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How bad is your oil leak?

So your car leaks a little bit of oil.  How big of a deal is that?  If you drive into the nearest apartment complex you will see oil stains in just about every parking spot.  If everyone’s car leaks oil, it must not be a big deal … right?  Maybe, but are you willing to bet a new motor for your vehicle on that?

In reality, it depends on a few different factors:

  • Leak size and location
  • Time or miles driven per day
  • Engine oil capacity

First, it depends on the size and location of the oil leak. Some leaks will drip while the engine is running, while others will leak whether the car is running or just sitting parked.  It also depends on how much you drive.  For some leaks this will mean more oil lost, but for all leaks, the more you drive, the sooner you will have the oil supply in your engine replenished to the proper level during an oil change.  Lastly, it depends on how much oil your car engine holds.  If you have a 100 series Land Cruiser with the giant straight 6 motor that holds almost 9 quarts of oil, a small drip will not affect the oil level much.  On the other hand, if you have a Saturn sedan with a 4 cylinder motor, a few days of dripping may significantly affect oil level.

The goal in the end is to maintain a safe oil level in your vehicle’s engine.  A proper oil level will ensure the oil pump can draw oil up from the oil pan, and push it through the oil filter so it can be distributed to the important moving parts in the engine.  A proper oil level will also ensure proper lubrication of the crank shaft, connection rods, pistons and piston rings.  Lastly, especially in performance motors or heavy duty trucks, engine oil can reach high temperatures during heavy loading and a proper oil level can ensure the oil does not get over heated and break down.

Given that the severity of your oil leak depends on so many factors that cannot be determined by looking at the size of the puddle left, or number of drips you see, it is important to regularly check your engine oil level on your dip stick.  This is the best way to make sure your engine is safe to operate.  Also, if you check your engine oil level at a regular interval, it can help you determine the severity of your oil leak, or if you know you don’t have any leaks, how much oil your engine is burning while it’s running.  Some oil consumption is normal, depending on the make and model of your car, but you still should never let your oil level drop below the minimum level.

A good interval to start checking your oil at is once per week.  Set a specific time of day or location to help you remember.  If you check your oil for 4 consecutive weeks without seeing a significant change, you can consider checking it every other week, or once per month.  At a minimum, check your oil once per month and before any long trips.

If you notice your oil level steadily dropping during your regular checks look for oil stains on the ground after it has been parked for more than an hour.  Also, you can look at the bottom of the engine to see if there are any oil spots or drips.  Trace the oil leak up to the highest point to determine the source.  If you notice a significant drop (more than ¼ of the dip stick) in a week’s time, check carefully for new leaks or other problems.

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