Fluid Leak

Good evening everyone! Tonight when I was on my way in from taking the trash out, I happened to notice a puddle under my 04 Ford Escape. The car has been sitting in its parking spot for about a week (cold and mostly sunny weather, but some light rain, frost, and ice recently) so I figured it was just a bit of moisture from melting frost…worry wort that I am, though, I decided to investigate. It looked like it was in the area of my oil pan so I thought the size of the puddle warranted an investigation. I moved the car back a bit and tried to soak up whatever it was with a paper towel (soaked moisture up, but colorless). I checked the oil levels (puddle was the size of a it small frisbee, so I have to imagine that if it were oil, I would notice a change in the levels) and saw no change since I last checked about a month ago. While I was trying to look like I know what I am doing, I noticed a new oil drop on the pavement - under the oil pan on the drivers side. I have replaced the pan gasket within the last 2 years and know that the car has a timing cover leak, but that has been fairly limited to the passenger’s side. The oil pan looked dirty, and showed SOME evidence of an small oil leak, but the other spot I noticed worried me a bit more: behind the oil pan (looks like it is almost center of the front axel) there is a fluid leak of some kind. Whatever the fluid is, it looks to be clear and has a slight hint of an odor (not sweet, not oily…sort of like stale water). When I turned the car on to back it up, I had the defrosters running. All in all, I would say they were on a total of 45 seconds, but the “water” is still dripping several hours later. This may go down as the all-time DUMBEST question to ever be asked on the CarTalk forum, but is this probably just condensation from the defrosters, possible leftover moisture from melting ice and frost, or something more serious? Thanks in advance, and sorry for what is most likely a really dumb question!

It’s not a dumb question. Monitor the oil level and the coolant level. If the transmission has a dipstick, keep checking that as well. Also,check the brake fluid in the master cylinder. You should even check the level of the windshield washer fluid.
One of the strangest fluid leaks happened to a friend of mine on an Oldsmobile Omega. The family was ready to take a trip and he noticed a dark fluid at the rear of the car. Since the car was a front wheel drive, he suspected a leaking shock absorber. They drove the 300 mile trip in their second car–a Ford Pinto. The problem was that their teenage son had put an unopened coke can in the trunk. The weather was below freezing and the can split open. When the car was parked in the garage the coke thawed out and ran out the drain hole in the spare tire well.

Smell, feel, taste (carefully). If you rub the fluid between your thumb and index finger, is it slippery? There are only so many fluids so brake fluid would be clear but have a strong aroma. Power steering fluid would be clear but slippery and not much smell. That’s the first thing anyway to see if its slippery between the fingers. If not, its probably just water. When you put it to the tip of your tongue, winter water would generally be a little salty. I don’t know what the other stuff tastes like.

I agree with others…likely just water. Keep an eye on your fluids. Check the oil, brake fluid, coolant, power steering. Go for a drive and warm up to operating temp. Check the trans fluid (while car is running I believe but check owners manual instructions). If it all checks out its probably just water.

One good way to make sure it’s colorless is by soaking it up with a clean white cloth. If it does have a color, that’ll also make the color obvious.

I cannot add anything to the good advice you’ve already gotten, but I do want to commend you for your alertness, keen observation, and diligence. I wish everyone paid attention and followed-up like you do.

Thanks for all of the replies! When I went out for the last OCD check of the night, I noticed that the spot where the water/fluid/whatever had been leaking looked larger, but it also looked like it was soaking right into the pavement and looked somewhat a bit more dry at its outermost edges. This makes me think it may have been water, as any time I have had experience with any other type of leak, the fluid just kind of pools on the pavement. I wasn’t able to give it the paper towel test last night, but when I touched the spot, I got some liquid on my hand - it was most certainly clear and didn’t have much of a smell. The smell sort of reminded me of the smell of a de-humidifier. The thing that makes me suspect a de-froster related drip was the fact that it was not leaking/dripping from this spot at all until I turned the car on to move it. I was going to check it again this morning before my ride picked me up, but it was raining over night, so I couldn’t see much of anything (which made me feel a bit hopeful, since I can always tell where the oil spots are on the wet pavement). Anyway, I will check all of the fluids when I get home tonight to hopefully rule out any of those as a culprit.

Another easy test is to get some between your thumb and forefinger and try to rinse it off under a slow faucet. Antifreeze, brake fluid, windshield fluid, and (of course) water will rinse quickly and completely off. Motor oil, power steering, and transmission fluids will bead up the water and not rinse off.

Just came in from checking the fluids (at least the ones I could figure out how to check). Coolant was looking a little low, but that may have more to do with it being a few months since my last oil change/fluid top off. Transmission fluid levels were fine, but the color suggests it’ll probably need to be changed soon. I couldn’t figure out where the brake fluid is, but the location of whatever is leaking + the fact I had my brake lines completely replaced in the spring tells me it is either just water, or something else.

The brake fluid is on the driver side firewall.

Coolant level should not vary. Thats not really something effected by oil changes or something theyd top off without letting you know it was low. Depending on how low, that would indicate a problem. Its a closed system. When its cold it should be on the low side and hot on high side, but theres usually a level indicator for both.

Keep a consistent eye on that coolant level. That humidifier smell might very well be coolant. Check with a flashlight around the hose connections, and all around the intake manifold carefully for any moisture.

Fender, it was close to the mark for cold temps - I will take a closer look at it tomorrow to see if it was actually low, or just my anxieties making me see things. Out of curiosity, if it were a coolant leak, what would this possibly point to? Thanks for your reply!

The brake reservoir, where the fluid level is checked, is on the front of the firewall right in front of the driver, and looks like the attached

If the level is low, that does NOT mean the brakes are the source of your fluid. It DOES mean you need to get your brakes checked.

Oh, and AARRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHHH!!! I cannot figure out how to attach an image!
Sorry, just blowing steam. I’m not god with computer technologies.

Thank you all for the great replies - you have helped me narrow things down, and helped me find the actual source of the leak. The leak is definitely a coolant leak - I took it out for a short drive around the parking lot this afternoon (has been sitting in the lot for close to 2 weeks now, I like to try and make sure I start it up and move it around a bit every now and then) and everything seemed ok. I know I have been driving everyone in the house batty with my anxiety about it, so when the family went to catch a movie I snuck out to look under the hood one last time for my own sanity. Brake fluid (which I was initially worried about) looked good, but I noticed that the coolant was almost completely empty. Of course it would happen once the local shops close for the weekend, so nothing I can really do about it until Monday. Going to go get a bottle of coolant from one of the parts shops tomorrow, just to have something to get me to the shop.

Anyone know what the likely culprit could be? From what I have been able to tell, the coolant seems to be dripping down sort of center of the car (but driver’s side if I had to pick one side), and kind of around the front of the engine/back of the oil pan (this is just what it looks like to my completely untrained eye) - I know nothing is official until a mechanic can get in and lay hands on it, but I just like to have a general idea for my own anxiety.

Any input would be greatly appreciated! Thanks in advance!

Could be a split hose where it connects to the thermostat housing. Or the thermostat housing gasket is leaking. Your mechanic should have no trouble finding the cause if it is something simple like that. If it turns out to be difficult to find the source of the leak, there are dyes that can be put in the coolant and the leak source shows up when using a UV lamp.

Edit: It’s important to not start the engine until you’ve verified the radiator is filled with coolant. It is not sufficient just to fill the plastic overflow bottle. And once the radiator is filled, before driving away, make sure there is not a huge amount of coolant leaking with the engine running. With the coolant empty, if possible it would be safer to tow the car to the shop.

Thanks for your reply GeorgeSanJose - the leak is a slow one. I last checked it Wednesday night and it was at the point where it was “looking a little low”. There is still coolant in the tank, but noticeably less than last time I checked. There were no indications that there was anything wrong with it when I started it up and drove for a few minutes today (I was probably driving it around the lot longer than it would take me to get to the garage). How can I check to see if there is coolant in the radiator? From what I can tell, the leak is coming from around the engine, and again, very slow. Again, I appreciate your reply.

On most engines the radiator has a removable cap. If it doesn’t, as on some newer cars, you have to remove the upper hose to peek into the radiator. Either way, to do it safely, this has to be done with the engine completely cold.

Your Escape has a pressurized coolant tank and no radiator cap. If there’s coolant in the tank, there’s coolant in the radiator.

You can if you wish find the source of the leak by using a UV sensitive dye made for this purpose. The dye with a blacklight can be bought almost anywhere, including the internet. You basically run the car with the dye in the coolant, and when you shut the engine off the leak path glows when hit with the blacklight. You’ll probably need a set of ramps too, of course. Safety first.

I know I sound like a broken record, but thank you all for your replies. It will take a load off my mind to get it into the shop this afternoon and find out once and for all what the problem is. Fingers are crossed for something that is simple and easy/cheap to fix, but my Escape has a knack for dropping pricey repairs on me at the worst possible time.