The significant other’s Toyota Camry has had a number of leaks through the years. It’s been really frustrating to get in the car and discover the floor splashes when you step on it. It has happened periodically for years. The following is what I did to figure out where the problems were and what I did to fix them.
A few years ago, when the passenger side floor had the splash, we had the dealership service it and they claimed the problem was a clogged sunroof drain. But shortly after that, the passenger side floor was drenched again. So clearly, the sunroof was not the problem. It happened shortly after a heavy rain and I was able to find areas still dripping from underneath the dashboard. After some digging, I discovered that the HVAC fan was wet inside and that there was evidence of rust inside where it clearly had been getting wet for a while. I removed the cowl under the windshield to find the daylight end of that HVAC duct and it was wet too – clearly where the water was getting in. Further inspection of the cowl revealed that the seal at the bottom of the windshield had failed and was all gnarly. In other words, rain water that ran down the windshield snuck underneath the cowl, and through water tension, the water dripped along the metal body which allowed it to slide right down into the HVAC. It seems that there is water diversion measures built in but they don’t work if the water tension keeps the water hugging the windshield and body. It wasn’t a problem originally with the car because that windshield seal was new and providing an extra layer of protection. But I don’t think that was ever meant to be the primary means of protection and the primary means was just dumb design. The fix was to add some caulking to the cowl to reinforce that non-primary protection so that it could be as good as it was when the car was new. I used silicone once and it degraded pretty quickly over time. So this most recent time I got geocel – the same stuff used in gutters – and I’m hoping that will hold up better.
But wait! More leaks! Taking the cowl off and inspecting the HVAC motor show no signs of water there. Hmm.. And this time, it’s on the driver’s side floor, anyway – far away from the HVAC system. One day water was dripping on my feet and not in consistent places. This time I found that the water had accumulated on the inside of the plastic panel underneath the steering wheel. There was no one specific place it was dripping because as I drove, the water just sort of shifted this way and that eventually dripping from the lowest point at that time. I started the digging by removing that panel and did find that the whole back of it was wet. Removing the side panel near the driver’s left foot was dry – and that’s good because there’s a lot of electrics there. Eventually I noticed that some of the steel supporting the dashboard had some rust marks on it and traced that back to where the A-pillar ends near the dashboard. So I removed the A-pillar cover and it was dry. But there was one time when water dripped on to the driver of the car from near the sun visor, so I peeled away the headliner. A-ha – that’s where the water is. And the water was dripping around the seems of the headliner eventually traveling down in the A-pillar and finding a path out of the dashboard to the panel under the steering wheel.
So how was the water getting in the roof? I got a measuring cup from the kitchen, filled it with water, and poured it into the sunroof gutter that is easy to see with the sunroof open. Within 2 seconds, there was a steady stream of water pouring on to the drivers’ seat. It was as though I had simply poured the water on to the drivers’ seat. The only difference was with the headliner peeled back some, I was able to let the water out right away rather than heaving it work to find its way into the A-pillar. But I needed to know exactly where the water was coming from so I peeled back the headliner a little more, got a coathanger bent to hold it peeled away (attached one side to the hole where the sun visor mount is and the other end of the hanger to the headrest of the driver’s seat). Also, I got a bucket positioned in the driver’s seat, now that I had a general idea where the water was going to go (no point in adding water to the interior of the car unncessarily!). With that setup, I poured more water into the open sunroof channels and waited. I found the stream started just a little in from the corner of the sunroof near the A-pillar – basically right above the center of the steering wheel.
With the location pinpointed, the cause was the next thing to work out. But this was the most surprising discovery: nothing was wrong. This is Toyota’s design. There is a gutter that wraps around the sunroof perimeter and it channels water to the four corners. The back corners aren’t visible without taking more stuff apart and the front corners, while visible, are underneath the track so you can’t practically see where the drain is. When that drain fills up, the gutter overflows. So, it’s like the gutter on a house. The rain drips off the roof and into the gutter and goes down the downspout. If the downspout gets clogged up, the gutter fills up and overflows. The difference is that on a house, the open gutter overflows outside the house. In the Camry, the open gutter overflows inside the car. Hard to believe, but it is actually an open gutter. Therefore, there was nothing broken that was allowing the leak. And, in fact, it wasn’t a leak at all – it was simply the gutter getting too full and draining over the edge. Therefore, the solution was to clear out the clogged drain.
This turned out to be super easy. With the headliner peeled back, all you have to do is squeeze to release the spring clamp, remove the drain hose and blow compressed air into the hose and into the drain hole. Lots of debris blew out of the drain hole and when I hooked it back together and tested the drain, all the water went right out the drain tube, like it was supposed to. (BTW, the drain tube empties near the front tire on each side.) I cleared the second side while I was at it. The driver’s side took an hour plus to figure out all the issues. But knowing what I needed to do for the passenger’s side it took only 10 minutes. (And interestingly, I discovered that I was not the first one to peel back the headliner on the passenger side because there were some buggered up screw heads – apparently the dealership’s initial sunroof drain fix.)
So if you have water in the floor of your 2001 Camry, here’s what I suggest you do. First, tackle the sunroof drain because it is easier. Do both the passenger and driver’s side just to make sure you get it all and because it is quick. For both sides, do the following: Remove the plastic A-pillar cover by just working your fingers under and pulling to get the four friction clamps out. The cover is attached near the dashboard by a long tab that will slide out when you pull the cover away from it. Next, remove the things that go through the headliner. Start with the strap handle by removing the two plastic covers (again, just get your fingers under them and pull) and then unscrewing the two screws. I found a socket was a better way to undo them than the phillips (10mm socket, if I remember right). Remove the screw cover on the sun visor with your fingers and then the two screws on the mounted side. For the hook side, remove the one screw from the back of the hook and then work the hook back and forth to get it out. The headliner should be loose enough to peel back enough to see the hose and clamp on the sunroof corner. (It’s best not too pull on the headliner so much or, as I did, you’ll flatten out some of the formed in curves and cause a gap near the sunroof control and map light assembly.) Squeeze the clamp to allow it to slide back along the tube and then wiggle the tube off the drain hole. Most of the clog is probably in the sunroof drain hole so you can stuff a coat hanger end in there and wiggle it around. But I did shoot some compressed air into both the drain hole and the tube to make sure I cleared as much as I could. (I used the rubber tip and trigger nozzle on my compressor.) Put it back together in reverse order by getting the tube back on the drain and making sure that the squeeze clamp holds it firmly on. Then position the headliner back in place and put the sun visor hook and mount back in covering the mount end with the screw cover. Then screw the strap handle back on taking care to not fully tighten or you’ll prevent the slide behavior of the strap. Put the strap covers back on. Last and the hardest part, is to put the A-pillar cover back on. The plastic tabs that go into the friction clamps might need a little bit of TLC to get them pointing in the right direction and ready to go back in. For my, I found that 2 out the 4 friction clamps came fully out of the car while the other two separated. I didn’t fight it and just reassembled as it came apart. The trick is to make sure that you have everything lined up properly before you give it a whack with your fist. If you don’t, you’ll bend over the plastic tabs and make it even harder to line the tabs up the next time – or so I’d imagine! The whole process for each side should take less than 15 minutes. There’s a YouTube video for a similar car that shows some of the parts that you’ll be finding but the video isn’t a full video of the process so it wasn’t as useful for me as I would have hoped.
If after the sunroof drain cleaning you still have water coming in, then you’ll need to tackle the HVAC duct too. It’s more annoying because the fix isn’t as clear. The design problem here relies upon fresh foam weather stripping in the cowl. Rather than replacing the cowl, I just figured I’d add caulk to the foam edge. It’s not ideal since the foam and the caulk don’t play well together. But I found enough clear caulk filled the channel pretty well and did keep the water from working its way into the duct. Also, the cowl sort of wants to raise up and you need something to hold it firm against the windshield as the caulk dries. I found that a cap from a washer fluid bottle was the perfect thickness to wedge between the metal hood edge and the plastic cowl. In fact I left the cap in there for days even driving around and it seems to have helped somewhat reform the cowl to the original shape before it started warping. That may help keep the rain out too.
So the Camry had two clear design problems that caused water to get in the car. In the first, the sunroof drains clog pretty easily and the drain overflow fills the car with water. In the second, water from the windshield sneaks by the decayed foam on the cowl and drains into the HVAC duct. Once the problems have been identified, they can be fixed temporarily and worked around. But the design problems will always be there for the life of the car. It’s a shame that silly things like this don’t get the same Toyota attention to detail as the rest of the car.
In our case, the dealership probably did really fix the sunroof drain clog initially and we just didn’t know that we had the HVAC problem at the same time. It looks like we’ll probably need to clean the sunroof drains every two years and fix the caulking on the cowl maybe every 3 years – for however long we plan to keep the Camry, that is.