5 Symptoms of Low Engine Oil Level (And How to Check/Add Oil)

There’s an old saying that oil is the lifeblood of any vehicle. Just as the human body needs blood to keep the heart pumping and the organs functioning, a car’s engine depends on oil to lubricate its components and keep them running smoothly.

If the engine were to ever get low on oil, it could lead to serious damage and costly repairs down the road. Keep reading to learn the common symptoms of low oil levels and just how easy it is to check and add engine oil.

Top 5 Signs of Low Oil

Let’s take a closer look at the most common symptoms you may experience when your engine oil levels are dangerously low. If you simply ignore these warnings, that $5-$10 you’d need to spend on a quart or two or motor oil can quickly turn into 100s or even 1,000s of dollars in engine repairs.

1) Oil Warning Light

oil pressure check engine light

The first symptom that you may notice is a warning light on your dashboard turning on. This indicates that you have low oil pressure because there is not enough oil in your engine.

Inside of your vehicle, there is a sensor which has the ability to detect how much oil pressure you have. Low levels of oil in the engine will cause the sensor to detect low oil pressure. As a result, the oil pressure warning light will illuminate on the dashboard.

You should take this warning seriously and add more oil to your vehicle before the symptoms get any worse than this. If there is adequate oil in the engine, a bad oil pressure switch may be the problem.

2) Knocking Noises

noise while driving

You will only notice this symptom if you have had a low amount of oil in your engine for a while now. When your engine’s components and parts have an increase in friction and a lack of lubrication, it is going to loosen the engine rods considerably.

As you may know, the rods are what keeps the pistons tightly secured. So, when the rods become loose, they will get thrown around inside of the engine and cause knocking sounds to form. In cases where you have enough engine oil, a good oil additive may be a simple remedy.

3) Burning Smell

Your engine has a lot of moving components inside of them. Many of these components are metal and they make regular contact with other metal components. All this metal contacting other metal will create a lot of heat in the engine.

Oil is the lubricant which normally keeps this heat to a minimum by cooling off the components. Therefore, if there is a low level of oil in the engine, then these components won’t get cooled off.

The result will be a burning smell which will make its way into the cabin.

4) Dipstick Test

excessive oil consumption

If you want to know for sure if you have a low oil level, use the oil dipstick to check your oil level. Make sure that your engine has been turned off and your car is parked on level ground to get an accurate reading.

If the dipstick shows that you have less oil than the minimum mark, then it means you need to add more oil. The opposite of having too much oil in your engine can also cause issues and doing a dipstick check will also show that.

Be aware that many newer cars such as Audis no longer have a dipstick under the hood. Instead, sensors are used to check the amount and condition of your motor oil. When there is a problem, you’ll be notified with a message in your instrument cluster.

While this is handy, a problem with a faulty sensor can occur which prevents you from knowing of a low oil condition.

See Also: Why Is There Dirty Oil On the Dipstick?

5) Engine Failure

old dirty car engine

This will be the worst-case scenario of having low engine oil. However, most people should be able to avoid this symptom because you would have likely experienced the previous four symptoms by this point.

But, if you have continued to ignore these warning signs, then you can expect your engine to ultimately fail in the end. Then you are looking at having to purchase a whole new engine for your vehicle, which can be in the thousands of dollars.

How to Check and Add Engine Oil (Step-by-Step Guide)

Checking and topping off engine oil is a simple yet important task that every car owner should master. Regular oil level checks (at least monthly) can help you catch any potential issues early on and prevent costly engine damage.

In this section, we’ll walk you through the process of checking and adding oil, step by step, even if you’ve never done it before.

Step #1: Prepare Your Vehicle

First things first, make sure your car is parked on a level surface and the engine has cooled down. A hot engine can give you an inaccurate reading and even cause burns, so it’s best to wait at least 10-15 minutes after turning off the engine before checking the oil.

Step #2: Locate the Dipstick

Open your car’s hood and look for the oil dipstick. It’s typically located near the engine and has a brightly colored handle (usually yellow or orange) for easy identification. If you’re having trouble finding it, check your vehicle’s owner’s manual for guidance.

Note: Some modern vehicles (like many Audis) no longer have a physical dipstick. Instead, the vehicle relies on various sensors to monitor oil level. If the oil level falls under a certain threshold, a warning message will display in your dashboard.

Step #3: Remove and Clean the Dipstick

low oil symptoms

Pull the dipstick straight out of its tube and wipe it clean with a lint-free cloth or paper towel. This step is necessary so you’ll get an accurate reading when you reinsert the dipstick.

Step #4: Check the Oil Level

Reinsert the dipstick all the way back into its tube, then slowly pull it straight out again while doing your best to not touch the insides of the tube (those that played the old Harbro game “Operation” will be at an advantage).

Look at the end of the dipstick, where you’ll see two marks or lines indicating the minimum and maximum oil levels. The oil should be somewhere between these two marks. If it’s at or below the minimum line, it’s time to add some oil.

Tip: If the oil looks dark, gritty, or milky, it likely time for an oil change, even if the level is adequate.

Step #5: Add Oil (If Needed)

engine oil viscosity

If the oil level is low, locate the oil filler cap on top of the engine. It’s usually labeled with an oil can symbol. Remove the cap and use a funnel to pour in the appropriate amount of oil. A funnel is not required but definitely helps to avoid messes.

Your owner’s manual will let you know how much oil to add when your oil level is low but general speaking, it’s generally safe to add it in 1/2 quart increments. While you don’t want to underfill your oil, you also don’t want to overfill it.

Tip: Make sure to use the oil type and viscosity recommended in your vehicle’s owner’s manual. This is also sometimes listed on the oil cap or sticker in your engine bay. Using the wrong oil can lead to other types of engine problems.

Step #6: Recheck the Oil Level

After adding oil, it’s a good idea to close the oil cap and start up the car. Let it run for 1-2 minutes, shut off the engine, and then recheck the level using the dipstick.

The oil should now be between the minimum and maximum lines. If it’s still low, add another 1/2 quart and repeat the process of running the car again and rechecking the level afterwards.

If you’ve accidentally added too much oil, don’t panic. You can use a fluid extractor (or turkey baster if the oil level is within reach) to remove the excess. If you have neither, you can get under your vehicle and slightly open the the bolt or plug on the oil drain pan to allow a small amount of oil to trickle out.

Step #7: Clean Up and Close the Hood

Once the oil level is where it should be, wipe off any spills or drips with a cloth, replace the oil filler cap and dipstick, and close the hood. You’re all done!


3 thoughts on “5 Symptoms of Low Engine Oil Level (And How to Check/Add Oil)”

  1. Recently I happened to overhear a lady being told that her vehicle which was her son’s car had absolutely NOOOOO oil in the engine. She was also told there were several other issues that needed to be addressed so the car would pass inspection that day but unbelievably she had the Tech put a rejection sticker on the vehicle!!! It was all I could do to just sit there, listen and not engage the woman to warn her of what could happen if she kept driving it that way but I just acted like I was fully engaged in what I was doing.


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