8 Symptoms of Low (or No) Engine Oil in Your Car

Oil brings life to your engine, but what happens when levels run low? Like blood draining from a beating heart, your motor loses its vital fluid. Without this vital lubrication, premature wear, overheating, and even complete failure loom.

Learning to recognize the symptoms of a low level of oil in your engine is something every car owner should know. If the signs point to no oil at all, it may already be too late but you still may be able to avoid catastrophic engine damage.

Related: Too Much Oil in Your Engine? (Here’s What Can Happen)

Why Engine Oil Matters

There’s good reason why the term “running like a well-oiled machine” exists. Proper engine lubrication is critical for any vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine (ICE). You might not think about it often, but motor oil is one of the most critical components in your vehicle.

Think of it this way: your car’s engine is like the heart of your vehicle, and engine oil is like the blood that keeps it pumping. Without proper lubrication, your engine would quickly become damaged from too much friction and heat between moving parts, leading to costly repairs and even complete engine failure.

But oil does even more than that. It also helps with fuel economy. Proper lubrication means there’s less friction and resistance between parts which in turn minimizes unnecessary fuel consumption.

A good analogy some of us can relate to is that engine oil is like a person’s joints. Just as joints need lubrication to reduce friction and prevent wear, your car’s engine needs engine oil to run efficiently.

Signs of Low Engine Oil

There are a few key indicators that can help you recognize when your vehicle is running without an adequate amount of oil in the engine or possible no oil at all. While some issues you may be able to ignore until it’s convenient for you, low engine oil needs to be addressed immediately.

#1 – Oil Pressure Light

low oil pressure warning light on

The simplest indicator of a low oil level is when the oil pressure warning light on the dashboard illuminates. There is a sensor which can sense when your vehicle’s oil pressure is too low. This sensor is connected to the warning light on the dashboard.

So, when the sensor detects low oil pressure, it automatically activates the warning light. If this happens to you, be sure to top off your oil level and then take your car to a repair shop or dealership if you find your oil level dropping again. They will need to find and fix any leaks that may exist.

Code P06DD regarding oil pressure control may also accompany the light.

See Also: 4 Common Oil Change Scams

#2 – Blue Smoke

A common sign of a low oil level is blue smoke coming from the exhaust or from the engine itself if the oil is leaking on hot metal components. This happens when oil is burning inside your engine.

If you notice blue smoke while driving, it’s a good idea to pull over to a safe location and check your oil level. So next time you’re running some errands and wondering why a car near you is blowing blue smoke… now you know.

#3 – Smell of Burning Oil

burning oil smell

This symptom typically coincides with the previous. If blue smoke means you’re burning oil, you’ll likely smell it too.

If the interior of your car starts to have a burning smell, particularly the smell of burnt oil, then pull your car off the road and immediately turn your engine off. This burning smell could be from an oil leak onto the hot components of your engine.

If you have a dipstick (some newer cars don’t), use it to check your oil level. If it shows that your oil is lower than the minimum level, you should avoid driving it until you top off with fresh motor oil. Failure to ignore this warning can cause expensive engine damage and even a fire.

Once you bring the oil level up to the recommended amount, be sure to monitor for leaks. If the oil level continues to slowly drop, have a mechanic check it out. It could be as simple as a leaking valve cover gasket or something more severe like a rear main seal leak.

#4 – Decreased Engine Performance

While there are dozens of problems related to the performance of your engine, low or no oil can be one cause. You may experience a loss of power, reduction in fuel economy, and even engine stalling.

All of these signs can be a result of inadequate lubrication in the engine, causing increased friction and wear on the moving parts. If you notice this symptom while driving, pay attention to the other symptoms in this article to help troubleshoot the problem.

#5 – Knocking Sounds

rattling noise

This symptom should only occur if you’ve neglected to do anything about the burning smell or warning light symptoms that were just mentioned.

If you continue to drive your vehicle even though it has a low level of oil, a knocking sound will be the final symptom before your engine completely seizes up.

The reason is because there is less oil to lubricate the engine parts. This will cause your engine’s rods to loosen as more friction develops. These rods are responsible for securing the pistons of the vehicle.

If these rods were to get too loose and break down, then you will be “throwing a rod.” As the rods are being thrown, the knocking noise will be heard coming from underneath the hood. After just a couple of hundred yards, the engine will halt and the rods will be thrown.

Remember that engine oil is more than just a lubricant for the engine’s parts. Oil also cleans and cools the engine too.

Signs of No Oil In Your Car

overheating temperature gauge

If you’re facing a situation where your car has absolutely no oil, it’s critical that you recognize the warning signs before your engine suffers catastrophic damage. The symptoms below will generally not appear if you are merely low on oil.

#1 – Clicking and Clunking Noises

These sharp noises may sound like metal grinding against metal. Oil lubricates all the moving parts in your engine, keeping it running smoothly. If there’s no oil, it can cause an increase in friction and wear among the components. These sounds will be how you know and at this point, the damage may have already been done.

#2 – Engine Overheating

A fully functioning cooling system is necessary to maintain your vehicle’s temperature. However, engine oil also helps in regulating heat and cooling down areas where coolant can’t reach.

When there’s no oil, your engine is prone to overheating due to the increased friction when metal components within your engine make contact with each other.

#3 – Loud Grinding or Clunking

Failure to lubricate vital engine components due to no oil can lead to loud and unsettling grinding or clunking sounds. It’s a dangerous situation, so refrain from starting your car with low oil levels.

Driving with zero oil in your car is extremely risky and could result in complete engine failure. If you’ve gotten to the point of having no oil in your engine, you likely have a severe leak or long standing minor leak that has not been addressed.

Causes of Low Engine Oil

oil puddle on driveway

Oil Leaks

Leaks can occur in various parts of your engine, including the oil pan, valve cover gasket, and oil cooler lines. If you notice oil spots on the ground under your vehicle or see evidence of oil on the engine components, it’s a sign that there’s a leak you should address.

Infrequent Oil Changes

Not changing your engine oil according to the manufacturer’s recommendations can also lead to low oil levels. Over time, motor oil breaks down, loses its lubricating properties, and becomes contaminated with dirt and debris. It can even go bad after a certain amount of time. All of this can result in increased engine wear and the eventual depletion of the oil supply.

Worn-Out Oil Pump

A bad oil pump may lead to low oil pressure and poor oil circulation within the engine. The oil pump is responsible for pumping oil to all necessary parts, and if it’s not working correctly, your engine may not be getting adequate lubrication.

Keep an eye out for the symptoms of a failing oil pump and replace it if necessary before your oil situation gets worse.

Clogged Oil Filter

An oil filter’s purpose is to remove contaminants and impurities from the oil, ensuring optimal engine performance. Over time, the filter can become clogged with debris, restricting the flow of oil and potentially causing low oil levels.

Make sure to replace your oil filter according to your vehicle’s recommended maintenance schedule. To make it easy, simply replace the oil filter at the same time as you change your oil. You are changing your oil at regular intervals, right?

Mark Stevens

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