When you own a car, regular routine maintenance is part of ownership. Most drivers understand that to keep a car running, you have to fill the tank with gas as the gauge moves towards empty, replace the tires when they wear out, and change the motor oil regularly.
The engine is one of the main components inside your car. Without it, your car wouldn’t run.
To keep the engine operating smoothly, it needs gasoline to convert to energy to put the vehicle into motion. Gas gives it the power to go.
Engines also need motor oil for lubrication. Motor oil reduces friction and wear on moving parts to help keep the engine clean from sludge as it moves through the process.
Both gas and motor oil are an integral part of keeping your car working well. But while gasoline is something we’re aware of daily, watching the gas gauge as it moves as we drive along, motor oil tends to be a little more “out of sight, out of mind.” You may have a little sticker on your windshield reminding you of when it needs to be changed. But it’s not something you think about regularly.
Yet your engine can’t survive without it. The lower the level of motor oil, the more likely it is to cause problems. Let the levels get too low, and it can do irreversible damage to your car’s engine, increasing your financial commitment too.
What causes low oil pressure? What should you do at the first indication something is wrong? With today’s technology, most cars are built with warning lights that trigger early to help avoid bigger problems. A low oil pressure warning light on your dashboard isn’t something you should see very often. When it illuminates, you should stop driving immediately. This is an indication that there isn’t enough oil left to do its job effectively.
A dashboard light is only one symptom of low oil pressure. It’s a good indicator, and one of the first you may notice. But there are other signs.
- A burning smell – if it smells like burning oil, it could mean there’s an oil leak due to a failed gasket.
- A clunking sound – if your engine is making a clunking sound, it may be an indicator of low oil pressure. Low oil prevents the engine from receiving the lubrication it needs.
- An overheating engine – without the proper motor oil, the engine isn’t lubricated. That means it’s working harder than necessary, and has a good chance of allowing heat to build.
Notice one or more of these problems? It’s best to bring your car in right away.
When the low oil pressure light illuminates on your dashboard, it can be caused by one of several things:
Not enough oil – most manufacturers recommend that car owners change their vehicle’s motor oil between 3,000 and 5,000 miles. This keeps fresh motor oil in the system, and ensures it’s always circulating through your engine, keeping it working its best.
Wrong oil viscosity – did you change the oil yourself and use the wrong motor oil? Oil that is too thick may not flow quickly enough, and won’t transfer heat as well as thinner oils. That allows operating temperatures to increase, which can break down the chemical components of the motor oil faster, allowing sludge and other deposits to form.
Clogged or dirty oil filter – oil filters play an important role in helping maintain oil pressure. When the filter becomes dirty or clogged, it reduces flow. An oil filter is built with a pressure relief valve that prevents the pressure from getting too high. It can no longer do its job if it’s damaged.
Oil pressure gauge – your engine may have plenty of oil, but the problem lies with the oil pressure gauge. If electrical issues prevent the indicator from reflecting what’s happening, it can give a false reading. The fix may be as simple as replacing the gauge.
Engine wear – oil continually moves through the engine as it operates. If it’s not working properly, it can constantly impact other working parts. Oil moves from the engine through the crankshaft and camshaft bearings. If this area is worn and allows too much oil to flow, it can reduce oil pressure. The oil pump will work harder to move oil through bearings and other pathways. This can be a continual source of pressure until something breaks down.
Overheating engine – if the engine experiences too much heat, eventually it will stop working. Overheating causes the oil to thin, trying to prevent pressure build up.
Faulty oil pump – while this isn’t as common as other potential problems, a defective oil pump can drop the flow rate.
Worn out parts and components – with over 10,000 parts on a car, any one of them within the engine compartment can impact the combustion process in different ways, and lead to general wear and tear on the vehicle. A problem with the engine oil is often recognized by a blue smoke as it exits the tailpipe.
Many times, your oil pressure warning light will start to illuminate as it detects a problem. Instead of coming on and staying on, it might start to flicker on occasion as it notices a problem. The oil pressure warning light is designed to come on if oil pressure falls below 5-10 pounds per square inch (psi) at idle, depending on the vehicle you drive. At the very least, it should be at 5 psi when not in motion, or the oil light will flicker or stay on.
Continue to monitor this light. Check the oil level as soon as it’s safe. If you’re comfortable adding a little more oil, do so while continuing to monitor your car’s actions. This could be a sign of something larger. In that case, it’s time to bring your vehicle in for an inspection to determine where the problem lies.
The best way to prevent your oil pressure light from coming on, and avoid low oil pressure altogether is to schedule regular oil changes. This is the best way to allow a certified mechanic to evaluate your car regularly, and ensure it’s always working at its best.