Coolant system problems, further damage by mechanic?


Hello, newbie here, so please be patient!

About 2 weeks ago, I noticed that the AC on my '96 Subaru Legacy LS Sedan was not running very cold. (I’ve only had the car 3 months, and just started needing AC). Last week it lost its cold/started running hot. I mentioned it to a friend, who asked me about my coolant levels. I’d never filled it, so we checked, it needed coolant, we filled it. He said he noticed a small leak, “very minor”, advised me to keep an eye on it. I saw no puddles (that is until I took it to the garage today, but more on that later).

Filling the coolant didn’t seem to help and, with even warmer temps, the engine has been running a bit warm - not at the middle range as usual, but about 3/4 of the way to “H”, occasionally a tad more. My friend added freon and said if that didn’t help, I should have it looked at. It was still the same, so I stopped running the AC and started makmi,ng phone calls.

I found a place, explained my situation, and the owner said she’d waive the cost of having it looked at. The mechanic said that 1) the fuse and wires to one of the compressor fans was bad, so only 1 was operating. He also said that 2) I have a coolant leak, which I knew, and pointed to a puddle on the floor. He said that 3) I have a water pump leak, and 4) that the radiator needs replacing (he showed me that the “fins” were; I don’t know what I was looking at). FInally, he said that the timing belt might need replacing; he would check. I was at least told that it was replaced just before I bought the car.

I explained that I can’t afford all those repairs right now, not by a long shot. I asked what the best immediate fix would be until I could do so, and was again told that I had leaks and it all needed to be replaced. I asked about the fans (my ignorant guess would be that getting the other fan operating would be an important 1st step). The man said “leaks” nad “replace” and “$800”, perhaps waiving labor on the fan if he was already doing the rest. I was stunned. Too stunned, in fact, to mention that there had been no coolant puddling before I took the car in; now I can watch it drip.

I don’t know what to do.

Is this whole replacement job clearly, immediately necessary?

Would I be safe driving the car for now if I just get the fan fixed and watch the leak(s)?

I don’t understand where the leak is from, and if that is separate from or necessitates radiator replacement.

Could the mechanic have worsened the coolant leak? There was no puddle before I took it in, and now there a puddle and drip, so I would like to address that with the garage. I left a message for the owner to call me, but wold appreciate input on how to approach this with them.

Help!!! I know this is alot, I apologize for any irrelevant or missing info, and thank you all in advance for your assistance.

Lets start by clearing something up.  The Air Conditioning and the engine cooling cooling system are two totally different things that share very very little. 

 Freon and coolant are two different things.  

 Freon is used in the air conditioning system.  Modern  air conditioning systems are usually best left to the pros.  They can be dangerous and you can cause damage if you don't know what you are doing or lack the specialized tools needed. 

  The engine cooling system keeps the engine cool.  That is what the temperature gauge reads.  

  You may need all the work listed.  All of it is critical to your car except the fuse to the air conditioner and that just means you will be hot.  From here it is not possible to say if the shop owner is right or not.  You may want to check at a second shop.  Don't go to a chain or a quick lube place.  Fine a local independent mechanic who has been recommended by others. 

  Failure to fix the leaks and maybe the radiator will cost you a new engine ???  That is far more expensive than fixing what you have now.  It also will likely leave you stranded somewhere.

  Timing belts need to be replaced on a schedule. I suspect you don't have any idea when the last time it was replace or even if it has been replaced.  If it has not been replaced it now needs it no matter how many miles are on your car.  If it has been previously replaced it likely should be replaced according to the schedule of miles listed in the owner's manual. [b]failing to replace a timing belt is likely to cause a sudden failure with absolutely no warning.  The engine will stop totally and an accident could result.  Depending on the engine type it could also totally destroy the engine. [/b]  

The reason for the suggestion to replace the timing belt (no one can tell by looking at it if it is ready to break) is that most of the labor to replace it is the same labor that is required to replace a water pump, so you might was well replace both at the same time.

You have two different problems neither are cheap and the cooling system problems must be addressed now, not next month.  Driving you car in the mean time is tempting making a bad situation much worse.


Overheating is instant death to Subaru engines. You have to address the cooling system leaks soon or you may have a much higher repair bill.

If the water pump is leaking it must be replaced, and since it’s driven by the timing belt it makes sense to install a new belt with a new water pump, but the labor to do one covers the other, and the only additional cost is for the belt itself.

You could get a second opinion about the repairs, but none of what you’ve posted sounds out of line or unreasonable considering the age of the car.

The AC problem is a separate and secondary issue. The coolant leaks are the primary problem, because if they are not addressed the engine may be damaged, and then you won’t be able to drive the car.


Thanks. My sense is that the AC problems alerted me to the engine cooling problems (hot weather, using AC, increasing “load” on engine). I have stopped using the AC, and do understand that it is not my primary concern.

I don’t understand if the coolant leak is from the water pump, or elsewhere. Would that make a difference in needed repairs? (Pump vs. pump and radiator). What about sealing the pump, at least as a temporary fix? Also, if the mechanic is showing me the radiator, what will I see that tells me it needs to be wholly replaced? As for the timing belt, the seller stated that it was replaced in March. Maybe this isn’t the case; we’ve remained in contact so I can ask, but I’m starting to feel like I don’t know who to trust…

At any rate, I guess I’m wondering if the shop mechanic diagnosed the problem as specifically as possible, or if the entire replacement is something ideal that would cover all the bases. You see, I am actually having to borrow money to cover rent this month. I am in a very bad space financially right now - it’s not a matter of just biting the bullet and spending the $800, I truly don’t have it - so if there are any quick fixes that can get me by, perhaps along with not driving alot, topping off coolant as needed, etc., for a month or two, I need to know that. More information so that I can better weigh my options and know what chances I’m taking is what I’m looking for. If I need to not drive the car period until I can come up with $800 - well, I need to now that, too…


Thanks :slight_smile:


Can a water pump be temporarily sealed? Also, I’ve read of continued leaks after replacement, with the problem actually being a gasket…


Mountainbike here, just posting to say that I wholeheartedly concur with Joseph and McP’s posts. Outstanding jobs. And a leaky water pump can only be fixed with a benchtop rebuild, done a a rebuild shop. The leak cannot be stopped without tearing down the pump and rebuilding it. Your shop will need to remove and replace the entire pump.


The price of the work sounds great too.


The mechanic did not worsen anything. You bought a 12 year old Subaru and water pumps/timing belts, etc. are normal.

If someone really replaced the timing belt recently they should have also replaced the water pump and the tensioner pulleys at the same time. That is the proper repair.

No way should a reputable mechanic go through all of this labor in an attempt to patch a leaking water pump, even if the problem was something as simple as a leaking O-ring. Once there, replace it.

Yes, the repair is a bit pricy and the quote is about the norm though. The mechanics only fix them; they’re not responsible for design complexity.