What happens when my car runs out of oil?

Today’s modern engines, as sophisticated as they have become, still require one critical component to function correctly. Engine oil. 

Years ago pulling up to a gas station the attendant would not only pump your gas but would also check the fluids in your vehicle. If they found your oil was low they would ask, “Would you like a quart of oil, it is low”. 

Saying yes, because you understood how important engine oil was, the attendant would fill the oil and you would be good to go on your way. 

Well, those days are gone. Self service fueling stations are the norm across the world now and it is more important that we check our own oil to ensure that you don’t need to ask the question, what happens when my car runs out of oil. 

What is the purpose of engine oil?

An engine consists of many moving components with very close clearances. When I say close tolerances I mean it. A human hair is generally measured at 0.004”, the tolerance between the engine main bearings and crankshaft is generally 0.002”-0.003”

Sorry about getting technical there, just take it from me. The tolerances are very tight. If these components were allowed to spin without oil the components would contact each other and create heat. 

This heat would cause extensive damage and possibly even “weld” the components together. This is why it is important that we have the proper amount of oil in our engine. 

Oil acts as a lubricant, which in effect creates a small film in between these two surfaces preventing contact. If you have ever used hand cream you have felt the same effect.

Think of oil as a pair of roller skates. If you try to slide your feet on dry pavement it is very hard. However, if you have a pair of roller skates on you glide over the surface effortlessly. The wheels in this case would be the small film of oil between these two engine components.

Why do I need to check my oil?

You have probably wondered if you get your oil changed regularly. The technician fills the oil to the proper level where does it go?

There are two things that can cause the engine oil in your vehicle to “disappear”. The first and most obvious possibility is an engine oil leak.

Various seals and gaskets on your engine are designed to keep the engine oil inside of the engine and not leak out. I have noticed that over time these gaskets will deteriorate and some will eventually leak. This problem is easy to find. Ensure that you look where your vehicle is parked from time to time and see if there are any puddles or signs of oil leaks underneath your vehicle. 

If there is, a quick visit to your local automotive technician will get this fixed up preventing the oil from leaking out in the future.

The other cause is your engine burning oil, or what we call in the industry, oil consumption. As a vehicle ages, internal components of the engine begin to wear. The most important of these components when it comes to oil consumption is the valve seals and cylinder rings.

When these components are functioning properly they “scrape” oil from internal engine surfaces preventing them from reaching the combustion chamber. Once they are badly worn they can no longer do their job properly and engine oil enters the combustion chamber where it is burnt and forced out the exhaust.

What happens when my car runs out of oil

Normally an engine is not going to run out of oil. It can happen fast, but generally it is a slow process with the oil being consumed by the engine or leaking out.

But when it does happen, you will most likely have no warning. There may be some jerking and bucking noticed beforehand but when the engine runs out of oil bad things happen fast.

As we discussed earlier, the metal components will start to contact each other. Once this happens heat is going to be generated very quickly, and the engine will stall. 

This is most likely when you are going to notice that you have an issue, if your engine does stall. Please ensure that you exit the roadway in a safe manner before calling a tow truck.

This can be prevented

The easiest way to prevent this issue from happening to you is simple. Proper maintenance.

Ensure that you are changing your oil at the manufacturer’s recommended mileage. Ensure that you are using the correct oil viscosity and oil specifications. If you ever question if you are using the proper oil consult a proper auto repair manual. With turbochargers becoming more common in the automotive industry proper oil is even very important.

Check your oil weekly. This used to be something that was very commonly done. At the start of the article we talked about how this would be done every time you got your vehicle filled up with fuel.

If you do not already do it, take the time to check your oil every time you fill your vehicle up with fuel. This is a great time to also take a quick look at the tires and check all your lights to make sure everything is doing well with your vehicle.

Running out of oil is one of those things that can be avoided if we take the proper time to care for our vehicles. Proper oil change intervals as well as taking the time to check your oil can prevent this issue from happening most of the time. 

Hopefully you learned a little bit more about your vehicle in this article and never have to ask the question, what happens when my car runs out of oil.

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