During a free workshop for the public on car maintenance, Mike Smith (second from right), an automotive service instructor at Clover Park Technical College, explains the places where fluid can leak from underneath automobile. (Steve Kruse/for The Dispatch)
During a free workshop for the public on car maintenance, Mike Smith (second from right), an automotive service instructor at Clover Park Technical College, explains the places where fluid can leak from underneath automobile. (Steve Kruse/for The Dispatch)

By Steve Kruse

Contributing writer

Like they say at FixCarLeaks.org, “every drip counts” when it comes to reducing the pollution in stormwater in Pierce County and elsewhere.

Most experts agree that oils and fluids leaking from the vehicles onto roadways, parking lots and yards is one of the main contaminants in stormwater runoff that is now the main source of pollution in Puget Sound.

“Vehicles drip an estimated 7 million quarts of motor oil into the Puget Sound watershed each year,” said Jeanette Ordonez, community outreach and education coordinator for Futurewise (www.futurewise.org), a regional, non-profit growth-management and environmental advocacy organization that is one of the sponsors for a unique ongoing campaign to educate citizens on how to spot vehicle leaks and what to do when they find them.

And, considering the fact that one quart of oil can contaminate 100,000 gallons of water (nearly an acre of surface water), reducing the amount of vehicle fluids leaking into Puget Sound waterways is taking on more importance in the ongoing fight to reduce storm water pollution.

FixCarLeaks.org is at the forefront of reducing vehicle fluid pollution with the “Don’t Drip & Drive” campaign that is focused on educating the public on the financial as well as ecological benefits of having a well-maintained vehicle.

“Little leaks all add up for both the environment and your pocket book if you do not maintain your vehicle properly,” Clover Park Technical College automotive services instructor Mike Smith said during one of FixCarLeak.org’s free two-hour auto leaks workshops hosted at the college (CPTC) in Lakewood.

Smith explained most Americans spend an average of $120 per month in repairs and maintenance on their vehicles once the new-car warranty expires (three to five years in most cases). Fixing a leak can cost anywhere from $50 to thousands of dollars for more serious issues.

However, most major repairs can be avoided or lessened, Smith said, by changing the oil on a regular basis (as specified in the owner’s guide) and checking for motor oil, coolant, brake fluid, power steering fluid, or transmission fluid leaks that are both damaging the environment and early warning signs of issues that can become major problems if not dealt with once discovered.

“It’s like going to the doctor,” Smith compared. “It’s better to go in for regular checkups than waiting until something actually goes wrong.”

Same as going to a doctor, “you also need to feel comfortable with the person working on your car,” he told nearly a dozen attendees at the recent workshop at CPTC, which is why he suggests asking friends, co-workers, or relatives to recommend a reliable, trustworthy repair shop if you don’t already have one.

Smith also recommends that car owners use automotive repair and service shops that have certified technicians and mechanics, such as the Automotive Services Association (ASA), National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), and Automotive Association of America (AAA).

“It’s always best to ask around and, most importantly, be comfortable with the person working on your car,” Smith said.

To help in the process, FixCarLeaks.org has partnered with more than 200 certified repair shops in the Puget Sound area that now offer a free auto leak inspection, as well as a 10 percent coupon off any repairs (up to a $50 value). You can find a participating repair shop on the FixCarLeak.org website as well as print out the coupon.

Or, you can book a spot in the free workshops, where they will teach you how to properly maintain your vehicle and inspect it for free. The two-hour class includes a goodie bag for the do-it-yourself car owner.

“The first step is to simply check the ground where you park your car most of the time, whether at home or work,” Smith advised. “If you see where any fluids are collecting on a regular basis, you will want to take a much closer look at it right away to avoid any serious problems.”

Not only are those splotches on the ground indicative of a problem with your vehicle, the oils, brake fluids, coolants, and transmission fluids make their way into local storm systems when it rains, as well as the puddles in the yard your children and grandchildren walk through or play in.

To assist in both finding and cleaning up auto leaks, the FixCarLeaks.org workshop includes a drip cloth, oil spout, and oil absorbent to clean up any spills or drips in your driveway or parking spot and dispose of it properly. You’re also shown where to look on your vehicle for potential leaks.

The workshops and Don’t Drip and Drive campaign are made possible by grants from the state Department of Ecology and organized by a steering committee supported by local jurisdictions, state agencies and non-profit organizations, including Futurewise and Puget Sound Starts Here.

“We started the initial campaign in 2011, and it has turned into a very popular program. Everyone that comes to our workshops really enjoys them,” Ordonez said. “And, we catch some serious leaks for people on a regular basis.”

Out of the thousands of vehicles inspected so far, about 10 percent of them have leaks that are hitting the ground. Leaks are found in new and used vehicles that have come through the FixCarLeaks.org program.

“All vehicles need to be inspected and maintained on a regular basis, it will save both money and the environment in the long run,” Smith summarized.