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How to Identify Specific Leaks in Heavy Equipment

How to Identify Specific Leaks in Heavy Equipment

Torn hoses on a heavy machine

How to Identify Specific Leaks in Heavy Equipment

Reading time: 6 min

Modern heavy equipment relies on a complex system of fluids to operate efficiently. DEF, diesel fuel, engine oil, hydraulic fluid and other fluids enable machines to perform incredible feats of power and handle complex tasks with ease.

When any one of these vital fluids starts to leak, loss of power, system failures and breakdowns are just around the corner. Unfortunately, it isn’t always easy to tell when a leak is occurring. It can be equally as difficult to find where the leak is coming from.

Sometimes, the only indication that a machine is leaking is a puddle of fluid under the machine. Other times, you may not notice any fluid outside the machine, and the only indication of a leak is a loss of power or some other malfunction.

In this guide, we’ll go over the common types of fluid leaks that affect heavy equipment. We’ll provide you with the warning signs you need to look out for to spot a leak before it becomes problematic. Understanding the types of leaks common in heavy equipment and their associated symptoms can help you avoid costly breakdowns and unnecessary downtime.

How to Identify a Leak In Heavy Equipment

While it isn’t always easy to identify a leak in heavy equipment, there are a few signs to look out for. 

Depending on the type of fluid leaking from your heavy equipment, you may notice the leak comes from a particular location on the machine, involves a particular smell or causes certain symptoms while operating the machine.

Common Fluid Leaks in Heavy Equipment

Here are the most common types of leaks in heavy equipment and how to identify them:

Diesel Fuel Leaks

Diesel fuel is combusted by the machine’s engine to supply power to the machine. The most common way to identify a diesel fuel leak is by a strong odor of diesel around the equipment.

  • Appearance: Diesel fuel is typically light to dark brown and has a thin consistency.
  • Smell: Diesel fuel has a distinctive pungent smell which many describe as smelling like skunk, rotten eggs, burnt matches or sulfur.
  • Location: Diesel fuel leaks often occur around fuel lines, fuel injectors and the fuel tank.
  • Causes: Common reasons for diesel fuel leaks include cracked fuel lines, damaged fuel injectors or deteriorated seals.
  • Consequences: Ignoring diesel fuel leaks can lead to increased fuel consumption, environmental pollution and fire hazards due to the flammable nature of diesel fuel.

Engine Oil Leaks

Engine oil is responsible for lubricating engine components like pistons, bearings and cylinders. An engine oil leak is usually spotted by observing oil stains or puddles under the equipment.

  • Appearance: Engine oil is typically dark brown or black with a thick or viscous consistency.
  • Smell: Engine oil does not have a strong odor.
  • Location: Oil leaks can occur from worn gaskets and seals, cracked filters or damaged oil reservoirs.
  • Causes: Worn gaskets and seals are the most common causes for oil leaks in diesel engines. Old gaskets and seals can harden and crack, losing their ability to keep components sealed.
  • Consequences: Ignoring engine oil leaks can lead to engine overheating, increased friction and eventual engine damage.

Hydraulic Fluid Leaks

Hydraulic fluid leaks are typically first noticed when a machine loses power. Leaks in high pressure hydraulic hoses can cause lethal injuries to operators if not handled with care, so it’s important to take precautions when searching for this type of leak.

  • Appearance: Hydraulic fluid is often light-colored, ranging from clear to amber, with a slick consistency.
  • Smell: Hydraulic fluid has a mild odor that smells slightly oily.
  • Location: Hydraulic leaks usually occur around hoses, seals and fittings within the hydraulic system.
  • Causes: Common causes of hydraulic fluid leaks include damaged hoses, worn seals and loose fittings.
  • Consequences: Ignoring hydraulic fluid leaks can result in reduced operational efficiency, decreased lifting or digging power, and potential damage to hydraulic components.

Hydraulic Oil Leaks

While some machines require hydraulic fluid, some machines take hydraulic oil. Like hydraulic fluid leaks, a decrease in hydraulic system performance and visible fluid on components can indicate a hydraulic oil leak.

  • Appearance: Hydraulic oil is usually clear to amber with a slick consistency, similar to hydraulic fluid.
  • Smell: Hydraulic oil has a mild odor that some describe as slightly oily.
  • Location: Leaks commonly occur around hoses, seals and fittings within the hydraulic system.
  • Causes: Hydraulic oil leaks are often caused by damaged hoses, worn seals and loose fittings.
  • Consequences: Ignoring hydraulic oil leaks can lead to decreased efficiency, loss of hydraulic power and eventual damage to hydraulic components.

Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) Leaks

DEF plays a critical role in the exhaust system, reducing the amount of nitrogen oxides emitted. DEF leaks are usually identified by a noticeable decrease in DEF levels and white stains near the DEF tank.

  • Appearance: DEF is a clear, colorless fluid similar to water.
  • Smell: DEF has a faint, ammonia-like odor.
  • Location: DEF leaks can occur near the DEF tank, supply lines or connectors.
  • Causes: DEF leaks can result from damaged supply lines, connectors or tank seals.
  • Consequences: Ignoring DEF leaks can lead to emission compliance issues, increased exhaust emissions and potential damage to exhaust aftertreatment systems.

Coolant Leaks

Coolant helps maintain the temperature of your machine’s engine. Frequently, coolant leaks are identified by visible coolant puddles or stains, along with potential engine overheating.

  • Appearance: Coolant is usually colored (green, orange, pink, etc.) and has a sticky consistency.
  • Smell: Coolant can have a sweet smell.
  • Location: Coolant leaks can occur from damaged hoses, radiator issues or corroded components.
  • Causes: Common causes of coolant leaks include deteriorated hoses, radiator damage and corrosion within the cooling system.
  • Consequences: Ignoring coolant leaks can result in engine overheating, reduced engine efficiency and potential engine damage.

Preventive Maintenance to Avoid Leaks

While it isn’t possible to prevent all leaks, there are some steps you can take to make sure they occur less frequently. By implementing a preventive maintenance program that addresses the needs of your machine’s fluid-based systems, you can reduce breakdowns and downtime.

Here are some essential leak prevention measures to include in your preventive maintenance program:

  • Regular Inspections: Implement a routine inspection schedule to identify potential leaks early. Regularly check fluid levels, hoses, seals, fittings and other components related to fluid-based systems.
  • Follow Manufacturer Recommendations: Adhere to manufacturer-recommended maintenance schedules for fluid changes, filter replacements and system checks. This helps maintain the integrity of the fluid systems.
  • Component Replacement: Replace worn or damaged components promptly, including gaskets, seals, hoses and connectors. This prevents leaks from developing due to degraded parts.
  • Tighten Fittings: Regularly inspect and tighten fittings, bolts and connectors within fluid systems. Loose connections can lead to leaks over time.
  • Pressure Checks: Monitor system pressures to ensure they remain within safe operating ranges. Excessive pressure can cause leaks, while low pressure might indicate a potential issue.

When leaks do occur, it’s helpful if you’re prepared to treat them promptly. It’s always a good idea to have extra seals, gaskets, hoses, filters, hose clamps and tools on hand.

Final thoughts

Unexpected leaks can cause your heavy equipment to malfunction, leading to breakdowns and costly downtime. By understanding common types of leaks and how to spot them, you can avoid these pitfalls and keep your machines on the job.

The EquipmentShare Shop sells OEM and aftermarket hoses, seals and other parts that can help you address leaks and related issues. Our online parts catalog makes it easy to shop for parts and get the components you need. Can’t find what you’re looking for? Reach out to one of our parts experts to get personalized assistance.

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