but knowing a bit about the causes and consequences can help you decide if it’s safe to drive your car until you get it fixed or if it needs immediate intervention. Hopefully this quick guide can help.
WHICH FLUID IS LEAKING?
While brand new cars shouldn’t leak oil, a small amount of oil seepage can occur on vehicles even with low mileage. A small trace of oil on the ground isn’t necessarily a big problem. What you do need to do when you discover a fluid leak, however, is determine what kind of fluid it is.
Your vehicle has a whole host of fluids that could be leaking, including engine oil, transmission oil, coolant, power steering fluid, brake fluid, differential oil, etc. Many of these fluids look the same to the untrained eye, so when possible, use a white rag to mop up the fluid and compare it to the others in your car. Engine oil can have hints of brown, yellow and purple, and it gets darker as it gets older. Check out this Pep Boys leak decoder for a visual guide.
HOW MUCH OIL HAVE YOU LOST?
The most important question to ask yourself is how much oil you have lost. If you just see a few drops on the ground, you probably don’t have anything to worry about. It is still advisable to check your engine to try and determine where the leak is coming from, though. Once a leak starts to get bigger, you might be able to see oil dripping when your car is parked, and the engine is running.
Checking your oil level is the only way to determine if it’s safe to drive with an oil leak or not. Modern cars have an oil level display on the dashboard that indicates when your oil level is low (and some even have an oil life percentage indicator, which is more geared towards oil change intervals than oil levels). With older cars, you can do a quick check on the oil level dipstick. Your oil level should always be between the minimum and maximum markers, ideally right in the middle. It is never a good idea to operate your engine below the minimum oil level, as this can quickly lead to severe engine damage or even failure.
HOW SOON DO I NEED TO REPAIR AN ENGINE OIL LEAK?
As long as the level of your engine oil doesn’t drop below the minimum, there is no risk driving with a small leak. However, we recommend repairing a leak quickly for several reasons:
- A small leak can quickly become a large leak. If this happens while you’re driving, you could lose all your oil, which quickly leads to engine damage.
- Leaking oil can create slippery surfaces in your garage, driveway or parking space as well as on the roads.
- Oil on the ground is an environmental pollutant. It is harmful to plants and animals and can run off into waterways.
- Constantly topping off even a small oil leak has a cost, especially with expensive modern engine oils. On top of that, it’s a hassle, especially when it comes to peace of mind.