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Why Is My Oil Light On?

November 1, 2021

When a little light comes on in your dashboard display, it often means trouble. Warning lights are used to signal that something is not right with your car. Fortunately, these beacons of bad news do not light up very often. But it can be unnerving when they do, especially when the icon you see is a red oil can shining at you.

But is it really a big deal when the oil light comes on? Do you need to worry about how long it stays on? And why does it come on in the first place?

Which oil light?

Perhaps the first question that needs to be answered is which oil light do you see? There are often two different lights used by vehicle manufacturers to alert drivers to two separate but related issues with an engine.

First is the oil change reminder light . This icon is basically a replacement for the old-school sticker that an oil change service might affix to your windshield to let you know when it is time to change your oil again. If your vehicle is equipped with a maintenance reminder system, it is quite possible that a dashboard icon is used to let you know when it is time for your next oil change . Not all vehicles with reminders use an icon – some rely on a notification through the navigation display or touch screen (others may show a notice in a box near the speedometer) – but if yours does have a reminder light, it will likely show up in yellow. When you see it come on, know that it is about time for fresh motor oil.

The other oil light, the oil warning light , is not so benign. It is there to let you know there is a problem with the lubrication system – possibly the most important feature of your engine. This light looks something like a genie’s lamp with a drop coming out of the spout. The icon lights up red to let you know it is really important. And it is really important. Without oil, your engine would quickly deteriorate inside and significant damage could occur.

(Read What Happens When You Skip Oil Changes to Save Money )

The causes of an oil warning light

When the oil warning icon lights up, your car is telling you that the oil pressure has dropped. The oil pump forces lubricant throughout your engine to coat all of the moving metal parts inside. When the pressure drops, there is not enough fluid being pumped through your engine.

Probably the most common reason for low oil pressure is when the oillevel drops. Although engine oil is not meant to dissipate with use, many engines are known for losing oil (or “burning oil”) naturally during combustion; as much as a quart of oil between oil changes is not uncommon and is actually considered to be fairly normal for some engines. Your oil level could also drop due to an oil leak , either internally or externally. If it leaks on the outside, you may notice a telltale puddle under the front of your vehicle.

Another cause of low oil pressure is when the oil pump is not working as it should. The oil pump is located at the bottom of your engine inside the oil pan. Sometimes the pump goes bad. Other times it gets clogged at its intake tube due to dirt or sludge in the oil. Either way, it will be unable to circulate a sufficient amount of oil through your engine.

Sometimes the reason an oil warning light comes on is merely a faulty oil pressure sensor . The fix for a bad oil pressure sensor is fairly simple. Unfortunately, there is no way for you to know that the problem is with the sensor and not low oil pressure when the light comes on.

Can I drive with the oil light on?

Because there is no way of knowing for sure why an oil light is on, you should not drive your car

until you have had it checked out by a qualified technician. The consequences of operating your engine with too little oil or low oil pressure can be catastrophic. Sure, some repairs (like a new oil pump) can be costly, but nowhere near the cost of a new engine! And that is what you could be looking at if you drive with the oil light on.

At least, that is what can happen with the oil warning light. When it comes to the oil change reminder light, going over the recommended mileage between oil changes is not nearly so critical. In fact, you could occasionally miss the mark by as much as a thousand miles and not cause any serious harm to your engine – as long as it has enough oil. And if you opt for synthetic oil, you might even be able to take advantage of extended oil change intervals.

How do I know if my oil is low?

To make sure that your engine has enough oil inside at all times, make sure to check it regularly. You can find instructions in your vehicle owner’s manual for how to do so. Essentially, you pull a dipstick from the engine and observe whether or not the oil falls in a range between two marks on the stick. If it is in the normal range, your engine should be good. If the level is low, you should add fresh oil until the dipstick reads at the full mark.

Some auto owners wonder if they need to use the manufacturer’s oil to “top off” their engine. The answer is yes and no. Yes, in that you should stick with the same viscosity or grade of motor oil with the same rating as the factory oil. No, when it comes to the brand of oil. As for the type of oil, synthetic vs. regular , if your engine had synthetic from the factory, you need to stick with synthetic. Otherwise, you can choose the lower-cost conventional oil or the advanced properties of synthetic motor oil.

If it is getting close to time for your next oil change, then put it on your schedule at your convenience. On the other hand, if you suspect that your car is losing oil and oil pressure, schedule as soon as possible. And if you see the oil warning light come on, park your car and have it inspected ASAP.

Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash | Author: Mike Ales | Copyright 

This article is intended only as a general guidance document and relying on its material is at your sole risk. By using this general guidance document, you agree to defend, indemnify and hold harmless Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash and its affiliates from and against any and all claims, damages, costs and expenses, including attorneys’ fees, arising from or related to your use of this guidance document. To the extent fully permissible under applicable law, Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, as to the information, content, or materials included in this document. This reservation of rights is intended to be only as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the laws of your State of residence.

COLUMBIA AUTO CARE & CAR WASH
|
Copyright

This article is intended only as a general guidance document and relying on its material is at your sole risk. By using this general guidance document, you agree to defend, indemnify and hold harmless Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash and its affiliates from and against any and all claims, damages, costs and expenses, including attorneys’ fees, arising from or related to your use of this guidance document. To the extent fully permissible under applicable law, Columbia Auto Care & Car Wash makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, as to the information, content, or materials included in this document. This reservation of rights is intended to be only as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the laws of your State of residence.