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Identifying Common Oil Leaks

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The motor oil in your car is responsible for lubricating the internal parts of the engine and ensuring that they operate smoothly. Improper lubrication can lead to excessive wear over time, which can ultimately result in expensive repairs to the internal mechanical parts of your car's engine. Even worse, small oil leaks will generally get worse over time, and an unmonitored leak can lead to engine oil levels becoming dangerously low. If this happens, your engine may lose sufficient oil pressure, which is then likely to lead to sudden and catastrophic damage.

Because of the importance of motor oil, even small oil leaks should be treated seriously. Although every car is different, there are a few basic pieces of information that may be helpful in determining why your car seems to be losing oil.

Is it a Leak?

Of course, the first question you should be asking is whether your car is leaking oil at all. If you have noticed blue or gray smoke emitting from your exhaust, then it is likely that your engine is burning oil rather than losing it. Although technically a leak, the leak is internal to your car's motor as oil is somehow making its way into the combustion chamber. This is a much more serious problem that is unfortunately unlikely to be cheap to address.

If there are no signs of burning oil, then your next step is to evaluate whether or not there are obvious signs of oil leakage. If possible, take a look under your car. Never get under the car if it is only supported by a jack, however. Always take proper precautions and use a lift, jack stands, or secure ramps when inspecting your car's undercarriage. Oil can often make its way rearward as the car drives, so you may be surprised to find signs of oil behind the engine itself.

A smell of burning oil from under the hood is another common sign of an oil leak, and a good clue as well. If you notice this symptom, check for areas where oil may be dripping onto the exhaust. Always be safe and avoid getting close to your car's exhaust until the car has cooled entirely.

It Could Be Your Filter or Plug

The easiest and cheapest oil leaks are filter or plug leaks. Your oil plug is simply the bolt that is removed to allow oil to drain from your engine, and they usually include a basic crush washer to seal them against the oil pan. An improperly tightened plug or bad washer can cause the leak, and depending on how bad the situation is, this can be anything from a barely imperceptible drip to a major problem. Likewise, an improperly tightened filter or a filter with a bad gasket may leak as well.

Checking both of these items should be relatively straightforward, and it's likely that your owner's manual will point you in the right direction. If these turn out to be the problem you should consider yourself lucky as both problems are very cheap and simple to fix.

It's Probably a Gasket

So which parts are most likely to cause a leak? That answer is going to vary drastically between car models, but gaskets are a very common failure point. Gaskets seal various components of your car's engine together and are the magic that keeps oil (and other fluids) from leaking out. Gaskets are often exposed to the full heating and cooling cycle of your engine, and this can often lead to them failing over time. This is especially true of rubber gaskets, which can plasticize as they are exposed to heat and ultimately become brittle and crack.

In many cars, the most common gaskets to leak oil are the valve cover gasket, oil pan gasket, or oil filter housing gasket. If your car seems to have a relatively minor leak, it is worth attempting to locate these items in your engine bay and checking for signs of a leak nearby. These parts are generally very cheap, but depending on where they are located, replacing them may be a difficult do-it-yourself job or an expensive trip to the mechanic.

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