What Fluid is Leaking From My Car?

If your car is leaking fluid, your best bet is to identify the liquid by color, consistency, and smell. This will tell you what is leaking and how to fix it.
Written by Andrew Biro
Reviewed by Melanie Reiff
If something in your car starts leaking, the easiest way to identify what the fluid is—and where the leak is coming from—is by looking at the fluid’s color. Generally speaking, all fluid in your vehicle can be categorized as either clear, red, black or brown, orange, light yellow, blue, or yellow/pink/green.
We’ve all been there—you go out to your vehicle only to notice a mysterious fluid leaking from your car, puddling on the pavement. To make matters worse, you can’t even address the issue before you figure out what the fluid even is. That’s often easier said than done, as your vehicle uses many different fluids to run properly.
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What fluid is leaking from my car?

Your vehicle uses many different fluids in its operation, which means identifying a fluid leak can be harder than it sounds. Start by identifying the color, and if that is indeterminate, you can examine the texture, smell, and location of the leak

Clear fluid

Most of the time, any clear fluid leaks from your vehicle is going to be water, especially if you notice the leak on a hot, humid day after the AC has been on for a while. Your vehicle’s air conditioning system uses an evaporator to remove moisture from the air, which means it collects water over time. This water then leaves your vehicle via a small tube and drains onto the ground.

Red fluid

If the fluid is red, you’re most likely dealing with a power steering fluid or an automatic transmission fluid leak.
For this reason, you may need to rely on a few other qualities to identify which fluid it is. If the fluid is thin, feels oily, smells like burnt marshmallows or burnt cooking oil, and pools underneath the steering rack, it’s power steering fluid. But if the fluid is slick and smells more like petroleum, it's transmission fluid.
MORE: How to check and add power steering fluid

Black, brown, or amber fluid

If your vehicle is leaking black, brown, or a deep amber-colored fluid, chances are you’re dealing with motor oil. Depending on how long it's been since you last changed your oil, engine oil can either be amber in color or take on a much darker brown or black once it's been contaminated with particulate matter.
An oil leak will always occur underneath your engine, but the engine isn’t in the same place for every vehicle, and the engine can leak oil from many different places. It’s best to have a mechanic take a look if you find oil underneath your vehicle.
Differential fluid is also a dark brown or amber color but has a very distinctive, almost greasy smell that sets it apart from motor oil. You’ll most often find this fluid leaking from the rear differential, standard transmission, and/or rear axle seals.

Orange fluid

A puddle of orange fluid underneath your vehicle usually signifies that your coolant is leaking, even though coolant is not usually orange. However, rust can build up in the cooling system and turn the coolant a reddish-orange. Test it by touching and smelling it—if it feels slimy and smells very sweet, you’re dealing with rusty coolant.
Automatic transmission fluid also can become orange the longer it sits in your vehicle, but it does not feel or smell the same as coolant. If the fluid smells like petroleum and is slick to the touch, it’s transmission fluid.

Light yellow fluid

If you notice a light yellow liquid underneath your vehicle, do not drive it. The fluid is most likely brake fluid, which means your brakes won’t work properly. 
The longer brake fluid sits, however, the darker it becomes, which means it can be hard to identify by sight alone. If you touch the fluid and it feels slippery or oily, and it smells like fish oil, you have a brake fluid leak.
If you find that brake fluid is leaking from your car, call a mechanic as soon as possible—you may also need to call a tow truck to bring your car to the repair shop.
MORE: How to check and add brake fluid

Blue fluid

Blue fluid leaking from your vehicle is most likely windshield wiper fluid
However, if you drive a Honda, blue fluid may be either windshield wiper fluid or coolant. You can easily tell the two apart by their smell: wiper fluid will smell like your typical cleaning solution and coolant smells incredibly sweet.

Yellow, green, or pink fluid

If you notice a yellow, green, or pink fluid leaking from your vehicle, you’re probably dealing with a coolant leak. You can confirm this by smelling the liquid as coolant has a very distinct, sickly sweet smell.
If coolant is leaking from your vehicle—in which case it will pool beneath the engine—do not drive your vehicle. Driving your vehicle when you are leaking or low on coolant can cause your engine to overheat, which may result in costly damage.

What to do when you have a fluid leak

Whenever you find that fluid is leaking from your vehicle, you should always attempt to identify it before doing anything else, as this will determine your next steps.
Most fluid leaks aren’t indicative of immediate vehicle failure, which means you’ll be able to drive to the nearest auto repair shop with no problem—but if you identify the leaking fluid as brake fluid or coolant, you’ll want to call a tow truck. This will help you avoid getting into an accident or irreversibly damaging your engine.

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The easiest way to figure out what fluid is leaking from your car is to pay attention to the fluid’s color, consistency, and smell—learn how to identify fluid by these characteristics in the article above.
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