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What’s that puddle in the garage? ARRGH!

With the super-nice weather this weekend, I thought it would be a great day to clean out the garage.  You know- get all that winter grime off the floor, sweep out all the gravel and really just make it a presentable place again.  I back the cars out into the driveway and head back inside, ready for an afternoon of some zen-like quality time in the garage.  Since the cars are always inside, the floor has really gone un-inspected for a couple months. So when I came back inside and saw a monster oil stain on the floor, I was shocked!  Let’s ride the emotional roller coaster that comes along with a newly discovered oil leak:  First, denial.  I thought to myself, “That’s not oil.  That’s probably just something that leaked out of a trash bag.”  Then I became angry:  “This can’t be happening to my car!  ARRGH!”.  Then the depression set in-  “Oh, well, it’s been a good car.  Sorry to have to let it go…” Then finally, acceptance… SIGH…  This was the world’s fastest emotional roller coster ride, clocking in at about 3 seconds-  Now let’s find that stupid leak!

There are a couple different methods for finding an oil leak.  First, I made sure it was oil that was leaking by matching the color of the ooze on the floor to the color of the oil on the car’s dipstick.  I was already pretty sure the puddle was oil, but I verified it anyway.  Oil leaks can come from a surprising number of places and the oil can travel a bit along surfaces and such, masking the real source of the leak.  I’ve seen leaks that drip more toward the back of the car, even though the leak was up front.  Leaks can come from filters, seals, connectors, valve covers, or lines.  No matter what method you choose to find your leak, my advice is to start at the top and work down.

Leaking oil is a magnet for dirt and grime, and if your engine has been leaking for awhile, it could be covered in a black slime.  This makes it a real challenge to finding a leak (and you may have multiple leaks).  It’s a good idea to clean as much of your engine as possible before looking for new oily spots.

One way is to take it to the car wash and use the high pressure wand to clean the grime from the engine.  This is not my favorite way, because the high pressure water might cause force some moisture into the electrical elements of your engine.  If you go this route, stay away from the ignition system and any other electronics that you see.  If your engine won’t start after using this method, don’t be surprised- You’ve been warned.

Another way is to use a degreaser.  You can spray these right onto your dirty engine and rinse them off with the garden hose.  Since you’re still using water, the same warnings about the electrical components should apply.

I think the easiest way is the have the engine cleaned by a detail shop.  If they have access to a steam cleaner, they’ll get that engine cleaner than you ever will on your own.
If you have a pretty good idea of where the leak might be, just try looking for the leak after the engine has been running for a few minutes.  If it’s a big enough leak, you’ll probably spot it with no problem.  What if you don’t know where to start? A spray-on leak detection powder might help you out.  After the engine (or suspect area) has been cleaned off, just spray on the powder and let it dry until it’s nice & white.  Any leaking oil is very visible against this white powder.  If you’re on a budget, just use athlete’s foot spray- it’s the same thing!

What if you don’t know a general area, or you think you may have a bunch of small leaks?  There are kits that contain fluorescent dyes to add to your oil, making the oil “glow-in-the-dark” when you have an ultraviolet light source.  Just add the dye, run the engine for a few minutes, look around with the special flashlight for the glowing spots.
Once you’ve found the source of the leak, all that’s left is to fix it.  Easier said than done, depending on the leak.  Tightening a filter is one thing, but if the leak involves seals, valve covers, or something worse, a good service department with qualified technicians is the way to go.  Not only can they do all the dirty work and fix the leak, they may be able to uncover larger problems that caused the leak in the first place.