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Is My Car Burning Oil and Other Symptoms of Oil Leaking

Oil serves as an important lubricant for your engine, ensuring your car can keep running properly. Unfortunately, oil leaks happen and can be a serious problem for car owners.

One day after getting an oil change and parking overnight on a $250-deposit driveway I rent in San Francisco, I drove away to a large, slick looking spot glaring in my rearview mirror. The following days were spent scrubbing my driveway with Dawn (didn’t work) and calling the oil changer. They explained that they had actually cleaned off part of my engine when doing the oil change, causing a dormant leak to become an issue again. At the end of the day, it was nobody’s fault and just Jules the Honda Civic's way of telling me that some much-needed maintenance was unavoidable at this point.

oil leak
Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Make sure your oil leak is actually an oil leak.

There are several systems that can leak oil. Your car also carries many different fluids and they tend to differ in color and look, which can help to identify the leaking system.

  • Engine oil tends to be brown or black. It can also be an amber color if it's new oil.
  • Power steering fluid can be many colors: clear, brown, green or red. It’s very rare to find this leak, but it can be detrimental to your safety, so address it immediately.
  • Automatic transmission fluid is reddish in color.
  • Engine coolant is lime green, red, orange, or clear. It has a watery consistency much different from oil.

An additional symptom of an oil leak is the unmistakable scent of burning oil. Leaked oil can land on hot parts of the car, such as the exhaust system, causing a very distinguishable smell to occur around the vehicle.

With an ongoing oil leak, you should routinely check your oil and replace as necessary to ensure your engine is always lubricated for driving. Failure to check if levels are low can result in costly damages to your engine.

Helpful tip: If engine oil is found leaking after an oil change, have the shop re-check to make sure that the oil filter and drain plug were properly installed.

Where is the oil leak coming from?

This is the million dollar question. Fluid leaks tend to move in a downward and rearward direction. Therefore, oil leaking under the rear of the engine may have originated at the upper front engine area.

One way a shop avoids misdiagnosing oil leaks is to use oil detection dye that helps to pinpoint the exact source of the leak. Therefore, the best way to detect exactly where the oil leak is originating is to take your car into a RepairPal Certified shop for an Oil Leak Diagnosis.

What causes an oil leak?

Some potential causes of oil leaks are the simple result of an aging vehicle – seals and other components can degrade over time and a replacement might be the answer to your problems. For my own situation, I opted to replace the valve cover gasket on my Honda Civic. It’s important to note that the valve cover gasket can be mistaken as the source of the leak when the spark plug tube seals and grommets are actually the culprits. Due to the labor in this replacement, they should all be done at once.

To correctly identify the leak, it's best to get an expert's opinion. Take your car into your local RepairPal Certified shop to figure out exactly what work needs to be done.

So, how did you get the oil stain out of your driveway?

I tried everything, from dish soap to detergent, and ended up seeing the best results from letting opened Tide pods sit on the spot for some time and then rinsing off. Be careful to not let the detergent sit too long or you could have nice white spots instead of brown spots in your driveway!

If you have any suggestion on dealing with car oil leaks, or cleaning them off afterward, let us know in the comments below.

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