07 December 2012

There's definitely something wrong with my head. Gasket.

A head gasket is a gasket that sits between the engine block and cylinder head(s) in an internal combustion engine. Its purpose is to seal the cylinders to ensure maximum compression and avoid leakage of coolant or engine oil into the cylinders; as such, it is the most critical sealing application in any engine...
We recently took in our 1999 Subaru Forester for service.  It's been a real road warrior for our family, accumulating 180,000 miles without major problems.  We had been advised last year that it should be good for 200K, and had hoped it would carry us through 2013.

The car received routine 30K servicing of fluids and lubricants and filters, but we were advised that there were a couple other discoveries:  a fog light was broken (no big deal), tire tread was thinning, the transmission pan was I think leaking ($277), but most significantly the head gasket was leaking, and that would be a $1,850 repair.

IIRC, he said there was evidence of dripping of both coolant and engine oil, but that the two were not mixed together (which was "good.")  We have not noticed significant leakage on the garage floor, which he attributed to the fluids hitting warm engine parts and evaporating.

We are reluctant to plow $1,850 into a car with a blue book resale value of only about $4,000.  At the least we'd like to stretch this out several more months, especially since the advice came from a dealership service department that previously recommended "cleaning of the caliper slides" on our other Forester.

But we don't want to risk any safety issues.  This car is only used for local errands, not for long-distance trips.  I presume we can monitor the status of the two fluids on our own to foresee any developing problems.  Is there any danger of engine fire from the dripping fluids?  Any risk of major damage to the engine block?  We'd appreciate any advice from someone knowledgeable about automobiles (and some other readers may benefit from the  advice as well).  

Thanks in advance.


  1. Drive that mother.

    You're only risking a fire if there is a considerable amount of loose oil in the engine. If the head gasket is leaking, it's probably leaking coolant, which flows readily around the engine and is inflammable.

    Check your coolant level more frequently. Obviously, wait for the radiator to cool down before taking the cap off.

    Keep an eye out under the car for signs of oil, which would more likely be leaking out of a valve cover, oil plan, compressor, etc.

  2. Find a regular (reputable) mechanic and see what they would charge. May be much less than a dealership.

  3. The article at Wikipedia that you link to has a pretty good summary of the risks, generally monetary, not safety. I'd see about a cheaper quite, since there's no immediacy, but I wouldn't let it go too long.

  4. Dealerships are usually FAR more expensive than the mechanic down the street (who may be a veteran of a dealership himself). Leakage is not preferable, of course, but that doesn't mean it is a huge problem, either. For me, my Toyota Avalon leaks oil. Not cool...but I simply check the oil every so often and top it off as needed. Not perfect, but until it becomes a real issue, it works for me.

  5. Evan's opinion is the most popular among DIY mechanics. Don't fix it if you only need the car for short term.

    The oil dripping on the exhaust will make a noticeable smell inside the cabin. There should be no long term damage to the engine block unless you are seeing a lot of coolant in the oil. Oil in your coolant isn't good either, but it's less severe than the inverse.

  6. You have to fix it sooner or later, or sell it and make it someone else's problem. I am guessing your ethics wont let you take the second option, so just bit the bullet and fix it.

  7. Could someone please explain to me how that piece of nothing-much with holes in it can cost $1800+ to replace? It has no moving parts, it is probably stamped out by a machine -- what is there about it that makes it worth that much money? It's ridiculous! Or is it the labor involved? Could it be easily replaced by the average person? I believe that those of us who are not mechanically inclined are being bamboozled and charged crazy high prices for stuff like this.

    And it's not just mechanics who do this. My husband wanted an innoculation against shingles. The doctor's office said the actual medication cost $200, but the cost of injection is (get this!) $70! Ridiculous! It takes no great expertise to inject someone in the arm! Everything costs 'way too much today...

    1. Its a huge job that requires special tools and knowledge. You have to take all the accessories off the engine- a/c compressor, power steering pump, alternator, hoses cables--everything--- and then you are ready to dissassemble half the engine. some vehicles you have to REMOVE the engine.
      Having said that, 1800 is a little high.

    2. I think your question is best answered with a question. Why does it take so much money for a doctor to attach a pacemaker to a heart? (hint: it isn't the cost or complexity of the pacemaker)

    3. "$10,000 for you to replace one wire on my equipment? That's outrageous."

      "The wire was free. The $10,000 was for knowing where to put the wire."

  8. Also, depending on how mechanically inclined you are, you can either grab a Haynes manual or see if someone on-line has written a procedure to do the repair. Often you'll find that a procedure is $100 of parts and $1000 of getting to the part. Now, if at any point you see the words "remove engine" it's probably time to call the professionals.

  9. You can get replacement engine for $1,850, that's outrageous. Btw, it's easy to check for leaking gasket yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4k9A-Z3fY0g .
    Just be careful and don't open coolant tank lid if your engine is hot, or it will gush out. Another bad sign is white exhaust smoke.

    If you don't have white smoke and bubbles in coolant tank, it means that problem is not severe. But you still have to keep an eye on engine temperature and check coolant level frequently.

  10. I had a cracked headgasket in a car which I then drove for 2 years. I got a 'gold' AAA card and just never drove that car further than the tow coverage would have handled.

    It was fine for local trips so it became the families local errand running car. If you are planning some sort of cross country jaunt then I wouldn't chance it.

  11. If you engine runs warmer than usual often, after a while it might warp the covering metal piece and in addition to replacing the gasket, you might need to get the cover milled flat. Many mechanics will send the cover to a machine shop for testing anyway, as the milling fee isn't that much.

    Yeah, get a good indy mech to give you a quote on it.


  12. About 40 years ago, my '57 Chevy wagon had a leaky head gasket- the symptom was that the oil on the dipstick and the oil filler cap looked frothy. $500 to repair it because you have to pull the engine. (After helping my brother pull the engine on his VW bus, it really wasn't anything I wanted to tackle.) I second the suggestion to take it to a local, reliable mechanic. If you don't fix it, you will wish you had.

  13. Classof65:

    You got it in one; it's the labor. I've had two head gasket replacements required on cars my family has owned; the first one I decided to do myself. It involved draining all oil and coolant, removing the radiator, alternator, power steering, air-conditioner pump, the exhaust headers, and the heads themselves. Basically everything attached to the big lump of "engine" in the middle, and half of the engine itself. Also you'll have to remove the timing belt, which on a non-interference engine will prevent the engine from working properly if it's put back on wrong, and on an interference engine will destroy the engine entirely if put back on wrong (I don't know which the Subaru is). It takes about two days of shade-tree mechanic work to do properly.

    The second time around, with a different vehicle, I happily paid the $2100 to have someone else do it. Had them replace the timing belt and water pump while they were in there, which added a little to the cost, but needed doing. $1850 seems like a high-but-fair amount of labor for a really annoying job.

  14. First, the primary concern here is whether or not the head gasket is leaking high pressure combustion gases into the oil or coolant passages or leaking oil into the coolant or vice versa. Either of these situations can be diagnosed by a competent independant mechanic and either can definately reduce engine life. If it is just leaking a little bit of fluid to the outside of the engine it is more cosmetic that mechanical or safety related. Absolutely double check with a non dealer technician. The vast majority of the cost is labor and dealers are notoriously high priced on that. And by the way NEITHER OIL NOR COOLANT (antifreeze) "VAPORIZE" to any appreciable extent. CAVEAT EMPTOR and find a new dealer.

  15. This vintage Subaru is famous for head gasket problems. It usually shows up as occasional overheating that becomes more and more frequent, until you can't let the engine warm up with out blowing coolant. It's not a bad repair for a serious do it your selfer, if you wouldn't be intimidated to change the timing belt or water pump on this car you can do the head gaskets, ( Subaru's have two, better do 'em both),If not don't attempt it. If it hasn't overheated yet, ask the dealer for the "head gasket conditioner" they sell to prevent this very problem, keep an eye on the coolant level and keep driving it.

  16. I have a 2004 forester ( 220,000 miles) with this problam and was advised to repair it. I took it to another mechanic who said just add some oil as needed for now and see what happens. It only leaks a bit and I've been going for over a year this way and no worries! Janet

  17. I have a 2003 Outback that had the head gasket fail completely last year at 182k miles. I've put 24k on the motor since the rebuild, and it seems quite strong. When I first noticed the problem, I gathered quotes at half a dozen shops. I was surprised to learn that the dealership was actually the cheapest option.

    If you continue to drive the car, it's likely you'll develop a coolant/oil mix. This amounts to about $200 (or, it did in my case) more to complete the job, because the cylinder heads will warp and need to be resurfaced. There is also a greater chance of more serious problems with continued use, but it becomes very apparent when fluids mix. I was in a similar position as you are - hoping to wring a couple thousand more miles out of it once I first noticed coolant loss. I only made it a few hundred before the gasket totally failed. I've heard of them making it many thousand miles after the first damage, but I wasn't so fortunate.

  18. A leaking head gasket on any engine is never something to just ignore and hope it doesn't develop into something more. It will develop into a bigger problem, it's merely a question of when. Unfortunately, when it does develop into a bigger problem, it does so with near catastrophic suddenness.

    Watch your oil consumption carefully. If the oil level stays fairly level over a couple of weeks, then you should be alright for a while. But if the oil levels show change, then the leak is bad enough you shouldn't ignore it.

    As was said above, bring it to a trustworthy mechanic who is familiar with boxer engines and get his opinion.

    On the quoted repair price, that was actually a reasonable quote for a dealership. At a local mechanic, you can do better on that repair price. It is almost all labor as boxer engines can be a b•••h to remove the heads; they are usually crammed right up against the chassis. On some car designs, it is actually quicker and easier to remove the whole engine to do the work, rather than work on it while still installed in the car.

  19. Owner of 10'ish Subarus checking in (lost count).

    The heads can show signs of leaking without dripping. It looks like dark weepy spots where the block and heads meet. It might only leak a tiny bit, for example, when you are climbing a steep hill (engine temps & combustion pressure climb). You will never find that kind of drop.

    Your headgasket has the tendency to leak externally due to age from what I can tell. You have a weird engine year ('99 EJ253), it was an anomaly. Mass airflow version of the engine that came right after the really leaky ones. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subaru_EJ_engine#EJ253

    Most professionals take the engine out to do this service. This is not a very hard process on a Subaru, relatively. Trying to pull heads off next to the frame rails can be much more work time-wise. But some do it, it's what the mechanic is used to or prefers.

    What to do? It's up to you. The car is driveable as-is. Keep an eye on fluids for a couple of weeks to see what kind of weeping the car is doing.

    Downsides: You can ruin your O2 sensors and possibly the catalytic converter if it is an internal leak. The car can become worth under $1000 with a known headgasket leak.

    Upsides: None of the downsides will probably happen in your situation. If your fluids are staying topped off, there is not much to worry about. And it sounds as if you will trade it in. They know exactly what they are getting into and will note the weeping headgasket. The dealer will either replace it or just send the car off to auction... more likely to auction.

    Any further questions, just ask.

  20. Jeeze -you got 19 respectful, helpful responses in 7 hours - maybe you should aim a little higher and work on that Israeli/Palestinian problem.

    1. I know - it's amazing. I never fail to be impressed by the quality of comments posted here by readers. That's one of the factors that keeps me blogging.

  21. Jeeze. That expense, plus the value of the car, is a down payment on a newer car.

  22. Often you'll find that a procedure is $100 of parts and $1000 of getting to the part. Now, if at any point you see the words "remove engine" it's probably time to call the professionals.

  23. It's a known fault in subarus. I had one for a while, and replaced the head gasket myself, not difficult, but definitely time-consuming. A dealer, of course, would have all the right tools to hand, but any competent mechanic can do it.
    A quick google threw this up:
    "Certain 1999 through 2002 2.5L equipped vehicles may experience an external coolant leak at the head gaskets. As a precautionary measure, SOA is adding a special conditioner to the engine cooling system. This conditioner prevents leaks from occurring and corrects existing leaks.
    Only early Phase II 2.5 liter engines are affected. Phase I 2.5 liter engines (some 1999 model year and prior years) are not affected. Countermeasures applied to the manufacturing process for those 2002 and later VINS not affected by this campaign have eliminated the need for this campaign to be performed on those vehicles.
    In the future, it will be necessary to add Genuine Subaru Cooling System Conditioner to the SUBARU vehicle cooling system whenever the engine coolant is replaced.
    If the vehicle owner has this repair performed promptly, Subaru will extend warranty coverage on cylinder head gasket external coolant leaks to a period of 8 years or 100,000 miles, whichever occurs first. Warranty coverage begins on the date the vehicle was delivered to the first retail purchaser or on the date the vehicle was first placed in demo or rental service. The owner must have Genuine Subaru Cooling System Conditioner added to the vehicle at any subsequent cooling system services at the interval specified in the Warranty and Maintenance Booklet under the heading “Schedule of Inspection and Maintenance Services”. Resulting damage caused by a lack of maintenance or low coolant level will not be covered."

    There was a recall on these engines, and your Subaru dealer will know whether the recall was actually done on your car by checking the VIN number.
    "To the best of my knowledge, if your Forester was included in the recall in which they added Subaru Coolant Additive to the cooling system in order to prevent the head gaskets from leaking it also gave you an extended head gasket warranty for 8 years or 100000 miles (whichever came first) on external coolant leaks from the head gaskets. If there is a chance Subaru will help with the cost of the head gaskets, it is usually decided before the job is done. Since you’ve already paid for the job it may be more difficult to get financial help. I would still call 1-800-SUBARU3 and explain your situation to see if they may elect to help you. It’s worth a try at least.
    Good luck
    Mike Corbin
    Smart Service
    Independent Subaru Expert"


  24. Since this is all going very technical, I want to point out that leaking oil, gasoline or any other industrial substance definitely is not something that benefits the environment/the soil. But then again, a car on short distances ain't either.

  25. i just got the headgasket on my '06 subaru forester replaced.

    and a tali light. and the water pump and the timing belt.

    it has 111k miles on it, and the body is in great shape.

    i LOVE that car.

  26. Since I refuse to ever step inside a dealership to buy another car again, I'm going to spend all my car money on the car I have. The whole gag bag of "repair cost vs how much it's allegedly worth to someone else who has set up a system to encourage people to go into debt over and over" just doesn't matter to me anymore. I'll keep the box of problems I know rather than go buy who knows what, as-is. So I echo the vote that you take the least costly steps necessary and prolong the use life of this vehicle. And definitely, since you're way out of warranty, don't use the dealer. Find a AAA Certified shop and since it doesn't sound like it's urgent, shop around. Buena suerte. --A.

  27. Are you burning a lot of oil? Is your engine running warmer than in the past? If it's just increased oil usage, then I'd just keep an eye on the oil level and keep on as usual while looking for a more moderately priced mechanic in the next year or two. If the engine is running hotter, then I'd make an effort to find a mechanic sooner rather than later.

  28. OK, everyone else is too proud to talk of dirty hacks to eke a little more life out of it, but not me! I have no pride!

    To stop the coolant portion of the leak you can try putting some product in the radiator that will move through the coolant system and thicken up thereby plugging the hole(s). There are any number of such products. (The Car Talk guys even had a caller who successfully used oatmeal for this purpose. I wouldn't recommend that.) Here is one such product.

    As far as the oil leak is concerned... No help there. Check the oil very regularly and keep it topped up.

    1. I will second this. I have personally seen Bar's seal a combustion chamber leak into the coolant passage. It was on an old six cylinder Bronco that wouldn't hold coolant, and with the radiator cap removed, there was a steady stream of combustion gas bubbles gurgling up into the radiator. Bar's sealed it in minutes and it lasted for years with no further problem.

      This would have no effect on an oil leak, however.

  29. Trade it in and get a new vehicle.

  30. In reply to the other anonymous: leaks of oil, fuel, or coolant that cause drips on the ground are usually the result of cracked hoses. Those generally do not take much effort to replace, and are not worth junking the entire car.

    As for the environment, it's much much worse to expend the resources making a new car when an existing car can be repaired. The many tons of coal and water required just to make the sheet steel for the car body alone far exceed the environmental damage caused by a messy, drippy "junker" car.

    All too often, people look at car repair as a purely short-term economic issue. Look instead at the repair and maintenance costs of a vehicle over it's entire lifetime, and consider a lifetime on the order of 10-15 years, not 3-5. In the long run, it will be a lot cheaper, even if it "doesn't make sense" to dump $1800 into a $4500 car.

    Furthermore, if $1800 is a bit much on the repair, a headgasket can be repaired on most vehicles with hand tools (a $200 set of sockets and wrenches), $150 in parts, some patience, a $30 repair book, and a weekend of your time. It helps to have a partner and a clean, flat hard surface to work on.

    FWIW, my qualifications: 25 years as a hobbyist mechanic, 5 years as a professional, PhD in Mechanical Engineering, and I currently own and maintain 8 vehicles.

  31. I'm inclined to agree with what "Unknown" here has said about making the investment to repair your car. However, being a grad student I understand that this could be a little tight (especially around tax time). If you need to wait a bit before you spend that kind of money, you could always buy a head gasket repair sealant to tide you over (worked for me on mine).


    Roxanne Rook


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...