When you see a little light illuminate on your vehicle’s dashboard, it usually means one thing — something’s not right! And although these lights rarely pop up, it’s scary when they do, especially when it’s that pesky dripping oil can. Have you run out of oil, or is it a leak? How long has the light been on? How much of an emergency is this? Before you panic, learn what the oil light on your car means, what the problem might be, and how you can fix it.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN WHEN THE OIL LIGHT COMES ON?
When the oil light on your dashboard comes on, it might mean your vehicle has low oil pressure. This drop in oil pressure could be a sign of a few things: you are low on oil, your oil is dirty, or you have an oil leak.
HOW DO I KNOW IF MY OIL IS LOW?
Engine oil isn’t meant to last forever. And even though you don’t burn through it as you do with gas, it will eventually get low after enough driving. While almost every vehicle has a system for monitoring oil pressure, not all vehicles have oil pressure gauges on the dashboard. That’s why it’s best to check your oil level at the source!
Luckily, checking your oil level is simple! Start by consulting your owner’s manual. It’ll guide you through the following steps and let you know where to look for various pieces and parts. Pop your hood and locate your vehicle’s oil dipstick—it usually has a yellow or reddish handle. Pull out the dipstick and wipe it off using a clean rag. Put the dipstick back in and remove it again to get a fresh oil reading. If the residual oil on the end of the dipstick is at or below the “add” mark, then it’s time to get an oil change.
If your oil light comes on when braking, it could also be a sign that your oil is low. Oil is, after all, a liquid. And if your tank isn’t quite full, oil has room to slosh away from the oil pressure sensor, especially when you brake.
HOW DO I KNOW IF MY OIL IS DIRTY?
Unlike your gas light which turns on when your fuel tank is low, an illuminated oil light doesn’t always mean you’re low on oil. It could also mean that your engine’s oil has gotten too dirty.
How does engine oil get dirty? As it runs through the engine, it can pick up dirt, dust, and small debris, causing gunk to build up. While you might still have the correct amount of oil in your car, the blockage can trigger your oil light.
Check for dirty oil the same way you check your oil level—examining the oil on the dipstick. Clean oil should be transparent, an amber-like color, and a bit runny. If your oil looks super dark, has a funny smell, or is thick and sludgy to the touch, it’s probably old and should be changed.
HOW DO I KNOW IF MY OIL IS LEAKING?
If your oil light is on but you recently got your oil changed, you might have a leak. To check for oil leaks, leave your car parked on a level surface for a few hours and inspect the ground underneath it for puddles.
If you don’t see any puddles but still suspect a leak, try topping your oil off up to the full mark on your dipstick. (Your owner’s manual can walk you through how to do this for your specific make and model). Ensure the oil light is off when you turn on the car. Start driving and see if the oil light comes on again. If it does, check your oil levels. If they’re low, it’s time to schedule an appointment for oil leak repairs.
Sometimes, oil leaks cause other symptoms like a burnt smell or smoke coming from the engine. However, these symptoms might not always show up. Typically, the best way to rule out any issues relating to engine oil is to bring your car in for a complete vehicle inspection.
MY OIL IS FINE, BUT THE OIL LIGHT IS STILL ON
The oil light on your dashboard doesn’t always mean your oil is low, leaking, or dirty. Instead, it might mean that your oil pressure sensor or your oil pump needs to be replaced.
IS MY OIL PRESSURE SENSOR BAD?
Your oil pressure sensor is a small plug-like sensor that monitors your vehicle’s oil pressure and notifies you if it drops below a certain limit. But like everything else in your car, it can wear out, which could send faulty signals that trigger your oil light.
To check if your oil pressure sensor is worn out, the sensor needs to be removed using an oil pressure sensor socket. Unless you have the tools and the expertise to do it yourself, have an expert technician troubleshoot your oil pressure sensor.
IS MY OIL PUMP BAD?
A bad oil pump won’t efficiently circulate oil to your engine’s moving parts, often resulting in engine noises and overheating, which can snowball into more significant issues. Stop driving immediately if you suspect your oil pump is bad. Call your service store immediately.