The warning lights on your car dashboard help you understand your car’s condition. One of them is the oil warning light.
But which one is it? There are two lights with the same oil can picture on it.
And what causes it to light up?
We’ll walk you through the meaning of each oil light on your dash and what to do when they come on.
This Article Contains
- What Does the Oil Light Mean?
- 7 Causes of an Illuminated Oil Light
- What to Do When the Oil Light Comes On
- 3 Oil Light Related FAQs
What Does the Oil Light Mean?
The word oil light can refer to the oil pressure light or the oil level light. In new vehicles, oil level and pressure are monitored by separate warning lights. In others, there’s one light for both.
Let’s see what each light means:
A. Oil Level Warning Light
The oil level warning light manifests as an old oil can with waves or lines underneath. This engine light glows yellow when activated. An illuminated oil level warning light means that you’re running low on engine oil and it needs refilling soon. It can also mean that your vehicle needs an oil change.
B. Oil Pressure Warning Light
An oil pressure warning light is a red light with a picture of an old oil can. Some vehicles display the words “Low Oil Pressure.” As the name suggests, the oil pressure warning light indicates issues with engine oil pressure — either too low or extremely high (though the latter rarely occurs).
Note: Your owner’s manual will mention if your vehicle uses separate lights for these two warnings or one engine oil light.
Although both lights indicate different issues within the oil system, they share similar causes. Let’s look at them.
7 Causes of an Illuminated Oil Light
Several causes can trigger an illuminated oil pressure indicator light, from an oil change alert to a severe oil leak.
Here’re seven possible reasons:
1. Severely Low Oil Levels
The main culprit of an illuminated oil pressure indicator light is low oil levels. As oil level decreases, so does oil pressure — which is bad for your vehicle.
Although cars don’t use up engine oil the same way as fuel, you’ll eventually run out of it as you drive. That’s why checking your engine oil at least once a month and before going on long drives is essential. If you don’t refill your oil regularly, you’ll risk several issues, including engine damage.
2. Heavily Degraded or Dirty Oil
Heavily contaminated, dirty, or degraded engine oil could trigger your oil pressure light. Engine oil collects dirt and small metal particles as it runs through the car engine. Excessively dirty oil can block the oil system or change the viscosity, leading to low oil pressure.
3. Oil Leaks
If your oil pressure light still comes on after regular oil changes, you might have a leak in the oil system. An oil leak can happen internally or externally, and it can cause a burning smell or smoke from the car engine.
External oil leaks are easy to detect — there’ll be oil dripping or puddling underneath your vehicle. Internal leaks happen inside the engine block, so you’ll need to open the engine to find it.
4. Blockage in the Oil Delivery System
Engine debris and sludge often accumulate in the oil pan, clog the oil lines, and block the oil filter.
You’ll need to inspect the whole oil system to find the block. However, there are a few symptoms pointing to a blockage in the oil lines:
- Sputtering engine
- Poor engine performance
- Dark exhaust smoke
- Clunking noises coming from the engine
Replacing the dirty oil and oil filter during regular oil changes will help prevent blockages.
5. A Bad Oil Pump
Your oil pump circulates engine oil through the system and is pumped out of the oil pan with constant pressure. If the oil pump fails to work or gets stuck, the oil won’t circulate, and the pressure will drop.
When this happens, the oil pressure light activates, and you might hear strange noises from the engine compartment, like whining, whirring, or ticking. A bad oil pump can also cause overheating, which triggers the check engine light.
6. Bad Oil Pressure Sensor
Another reason the oil pressure light might come on is a faulty oil pressure sensor. This sensor monitors the oil pressure inside the system. It notifies the Engine Control Module (ECM) if the pressure drops below a certain threshold. A worn-out oil pressure sensor can send wrong signals to the ECM and trigger a false oil light and a check engine light.
7. Heavily Worn Engine
Worn engine components can also cause an activated low oil pressure light. Dents on the piston or bearing seal damage can cause oil leaks, which lowers the oil pressure.
If worn engine parts cause an illuminated oil pressure indicator light, the check engine light will also light up. Plus, you’ll notice these other issues while driving:
- Engine knocking
- Decrease in engine power
- Engine stalling
- Rough running engine
- Odd smells coming from the engine
- Complete engine failure
Now you know the possible causes of an activated oil light.
But how do you react to one when it suddenly comes on?
What to Do When the Oil Light Comes On
Suppose the oil warning light comes on when you’re driving. In that case, there are several things you should do to ensure that it doesn’t escalate into catastrophic damage:
- Activate your emergency lights and look for a safe place to park — pull over slowly, and turn off all accessories to prevent engine strain.
- Turn off the engine and remove the keys from the ignition.
- Let the engine cool before popping open the hood to perform a dipstick test (more about it below).
- While waiting for the engine to cool, contact your mechanic or call for a tow truck to get your vehicle to the nearest workshop.
Here’s how you can check the engine oil level and condition with a dipstick test:
- Look for the dipstick and pull it out. It usually has a yellow/orange rubber handle at the end. (Please refer to the owner’s manual if unsure where it is.)
- Wipe the dipstick clean with a rag, then reinsert it into the tube.
- Pull it out again and read the oil level.
- There are two markers on the dipstick, the one near the end, or “L,” means low oil level, while the higher one, or “F,” means it’s full.
- Observe where the oil level is located between the two.
- Top it off if the oil level is lower than the required level.
- Observe the oil color.
- Clean engine oil should be clear dark yellow, or amber in color.
- If it’s dark brown or black, milky, or shiny with hints of metal, you’ll need an oil flush ASAP.
- Check the low oil pressure light again.
- If your oil light is already off, you can continue driving.
- If it’s still on after refilling the oil, you must take your car to a repair shop to determine the root cause.
An illuminated oil pressure engine light is a warning sign you shouldn’t put off as it could save you from expensive auto repairs.
Still have some doubts about the oil warning light?
Let’s look at some FAQs to help ease your mind.
3 Oil Light Related FAQs
Here are answers to some oil light-related questions to help you understand the topic better.
1. Can You Drive With an illuminated Oil Indicator Light?
No. You should never drive with an illuminated oil indicator light. It’s best to contact a mechanic immediately if it comes on.
Driving with an empty oil pan or low oil level can cause the engine to seize up and require a complete replacement. Plus, replacing the whole engine is expensive and sometimes might cost the same as getting a new car!
2. Why Is Engine Oil Important?
Engine oil helps to keep the engine running smoothly by lubricating all the moving components. Motor oil also helps cool down the engine, removes sludge and contaminants, reduces friction, prevents overheating, and protects against excessive engine wear. Without it, engine components will wear out faster than they should.
3. What are the Different Types of Engine Oil?
Here’s a short breakdown of the four types of engine oil:
- Conventional Motor Oil: Standard motor oil; only provides basic engine lubrication.
- Synthetic Engine Oil: Chemically produced, highly refined motor oil that’s more stable in high temperatures.
- Synthetic Blend Oil: Combination of crude and synthetic motor oils, and has both types’ advantages.
- High-mileage Oil: Carefully formulated engine oil with a unique blend of additive compounds that reduce oil burnoff.
The oil light on your car dashboard can come on for multiple reasons — from an oil change reminder or engine damage to a bad oil pump. But if you can’t ascertain its cause, it’s better to call a professional – like RepairSmith!
RepairSmith is a mobile auto repair service you can book online. Our professional services come with a 12-month|12,000-mile warranty.
Contact us today to have your oil light diagnosed or for an oil change maintenance, and we’ll send our trained technician to your driveway!