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What happens when your car runs low on engine oil?

Updated on August 6, 2011

Engine oil's purpose

When an engine begins to run out of motor oil it is a potentially very dangerous situation to be in. Because engine oil is so critical to the help of the engine when the level is low of several things start to happen, all of them bad news for the life expectancy of the engine and for your wallet. To make matters worse the problems caused by low oil levels are self compounding, so the lower the level goes the more damage is done.

Purpose of engine oil

One function of engine oil is cooling. Many internal surfaces of the engine are coated in oil it provides an excellent opportunity for the excess heat, left over from the combustion process, to be transferred into the large surface area covering up while. Then as the oil circulates and eventually returns to the oil sump where it can be cooled by the currents of air beneath the car (when it's moving). So when oil pressure falls and the oil is not circulating as well as it should the engine tends to get hotter.

The main purpose of oil is to lubricate bearings, piston heads, connecting rods etc so they can move freely and efficiently without coming into contact with each other. Such contact would result in damage to these components, substantial increases in temperature in the engine due to the heat caused by friction and under extreme conditions that components becoming welded together. Such a situation is described by the word seized. An engine seized is basically a scrap metal.

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Oil can
Oil can


Oil also contains additives, at least in the oil during its manufacturing to make it perform other tasks besides lubrication and cooling. Two common additives are rust inhibitors and detergents for cleaning. A clean engine is a help the engine. Without detergents deposits of black sludge buildup inside the engine. These hamper the flow of oil, reducing oil pressure and reducing the effectiveness of the cooling system. The black deposits also build up over large areas which would normally be covered by a well. Therefore oil has less contact with the engine and is not able to absorb as much heat.

OIl Pressure Gauges

If your car has a mechanical or an electric oil pressure gauge you will see pressure fluctuations as you drive. If your car is not equipped with such a gauge and then you will have to rely on the global oil pressure warning light coming on. While it's okay to rely on this notifying you of an emergency in your oil levels it's really worth taking the time to check your oil level every three or four weeks just in case there is a problem and the warning light is not coming on. It is also important to change your oil completely according to the conditions set out in your car's owner's handbook. How many miles you can try before an oil change will vary depending on their type of driving you do (city, motorway etc), the age of your car and the type of motor oil that you use. When it is time to change your engine oil it is important not to compromise on the quality of oil you buy. A cheap oil change can be tempting in the short term but often leads to a less efficient engine in the long term, which can cost you more in maintenance and the cost of petrol.

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      cliff 2 years ago

      my chevy blazzer was leaking oil and almost all of it leaked out and the car shut off i put 3 qrts bck in it it starts up fine and when i hit the gas it runs fine but when i let off the gas it wont idle and the car cuts off

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      oilsquid 4 years ago

      Hi Luke. Excellent information indeed. I have come up with my first lense and please have a look on it. Thanks

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      motwon 6 years ago

      Thanks for the useful information about motor oils.Following link is about changing motor oil in Turkish: