Low Engine Oil Symptoms, Causes, and How To Check It

Engine oil is like blood for your vehicle. It is essential for keeping the engine in optimal condition by ensuring proper lubrication of its parts. Unlike the human body, your car cannot purify or regenerate oil on its own. Are you continuously observing symptoms of low engine oil?

Low Engine Oil

A sufficient level of engine oil is very important for your engine parts. It’s crucial to perform routine oil changes as part of ongoing maintenance. Neglecting this important task can lead to potential engine damage. This article explains the low engine oil symptoms, causes, and how to check it.

Symptoms of Low Engine Oil

When the engine oil becomes lower than a specific limit, it produces different symptoms such as oil pressure warning light, engine overheating, burning oil smell, knocking noise, engine stalling, or poor engine performance. However, you may also face issues related to fuel economy.

Following are the common symptoms of low engine oil.

1) Illuminated Oil Pressure Warning Light

oil warning light

The illuminated oil pressure warning light is one of the first symptoms of low engine oil.

Your car’s dashboard contains different warning lights, including the battery light, check engine light, and oil check light. The oil check light is easily recognizable—it appears as a red icon resembling an oil can with a dripping spout.

When the oil warning light starts to illuminate while driving, it’s essential to pull over safely and turn off the engine.

The light typically indicates low oil pressure caused by insufficient oil in the engine. However, it could also suggest a faulty oil pump that requires replacement. Addressing this warning promptly and getting an oil change is crucial to maintain your engine’s health.

2) Engine Overheating

Engine Overheating

Engine overheating is also one of the clear signs of low engine oil. Although the cooling system (consisting of a water pump, radiator, coolant, etc.) of your vehicle primarily ensures the proper cooling of the engine parts, engine oil also plays a vital role in cooling the parts where coolant can’t reach.

When there’s insufficient oil pressure, the engine operates with reduced lubrication. This insufficient lubrication results in friction between rotating parts, leading to increased heat generation. As a consequence, the car may shut down automatically to prevent engine damage, or the overheated parts could even pose a fire risk, which is hazardous.

If you notice the temperature gauge rising to an unsafe level, it is an indication that the engine is overheating. In such a situation, it’s crucial to turn off the engine immediately and contact a professional mechanic.

Avoid attempting to open the hood right away, as the hot coolant could forcefully eject from the coolant tank and result in severe burns. Instead, let the engine cool down before checking the engine oil and coolant levels. If necessary, top them up to appropriate levels.

Timely maintenance and ensuring proper oil levels may help prevent engine overheating and potential hazards.

Read More: Engine Overheating Symptoms and Causes

3) Clunking or Knocking Noise

Knocking Noise

Any unusual noises emanating from beneath the hood shouldn’t be ignored. If you notice clunking or knocking sounds coming from the engine parts, there’s a high probability that your engine has insufficient oil low.

Insufficient oil flow in the engine may cause friction between its parts. This friction can lead to the loosening of engine rods, which are responsible for positioning the pistons tightly. With low engine oil, these rods can move around within the engine, resulting in a knocking noise.

Additionally, reduced oil viscosity, low oil level, or low oil pressure may cause noises from lifters or cam bearings.

4) Burning Oil Smell

oil smell

When you detect a burning oil smell while driving, it’s crucial to stop the car immediately. This smell indicates a potential oil leak, with oil dropping onto hot engine parts, leading to a burning odor.

Allow your engine to cool down, and proceed to check the oil level using the dipstick. If the oil level is low, avoid driving and seek the assistance of a mechanic.

5) Engine Stalling

Engine Stalling

Modern vehicle models contain fail-safe features designed to protect the engine from expensive damage. One such feature is the engine stalling and shutting down when there is insufficient oil pressure or a drop in oil level.

However, engine stalling can itself be taxing on the engine and potentially lead to damage to critical parts, such as pistons, crankshafts, and other engine parts.

If you experience repeated instances of your vehicle stalling, it is essential to check for potential issues like low oil level. Addressing these concerns promptly can help prevent further damage.

6) Poor Fuel Economy

Poor Fuel Economy

Poor fuel economy is also one of the clear symptoms of low engine oil.

Insufficient oil flow means the engine has to exert more effort to meet the requirements of your car. This increased workload causes the engine to consume more fuel than it would under normal conditions. Consequently, you will find yourself making more frequent trips to the gas pump.

When you observe a decline in the vehicle’s fuel efficiency, it’s essential to have your car inspected for low engine oil levels. Ensuring sufficient oil levels will not only prevent your engine from damage but also improve fuel economy.

Read More: Causes of Poor Fuel Mileage 

7) Poor Vehicle Performance

Loss in Performance, symptoms of low engine oil

Adequate engine oil is crucial for the vehicle to achieve optimal fuel economy. When the engine doesn’t have sufficient oil to lubricate its components, it is forced to work harder, leading to decreased efficiency. As a result, your vehicle’s engine performance will be reduced.

Why is My Engine Running Low on Oil?

The following are the possible causes of low engine oil:

1) Oil Pan Leak

The oil pan acts as a reservoir where oil settles when the vehicle is not in motion, and the engine cools down.

The oil pan, located at the bottom of the vehicle, is vulnerable to damage from off-road obstacles, bumps, and road debris. If the oil pan gasket gets torn or the oil pan itself develops a crack, it can result in oil leakage.

2) Damaged Engine Valves

Your vehicle engine contains intake and exhaust valves. These valves play a crucial role in the engine’s operation by allowing air and fuel to enter the combustion chamber and letting exhaust gases discharge.

These valves open and close at incredibly rapid rates, and engine oil serves as the necessary lubrication for smooth operation, enabling them to perform this action multiple times per second.

Over time, wear and tear on the engine may cause the valves to develop leaks, allowing oil to seep into the combustion chambers, where it will burn during the combustion process.

3) Bad PCV Valve

Bad PCV Valve

A malfunctioning PCV valve is also one of the major causes of low engine oil. Its primary function is to release excess air from the crankcase when internal pressure becomes too high.

However, when the PCV valve goes bad, it may draw oil in the engine and burn it during the combustion process.

Fortunately, the PCV valve is a cheap component that can be easily replaced. If your engine is burning oil, a faulty PCV valve could be the cause, and changing it is a quick and simple solution.

Read More: Bad PCV Valve Symptoms and Causes

4) Clogged Oil Filter

Oil Filter, causes of low engine oil

The oil filter plays a vital role in maintaining optimal engine performance by removing dirt from the engine oil. However, contaminants may clog the filter with time, restricting oil flow and possibly leading to low oil levels.

5) Faulty Oil Pump

Oil Pump

A bad oil pump is also one of the major causes of low oil pressure and inadequate oil circulation in the engine. This pump has the responsibility of distributing oil to all essential components of the engine.

When the pump malfunctions, it can result in poor lubrication, jeopardizing engine performance. Ensuring the proper functioning of the oil pump is crucial for the overall health of the engine.

6) Overdue Oil Change

Not changing the engine oil according to the manufacturer’s recommendations can also lead to low oil levels.

As engine oil ages, it becomes less effective at lubricating and protecting the engine. Over time, the oil breaks down and loses its viscosity, leading to increased oil consumption and decreased oil levels.

How to Check Your Engine Oil

Your engine should always have sufficient oil to perform efficiently. If you want to check and add more oil to your engine, follow the below-given steps:

  • Ensure that your vehicle is parked on a level surface.
  • Turn off the engine and let the engine cool down.
  • Make sure the transmission is in the Park and the parking brake is engaged.
  • Open the hood of your vehicle.
  • Locate the dipstick, which is often easy to spot due to its small colored handle, typically marked with an oil-can symbol. The handle is typically orange or yellow in color.
  • Pull the dipstick completely out of its tube.
  • Use a paper towel or rag to remove oil from the dipstick tip. At the dipstick’s end, you’ll find two lines or indicators. The lower line signifies that the oil level is one quart low, while the upper line indicates that your oil tank is full. A few dipsticks may also have words like “add” and “full” for clear indication.
  • Slowly reinsert the dipstick back into the tube, pushing it all the way down. Then, remove it again and examine the tip closely. If the oil level falls between the two lines, it indicates that the car has sufficient oil. If it is below or at the “add” mark, you need to add a quart of oil.

FAQ Section

When should I change engine Oil?

The recommended oil change interval for engines is no longer a one-size-fits-all approach. However, many mechanics advise changing the engine oil every 3,000 miles or three months, whichever comes first.

What is Oil Viscosity?

Oil viscosity refers to how well the oil can lubricate the engine parts. As oil is exposed to heat and time, it tends to become thinner or less viscous. This reduction in viscosity affects its capability to adequately safeguard the parts, which is why regular oil changes are important.

What happens if I drive without oil?

Driving without oil may cause severe engine damage due to poor lubrication. The metal parts of your engine will experience excessive friction and heat, leading to rapid wear, potential seizure, and possible engine failure. It may cause expensive repairs or complete replacement of the engine.

Does low engine oil affect acceleration?

Engine oil plays a crucial role in lubricating the rotating components of the engine, ensuring their efficient operation, and reducing friction. As the oil level becomes too low or the oil becomes old and degraded, the engine’s performance is compromised. This can lead to increased friction, impacting acceleration and overall engine performance.

What does low engine oil sound like?

A low engine oil level can result in a noticeable tapping or ticking sound from your engine. This sound occurs due to a low amount of oil being transferred to the top part of the engine, leading to increased friction and inadequate lubrication.

Does low oil make your car louder?

As the engine oil breaks down over time, it loses its ability to lubricate the engine parts effectively, causing the engine sound to become louder. Ignoring the increased engine noise may lead to more severe symptoms such as rumbling, knocking, and even roaring, indicating that the car urgently requires an oil change.

Does a car shake if low on oil?

Yes, a low oil level can cause your car to shake while idling. This is because the engine experiences higher levels of friction without sufficient oil to decrease the resistance between rotating parts.

Can low oil cause misfires?

Yes, low engine oil can cause a misfire. 

What percentage of oil is too low?

Your car’s oil life reading is a valuable indicator of when to schedule an oil change. If the reading falls from 15% to 40%, it signals the need for an oil change soon. However, if the reading falls less than 15%, it’s essential to address it immediately to prevent severe engine damage.

Can a lack of oil cause a car not to start?

Low oil levels can lead to inadequate lubrication of the major engine parts, potentially causing starting issues and affecting the overall performance of your vehicle.

How to tell if oil is low on the dipstick?

To check your oil level, insert the dipstick slowly and push it all the way down into the tube. Then, remove it and examine the tip closely. If the oil level falls between the “add” and “full” marks, it indicates that your car has sufficient oil. If it is below or at the “add” mark, you need to add a quart of oil.

Can low engine oil cause engine damage?

Yes, low engine oil can cause engine damage. The rotating parts of your engine require a sufficient supply of oil to work efficiently. When the oil level is low, it leads to poor lubrication, leading to increased friction and heat, potentially causing parts to wear out faster and even seize.

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