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How To Tell If the Engine Is Damaged From No Oil

By Joe Ballard
Published on April 8th, 2024

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Most people don't understand the importance of the oil that keeps their engine running smoothly. If a warning light comes on or they hear strange sounds from under the hood, they immediately take the vehicle to the dealer or other professional to check it out.

How To Tell If the Engine Is Damaged From No Oil

If you are a DIYer, you know that, in many cases, it may not be necessary to call in the professionals because you understand the basics of what makes your vehicle tick.

In this article, I will explain the importance of engine oil, signs of low or no engine oil, and the potential damage that this can cause. Armed with this knowledge, you will be better equipped to prevent or at least quickly identify oil-related issues before they cause costly damage to your engine.

Why Oil Is Important for Lubricating the Engine

The primary duty of oil is lubrication, but it also serves as a cooling agent, a cleaner, and a safeguard against wear and tear. Oil deficiency, or complete lack of it, will take a serious toll on your engine if left unresolved.

The constant motion of internal engine components generates heat due to friction. Oil lubricates these internal components and disperses the heat to reduce wear and tear, consequently increasing engine life. But wait, there's more.

the importance of oil for car engines

Engine oil also reduces corrosion by utilizing antioxidant additives that are mixed into the oil. This cleaning action is another benefit of today's synthetic blend oils. The superior lubrication plus detergents in synthetic oil further optimize engine performance and ultimately ensure a long and uneventful life.

What Are the Most Common Signs of Low or No Engine Oil

Operating a vehicle with low oil or oil pressure can lead to severe issues that could cost thousands of dollars to repair. Fortunately, most vehicles have built-in early detection systems, but if yours doesn’t there are physical clues that will provide warning signs of oil-related issues. Let’s take a look at these warning signs:

  • The oil warning light pops up on your dashboard – this is your first indication that the oil pressure has dropped below the threshold. This is usually due to low oil pressure caused by a worn or damaged oil pump, a restricted oil passage caused by old oil and sludge, or even a bad oil pressure sensor. Many of the OBD2 scanners on the market will enable DIYers to check the oil level and oil life. The Innova® CarScan Pro 5610 OBD2 Scanner is excellent for performing those oil service checks. If the oil warning light comes on, do not ignore it. Pull over as soon as is safely possible and let your vehicle cool down. If you can access the engine compartment, look for any obvious signs of oil leaks.
oil warning light popped up
  • You suddenly smell oil burning – this is a distinctive odor usually caused by oil leaking onto a hot engine part like the exhaust manifold or exhaust pipe. It is almost always in the engine compartment. If caught early, it may not trigger the oil warning light, but finding and fixing the leak yourself or bringing it into the shop is still a good preventative measure.
  • The engine temperature warning light pops up on the dashboard – since engine oil is a lubricant and, by default, a coolant, it effectively minimizes heat by reducing friction. When there is insufficient oil, the cooling function is reduced, and the engine temperature will rise. Some issues that could cause this include damaged cam/crank/rod bearings. If you are a DIYer, the best course of action is to pull over and get the vehicle towed to your workshop so that you can search for and repair the issue.
  • Sudden unusual engine noise – the sounds may range from slightly ticking or tapping to loud knocking from the engine compartment. These are reasonable indications that the engine is not properly lubricated and that some engine components are coming into direct contact. If you hear weird sounds, it is a good idea to identify and fix it yourself or take it to a shop.
  • Reduction in engine performance – engine performance due to low engine oil may not happen suddenly but could happen over time. As engine heat increases, it becomes less efficient, which leads to both a reduction in fuel efficiency and overall power. Some signs include poor acceleration, excessive fuel consumption, and even stalling. You should not ignore these signs and take action to fix the issue before it becomes severe.
is your engine damaged from lack of oil?
  • You see some oil stains in your parking spot – oil stains under the vehicle are a sure sign of a leak somewhere in the engine. The cause could range from a leaky valve cover gasket to a more serious issue with the rear main seal. Whatever the issue, it is a good idea to identify and fix it yourself or bring it to a shop and put it on a lift.
  • You see smoke spewing from the exhaust pipe – smoke from the exhaust pipe due to an oil issue is usually blueish. A small amount of smoke is acceptable in most vehicles, but if it is thick and continuous, it is a cause for concern. This could be caused by oil seeping past internal components (like pistons), where the oil is burned in the cylinder chamber and produces smoke. If you see smoke, you need to identify and fix the problem as soon as possible. Hint: if oil leaks into the combustion chamber, you will see a buildup of burnt oil on the spark plug tips.

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The cornerstone of engine health is maintaining the correct oil levels. With this critical lubricant, you can avoid potentially serious issues that could cost more to repair than the vehicle is worth.

Always be mindful of the warning signs and take appropriate action to identify and fix the issues. Doing so will ensure that the partnership between your diligent care and the undervalued hero, your engine oil, will produce smooth, carefree operation over the long life of your engine.

Innova's mission is to make diagnostics easier for DIYers and mechanics alike. If you have questions, we encourage you to visit our community page or contact us! We are always looking for ways to improve your experience.

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