Home » How Bad Does A Leak Have To Be Before You’ll Fix It? Autopian Asks

How Bad Does A Leak Have To Be Before You’ll Fix It? Autopian Asks

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Some car enthusiasts are fastidious about maintenance. If a door handle is squeaking, they’ll be right on the job, repairing it. Some are happier to let the small stuff slide, while others will let their cars fall to pieces before their very eyes. In that regard, I ask you a question. How bad does a leak have to be before you’ll consider fixing it?

Obviously, this is something that can change greatly depending on the fluid involved. If your vehicle is leaking gas, like Gossin’s pickup, you might want to fix that immediately. Similarly, a loss of brake fluid might spur you to immediate action. But not all leaks are so disastrous. A slow oil leak can weep for months or years without causing too much trouble. Similarly, losing a little coolant here and there might not require you to immediately throw the car on jack stands to perform restorative repairs.

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I myself land on the lazier side when it comes to leaks, but I do so in an educated fashion. If my car is losing coolant at a rapid rate, where I’m routinely seeing ounces of fluid on the driveway, I’ll probably get to it on the next free weekend I have. If it’s losing quarts, I’m probably not driving it anywhere unless I really need some KFC.

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My Merc randomly threw up all its coolant one day in 2022. I thought I traced it to a corroded freeze plug, but somehow once I topped it off I never had any problems ever again. Until the radiator end tank wore through earlier this year.

Oil, I’m even more lackadaisical about. But that’s for good reason—for oil leaks are often quite slow. I’ve had a ton of cars that burn a little oil, or leak some out of the valve cover seals. This is rarely a big problem. I’ll just top up the oil with a half-a-quart or so every three months, and the car will run just fine. Sure, I could pull the intakes off and all the wiring and spark plug leads and spend hundreds of dollars on new seals, but… why? I rarely have any free time as it is. I’d rather spend $20 on a liter of oil a few times a year and enjoy driving instead of tedious wrenching jobs with little benefit. Plus, the driveway stains come up easy with some dishwashing liquid.

This topic comes to mind because of my beloved Audi TT. It’s currently leaking power steering fluid, and doing so at a frustrating rate. It’s only losing maybe a shot glass or two a month. However, that’s enough to drop it below minimum on the dipstick, and it gets the power steering pump whining like a city bus in cold weather. I don’t want to spend big money on replacing the pump, so I’m trying to keep it topped up.

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Luv the Audi. Don’t luv da leakz. It ran great on our first 8-hour roadtrip, maybe I need to tell that story.

The problem I have is that this is likely not an easy fix. Maybe I’m lucky and it’s just a weeping fitting or hose. But more likely it’s a rack seal that’s gone, or even fatal wear to the rack itself. That’s big money and big labor, because it’s a job I don’t have space to tackle myself.

So basically, I’m getting by with occasional top-ups once again, even on my dream car. But what say you—how bad does a leak have to get before you’ll fix it?

Image credits: Lewin Day

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Lizardman in a human suit
Lizardman in a human suit
18 days ago

I’m so used to staying on top of leaks in my semi truck I have become anal retentive about them in my cars. I used to not being that way, but the DOT is so brutal about the tiniest leaks. They love breaking out their fine books for the tiniest drip.

Well, I say that, but when it comes to air leaks I am a bit lackadaisical. Self replenishing fluid reservoir and all. (Yes, air is a fluid, especially in a pressure system.) If it is leaking fast enough to visibly register on the guage, imidiate fix. If I can hear it, but rate is slow, fix when convenient. If air tanks are draining overnight, find leak during next service. Surprisingly, the DOT actually has an acceptable rate of leakage standard for the air system.

Last edited 18 days ago by Lizardman in a human suit
67 Oldsmobile
67 Oldsmobile
18 days ago

Brake fluid leaks obviously needs attention faster than gear or engine oil,but if I see it drip then it’s a leak,if I just see the wet spots it can wait.

Dingus
Dingus
18 days ago

Leak repair works on a sliding scale. Priority decreases on the following:

Position of the car in the fleet (aka, wifes car is higher than my car which is higher than the kids’ car)Age of the car with the leak; older lowers priority.’Where car lives. If it lives outside, lower priority. Garage car, higher.What is leaking. Smellier and/or flammables get priority, but can be lowered if it is stored outside.Leak rate/leak fluid composite. Example: windshield fluid leaks at high rate, low priority. Oil leaks at high rate, high. Oil leaks at low rate, low.Impact. If it means the car will break, that goes higher (oil before coolant if leak rate is equal).Difficulty/cost of repair.So in my case I have the kids car (p2 volvo) that has a slight oil leak at the turbo oil return line. It lives in the garage, so priority goes up. Car is old and belongs to kid, so priority goes down. Oil is leaking, so priority goes up. Leak rate is low, so back down again. Impact is medium because it’s the turbo return line; if it were the feed line, it would go much higher. Priority goes down because it is not a difficult repair.

The result is that I will ignore the leak until it gets worse. I have prioritized my wife’s Navigator because it has a craptastic 3v triton with cracked exhaust manifolds. I have been ignoring that job for about three years now as it has not taken priority (repair is 10/10 on difficulty as I have neither a lift, nor an oxyacetylene torch).

Last edited 18 days ago by Dingus
Torque
Torque
16 days ago
Reply to  Dingus

This is solid logic and what I expect many enthusiasts follow something similar, consciously or not.

Musicman27
Musicman27
18 days ago

I would fix it if there is a noticeable spot on the ground beneath the car, or it is affecting performance.

Pit-Smoked Clutch
Pit-Smoked Clutch
18 days ago

The driveway spots bother me and generally get me to fix leaks, but it all depends on what is leaking. I’m currently living with a (very slowly) leaking timing chain cover because fixing it is an engine-out job.

Musicman27
Musicman27
18 days ago

What kinda bullcrap leak requires an engine out job!?

Pit-Smoked Clutch
Pit-Smoked Clutch
18 days ago
Reply to  Musicman27

25ish years ago, someone at Toyota thought a <2″ clearance from the accessory drive pulleys to structural steel was a worthy compromise to make in the name of getting the hot engine into the Corolla Chassis. Even changing the serpentine tensioner requires disconnecting all the mounts and jacking the engine halfway out of the bay.

Mark Tucker
Mark Tucker
18 days ago

Coolant or fuel leak: fix right away. Brake fluid leak: obviously fix right away. Oil dripping onto something hot: fix right away. Everything else: I’ll get to it eventually.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
18 days ago
Reply to  Mark Tucker

Why is coolant so high on the list, and so much higher than oil?

Jason Smith
Jason Smith
18 days ago

I have a small coolant leak (when cold, it seems to seal itself when the truck gets to temp) from my water pump gasket on my first gen Tacoma (stupidly used a non-OEM gasket during a timing belt job, big mistake). I’m about 10k from needing another timing belt so until then I just check the coolant level before driving the truck until then. It helps that it’s not a daily and checking the fluids once a week isn’t exactly a bad practice in general…

Last edited 18 days ago by Jason Smith
Jj
Jj
18 days ago

It depends on the difficulty of the job and the risk of putting it off.

Miata has a leaking valve cover gasket? I’ll do it right away. Subaru has two leaking awkwardly-placed and difficult to access valve cover gaskets? Keep topping up the oil.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
18 days ago

Bought an early wrx a few years back that had the fuel line leak again due to age. Also bought a fire extinguisher the day I brought it home. The fix was multiple little 2-3” hoses connecting the main fuel feed to the injector rail and I had to pull the intake manifold to replace them, but I didn’t put it off for long as firey death is not my idea of fun.

I’ve already replaced the passenger VC gasket once and it still seeps, but doesn’t spot the ground, so the new new gasket is still on the shelf

Last edited 18 days ago by TOSSABL
Manuel Verissimo
Manuel Verissimo
18 days ago

Depends on the leaks, depends on the car. My 300kkm Clio 2 can be leaking, I don’t care. My recently back on the road 280Z? I don’t want to see a drop of fluid oozing out.

Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
18 days ago

“ A slow oil leak…” AKA English rustproofing? Why would you want to “fix” that?
Sometime after my Subaru Impreza Outback had been rear ended by the neighbors Landrover, very slowly hit on the left rear corner by the UPS truck. and i think the trunk got broken into but it was hard to tell, I noticed that a lot of water was leaking into the trunk. Finally got fed up with the situation and drilled three 1/4 inch holes in the low places where the water was collecting. Problem solved!

Curtis Loew
Curtis Loew
18 days ago

If it drips on the ground I fix it. If it just leaves a stain on the underside I don’t. This is actually policy for all new cars under warranty for most brands. If it is wetness on the engine that is normal seepage. It has to form droplets that hit the ground to be a warranty repair. My 60 year old daily driver doesn’t leave anything on my garage floor, but there is a little seepage here and there. I really need to get around to pressure washing the bottom of it actually.

Jatco Xtronic CVT
Jatco Xtronic CVT
18 days ago

I don’t really want to answer this question.

Paul B
Paul B
18 days ago

Every leak I find I’ll repair.

How quickly I get it done varies by severity, but they all get addressed.

Mechjaz
Mechjaz
18 days ago

> It’s only losing maybe a shot glass or two a month

I think my tequila might be your power steering fluid reservoir. My whiskey fluid reservoir leaks considerably faster.

Rob Bannister
Rob Bannister
18 days ago

Just about to scrap my wife’s mini due to oil leaks. It was looking pretty wet in the engine bay and I couldn’t be arsed to fix it as I really hate working on German cars. Sent it to a local indy and was told at least 5 big leaks and valve guides to stop the blue smoke. Not worth fixing. I begged her not to buy another mini but we want what we want. Open to offers if anyone’s in the Sheffield area and want a reasonable interior. My spitfire get to leak all day long without a worry in the world, just top it up when it get squeaky.

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