Develop the ability to diagnose car problems long before they become full-blown problems. Make sure to See, Smell, Hear, and Feel these Telltale signs!
It will take a good dose of familiarity with your car before you become fully capable of ‘sensing’ trouble. Fortunately, it’s not like an innate ability that you’re either born with or without but instead a skill that you can hone. Besides, there will be clues to tell you that something’s not right; you only need to heed them.
How to Diagnose Car Problems
1. Look and observe the area where you park your car.
Do you see puddles or wet spots on the ground where you park your car? Occasional wetness under a vehicle is normal and can come from condensed water droplets from the AC. If you notice this happening more than a few times, however, pay more attention to it. Check the fluid’s colour and consistency.
- If it’s black or dark brown and oily, start suspecting an engine oil leak. Inspect engine gaskets, oil pan seals, drain plugs, valve cover gaskets and the timing cover seal. Brake fluid and old motor oils can also cause dark brown oily trails on the ground.
- Yellowish spots are likely droplets from the radiator coolant, indicating a bad hose fitting or the wrong coolant used. Always use manufacturer-specified coolant.
- Green fluid droplets on the ground can come from antifreeze leaks. Check for worn-out hoses or loose fittings in the water pump or radiator. Also double-check if you’re using the right antifreeze as recommended by the manufacturer.
- Blue fluid leaks can be the result of a damaged windshield wiper fluid reservoir or its tubing.
- Droplets of red or pink oily liquid indicate the presence of a leak in your car’s transmission or power steering system. Inspect for a bad seal or holes along the return line.
- Orange leaks can indicate transmission issues or other leaking fluids that sometimes turn orange due to the presence of rust.
2. Smell a problem with these giveaway odours.
Some car problems are associated with distinct smells, making them relatively easy to detect.
- Rotten eggs – this sulphur smell usually tells you that there’s a problem with your car’s catalytic converter or other exhaust emission control devices.
- Burnt toast – it’s a signal that something is burning. Check for shorted wires and fix the problem before driving the car again.
- Choking, burnt odour – if you’ve ignored prior clues of leaks, then this thick acrid smell could come from burnt oil. Identify the leak and fix its cause.
- Burnt resin or choking chemical smell – you will usually notice this after repeatedly braking too hard, which causes overheating and damage to the brake rotors and clutch. Stop the vehicle and allow the brakes to cool before resuming the drive. For the long term, plan on improving how you drive and avoid harsh braking as much as possible.
- Petrol smell after failed start – if your car has trouble starting and then you smell petrol vapour, it means that engine flooding has occurred. Open the hood and allow the excess combustible fuel-air mixture to evaporate before restarting. If the smell persists despite airing and waiting, don’t restart the car, because there could be a leak in the system which could pose a danger if not resolved.
- Sweet smell – leaking coolant can cause a sweet, muggy odour. Check for overheating first. If the temperature gauge does not indicate overheating, you may drive to the nearest service station. If there’s overheating or if you smell something metallic, pull over and call for towing assistance. It would be dangerous to continue driving, which may even damage the engine severely.
3. Listen to your car’s grunts and groans.
You may have heard most of these sounds but never really listened or understood. Here’s how you translate them.
- High-pitched squealing sound (related to engine speed) – check for worn-out or damaged fan belts; also inspect the power steering and AC belts.
- Sharp click (related to engine or vehicle speed) – may indicate a loose wheel cover or fan blade, low engine oil or stuck valve lifter.
- Piercing metallic screech (while vehicle is moving) – a reminder that it’s time to replace worn brake pads.
- Hissing sound (while vehicle is idling) – inspect the hoses for cracks or loose fitting.
- Low-pitched rumbling sound – this noise may indicate problems in the exhaust pipe, muffler, universal joint, or other driveline parts.
- Steady whining from the front – it could be a warning that the level of power steering fluid is low.
- Heavy, rhythmic knock – another way to tell that your car has a problem with a bad crankshaft or connecting rod bearings. It could also suggest a loose transmission torque converter.
4. Feel how a ride differs from usual.
If a ride feels particularly rough or difficult or sluggish or deviates from its normal performance, then there is a problem.
- Pulling to either left or right or difficult steering – the culprit could be misaligned front wheels or worn steering components.
- Poor cornering – check for worn shock absorbers and improperly inflated tyres.
- Vibration – often caused by improperly balanced tyres.
- Pulling to one side when braking – suggests problems with the brakes, which must be inspected and fixed.
- Poor acceleration – the engine needs to be seen by a mechanic for proper diagnosis and repair. Other symptoms include rough idling, stalling, and poor fuel economy.
- Abrupt shifts between gears – suggests transmission problems. Bring your car to a shop for diagnosis. Ask the technician to eliminate simple issues first, such as disconnected/loose hoses or a clogged filter. Other symptoms include failure to shift, delayed response when shifting, and slippage when accelerating.
Understand and Act on Car Problems Promptly
These are just some of the issues affecting cars and its many parts. What’s crucial is that you understand the language your car speaks and act on its problems right away.
Before trouble finds its way to you, you should know ahead of time which repair shops and specialists to contact. CarPart’s directory will be very useful for this purpose. For finding replacement parts, the best way would be to request a part and let Carpart.com.au do the searching for you. It’s a simple, free and effective method for locating auto parts wherever you are in Australia.
By Jeannette Salanga (JMSL)