Low Engine Oil: Symptoms, Causes (& How to Check Engine Oil)

The engine is a most important part of the vehicle. It ensures the proper operation of the engine’s moving parts. It reduces the friction, wear, and tear between the moving parts. The engine oil also prevents the engine from overheating. With time, the oil diminishes and reduces its viscosity. This article mainly explains the symptoms and causes of low engine oil.

What is an Engine Oil?

Engine oil is a highly viscous liquid that is used to lubricate and cool the rotating parts of your IC engine. It is also known as the engine lubricant or motor oil. It is a combination of different additives and base oils.

Symptoms of Low Engine Oil

All types of engines require a sufficient amount of oil, but the type and weight (thickness) of oil differ according to the type of engine. It also depends on the type of engine model. Maximum latest engines use low viscosity oils than they did 8, 18, or 25 years ago.

The oil for your car engine is as much important as coolant important. The engine moving parts require a proper supply of oil for efficient working. It reduces the friction between the parts. As your engine doesn’t have sufficient oil, the engine’s metal parts make contact with each due to that they damage.

Types of Engine Oils

Engine oils have two types:

  1. Mineral oil: It is a petroleum product made from crude oil. It has a low cost, but it has low service life than synthetic oil.
  2. Synthetic oil: It is made in the laboratory. There is also a blend that combines the two oils. These oils have high costs but reduce the need for natural resources and last longer.

What is the function of Engine Oil?

The main function of the engine oil is:

  1. It is a liquid lubricant. These oils make a thin layer between moving parts and prevent their full contact. The main function of the engine oil is to properly lubricate the engine parts and protect all moving parts from rubbing against each other. It decreases the friction between the moving parts.
  2. The oil increases the service life of the engine.
  3. It ensures the proper cooling of the engine’s moving parts. Most of the required cooling is provided by a cooling system (water pump, coolant, thermostat, radiator, etc.). However, motor oil provides additional cooling to the parts of the engine where the coolant is not accessible.
  4. It also helps to remove contamination from the engine and ensures engine cleaning.
  5. It also helps to prevent the engine from overheating.

Symptoms of Low Engine Oil

Your vehicle must have a sufficient level of motor oil to ensure the efficient performance of the engine. When your engine oil becomes low than a specific limit, it produces one or more of the below-given symptoms:

  • Oil Pressure Warning Light
  • Burning Oil Smell
  • Contaminated Oil
  • Knocking Noise
  • Poor Engine Performance
  • Engine Overheating
  • Blue Smoke from Tailpipe
  • Low Oil Level
  • Excessive Mileage
  • Engine Parts Damage
  • Poor Fuel Economy
  • Engine Stalling

1) Oil Pressure Warning Light

The oil pressure warning light tells you that your vehicle has a low oil level. The illuminated oil pressure light is one of the most famous symptoms of low engine oil. This warning light is installed on your vehicle dashboard.

Oil Pressure Warning Light

The oil pressure light is linked to the oil pressure sensor that continuously monitors the oil level and pressure. This sensor sends data about oil pressure to the powertrain control module (PCM) of your vehicle.

When your PCM monitors low oil than a specified limit, it triggers the oil pressure warning light to alert the driver. If you see this warning light on your car dashboard, stop your car, check the oil level, and add more oil if needed.

2) Burning Oil Smell

The burning oil smell inside the vehicle is another famous symptom of oil leakage. As you observe this sign, park your vehicle in a safe place and inspect the problem. After parking, wait for a few minutes and let the engine cool down.

As the engine is cooled, check the oil level. If your vehicle has a low oil level, do not start driving. This may severely damage the engine parts. In case of an oil leak, contact your nearest mechanic.

Oil Smell due to low engine oil

3) Contaminated Oil

The new oil doesn’t contain any contamination. The health oil usually has a light-to-dark gold color. With time, the oil color converts into the dark. That’s because of the heat and dirt and debris being sucked in as it’s being pumped through the engine.

Contaminated Oil

By inspecting the dipstick frequently, you can easily monitor the change in the color of engine oil. The dark color of the oil shows you that now you should change your oil.  

4) Knocking Noise

The knocking noise coming from the engine compartment is one of the clear symptoms of an engine oil leak or low engine oil.

Knocking Noise

The main function of engine oil is to lubricate the engine parts properly. The proper lubrication of the moving parts reduces noise and friction. If you run out of oil, the moving parts of the engine cannot get their desired amount of oil for lubrication.

Due to oil shortage, the metal parts make physical contact with each other, which can generate knocking noise. When the oil pressure is low, you may also hear a knocking noise.  This knocking noise may also generate when the oil lost its viscosity.

5) Poor Engine Performance

Motor oil plays a big role to increase the performance of the vehicle. A sufficient amount of engine oil under the hood improves vehicle performance. 

As the oil becomes less than the required amount, engine performance reduces. If your engine is not working efficiently, check the engine oil. If it’s low, add more oil to your vehicle.

6) Engine Overheating

The purpose of the oil is to properly cool the moving parts of the engine properly. Engine overheating is one of the most noticeable signs of low motor oil.

engine overheating

If there is not sufficient oil, there will be more friction between the moving parts. This can overheat the engine and, in some cases, start a fire. In case of engine overheating, stop the car immediately and contact a certified mechanic.

Read More: Engine Overheating Symptoms and Causes

7) Blue Smoke from Tailpipe

Normally, car exhaust fumes have a slight smell that is almost invisible. Note that unlike diesel engine (which produce black, soot-like exhaust), gasoline engine generates very little colored exhaust.

smoke from tailpipe due to low engine oil

In cold weather, visible clouds may form from exhaust fumes. This is mainly water vapor that is dissipated as the engine temperature reaches the normal working temperature. However, if you observe blue smoke coming out of the exhaust, there is a problem.

Most commonly, the engine emits smoke when the oil enters the combustion chamber and burns with fuel.

8) Low Oil Level

You must check the oil level of your vehicle regularly. You can check the oil through the oil dipstick. If you observe that your oil is lower than the specified limit, first add more fuel, then drive the vehicle.  

9) Excessive Mileage

The prolonged operation can lead to severe wear of the engine and engine oil. You must change the oil just before and after your trip. Long-term use at high temperatures reduces the oil faster than normal use.

Excessive Mileage

With time, the oil will start to pick up contamination more quickly, will darken, and loses lubrication in less time. By changing the oil before and after a long ride, you won’t accidentally damage the engine by using oil that has lost its lubricating ability.

10) Engine Parts Damage

The engine parts of your engine are made of different metals. When these parts collide with each other, they may damage. Therefore, oil is used to prevent these rotating parts from making contact with each other and prevents them from damage. If your engine parts are damaged, it means your vehicle has an insufficient amount of oil.

11) Poor Fuel Economy

The proper supply of oil helps to improve fuel economy. When the car engine doesn’t have sufficient oil, it starts consuming more fuel than usual.

Poor fuel economy

12) Engine Stalling

The oil prevents the engine from stalling issues. As your oil level or oil pressure goes down than the designed level, the engine starts stalling, which may completely destroy the engine.

engine Stalling

Causes of Low Engine Oil

The following are the most common causes of low engine oil:

  • Oil pan leak
  • Bad PCV valve
  • Bad valves and valve guides
  • Faulty piston rings
  • Random oil leaks

1) Oil Pan Leak

A damaged oil pan or oil pan gasket is one of the common causes of low engine oil.

Your vehicle contains an oil pan. It works as a reservoir for the oil that circulates throughout the engine to lubricate and cool the rotating parts. It is located underneath the vehicle. Therefore, the oil pan is vulnerable to damage because of off-road obstacles, speeding on speed bumps, and road debris.

Oil Pan Gasket

A gasket (commonly known as the oil pan gasket) is installed between the oil pan and the engine block to prevent oil leakage. If the oil pan gasket is blown or damaged, it may lead to an oil leak.

Read More: Bad Oil Pan Gasket Symptoms and Causes

2) Bad PCV Valve

The PCV valve uses to release the air from the crankcase when there is insufficient crankcase pressure. It gets too big, but if it fails, it sucks the oil back into the engine, where it burns.

PCV Valve

Read More: Bad PCV Valve Symptoms and Causes

3) Bad Valves and Valve Guides

Damaged engine cylinder intake and exhaust valves are the most common cause of oil leaks.

When these valves open, air and fuel enter the combustion chamber, and exhaust gases are expelled. These valves open and close very quickly. They are lubricated by engine oil so they can open and close tens or even hundreds of times per second. Over time, engine wear can cause the inlet and outlet valves themselves to start leaking oil into the cylinder.

4) Faulty Piston Rings

The engine cylinder contains a piston at the bottom and a valve at the top. This piston moves upward and downward in the cylinder. There is a piston ring between the cylinder wall and the piston.

The piston ring seals the piston against the cylinder wall to prevent oil leakage. These rings may wear out with time. As it wears, oil from the crankcase seeps into the piston, from where it enters the combustion chamber and burns.

5) Random Oil Leaks

Oil circulates throughout the engine, and there are several places where oil can leak through small cracks and fissures. It can leak from the rear main gasket, head gasket, and other places on the engine. Unlike oil pans, road conditions can’t generally damage these components. These parts only wear out over time and start to leak.

Read More: How to Change Engine Oil?

How To Check Low Engine Oil?

Follow the below-given steps to check your engine oil level: 

  • Firstly, park your vehicle in a safe place.
  • Permit the engine to cool down and wait for a few minutes. 
  • When the engine is cold, open the hood.
  • Find the oil dipstick.
  • Pull the dipstick out, and clean it with a clean cloth. 
  • Now properly check the maximum and minimum markings on the dipstick.
  • Put the dipstick back into the oil tube. 
  • Again, pull the dipstick out and check where the oil line falls between maximum and minimum markings.
  • If this line is close to the min marking, it means your car has insufficient oil, and you need to add more.  

Engine Oil Replacement Cost

The engine oil change cost varies according to labor cost, vehicle model, type of oil, and the area where you live. The average replacement cost of the engine oil and oil filter is from $30 to $70. The cost of the synthetic oil change is from $55 to $135. 

If you change the oil yourself, you may need to pay only $20 to $55 for the supplies.

Synthetic oil cost$55 to $135
Average cost$30 to $70
Supply cost$20 to $55

FAQ Section

Can I drive with low engine oil?

Yes, you can drive with low engine oil, but it is not recommended. Driving with low oil may badly damage your vehicle rotating parts. The proper lubrication of the engine rotating parts is very important to prevent them from damage.

When you drive with low oil, the vehicle oil system doesn’t properly lubricate the parts due to an insufficient oil supply. However, driving for a long distance with low oil may lead to the complete failure of the engine.

What repairs can fix the low engine oil issues?

  • Inspecting the parts for an oil leak and fixing it.
  • Adding more oil
  • Fixing the oil pan leak
  • Replacing the bad PCV valve
  • Replacing the bad valves and valve guides
  • Replacing the faulty piston rings
  • Fixing the random oil leaks

What will happen if I drive with low engine oil?

It is not recommended to drive without or with low engine oil. The proper supply of oil prevents the vehicle rotating parts from being damaged. It also prevents your engine from overheating. Driving with low motor oil may cause poor engine performance, poor fuel economy, engine knocking, engine stalling, overheating, seals drying out, valves burning up, or complete failure of your engine. Therefore, you should always check your oil level before driving.

What Happens If I Put the Wrong Oil in My Car?

Using the wrong oil in your car may badly affect the engine’s overall health, durability, and performance. Following are the possible bad effects of putting the wrong oil in your car:

  • Reduced lubrication: The various engine oils have different additives and viscosities. These characteristics of the oil affect its lubrication ability to the moving parts. If you use too thin oil, this oil will not be able to provide sufficient lubrication to prevent friction and wear. On the other hand, if you use high-viscosity oil, it may not flow properly, which may cause a reduction in the engine’s performance and efficiency.
  • Higher emissions: Your engine may emit higher emissions than usual because of using the wrong oil. This may cause emission test failure and environmental damage.
  • Engine damage: Inadequate lubrication may cause damage to the engine’s piston, crankshaft, bearing, crankcase, and other parts. This may cause unusual engine sound, poor fuel economy, and poor acceleration.
  • Canceled warranty: If you use oil other than the manufacturer’s recommendation, your car’s warranty may be canceled. If your car engine is damaged due to using the wrong oil, your manufacturer may not cover any damage.
  • Poor fuel economy: Using the wrong engine oil may badly affect the fuel economy of your vehicle. If your oil has a higher viscosity than the required limit, your engine will need to work harder to circulate the oil, which may result in poor fuel economy.

You should always use oil according to your vehicle’s manufacturer to avoid these problems.

How to tell if oil is low on dipstick?

  • First, slowly insert your dipstick into the oil pipe and push it thoroughly in the downward direction.
  • Pull it out and look closely at its tip, which should have oil.
  • If your engine oil level is in between the maximum and minimum markings, it means the car has sufficient oil. If it is below or at the minimum mark, it means your car oil is not sufficient, and you need to add more. 

What are the symptoms of low engine oil?

When the engine oil becomes low than a specific limit, your vehicle produces different symptoms such as poor acceleration, poor fuel economy, engine stalling, overheating, damage of the parts, engine knocking, or the illumination of the oil pressure warning light.

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