Cars are noisy things, and they can make all sorts of sounds. From the whoosh of a turbocharger, to the pops and crackles of the exhaust, or the banging tunes on your radio. These are the good sort of noises that put a smile on your face. Although occasionally, a car makes nasty sounds like lifter tick that makes your heart sink to the ground.
Now, you might just dismiss that slight tapping or ticking noise coming from your engine. “It’s probably nothing”, you might think to yourself to calm the storming anxieties in your imagination. You’d probably just keep driving along, and hoping the lifter tick would suddenly go away. Or, you might turn up the volume on your Spotify playlist a bit louder to drown out the noise.
After all, tap dancing would be far more pleasing to listen to than your engine tapping away loudly. We all know that odd noises like these are often a bad sign that big, expensive repair bills are in order. Lifter tick can be a very easy and painless fix. But ignore it for long enough, and it will happily cost you a kidney’s worth. So, read along our lifter tick guide to learn more.
- What is a hydraulic valve lifter?
- Should you keep driving?
What You Need To Understand About A (Valve) Lifter
Before we can understand more on what a lifter tick is, we should learn more about what a lifter does. This part of the engine goes by many names. It can be called a ‘hydraulic tappet’, ‘hydraulic valve lifter’, or the ‘hydraulic lash adjuster. As we now, a car’s engine is a very complex device, and it has many moving parts working together.
It is crucial that these parts work harmoniously and in unison. Ensuring that all the engine’s components work together as intended is critical in maintaining performance, efficiency, and durability. One such component that needs to be working in its most optimal state is the tappet. The engine tappet, or valve lifter, is what connects the engine’s valves with the camshaft.
The valve lifter works to transfer the rotational motion of the camshaft into vertical motion that opens and closes the engine valves. This is then what controls the intake of fuel and air into the combustion chamber. It also controls the exhaust of the combustion process out of the engine’s combustion chamber, and the process repeats.
Solid vs. Hydraulic Valve Lifters
Traditionally, older cars have solid valve lifters, or engine tappets. These often require regular adjustments. This is in order to ensure that a small clearance exists between it and the valve, through the engine’s rocker arm or pushrod. This clearance prevents the valve lifter from binding with the other components, owing to the heat from the engine.
Naturally, these increases wear and tear on the valve lifters, before it can reach its optimal temperature. Moreover, it’s also noisier, as the parts would make contact with each other while in operation. Hydraulic valve lifters were designed to help alleviate this problem. It’s ultimate goal is to ensure a zero valve clearance, or gap between the valve lifters, and the aforementioned rocker arm and pushrod.
This zero-gap would thus allow the rest of the engine’s valve train to operate smoothly, quietly, and without excess wear. Subsequently, this means that engines fitted with hydraulic valve lifters do not need periodic calibrations. A hydraulic valve lifter’s construction consists of a steel cylinder, hollowed out by a piston, which is then held by a spring.
The hollow chamber is what allows engine oil to flow through and fill the valve lifter. As is the nature with hydraulics, the oil is what regulates the movement of the valve lifter. It pressurises or depressurises depending on the movement of the engine valves, and the camshaft. The flow of oil is important to ensure that the valve lifters work optimally in ensuring zero valve clearance.
How Do You Know If Your Car Is Suffering From Lifter Tick?
We’ve now understood more on what an engine’s valve lifter is, and how it works. Moreover, we’ve also come to realise how important it is in the inner workings of an engine. But before we can start diagnosing the issue further, you should need to know more on the symptoms. These are clear signs that you can sense, to know if your car is suffering from lifter tick.
In the case of lifter tick, the most obvious tell-tale sign is the tapping, or ticking sounds you hear from the engine. The sound itself can vary in its rhythm, increasing in volume and frequency along with engine revs. Often, the higher the RPMs, the louder and quicker the tapping will be. However, aside from the obvious noise, there are also some other symptoms of lifter tick.
1. Check Engine Light
Other signs of lifter tick can include the ‘check engine‘ illuminating on your instrument cluster. Cars have various sensors to detect that its many moving parts are working as intended. When faults occur, such as lifter tick, the check engine light might appear to warn you.
2. Engine Misfires
A damaged or broken valve lifter can badly disrupt the engine’s combustion process. This is regarding the mixture, and subsequent burning of fuel and air. This can then cause the engine to misfire, which is another symptom and consequence of lifter tick. Misfires can result in decreased performance, such as sluggish acceleration.
Should You Keep On Driving With Lifter Tick?
Often when coming across problems with your car, we tend to just ignore it at first. This is understanding that problems can always be complex and expensive. So, we tend to take the path of simply ignoring our problems, and hoping they’d go away after a while. Most people tend to ignore lifter tick, and keep on driving as if it never happened.
Should you keep on driving while your car is suffering from lifter tick? Absolutely not. We do not recommend that you keep driving a car that has lifter tick. So, if you’re already driving, and hearing that dreaded tapping sound, pull over as soon as you can, and call for a tow truck. If you’re just about to leave the driveway, then turn back around and park your car safely.
After that, you can give a call to your nearby workshop or dealership to see about having it checked out. Lifter tick can be a very simple fix if addressed quickly. As always, never ignore the odd noises and sensations from your car. It might be disheartening to have to pay for a fix. But if you continue to ignore faults while they’re just starting out, it can lead to more catastrophic repair bills later on.
What Are The Causes Of Lifter Tick That You Should Be Aware Of?
“But what is making my engine do all those loud ticking sounds”, you might ask. Well, we can now get into looking deep at the root causes of engine lifter tick. Understanding the cause can better place us to know what fixes need to be done, and what they’ll eventually cost.
Well, here we have a list of the common causes that results in valve lifter tick, in order of severity.
1. Low Engine Oil Level
As we’ve learned earlier, engine oil is a key part of the inner workings of your valve lifter. It, just like most other moving parts, requires constant lubrication to avoid excess wear and tear. Moreover, hydraulic valve lifters require the oil as a medium to function properly.
Nominal amounts of engine oil guarantees that a valve lifter can maintain its lifting power. As such, insufficient engine oil can cause problems like lifter tick, or more serious ones down the line. This is as the valve lifters are constantly rubbing against other moving parts.
Or, that the hydraulics are not functioning as needed, due to insufficient fluids. Thankfully, most cars have a ‘low oil’, ‘oil’, or ‘low oil pressure’ warning light that illuminates on your car’s dash cluster.
2. Dirty, Or Dirt Deposits In Engine Oil
Similarly, with low engine oil, dirty oil can also cause lifter tick. Engine oil is not intended to last forever, and as with all your car’s liquids, need changing. Your car’s manufacturer should have a service interval for engine oil. After a while, engine oil can pick up dirt, grime, or thicken itself like sludge.
Remember, valve lifters need engine oil as lubrication, and to ensure good lifting power. Dirty engine oil can clog up the valve lifter, thus resulting in the same situation as having insufficient levels of oils. This results in the valve lifters not receiving the optimal amounts of fluids to function, and to avoid wear and tear.
3. Using The Wrong Viscosity Of Engine Oil
This, once again, highlights the importance of engine oil in ensuring that your valve lifters work seamlessly, and without problems. Indeed, it can be possible for you to choose the wrong type of engine oil for your particular car. So, be sure to not just pick up any old bottle of oil from the shelves next time you’re doing a top up.
Just like dirty engine oil, the viscosity of the fluid is important in ensuring that your valve lifter functions as intended. Engine oil that is too thick or thin can affect the flow of the oil within the valve lifter. Every car manufacturer uses different engines, and thus differing sets of valve lifters.
Therefore, they each have their own recommended engine oil that pairs best with your car. Maintaining an ideal viscosity will help to prevent lifter tick. It will also help to ensure that the rest of the engine will work as smoothly as intended.
4. Faulty Engine Valve Lifter
As with every moving part, an engine’s valve lifter in subjected to immense stresses and strains while under use. Consequently, it will naturally wear out over time, and will require a replacement. Aside from engine oil, a faulty valve lifter will also cause lifter tick over time.
Failing valve lifters can be caused by a number of issues. For one, valve lifters have a set lifespan, and will degrade in its integrity over time. If your car is old, or has accumulated a high mileage, then it might need its valve lifter replaced. Alternatively, valve lifters could also fail due to poor maintenance.
Lacklustre maintenance include not changing the engine oils regularly, or using low-quality engine oil. Taking poor care of your car, and not keeping on top of its servicing intervals can eventually cause problems like lifter tick.
5. Misaligned Lifter Spacing
As we’ve learned much earlier on how valve lifters work, spacing is very important in its function. There needs to be a small amount of clearance between the valve lifter, and the other interacting parts. This includes the camshafts, and the pushrod or the rocker arm.
Poor balancing on the spacing around the valve lifters can also cause lifter tick. If there is too much clearance, the lifter won’t be able to make contact with the camshafts or pushrod. This will cause the lifter to rattle around loosely. Meanwhile, too little clearance can cause damage to the valve.
This is due to the valve stems expanding in size as it absorbs heat from the engine. If too much heat is transferred between the lifter and the valve stem, the ensuing damage will cause lifter tick. It is important to make sure that your car’s valve lifters are adjusted to their most optimal positions.
6. Bent Pushrod
The pushrod is one of the key components within an engine. Its primary function is to operate the intake and exhaust valve of the car’s combustion chamber. Therefore, pushrods are designed to be among the more robust parts in a car. However, it can be subjected to damage, if not cared for.
This is especially so if the car is being pushed too hard, or driven too excitedly. The increased strain can cause immense wear and tear, which could eventually bend the pushrod. The bending can then result in prematurely wearing out the valve lifters, which would cause lifter tick.
How Do You Fix Lifter Tick?
Having now known and understood the key causes of lifter tick, we can discuss more on how to get it fixed. As mentioned earlier, your car’s valve lifter ticking can be as easy of a fix as having its engine oil changed. However, if you’re not attentive and careful, it can very quickly escalate into a very expensive repair job.
Here’s a list of fixes to help quieten down your engine, and solve lifter tick for good.
1. Top-Up, Or Replace Engine Oil
We’ve learned so far that maintaining your engine oil is key to making both your car, and its valve lifters happy. Otherwise, it could lead to problems that will eventually cause lifter tick. Engine oil plays a key role in lubricating the moving parts within and around your valve lifter. Moreover, hydraulic valve lifters require engine oil to function properly, and to maintain its lifting power.
If your engine oil is running low, it can be evident with a ‘low oil’ warning light on your instrument cluster. Alternatively, you can very quickly check the engine oil reservoir within your engine compartment. If the oil level is below that of what the dipstick says is the bare minimum, then have it topped up.
2. Find, And Use The Right Oil For Your Car
However, remember to always consult your owner’s manual, or call up your local dealer to find the exact engine oil recommended for your car. There are many different types of engine oil. The most important variable to look out for is the viscosity of the oil itself. This is important in the context of the valve lifters, as oil needs to flow smoothly through it.
This will depend on your individual car. You will also have to take note of the weather around you. In the cold winter, you are recommended to find thinner, or less viscous oil. In the warmer summers, you should find thicker, and more viscous engine oil. Alternatively, you can choose to purchase all-season engine oils (multigrade – Most new car use this anyway), which are a bit more expensive.
3. Replace Engine Oil Filter
Speaking of engine oil, it is also important that you make sure the flow of oil within your car remains clean. We’ve discussed earlier on how dirty oil can clog up the flow to and between your valve lifters. One of the parts within a car that makes sure oil remains free of dirt or debris is the oil filter.
Just like any other parts within a car, the oil filter will eventually need replacing. A good oil filter should be able to prevent dirt, or any other debris from accumulating in the engine oil. This will ensure that the flow of oil remains smooth, clean, and uninterrupted. Doing so will help to prevent lifter tick from happening.
4. Use Engine Oil Additives
On the subject of oil, you can also consider additives to ensure the cleanliness of the oil. Add to that, a good splash of oil additives can also clean the components that the engine oil has to lubricate. This includes the valves, the rocker arms, pushrods, and the valve lifters, as well.
Oil additives keep the engine oil clean, and ensure a smooth flow through the rest of the engine. Your owner’s manual should be able to point out some of the best oil additives that are recommended for your car. Adding this along with your engine oil might not just help to fix lifter tick, but could also prevent it from happening again.
5. Replace, or Adjust The Valve Lifters
If worst comes to worst, the valve lifters might break, and will need replacing. If even just one breaks, it’s often recommended to replace all your valve lifters as well. This is since just one faulty valve lifter can cause added strain and wear on the others. Replacing valve lifters is expensive, and can depend on what car you’re driving, and the engine that it has.
Not only are the parts very costly, replacing valve lifters is also a very labour intensive job. Altogether, the price range can vary widely, and we recommend that you call up a mechanic to get a more precise quote. Generally, the average repair bill for replacing valve lifters can be anywhere around $300 to $1,000. However, don’t be surprised if the bill rises to $1,500 or higher.
This underscores the importance of making sure you service your car regularly. Alternatively, the valve lifters only need a simple adjustment. Once again, this is related to the precise clearance needed between the valve lifters, camshafts, and pushrods. Owing to how tight the tolerances can be, we recommend that you find a professional to help you with this task.
6. Replace Pushrods, Or Rocker Arm
If the pushrods or rocker arm are damaged, it can cause lifter tick. The only way to fix this is by replacing them with brand new parts. Just like replacing the valve lifters, this is once again another pricey, and labour intensive work. We also recommend that these replacements are done by a qualified technician. Although, a highly knowledgeable car owner could do this at home.
The parts and the related kits for either a pushrod, or the rocker arm is not cheap either. The prices once again varies, depending on the model of your car, and the engine that it has. But in general, we can expect an average of $600 to over $1,000 for replacing pushrods. Meanwhile, replacing the rocker arms can cost anywhere between $500 to $1,500 on average.
How Can You Prevent Lifter Tick From Happening Again?
Right, so you’ve probably been left bittersweet by having your car’s lifter tick problem fixed. On the one hand, your car’s engine is running smoothly, and no longer sounds like it’s tap dancing. On the other hand, you’ve probably burnt a huge hole in your wallet trying to fix this. You’re probably wondering to yourself, “how could I ever prevent this from happening again?”
On the bright side, at least, we’ve learned that lifter tick is easily preventable. In fact, the best prevention method works just as well as with most other car-related problems and heartaches. That is, to simply ensure that your car is well maintained, and that regular servicing schedules are adhered to. Remember, a lot of issues can be prevented by keeping your car in tip top shape.
Proper Maintenance Goes A Long Way
This advice goes for any sort of car, type, and from every brand. It works just like keeping a healthy diet, or practicing regular exercise for your body. Every carmaker will have outlined a reasonable servicing schedule for each vehicle. This is depending on how long they’ve been driven, and its mileage. By simply having it serviced, you can prevent a lot of stress down the road, including lifter tick.
As we’ve already learned so far, lifter ticking’s most common cause is the state of the engine oil. Engine oil needs to be changed regularly, and it’s part of your car’s servicing programme. By keeping the oil clean, and at sufficient levels, the engine and its many parts can remain lubricated and cooled. This alone, can most easily make sure lifter tick never needs to happen.
Lifter Tick – Conclusion
Thus far, we’ve been able to learn what an engine valve lifter is, and how it works. We’ve even gone through more on the cause of lifter tick, and how to solve them. We hope then, that this has been helpful in diagnosing that annoying tapping sound you might’ve heard resonating from your engine. It’s almost always a small problem, but it’s also deserving of your attention.
We cannot stress enough how easy lifter tick problems can be fixed, and prevented. However, continually ignoring those odd noises and sensations will quite easily cause catastrophic damage to your engine. Always be attentive to your car’s condition, and practice a habit of servicing it regularly. If you’re mindful enough, you might never, ever have to hear that ticking noise again.