Engine Oil: What Is It And How To Tell If It Is Leaking

Oil dip stick

How to spot an oil leak

Fluid under your car is always alarming – unless you have a very small dog or your aircon was working overtime and the condensation is dripping. If you notice any discoloured patches under your car in its normal parking spot, pay attention. It could be brake fluid, transmission fluid or steering fluid. Have it checked out soon. But the biggie is oil.

An oil leak is unmistakable, normally dark and under your engine, oily and dusty. Oil leaks are serious and need attention as soon as possible. Your car’s engine is the most important part of your car. Without enough oil, regularly changed, your engine will stop working and you will be left with an empty wallet or a very small lounge on wheels.

Your engine is made up of many close-fitting moving parts. Your engine oil was specifically designed to lubricate these moving parts. Running with dirty, old oil or with very low oil for even a very short time can drastically reduce the life of your engine. But lubrication is not its only job.

Engine oil is made up of a base hydrocarbon or synthetic oil, with lots of additives that do specific jobs. Antiwear additives are obvious, but there are also things that clean away sludge buildup, neutralise acids from the fuel, improve the sealing of piston rings and help cool the engine by carrying away heat from the moving parts.

So your engine oil is quite complex and works very hard, a dynamic mixture of critical chemicals that operate in a hostile environment. Changes in temperature, workload, pressure, all these break down oil over time. The first thing is to change your oil regularly. An analogy is chip oil – you can use it so many times before it starts looking gunky, turns darker and develops an old oil smell. Ditto your car’s oil, but in spades. Look in your car’s manual to find out how often you need to change this. Normally it will give you the minimum of either kilometres or time since the last change. These usually coincide with your service intervals, something like 15 000km or 12 months.

As long as you stick to the recommended intervals, you are sorted. But if you have an oil leak, the whole equation changes. It can be serious, or it can start off pretty innocuous. Note the words “start off” in the previous sentence.

What Causes Oil Leaks?

Your oil is kept out of sight by the oil pan and gaskets. If you often drive on dirt roads, flying gravel and other debris can damage these components and cause a leak. Similarly, if the pan or gaskets are improperly installed, uneven tightening distribution can distort them. Likewise, a loosely fitted oil filter can cause a leak.

Defective valve seals and rings in your oil system can also lead to leaks. The older your car, the greater the chance of a worn component that could cause a leak.

However, sometimes the nature of the leak does not lead to visible stains in your parking bay. If you smell burning oil whilst driving or white smoke emits from your exhaust pipe, your problem could be worn or damaged piston rings or other expensive components.

Check your oil regularly. If you need to top up every couple of months, you will have a leak somewhere.

Every time you ask the petrol attendant to check your oil or fill up the windscreen reservoir, get out and have a look at your engine. Leaked oil on your engine is unmistakable. It could be quite minor, like a small leak in the tappet cover gasket, but you still have to check it out.

If you suspect you have an oil leak or any other problem with your car, take it to your friendly dealer and ask them to have a look for you. They will be only too glad to do so and you can fix the problem or drive off with peace of mind about the health of your engine.

Comments are closed.