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Why Is My Car Burning Oil?


If your car is burning oil, it may be doing so inside the engine block or or outside of the engine block depending on where your oil leak is. In most scenarios where a car is “burning” oil it is because a component meant to be oil tight is no longer functioning properly. In some cases a car is just using more oil than you think it should be, but if you smell a new odor or see smoke coming from your car, you may have engine oil in areas it shouldn’t be and those parts are extremely hot.

Oil leaks are not to be taken lightly. Not only is the oil flammable and a fire hazard, the oil leak is also harmful to your car and the environment.

An oil leak should be addressed as soon as the issue is identified in your car. The most common reasons a car is leaking, and therefor burning oil are:

  • Broken Gaskets
  • Broken Seals
  • Damaged Oil Filter
  • Damaged Oil Pans
  • Oil Plan Plug Was Improperly Installed Or Is Dislodged
  • A Blown Head Gasket
  • Bad Engine Block Seals
  • Incorrect oil viscosity

Oil Burning Internally In Your Engine

If your car is burning oil, it is likely because some of the parts of your vehicle are worn out, like the valve seals, gaskets or piston rings. These are the components of the car that keep the oil trapped on the working parts, but out of the combustion chamber. The combustion chamber is exactly what it sounds like, the place where the fuel is ignited using the spark plugs to provide power to the car through the pistons.

If the seals on your engine components like the head gasket are not working properly, the oil within them will seep into other parts of the engine and subsequently catch fire. Burning oil is a serious fire hazard and should be immediately addressed once noticed.

Oil Burning Outside Of The Engine

If you have an oil burning issue that is taking place outside of the engine, it is likely leaking and just finding a hot surface to land on. External oil burning tends to be more obvious because you can smell the oil burning.

Reasons Your Car Is Burning Oil From Oil Leaks

  • Broken Gaskets
  • Broken Seals
  • Damaged Oil Filter
  • Damaged Oil Pans
  • Oil Plan Plug Was Improperly Installed Or Is Dislodged
  • A Blown Head Gasket
  • Bad Engine Block Seals
  • Incorrect oil viscosity

Broken Gasket Or Seal

The engine gasket is the component meant to prevent oil spilling out from the parts it should be on to other parts of the engine. Gaskets over time can malfunction or gap. They are exposed to high temperatures and over time may shift shape due to heating and cooling.

The fuel combustion in your car that gives the engine power to move the car forward burn at temperatures around 495 degrees F, which is hot enough that the metal parts of the engine, and their seals do some serious expanding.

When the car is parked, it will return to around the same temperature as the outside air. So these engine parts are exposed to temperatures with a 400 degree swing and sometimes even more!

When parts expand and contract, it leaves room for gaps in the seals and lower engine pressure, which can cause oil leaks. You can diagnose if your seals or gaskets are the issue by taking your car into a mechanic and having your oil leak problem diagnosed.

How Much Will A Broken Gasket Cost To Fix

Fixing a broken seal or gasket will cost you on average about $750 to replace.

Damaged Oil Filter Or Damaged Oil Pan

A damaged oil filter or even an oil pan can cause oil leaks in your vehicle. These issues are typically due to poor maintenance or bad driving conditions.

Cars can sustain damage to their oil pan by driving on uneven surfaces or hitting road debris. I hit part of a lawn chair a few years ago and ended up damaging mine. A damaged oil pan will typically cause a fast leak, which will give you a telling sign, large puddle of oil. Once an oil pan is damaged it will need to be replaced to keep the car from leaking oil.

Oil Pan Plug Is Damaged Or Dislodged

In some cases an oil pan plug can become damaged or dislodged. You can fix this issue yourself for less than $5.

A similar is issue can be caused by an oil pan plug that happens to be dislodged or not put in properly. If not fully tightened, an oil plug will cause a leak. Fixing this issue is relatively simple, the oil pan plug just needs to be reinstalled.

If the oil pan plug is damaged this is a different story, you can remove the plug and replace it with a rubber plug temporarily, however the steel thread will need to be replaced with a plug that is standard for the make and model of your car. You can also put in a new drain pan. But it will cost you.

If you are curious about learning more about your oil drain plug, check out this 5 minute video from Cars That Last. Having a visual representation of what these parts look like and how they are repaired can be incredibly helpful when deciding how to repair your own vehicle. Check out the video below.

A Blown Head Gasket

A blown head gasket is a serious situation that will cost you well over $1000 to repair. One of the symptoms is that the car will burn oil.

The car will also generally produce white smoke, the radiator and coolant may be bubbling, and the oil will have a white residue. You will also see your car is suffering from overheating.

A blown head gasket is a very serious issue and the car will not be in the condition to drive. Driving a car with a blown head gasket may not be possible at all and definitely not without causing further damage.

Usually the head gasket will only warp when your car overheats. Overheating in most cases is caused by a lack of coolant, an improperly functioning water pump or damaged radiator. Coolant is a vital fluid to have in your vehicle to prevent costly repairs.

If you’ve blown a head gasket, we hope your car is under warranty because this repair will be expensive! The cost of this repair is around $1500 dollars.

Engine Block Seal

The engine block seals could also be the culprit behind your leaking oil problem and this is a common issue to have if you have an older vehicle. Over time the oil will break down the seals in the vehicle.

The engine block seals are rubber and may have deteriorated to the point that they no longer function effectively. If this is your issue, it will be the top of the engine block where the leak is taking place.

Fixing the engine block seals can be very expensive not so much because of the part, seals are relatively inexpensive, but the labor costs of working on a vehicle engine will cost you up to a thousand dollars.

Camshaft Seals

Most modern vehicles do not have a timing belt, the timing belt is a relatively antiquated part that was replaced by the sturdier timing chain. Previously the timing belt on vehicles needed to be be replaced every 100,000 miles or so or the timing belt breaking could destroy the entire engine. Many older cars still have a timing belt, mine does.

If your car has a timing belt, the camshaft seal could be your leaking component! Similarly to the crankshaft, your car’s camshafts are on the interior portion of the engine. The seal sits at the end of each camshaft and prevents oil from leaking out of the end and into the rest of the engine where it will burn.

If the camshaft is your issue, one of the signs is that you will find oil on the rear of the engine just below the valve cover. You may also get smoke pouring out of the engine. In some cases it is smoke you can smell but not see.

Front And Rear Crankshaft Seals

The crankshaft is another internal engine component that like the camshaft, sticks out from the engine. Similarly to the camshaft the ends of the crankshaft has seals that keeps the oil in to prevent it from leaking an burning.

Over time these rubber seals deteriorate as they are exposed to extreme heat and oil. They eventually cannot do their job of sealing the engine. When these seals break, the oil will leak into the front of the engine and it will usually cause in the vehicle burning oil which will produce smoke or smells.

If a crankshaft seal leak is small, oil may start to accumulate on the underside of the engine. But if it’s a large leak, there may be a visible oil leak in the front of the engine that may leak oil onto the ground. You may notice the leak when the car is parked. Pools of oil under your parked car are a sure sign that your vehicle needs to see a mechanic.

Timing Cover Gasket Seal

Only older vehicles have timing belts, most modern vehicles have a timing chain which is much more durable. The timing chain is lubricated with oil. The timing chain is protected by the timing cover. The timing cover gasket and seal keep the oil sealed into the timing cover.

Like the other seals we’ve discussed, the timing cover gasket is made of rubber that will eventually break down and leak.

If oil is leaking from the center of the engine near the front, it is typically a timing cover leak. But a mechanic will need to inspect your vehicle to determine whether the timing cover or timing cover gasket needs to be replaced to address your oil leak.

Incorrect Oil Viscosity

It is possible that you are also simply using the incorrect oil in your vehicle. Different oils have different viscosities, which is the resistance to flow, but it is much more simple to think of this as a thicker fluid. Lower viscosity means the oil will be thinner and will be easier to run. So if a seal is meant to hold a highly viscous fluid and a thinner fluid is added, you can imagine that there may be leaks.

To check the proper viscosity for the oil that you are using, you can check your oil filler cap. The proper levels are usually printed on the cap. You can also find the oil requirements for your vehicle listed in the owner’s manual. Keep in mind that some manufacturers will want you to change the viscosity of the oil depending on what the outside temperatures are.

Is It Bad To Drive A Car That Burns Oil?

It is not advisable to drive a car that burns oil for a few reasons:

  • If the leak is severe you may not have enough oil in your engine.
  • A car that is burning oil is at higher risk of being a fire hazard.
  • You can prematurely damage other parts of your vehicle.

When you drive a car with an oil leak, the problem can quickly become more severe. You should not drive a car with an oil leak unless it is directly to a mechanic to diagnose the issue. If left untreated, the car will continue to leak and drain itself of oil which can lead to more internal damage. Driving a car without oil will be detrimental to the mechanical health of the car. Without oil, you can burn out your engine which will likely total your car. A new engine block will cost $4,000 to $5,000 to replace and install.

Another reason to get your car to the mechanic ASAP is that a car leaking oil is a fire hazard. Your car uses controlled explosions in the engine to move it forward, but the oil shouldn’t ever be burned. If the oil in your car catches fire either from high heat or from a spark, you could have a vehicle fire which could destroy the vehicle. Cars on fire explode and this is obviously a huge safety hazard. You can burn down your home if the car is parked in your garage.

Finally, burning oil can degrade engine parts that aren’t meant to be exposed to them. Seals and hoses made out of rubber shouldn’t be covered in oil. The cost of replacing these parts should they become damaged is upwards of $750.

It is not advisable to drive your car with a leak, unless it is a minor leak and the car has plenty of oil in it and you are taking it just a short distance to the mechanic. Other than these conditions, do not drive a car with an oil leak.

Should You Buy A Car That Burns Oil?

It depends on who you are and what the issue is. Below, you’ll find a chart that outlines all of the potential costs to issues that may be causing the vehicle to burn oil.

You definitely shouldn’t buy the car if you don’t know what the issue is. If the engine block is cracked you could be spending $3,200 or more to replace it. You should always have a car inspected BEFORE you purchase it

Take the car into a mechanic that you pick out (not the owner of the car) and get the vehicle looked over. Once you know the full story about how mechanically sound the car is you can make the decision of whether or not to purchase the car. If the owner agrees to repair all damages to the vehicle before selling, then a Kelley Blue Book price for similar vehicles in your area would be the maximum amount that I would pay.

If the owner wants to sell the car as is, I would get an estimate for the repairs from the mechanic and subtract that amount from the fair value of the car to find your purchase price.

How Much Does It Cost To Fix A Car That Burns Oil?

The cost of repairing a car that is burning oil can vary depending on what the exact issue is. A range of $35 to $1500 is what you can expect to pay, but until you know what the issue is you can’t estimate cost.

The size of the leak and the location plays a big role in determining price of repair. A car that is burning oil can come from a variety of causes. The fix to your leak can be as simply as replacing an oil filter or as complex as replacing an entire blown head gasket. On average, repair costs for a vehicle burning oil will be about $600.

This average is high because of how expensive some oil repairs are. A blown head gasket is going to top off at the high end of that range where as a broken filler cap will cost you only $100. The cost of repairs will also be impacted by how long it took you to make repairs and how serious the damage is to your vehicle.

If your leak is major and you drove your cars for hundreds and hundreds of miles without proper oil levels you may have serious repairs to your engine block on top of whatever is causing your leak.

It goes without saying that the les the damage, the less significant of a repair and the less you will spend repairing the car. If you want an accurate assessment you have to get the car diagnosed because the causes of an oil leak vary so widely.

Cause Of Oil BurningAverage Cost Of Oil Burning Repairs
Blown Head Gasket$1,500
Damaged Oil Pan$1,100
Cracked Engine Block Repair$3,200
Engine Replacement$4,500
Degraded Seals$750
Damaged Oil Filter$50
Broken Filler Car$100

Why Is My Car Losing Oil But Not Leaking Oil?

If an engine is losing oil but not leaking it onto the ground, it is likely that your car is catching the oil somewhere internally and burning it. A car get’s extremely hot under the hood and any one of the engine parts produces enough heat to burn the oil. Another cause of this is an engine that is wearing out and is using oil more quickly than it should. Get your car to a mechanic to have this phenomenon diagnosed.

Oil Consumption Varies From Vehicle To Vehicle

Cars go through their oil over time, it is difficult to prevent, however there are really no guidelines for how much oil your car should be burning, just when the oil should be changed. For some vehicles it may be completely normal to burn more than a quart of oil every 1000- 1500 miles. Other vehicles can go 3x that mileage on a quart of oil.

If your car has fewer than 50,000 miles on it and you change your oil according to manufacturer instructions, you shouldn’t be burning more than a quart of oil between them. Every car will be different, but a car requiring a quart of oil less than every 2,000 miles could be a sign that you have a leak. Some leaks are incredibly visible and oil will pool under your parked car. In other cases, however, the leak will not be seen but can be smelled as the oil catches fire on a hot part of the vehicle.

As a car ages, oil consumption will increase. Newer cars are also using lower viscosity oil which makes oil leaks actually more common as the vehicle ages and the seals get older.

Low Quality Oil Can Increase Oil Consumption

If you are using a lower quality oil this may be causing an increase in oil consumption as well. Some oils have less heat resistance and will deteriorate prematurely changing the viscosity of the oil and causing a leak.

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