Last Updated on November 25, 2020
While you should check your fluid levels every time you fill-up the gas tank, most people leave it to the mechanics. It’s a huge mistake. Just because you don’t see any fluids on the ground doesn’t mean that everything is working as it should.
There are multiple places your coolant could be ending up, and if you aren’t keeping an eye out for the symptoms, you might end up with an engine that is constantly overheating.
But where is that coolant going, and what can you do about it? Keep reading, and we’ll break it all down for you.
Common Causes of Losing Coolant (But Don’t See a Leak)
Whether you drive a Subaru or a Lexus, your car needs antifreeze. So, when your coolant is disappearing, you need to track down the cause, and you need to do it quickly.
Below are the three most common reasons your coolant reservoir is empty time and time again.
#1 – Head Gasket
It’s likely the first thing a mechanic will tell you the problem is. Head gaskets are notorious for leaking, but it leaks everything right into the combustion chamber instead of the ground. While this won’t leave any visible signs on the ground, it will be pretty straightforward if you take a quick look at the exhaust.
If you have a blown head gasket, you’ll have a ton of white smoke coming from the exhaust. This is because unlike gas, which leaves mostly clear or black exhaust fumes, coolant burns white.
#2 – Radiator Cap
If you’ve ruled out an internal leak, that means your engine is burning the coolant somewhere else. The most common place is the radiator cap. Radiator caps hold the pressure inside the system, but if it’s not sealing properly, then some hyper pressurized coolant will escape in the form of steam.
Once your engine is warmed up, you’ll be able to tell if steam is escaping from your radiator cap by merely taking a quick look at it. You shouldn’t see any steam or smoke coming from the cap, and if you do, then you’ll need to replace it.
#3 – Leak Onto the Engine Block
While a leak onto the engine block will typically leave a puddle under your vehicle at some point, if it’s leaking directly onto the top of your engine and puddling up until the engine warms up, it might burn the coolant off before it can reach the ground.
While it’s rare, it can happen, and just like a bad radiator cap, a tell-tale sign is a cloud of white smoke coming from the engine bay while the engine is running.
Step-By-Step Troubleshooting Guide
When it comes to disappearing coolant, finding the culprit is often the easy part. If you follow our step-by-step guide below, you should be able to identify the problem without ever needing to take it to a shop!
#1 – Check the Exhaust
It’s the most common reason that coolant burns off. It’s also one of the most straightforward problems to spot. All you need to do is look at the exhaust smoke while the engine is running. If there is excessive white smoke, then you have a blown head gasket.
However, just because there is some white smoke doesn’t mean that it’s a head gasket. It needs to be an excessive amount.
During colder weather, your vehicle will have more smoke coming out of the exhaust then during the warmer months. This is entirely normal.
#2 – Check the Oil
If you’ve looked at the exhaust smoke and still can’t tell if you have a blown head gasket or not, then take a look at the oil. Simply pull the dipstick and see if the oil level is rising over time.
When you get coolant in the combustion chamber, it doesn’t always get completely burned off. If it’s left in there, it’s only a matter of time before it works past the O-rings and finds its way into the oil pan.
If you’re an experienced mechanic, you can tell by merely smelling and feeling the oil, but novices often have to keep an eye on the level to see if it’s rising.
If you do have coolant in your oil, you likely have a blown head gasket, and you need to have a mechanic take a look at your engine.
#3 – Check for Engine Smoke
If your engine is smoking, that’s a sign of a problem. Try and track down the smoke, but if it’s white, then it’s coolant.
If you don’t have a visible leak underneath your engine, then you should take a look at your radiator cap or anywhere along the top or sides of your engine. If you find any antifreeze, then you’ve located your problem!