Driving along without a care in the world when suddenly an ominous glowing oil can pops up on your dash? Uh oh. That low oil pressure warning light can definitely cause your heart to skip a beat or two.
But before you panic and pull off to the side of the road, take a deep breath. In many cases, low oil pressure can be an easy fix. This handy guide will walk you through the common causes of the low oil pressure light illumination so you can get back on the road again.
So the question is: What does that pesky low oil pressure warning light mean, and how can you make it go away for good?
In short, it means oil isn’t circulating through your engine properly. Low oil flow can lead to increased friction and wear. If ignored for too long it can lead to permanent damage. But in most cases it’s an easy fix—whether that means just adding some oil yourself or having a mechanic replace a faulty sensor.
This post will cover everything you need to keep your engine running smooth when that stubborn oil light rears its ugly head. We’ll go over:
- What causes low oil pressure
- How to diagnose the root cause
- Easy DIY fixes you can do yourself
- When you need to take it in to a pro
- How to prevent low oil pressure in the future
So grab your toolbox and let’s figure out what’s causing that nefarious glowing light!
Table of Contents
What Does Low Oil Pressure Mean For Your Engine?
Before we dive into the specifics, let’s go over some Oil Pressure 101 so you understand what that warning light indicates.
The oil pressure light is designed to illuminate when the oil pressure drops below the minimum threshold needed to properly lubricate your engine. Oil plays a crucial role inside the engine – it lubricates moving parts, reduces friction, and keeps everything running cool. So if there’s inadequate oil flow, the engine can’t function properly.
Low oil pressure means there is more friction and less cooling happening inside the engine. Parts that need oil aren’t getting enough of it. This lack of lubrication causes excess wear and strain on internal components.
If low oil pressure persists for too long, it will lead to permanent damage. Parts like bearings, journals and cylinder walls rely on constant oil lubrication. Without it, they’ll overheat, seize up and fail.
Ignoring that glowing oil light is like running a marathon without any water. Dangerous and damaging.
So in summary:
- The oil pressure light indicates flow is too low
- Low flow increases friction and wear inside engine
- If ignored, it can lead to permanent damage
- Need to determine root cause and fix quickly
Now let’s get into the specifics of why it’s happening in the first place.
7 Common Causes of Low Oil Pressure
There are a handful of usual suspects that can trigger your low oil pressure light to turn on. Here are the 7 most common culprits:
1. Low Oil Level
One obvious cause of low oil pressure is simply having low oil level in the crankcase. If there’s not enough oil in the system, flow and pressure will drop.
Common reasons for low oil levels include:
- Neglecting to change oil regularly – If you exceed the oil change interval, oil level may fall as contaminants accumulate.
- Oil leaks – External or internal leaks can lead to oil being lost, resulting in low levels.
- Burning/consuming oil – Some older engines may burn or consume oil over time, also diminishing oil reserves.
Thankfully this one is an easy DIY fix – just add more oil! Be sure to use the type and viscosity recommended by your vehicle manufacturer. Check the dipstick to ensure oil is filled to the proper level.
Adding oil should bring pressure back up once the system has time to fully circulate it. If the light persists, it likely points to another issue.
2. Faulty Oil Pressure Sensor/Switch
Another culprit can be a problem with the oil pressure sensor or switch itself. This sensor monitors pressure and triggers the warning light when it falls below normal.
The sensor may malfunction, giving a false reading and causing the light to illuminate even when pressure is in the normal range.
To rule out a faulty sensor, you or a mechanic can test it. Simple resistance tests can confirm if the sensor is functioning properly or intermittently failing.
Replacing the sensor will typically solve this issue if tests confirm it’s the problem.
3. Clogged Oil Pickup Tube
The oil pickup tube is responsible for collecting oil from the pan and feeding it to the pump for circulation. Debris can build up on the pickup screen, restricting oil from entering the tube. With less oil able to enter, pressure drops.
Fixing this issue involves removing the tube and thoroughly cleaning the screen. Removing any sludge, varnish or debris allows oil to flow freely again.
Be aware that a clogged tube can sometimes indicate bigger problems like an overheating engine or wearing parts. Address any underlying issues that may be causing debris buildup.
4. Worn Out or Failing Oil Pump
The oil pump pushes oil through the engine to maintain flow and pressure. Like any mechanical component, the pump can wear out over the course of its service life.
As internal clearances in the pump increase due to wear, it’s unable to generate as much pressure. Less force makes it hard to maintain adequate flow.
Diagnosing pump failure requires specialized tools to measure volume output and pressure generation. If tests indicate inadequate performance, the pump needs to be replaced. This typically requires removal and rebuilding of the oil pump.
5. Excessive Bearing Clearance
Bearings allow rotating parts like the crankshaft and camshaft to spin freely. But if clearances become excessive due to wear, oil can escape through the extra space. This reduces pressure.
Too much bearing clearance most often results from simple wear over high mileage. But it can also stem from overheating or lubrication issues.
Rebuilding or replacing worn bearings returns clearances to the proper spec. But the root problem like overheating should also be addressed.
6. Using the Wrong Oil Viscosity
Using oil that is thinner than the recommended viscosity can make it harder to maintain adequate pressure. Thinner oils can more easily escape bearings and clearances instead of remaining in the lubrication circuit.
Always use the exact viscosity of oil specified by the vehicle manufacturer – usually indicated in the owner’s manual or printed under the oil cap. Using the wrong viscosity oil is an easy mistake that can cause pressure issues.
7. Clogged Oil Filter
A clogged oil filter chokes the flow of fresh, filtered oil into the system. Restricting the supply flow diminishes pressure.
The solution is simple – just swap out the clogged filter for a new one. This restores full volume flow and pressure should return to normal levels.
Many auto parts stores have special tools to puncture and drain stuck filters. This avoids messy spillage when changing a clogged unit.
How to Diagnose the Exact Cause of Low Oil Pressure
Determining the specific reason your oil pressure is low can take some detective work. But these handy tips will help you narrow down the culprit:
Check Oil Level and Quality
Start simple by checking oil level and condition. This can identify obvious issues like low oil or contamination. Look for:
- Oil level on dipstick – Should be within operating range, not above or below the marks. Top off if needed.
- Oil clarity – Should be translucent brown/amber, not black or milky.
- Oil odor – Should have little scent, not burnt smells.
Odd color, detrimental smells or thick sludge point to oil break down and contamination. Change oil immediately in these cases.
Inspect for Leaks
Visually inspect the underside and exterior of engine for any oil leaks. Look near gaskets, seals, drain plug, filter housing, etc. Leaks can contribute to low pressure. Determine source and repair any external leaks before digging deeper.
Test Sensor Operation
Use a voltmeter to check for proper sensor output. Compare readings to manufacturer specs for minimum and maximum values. Faulty readings confirm sensor is bad.
Inspect Pickup Tube
Remove tube from oil pan and check for sludge or debris blocking screen. Clean thoroughly if present. Clogged screen chokes flow.
Measure Oil Pump Output
Use pressure and volume tests to verify pump is generating sufficient output. Compare results to factory service manual specs. Low pressure or volume indicates worn pump.
Check Bearing Clearances
Measure crankshaft and camshaft bearing clearances with precision gauges. Excessive clearance enables oil escape. Compare to manufacturer spec for maximum tolerance.
Following this diagnostic process will help you methodically rule out potential causes. Then you can zero in on the true culprit.
How to Fix Low Oil Pressure Yourself?
Alright, you’ve diagnosed the issue. Now it’s time to take action and get that pesky light turned off!
Here are some common fixes you may be able to tackle yourself as a DIY project:
If low oil level is the issue, top up the crankcase to the proper amount. Funnel in oil slowly and wait several minutes between adding oil to allow time for the dipstick reading to stabilize. Use the exact type of oil recommended for your vehicle.
Change Oil and Filter
Contaminated or dirty oil can lead to sludge that clogs passages and reduces pressure. Drain old oil and replace filter with a new one. Refill with fresh oil to restore clean circulation.
Clean Pickup Tube
Remove the tube from the oil pan, clean screen thoroughly with solvent/degreaser and a brush. Reinstall and ensure it seats and seals properly when re-attached.
If tests confirm sensor is bad, replace it. Locate the old sensor, unplug wiring harness, unscrew from engine block. Screw in new pressure sensor, reconnect wiring harness.
Fix External Leaks
Use gasket sealant,tighten fittings or replace worn seals and gaskets to fix any external oil leaks. Clean surrounding areas thoroughly after leaks are repaired.
These common DIY fixes resolve many low pressure issues and get the light turned off promptly. But for some repairs, the experts should handle it.
When to Take Your Vehicle to a Professional Mechanic
While many causes of low oil pressure can be fixed in your own garage, certain repairs do require a professional mechanic. Here are some instances when it pays to bring your car to the pros:
- Replacing oil pump – Requires removal and installation, special tools
- Rebuilding worn bearings – Precise machining needed
- Major engine repairs – Proper disassembly/reassembly to access parts
- Identifying root cause – Advanced diagnostic capabilities
The mechanic has the knowledge, skills and equipment needed for major repairs. Let them handle:
- Removing and rebuilding complex components
- Precision measurements and adjustments
- Advanced diagnostics like compression/leakdown testing
Don’t risk botching a major repair – leave it to certified professionals. The right diagnosis and fix the first time avoids extra costs and headaches.
How to Prevent Low Oil Pressure Problems?
The best solution is avoiding low oil pressure problems in the first place. Here are some tips:
Change Oil Regularly
Don’t exceed recommended intervals between oil changes. Used oil breaks down over time losing lubrication properties.
Check Level Frequently
Periodically peek at the dipstick to ensure oil is topped off. Add oil immediately if low.
Address Leaks Quickly
Inspect for external leaks which can slowly drain oil. Repair any leaks promptly to avoid ongoing pressure drops.
Use Correct Viscosity Oil
Consult owner’s manual for the specific oil viscosity your vehicle needs for optimal pressure and performance.
Fix Overheating Issues
Excessive heat accelerates oil break down. Diagnose and repair cooling system issues to maintain normal operating temperatures.
Listen for Noises
Unusual noises from bearings or valvetrain can indicate lubrication problems before warning lights come on. Investigate sounds right away.
Consider Higher Mileage Oils
As engines accumulate miles, high mileage oils with seal conditioners can help maintain pressure in worn engines.
Proper maintenance and care reduces the chances of encountering low oil pressure, along with many other driveability problems. With vigilance and regular upkeep, that pesky warning light can stay off for good!
Seeing an oil pressure warning light illuminate understandably triggers concerns. But in reality, low pressure is usually caused by a handful of common issues.
Armed with the knowledge this article provides, you can methodically diagnose the root cause in your vehicle. Many problems can be fixed with simple DIY repairs. But for major engine work, trust the job to professional technicians.
Catching and addressing low oil pressure promptly reduces risk of permanent damage. Take action as soon as the light pops on—your engine will thank you! With oil circulating freely again, you can breathe easy knowing all those moving parts are being properly lubricated.