How do I know if my car is burning oil?

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How do you know if your car is burning oil
Stranded on the side of the road, a man stares at the smoke billowing out of his car’s engine.
Sell Salvaged Vehicle
By
Doug Whiffin
Doug Whiffin
National Automotive Buyer and Second-In-Command Manager
April 26, 2024
6
minute read

A car burning oil is a tragedy waiting to happen. Here’s what to do.

In our experience, people typically don’t search the internet for help with burning engine oil as a preemptive measure. We’re going to guess that you suspect something’s wrong with your engine right now.

We will teach you how to tell if your vehicle (car, truck, ute, etc) is burning oil and what you can do — right now — to make it safe. We’ll also explain some of the reasons why engines burn oil and what it costs to repair them.

If burning oil damage renders your vehicle irreparable, unroadworthy or dangerous, you’ll have to get rid of it. Sell your salvage car to 1800 Salvage, and we’ll turn your sudden tragedy into an instant-payout triumph.

An image of the oil pressure light on a car’s dashboard. If your motor oil pressure dashboard warning light turns on, but you can’t find any signs of an oil leak, the oil will likely be entering the combustion chamber and burning off.

3 signs your car is burning engine oil

If you’re currently in the middle of a potential emergency and suspect an engine oil problem, look for these signs.

1. The signal

If your motor oil pressure dashboard warning light turns on, but you can’t find any signs of an oil leak, the oil will likely be entering the combustion chamber and burning off.

Walk around your car and look for oil leaks. It may dribble out of your exhaust pipe or from under your car. Check under the hood as well. If you can’t find a leak, the oil must go somewhere — possibly into the engine.

Excessive oil consumption is another potential sign of burning: take note if your car constantly and quickly runs low on oil immediately after an oil change.

2. The smell

Burning engine oil has an extremely pungent, confronting smell. It is profoundly unpleasant and immediately noticeable. It’s hard to be specific about that burning oil smell, but ‘hot and very bad’ should suffice.

So, if a ‘hot and very bad’ smell erupts from your car’s engine block or starts flooding into your car’s cabin, then there’s a high chance of oil burning in the engine.

3. The smoke

If your engine is burning too much oil at once, then it’ll produce plumes of smoke, which might stream out from under the hood of your car or even out of your exhaust pipe. 

The smoke created by burning engine oil is visibly distinct from regular exhaust smoke; oil smoke has a uniquely blue tint to it, as opposed to the grey colour of exhaust fumes. 

If you see blue smoke, there’s no doubt your car has an oil-burning problem.

An image of blue fumes coming out of a car’s exhaust pipe. The smoke created by burning engine oil is visibly distinct from regular exhaust smoke; oil smoke has a uniquely blue tint to it, as opposed to the grey colour of exhaust fumes.

What to do if you notice the signs of burning oil

If you suspect your engine oil is burning, you need to get your car to a mechanic as soon as possible.

But how?

While we would not say it’s safe to drive a car burning its engine oil, it is technically possible for a very short trip. If your oil pressure light has just come on, and you don’t see any leaks or smoke, you can top up your engine oil and drive straight to your mechanic. Do not take detours or run errands — go directly to the repair shop.

If you notice a leak or smoke, don’t risk the drive. Contact a tow truck and let them take your vehicle to your preferred mechanic.

If you’re currently worried about the state of your car, then we hope the advice we’ve just given has come in handy. Now that your car’s with your mechanic, let’s keep learning.

How does a car burn oil?

As a quick reminder, engine oil is a lubricant that keeps the components in your car’s engine moving smoothly. Engine oil is not supposed to enter the engine's combustion chamber, where fuel is turned into the energy that drives your vehicle.

If your car is burning oil, it means that some component or process has failed or worn out, causing the lubricant to enter the engine, or at the very least to spill onto a burning hot component (like the combustion cylinder walls). Here are some of the ways this could happen.

  • You’ve got high oil pressure
    It’s possible to overfill your car with engine oil. If that happens, the pressure your running car creates can force that excess oil to leak.
  • A defect with a control module
    Your car has control modules (such as the Powertrain control module) that control and monitor different processes, including oil levels. A defect might cause a leak.
  • A loose or faulty oil filter cap
    This cap shuts the valve into which you pour fresh engine oil. If the cap is defective in some way or wasn’t screwed back tightly, the oil can leak.
  • A broken seal
    If the seals around oil galleries slip or tear, they can let oil leak. The real problems start if the valve seal is damaged; this is the seal that prevents oil from leaking directly into the engine cylinders.
  • A broken PCV valve
    The Positive Crankcase Ventilation valve helps regulate the combustion gases inside the engine cylinders. If the valve is damaged in any way, it may start to suck lubricant engine oil into the engine’s air intake.

While there are other causes for oil burning, we’ve found these to be the most common ones.

So, how do you solve these problems?

A closeup of a mechanic’s hands as they pull out a car’s oil filter. The more oil your engine has burned, the greater the damage will be. The oil can ruin several critical components, including spark plugs and catalytic converters — it can even destroy the engine entirely.

How do you fix a car that burns oil? It’ll be expensive.

The more oil your engine has burned, the greater the damage will be. The oil can ruin several critical components, including spark plugs and catalytic converters — it can even destroy the engine entirely.

The cost of repairs will depend on the cause of the damage and how early you’ve caught the problem. For example, a good mechanic can fix a leaky piston ring by switching your oil to a synthetic variant with additives that prevent leaks. 

Depending on the level of engine damage, you could be looking at a bill that stretches into the thousands of dollars.

If you’re able to accept your mechanic’s quote for repairs, then you’re set. But what do you do if your car’s a write-off?

1800 Salvage will offer you a premium price to buy your busted car. We’ll play you instantly, and we’ll organise free towing for you.

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Get in touch for friendly advice

Whether you want to buy or sell salvage vehicles, we are here to help. Get in touch and we will get back to you soon with the information you need.

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