You pull out of your driveway and notice a deep dark spot that wasn’t there before. Uh, oh. You have a car leaking oil. Not only is this a telltale sign of trouble for your vehicle, but you also have motor oil stains to prove it.
So, what do you do? Well, you can take your car to a garage and deal with a big mechanic’s bill, or you can fix the oil leak yourself. Yes, it is possible to fix an oil leak on your car from home. Here is how to get started.
Different Causes for an Oil Leak in Cars
Oil leaks in cars can happen due to many reasons. You might have a damaged gasket or a bad seal. Or maybe your vehicle suffered some damage. Depending on the level of the oil spill, the following can cause an oil leak.
1. Bad Oil Filter
An oil filter does what it sounds like; it filters contaminants from engine oil. This helps the oil stay clean, not causing any clogging or wear inside the engine. At the same time, an oil filter does get clogged if the oil is not changed. As the pressure builds up, the oil filter might rupture, causing oil leaks.
Another reason for oil leaks is a loosely fitted oil filter. Since oil inside an engine moves with a certain pressure, a little space is enough to cause a leak. Be on the lookout for this situation after an oil change when the mechanic may not have correctly installed the filter.
Oil leaks from oil filters can also happen if an incorrect oil filter is used. In this case, the oil filter might not seal properly, causing problems with oil pressure and leaks.
2. Worn-Out Valve Cover Gasket
A valve cover gasket is a rubber seal meant to seal the valve cover and the upper portion of the engine cylinder head. Over time a gasket gets hardened due to heat and pressure while developing cracks. This causes unexpected and sudden leaks if the oil pressure rises. Or slowly as you drive your car daily.
Depending on the type of engine, your car can have one or multiple gaskets. If you drive a V-6 or V-8, you would have two valve covers. While in a straight-4- or 6-cylinder engine, you only have one.
Generally, a valve cover gasket lasts between 20,000 to 50,000 miles. If not replaced, the oil leaks can cause fumes or fire because of the heat produced. Or, the continuously depleting oil can ruin your engine due to wear and tear.
Related: How to fix Valve Cover Gasket leak?
3. Loose Drain Plug
Drain plugs are plugs that are used to drain engine oil. It is located under the car and attached to the oil pan. If you’re under the car, it’s hard to miss. Since all the engine oil gets accumulated in the oil pan, a loose drain plug can cause oil leaks. A leaking drain plug would have oil stains around and directly underneath it. If you recently got an oil change, that’s more of the reason to inspect your drain plug.
4. Damaged Oil Pan
An oil pan is an oil storage facility where all the oil is collected when not in use. That is when you are not driving or when your engine is turned off. It is also the place where oil is cooled by the air passing on the surface of the oil pan.
Generally, oil leaks from oil pans are rare since they are tightly fitted. But any sort of damage or a loose-fitting pan can cause an oil leak. An oil leak can also happen if the oil pan gasket gets worn out, just like the worn-out valve cover gasket.
Well, these were the common reasons behind oil leaks. But how do we know if we have an oil leak? What are the symptoms we should look for?
How to Know if You Have an Oil Leak?
Oil leaks in automobiles have some direct and obvious symptoms. A little looking around will reveal the symptoms, which can include:
1. Oil Spills
Oil spills are the most obvious symptom of an oil leak. If your car is leaking, it will create some sort of spill or splatter under your vehicle. Depending on the intensity of the leak, you might see a few drops or a small puddle. Whichever it is, having an oil spill right under your car means that your engine oil is leaking. And you should get it looked at immediately.
2. Check Engine Oil Light On
If the check engine oil light is illuminated in your dashboard, that’s another sign of an oil leak. Since it is designed only to light up when the oil level is too low, it is the perfect indicator for oil leaks. If the light turns on while driving, you should stop and inspect your vehicle. If it lights up when you turn on your car, look for oil spills.
In any scenario where the check engine oil light comes on, check the oil level.
3. Smoke from Engine
Smoke coming from the engine can be caused by several things, including a malfunctioning cooling system, wiring faults, or fluid leaks. For example, transmission fluid, brake fluid, or engine oil can smoke when it leaks onto a hot engine component.
If you find your engine smoking, pull your car over where it’s safe to do so. Turn off the engine and let it cool down for a while. Then, pop the hood to spot the trouble. Also, don’t use the fire extinguisher unless you see flames. Otherwise, the extinguisher will ruin more than it will save.
4. Overheating of Engine
Apart from working as a lubricant and a filter, engine oil also works as a coolant. It cools down the engine as it flows through the various components. In the event of an oil leak, the oil level decreases with a decrease in the cooling effect. This can cause the engine to overheat.
5. Burning Oil Smell
Oil leaking from the valve cover can fall on other engine parts. And, since they are piping hot when driving, they create a burning oil smell. If you get any acrid smell, it is probably burning oil under your hood.
How Can I Spot an Oil Leak from My Car?
While there are multiple reasons for oil leaks, finding its root is pretty simple. Inspecting a few areas can easily get you to the cause of the oil leak. Start by:
- Inspecting the symptoms: Start by looking for any kind of symptoms. See where the oil spill is coming from and at what intensity. Or, if you don’t have oil spills, is there smoke or a burning smell? Both can happen due to an oil leak in the engine bay. Keep in mind that engine overheating can be caused by heavy oil leaks or a low engine oil level.
- Look below your car: If you have an oil spill, check below the vehicle. See if your oil pan or drain plug is leaking. A quick way to confirm this is by cleaning the oil and checking in again after some time. If you see more oil, your oil pan or drain plug is the likely cause.
- Look under the hood: Another place to inspect is your engine. Open up the hood and see if you have any oil stains. Look around your valve cover or the oil filter if it’s located there. If there is some oil directly under the filter, then that’s the problem.
Can I Drive a Car with an Engine Oil Leak?
While a few drops of leaked engine oil may seem minor, it could be an early warning sign of something more significant. After noticing spilled oil, check the engine oil level. If needed, add oil before operating the engine. If the level is OK, then drive to an auto repair shop. If you see a large amount of spilled oil, then you may want to consider having your car towed to a mechanic.
Now It’s Time, How to Fix Oil Leak
After you have done your inspection, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and learn how to fix an oil leak. You don’t have to read a whole book to learn how to fix that leak. While there are some oil leaks that can only be fixed by expensive repairs, most can be done in your garage or driveway rather inexpensively.
The only thing you will need is a car jack, jack stands, torque wrench, and some special additives or replacement parts (something like a new oil pan). Here are the two main approaches that you can take to fix your oil leak.
Using An Additive to Stop the Leak
One of the easiest ways to fix the leak yourself is to use a stop leak additive or high mileage oil blend. Such products can soften and condition your car’s rubber seals to stop and prevent further automotive leaks.
It may take up to a few hundred miles of driving before the leak is completely sealed. Next, you’ll learn how to deal with an oil pan leak and other oil leak situations. You should generally try to fix the leak by replacing components before resorting to using stop leak.
Fixing The Problem with Tools
Don’t worry. Fixing an oil pan leak and other situations with tools is not as hard as you would think. All you need are some hand tools, a torque wrench, a car jack, and stands or some ramps.
First, safely jack up the car so you can safely access the oil pan. Now, check for loose bolts on the oil pan. Over time, these bolts can loosen, and loose bolts leak. After tightening all the bolts on the oil pan, move over to the timing belt cover and the valve covers.
Be aware that specific car models require you to tighten bolts in a certain pattern to a specific tolerance level. Check a service manual or repair guide for more information.
After You Have Fixed the Leak, It’s Time to Test
Once you believe you have fixed the problem, it is time to test everything out. Get about a quart of oil and top off your oil level. Afterward, you will want to turn on the engine with the hood up. Check the top of the engine while the car is running.
Sometimes, you may find out that the oil is leaking from the gasket or the oil cap, and the engine will start to smoke because it is burning oil. It’s important to know what causes oil leaks from all parts of your vehicle.
After running the car for a couple of minutes, move the vehicle about 5 feet from where it was previously parked. Check to see if any oil leaks have accumulated on the driveway. If you still see an oil puddle, then you have to go back and recheck the tightening of your bolts.
How Often to Change Oil?
All of this begs the question: How frequently should you change the oil in your car? There is no way to know, through visual inspection, whether your oil needs changing, as pure black oil will take on a brown, “dirty” look almost immediately after it is put into your car.
The simple solution, then, is to change your oil as often as the manufacturer recommends, in order to prevent a major oil leak. The manufacturer’s recommendation is made to keep your car running for a long time; you can find out what this recommendation is by looking in your owner’s manual, visiting the manufacturer’s website, or calling the service desk at your local dealership.
Thankfully, there is no harm in getting your oil changed too frequently though this can take a toll on your wallet. There is no need to have the oil changed more regularly than what the manufacturer recommends.
Another Tip: Don’t wait until you see signs of an oil leak, or the “low oil” light comes on and if you do see that light come on, make your oil change a top priority. The light almost certainly means that whatever oil is left in your engine has lost its ability to function properly, which means your engine is undergoing a great deal of wear and tear.
How Many Miles Between Oil Changes?
Note that your manufacturer’s recommendation will involve mileage, which is a more reliable gauge than a timeframe. Some auto owners just take their cars in for oil changes every five to six months, but this does not take into account the seasons in which the vehicles are driven more or less than usual.
As for the specific mileage, all cars are different. The standard for older vehicles was often no more than 3,500 miles, but newer cars can often get 7,000 to 10,000 out of a single oil change. Again, the critical thing is to look at your manufacturer’s recommendation, and not to delay getting the oil changed as needed, hopefully before your light comes on or you see oil leaks staining your driveway.
Oil leaks are one of the common and frustrating car problems that can occur. Before you take the vehicle to the garage for a hefty repair bill, learn how to fix an oil leak yourself. Remember to check everything from the oil pan to the gaskets and the oil cap.
Be sure to double-check and make sure that you fixed the leak after the repair. With a little know-how and more patience, you will be able to handle any oil leak problem on your vehicle.
If you see a puddle of greasy-looking liquid on the ground after your vehicle has been parked for a while, then that means you have an oil pan leak, which usually indicates holes in your car’s oil pan or gaskets. Take your vehicle to a shop straight away.
The cost will depend on whether it’s a major or minor oil leak, as different solutions are available for the fix. It also depends on the type of vehicle, the engine, and the location of the leak.
Simply changing the oil will not fix the leak. First, you’ll have to identify the cause of the leak, conduct the necessary repairs, and then, depending on how much oil you’ve lost, either top it off or have it changed.
It’s always advisable not to drive if your vehicle has an oil leak, but short distance drives, less than 10 miles, are not as risky when it comes to lowering your oil levels to a dangerous point.
The severity of a vehicle’s oil leak depends on several factors, such as the location of the leak and its size. Obviously, a major oil leak will lower your oil levels faster, and lead to other, more serious problems. For small leaks, the location matters the most, as a leak from the front crank seal or the timing cover will shorten the life of the timing belt or engine drive belts, while a valve cover gasket leak will get oil on the hot exhaust manifold, potentially causing smoke or even fire.
Although there are several products on the market targeting DIY leak stops, the best course of action would be taking your car to a shop, because properly identifying the underlying cause is crucial.