There aren’t that many things that could so very easily make your heart sink into the floor like walking up to your car and noticing an oil leak underneath. The size of the stain itself is directly proportional to how annoyed you’ll feel afterward. Your car soiling itself into a big brown puddle isn’t something to gloss over, however. Although there are more expensive problems to be had within an automobile, a slight oil leak could sooner or later snowball into even bigger headaches.
Within your car’s engine, there are a plethora of mechanical bits and pieces that need to work with one another. These moving parts create a lot of friction as they rub against each other, just to make the engine run. This is where the oil comes in, as a lubricating fluid to keep them from wearing other parts down. It also works to prevent corrosion, and in moderating the heat between those many moving parts. Suffice to say, that golden liquid is very important.
Without oil, your engine would wear itself down within the blink of an eye. It’s for that reason why an issue as seemingly simple as a few drops of an oil leak shouldn’t be ignored. But before we start panicking over having to mortgage your house, we can be thankful that this can be fixed. But why is it happening in the first place? How do I fix them, and how much is it going to cost me? Could I drive while it’s still leaking? Our engine oil leak will unravel some of these questions.
What are the tell-tale signs of a car oil leak that you should be aware of?
First and foremost, we’ll need to make sure that you’re actually leaking engine oil. Now, this might sound like a silly question, because you’re probably staring at a puddle under your car right now. However, before you bonk me in the head for pointing out the already obvious, there are more clear signs of an oil leak other than just smudges on the ground. In fact, some symptoms of leaks are far more sneaky and could be more serious than others.
1. Oil puddles underneath your car
Of course, this is the most obvious sign to know if your car’s engine is leaking. Although, make sure that you pay close attention to the color of the leak itself. Note that there are many other types of fluids within a car other than your engine oil. These liquids, just like oil, are important in working with your car’s mechanical components to ensure friction-less and cool operation. Some are needed in the core function of those particular parts, such as transferring hydraulic pressure.
Engine oil is typically a brown color, which starts out more gold or amber, but turns darker as it ages. Transmission fluid, as well as power steering fluid, are of a reddish or red-brown hue. Brake fluid is also of a pale brown shade. Meanwhile, your car’s coolant can be in many different colors, such as blue, green, yellow, orange, or pink-purple in most cases. Knowing the color of the leak is important in narrowing down the problem, and deciding what needs to be fixed.
2. Low oil levels, or oil pressure warning light
Another way of checking for an car oil leak is the amount of engine oil itself that’s inside your car. Located near the engine, you can check the dipstick, and see if you have a sufficient level of oil. While you’re there, it might even be helpful to check the condition of the oil and see if you’ll be needing to have an oil change soon. If it’s too low, then clearly there’s a leak somewhere that you might’ve missed.
Another instance would be your car could also be flashing an ‘oil pressure’ warning light on your instrument cluster. Depending on your car, you might even have a separate oil pressure gauge. Note, however, that the ‘oil pressure’ warning indicator is separate from the ‘check engine’, or ‘service engine soon‘ lights. If you notice that oil pressure indicator, it could indicate that the level of oil in your car is low and that there’s very likely an oil leak somewhere.
3. Smoke coming from the engine bay, or a burnt smell
There are occasions where an oil leak is not visible from underneath your car. In this instance, it might be leaking inside the engine compartment. When this happens, oil could leak onto hot components, such as the exhaust manifolds. The result is you seeing dark smoke emitting from under your hood, as the oil burns up from the heat. This is extremely dangerous, as it could cause a fire, or at the very least damage parts of your car, such as the oxygen sensor, or gaskets.
You might also be able to notice this by listening for any sizzling or boiling sounds. This, once again, is an indication that a fluid – possibly the engine oil – is leaking onto a hot component of your car. Another possible cue for an oil leak is by a burning or a heaty smell. That ‘hot’ smell tells you that engine oil, or something else, is leaking onto a hot part of your car, and is starting to burn up. Alternatively, it could also be a sign that your car is overheating.
4. Engine overheating
As we mentioned earlier, your engine oil does more than just lubrication to ensure minimal friction within your car’s motor. It also works to help moderate the heat. Your car has many moving parts, and all that friction will undoubtedly cause it to emit an immense amount of heat. If your car’s engine oil is low, it will cause more friction, and thus result in more heat being produced. If you notice that your car is overheating, it might point out that you have an oil leak.
5. Blue smoke coming from the exhaust
Another sign of an oil leak, and this is a much more serious one, is the sight of thick blue smoke coming from your exhaust pipes. This happens when your car’s engine oil happens to make its way directly into your car’s engine. When it drips into the combustion chamber, the oil will burn up. This won’t just emit blue smoke from the exhaust, but could also leave a residue within your engine. This could, in time, cause the metal components to degrade, and lead to bigger problems.
What’s causing your engine to have a car oil leak?
Now that we’ve learned more on how you can spot an oil leak, it would be helpful to try and narrow down what’s causing them in the first place. There are numerous causes on why your engine oil is leaking. Oftentimes, it could just be simple wear and tear, such as gaskets losing their seal. Sometimes, the causes could be far more serious, and thus will be more problematic to fix. Here are some of the more common causes that will lead to an oil leak.
1. Loose oil filler cap
First off, let’s start with the simple ones. Perhaps the most innocent and least serious fault that’s resulting in your engine leaking oil is having a loose oil filler cap. This will cause the oil to leak out from the top of the reservoir while the engine is in use. Double-check your engine oil reservoir, and make sure the cap is tightened all the way. Otherwise, it might be that your oil filler cap is getting old or has broken, and can’t maintain a good seal. In this case, it will need a replacement.
2. Poorly oil filter
Another cause for an oil leak is a damaged, or rusty oil filter. The oil filter, as the name suggests, works to filter out contaminants from getting into the engine oil. Oftentimes, your car’s oil filter is replaced every time you schedule for an oil change. Over time, the oil filter can wear down, get rusty, or get knocked off by vibrations from the engine. If this happens, the oil filter won’t be able to function properly and will result in contaminants getting into the engine oil.
It might also be caused by the O-rings around the oil filter wearing out. Although, the difficulty of replacing this often results in needing to replace the entire filter altogether. If the engine oil gets contaminated by dirt or debris, it can prematurely degrade gaskets and seals around the engine. It’s this contaminated oil that will eventually wear down those seals that keep it within its reservoir, which will then cause an oil leak to happen.
3. Worn out gaskets or seals
Aside from a faulty oil filter that needs changing, the gaskets or seals could naturally wear down on their own. Gaskets and seals are usually made from rubber, and they can harden and decompose over a period of time after being subjected to intense heat from the engine. Important gaskets around the engine include those around the valve cover at the top of the engine, or the head gaskets. Seals can include the camshaft, or crankshaft seals, among others.
Worn out seals or gaskets will eventually let oil flow, and leak through them. Other than heat or vibrations, seals or gaskets could also wear down due to the oil itself. Contaminated oil is one factor, as well as sludge. The latter is oil that hasn’t been changed in a while, and has broken down into a gooey liquid. The build-up of viscous sludge can cause an increase of pressure around the gaskets and seals, thus causing them to wear out even faster, or fail outright.
4. Worn out drain plug, or damaged oil pan
As part of your car’s engine oil reservoir, the oil pan sits at the very bottom. As you drive along, your exposed oil pan can be subjected to damage, such as coming into contact with debris. It can puncture a hole straight through, or cause a crack on the oil pan. Alternatively, the oil pan itself could corrode over time due to weathering, and leave itself a small hole. Either way, it can cause the reservoir to start leaking engine oil.
Otherwise, it might be the drainage plug that has worn itself out. Your car’s drain plug is located at the very bottom of the oil pan. During oil changes, the drainage plug will work to flush out engine oil from the system. Usually, the oil plug seals are changed after every regular engine oil replacement. After a while, the seal around the drain plug can wear out or get damaged and will cause leakage. Or, perhaps the drain plug was left loose, which could also cause an oil leak.
5. Cracked cylinder head or engine block
Now, we get to the most gut-wrenching cause that could result in an oil leak. This is not common, but it can happen under certain circumstances. This includes poor maintenance or running your engine under an immense amount of strain. For example, running the engine with constantly low coolant, letting it run hot, or driving without a sufficient amount of engine oil. These can cause the cylinder head, or more seriously, the engine block itself to crack.
When it does, it can cause the engine oil to start leaking. Either, the engine oil will leak into places where it shouldn’t be. One scenario would be the engine oil to leak into the cooling system, or into the combustion chamber. Otherwise, engine oil might spring a massive leak all over the engine bay. This is a complex, time-consuming, and very expensive problem to have it fixed. In some cases, it might involve getting the whole engine replaced in its entirety.
How can you fix a car oil leak, and how much does it cost?
Okay, so you’ve understood now that oil leaks can be fairly problematic. You might now be scratching your head trying to figure out ways to stop engine oil from leaking. More importantly, you might want to know how large of a hole it will burn through your pocket. Well as we’ve learned earlier on, some of the causes of leaking oil are fairly innocent. As such, they can be pretty inexpensive, and simple to fix even from home.
Although, it’s worth reminding you to double-check if these parts can fit your particular vehicle. If you’re in need of a new oil filler cap, you can find them for as little as $5, and most will be priced at less than $10. Replacing oil filters is also fairly cheap cost-wise, as you can find very good options on the market for less than $10 for the most part. Oil pan gaskets and seals are a much harder fix, but you can find them for around $20 to $30, while some can cost over $50.
If it’s the drain plug that needs replacing, then you could find those quite readily for less than $5. Or, if your oil pan has a puncture in it, you could try to use sealants to fill it up. Typically, gasket sealants can be used to fill out those tiny holes or small cracks. They can be found commonly for under $10, but more comprehensive sealants might cost around $15 or $20. Therefore, we can conclude that on average, most oil leak problems can be solved for around or under $100.
Some fixes are more expensive than others
However, not every single problem can be fixed so easily and cheaply. Some causes for oil leaking are more serious than others, and this will result in repair bills that could quickly run into four-digits. If the oil pan has serious damage and cannot be sealed, it will need to be replaced fully. In general, the full replacement cost accounting for labor, can is anywhere between $500 and all the way upwards of $1,000. It’s worth mentioning that the costs will vary depending on your car.
A blown head gasket will be even more expensive to fix, with an average sticker price of between $1,000 to $2,000 for a replacement. For some models, such as heavy-duty pickup trucks or SUVs, you can even expect it to go upwards of $3,000. The most expensive potential problem to fix would be the engine block. We learned earlier that the engine block could crack under pressure. Normally, this will require a full replacement, not just a simple repair.
The price of a brand new engine block – and accounting for the cost of labor – varies hugely depending on the model. For more ordinary cars, you can expect a cost of anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000, based on the make and model. Higher performance or luxury cars will be more expensive, costing anywhere from at least $5,000, all the way up and above $10,000. We recommend using sites such as YourMechanic to find a more accurate repair quote for your car.
Can you keep on driving a car with a car oil leak?
You might now realize that your car is leaking engine oil, but it’s perhaps not all too serious. It might just be leaking a drop or two every minute or so, and you might just be tempted to press on, and fix this some other day. So, is it safe to drive a car is has sprung an oil leak? Simply put, maybe. We highly recommend getting it looked into, and fixed as soon as possible. This is simply down to the fact that leaking engine oil can cause serious problems if not settled right away.
If the oil leaks onto a hot component of your car, it’s now a possible fire hazard. Even if it doesn’t burst into flames, it will undoubtedly cause damage to other parts of your car. What was once a simple leak can sooner or later turn into a major repair. Plus, having slippery oil leaking away onto the road is also a major hazard. As slick as they are, the cars behind you can get your engine grease on their tires, and could result in them spinning out of control and cause an accident.
Therefore, we recommend driving your car with leaking oil only for emergencies. And, do this only if the leaking itself is not catastrophic, like a constant stream of oil pouring in from your engine. If this isn’t the case, it will be fairly safe to drive your car carefully and moderately for short distances. You can then use this opportunity to drive down to the nearest workshop or garage, and have your car checked out immediately.
How can you prevent an oil leak from happening again?
Now distraught at seeing how disastrous and costly oil leaks can be to fix, you’re no doubt more cautious of wanting to make sure they don’t happen again in the future. But how could you prevent your engine oil from leaking? The best prevention method possible is to make sure you stay on top of your car’s regular servicing schedule. This doesn’t just apply to your engine oil, as every single piece of your car needs to be looked after and replaced now and then.
Each vehicle should have a recommended service interval. The engine oil needs to be changed after a number of miles, as it naturally degrades and wears down. Your oil filter needs to be replaced, as your gaskets and seals will also need to be checked on after a while. Making sure you send your car for its regular maintenance routine can do wonders at preventing the very problems that eventually spring up an oil leak.
You can also prolong the lifespan of gaskets and seals with certain types of engine oil. You should find out whether these motor oils are compatible with your particular car before mixing them in. These oils have special additives, or ‘stop leak’ features that could re-condition and heal your car’s gaskets and seals as the oil flows around. Using these alone won’t be able to fix a potential leak or poor seal, but it can help to prevent them from occurring in the near future.
We can now conclude our engine oil leak guide, and we hope you’ve found it useful in your time of distress. Know that oil leaks can sometimes be caused by the most simple of reasons, such as a loose filler cap. But it could also indicate that parts of your car are failing, and need immediate attention. Either way, we can’t stress enough just how important it is to see to it that you fix engine oil leaking problems as soon as possible.
Putting it off could make a less than one hour repair job take days or weeks, and potentially lose you a whole month’s salary. It highlights just how crucial engine oil is in making sure your engine, and the many pieces that rely on it, work comfortably for the years to come. If fuel is a car’s blood supply, then the oil is water. Without it, the body would dehydrate, which can have detrimental impacts on your body’s daily function. So, be sure to take a moment’s pause, and mind the motor oil.