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Low Oil Pressure: Symptoms, Causes, and How to Prevent

Low oil pressure is not usually as big of an issue as it used to be. Better and more robustly engineered oils have helped prevent some of the more common oiling issues that used to plague many vehicles.

Despite this, oiling problems still can and do occur. Good maintenance is the largest factor in preventing low oil pressure, even though other small things can play their own parts.

Why Does Low Oil Pressure Happen?

There are numerous reasons that low oil pressure occurs. After the problem starts, symptoms will begin to manifest themselves. The causes are harder to see initially, but even at this point, they can be corrected if noticed.

The primary reasons for low oil pressure happening are low oil levels, incorrect oil, a damaged oil filter, or a bad pump. The symptoms of low oil pressure include the oil pressure warning light, the check-engine light, engine overheating, vehicle vibration, decreased engine performance, and engine noises.

Low Oil Levels

dipstick check
Dip stick check for oil level in Richard's Ford F-150

One of the more common causes of low oil pressure is the level of oil within the engine. This often occurs when changing the oil on a vehicle and not double-checking how much you or a shop refills the oil. Another reason this can happen is if your vehicle burns too much oil, and it is not replenished in time.

Checking the oil level after a replacement is easily preventable and is just a matter of taking your time. Excessive oil burning is a much bigger issue that may be a result of the engineering of the vehicle. Knowing that this happens can help understand when to add oil and prevent oiling issues, but finding out about this issue can take some trial and error.

Wrong Oil

Using the wrong oil for your vehicle is another factor in low oil pressure that is quite easily preventable. Changing the oil yourself is not that difficult, and checking your manual to see what type of oil your vehicle requires. Not checking yourself, having an inexperienced, new, or bad mechanic can create this mistake.

Learn More: Is it Possible to Mix Synthetic and Regular Oil?

Oil Filter Damaged or Clogged

The oiling system in your vehicle works best is when everything functions properly to circulate oil without any obstructions or hiccups on the way. When something like the oil filter gets clogged or damaged, it will prevent the free flow of oil from getting to where it needs to be.

An oil filter can get damaged from installation or other outside factors, and a clogged filter happens over time from old oil and debris in the system. 

Damaged or Worn Out Pump

Just like a water pump and a fuel pump wear out, the oil pump is the same. A poorly engineered or cheap oil pump will most likely fail before one that is designed well.

Oil pump damage is far less likely to occur than a worn-out pump. Since it is always doing its job when the car is running, wearing out is inevitable.

Overheating Engine

The purpose of oil is to keep each engine component lubricated so that nothing overheats. When the engine is performing in such a way that heat dissipation cannot keep up with what the engine is doing, overheating occurs. Overheating also causes the oil to thin, making it even more incapable of dissipating the heat generated.

Poor Maintenance

Even though modern oils are engineered better than in the past, poor maintenance can still overtake their abilities to last longer and function well. Good maintenance habits and proper change intervals are the best way to prevent oil from gumming up, preventing proper flow throughout the entire oiling system.

Low Oil Pressure Symptoms

The two main issues that cause most oiling problems are heat and friction. Most of the symptoms of low oil pressure involve excessive heat and increased friction on various components. This is not always the case, but both of these issues can cause a slew of other problems beyond oil pressure.

Oil Pressure Warning Light

oil pressure gauge

The easiest way to detect low oil pressure is to have the oil pressure light come on. The oil light can come on for a few other reasons, but low oil pressure is the most common reason it illuminates. This symptom requires a follow-up from yourself or your local mechanic to find out why it has come on.

Granted, oil pressure lights illuminating simply means there is an irregular pressure detected. Conversely, it could mean you're experiencing high oil pressure.

Engine Overheating

Many different potential issues can cause engine overheating, but one of the most common is low oil pressure. This is often caused by a clogged oiling system or a failing oil pump. Overheating occurs when oil cannot reach its intended location. Friction causes components to heat more than they should, resulting in overheating. 

Vehicle Vibration

Vehicle vibration is similar to how low oil pressure affects engine overheating. Instead of not being able to dissipate heat because of low pressure, the smooth function of the engine is stifled by the lack of oil, making the vehicle vibrate.

Engine components are moving at high speeds, and the added friction in combination with the high speed of moving components exacerbates the issue.

Decreased Engine Performance

There are many reasons that a vehicle might experience general decreased engine performance. Low oil pressure can cause this as it makes the engine work harder to run and accelerate, but more likely, it will be something like bad spark plugs. Having this happen to your vehicle will likely require a trip to the mechanic.

Burning Smell

Again, a burning smell can be a very broad symptom for many different issues, especially overheating brakes. But any kind of friction between components can cause them to smell. With the engine moving so quickly, it is far from impossible to have the same basic principle for overheating brakes to apply to the engine.

Unusual Engine Noises

Friction strikes again as the low oil pressure issue can cause unusual noises, especially in the engine. It makes sense that metal against metal can cause some awful noises the faster they contact each other. 

Engine Failure

Total engine failure because of low oil pressure is not out of the question, but it is the worst-case scenario. Most likely, other symptoms will present themselves before engine failure occurs, but if the oil pump fails completely and suddenly, it is not out of the realm of possibility. 

Check Engine Light

check engine light

The check engine light is such a universal warning light that it cannot reliably be considered to be a symptom of low oil pressure. It certainly can come on when your vehicle is experiencing low oil pressure, but it is more likely that your oil pressure light will come on first.

Practical Ways to Prevent Low Oil Pressure

The best way to prevent low oil pressure is to emphasize maintenance and caution. Usually, changing the oil or topping it off is a matter of knowing how much to use and checking it regularly.

Understanding the signs of low oil pressure early can also help fix the issue before a huge problem arises. Replace parts early and understand the usual timeframe in which this happens. 

How Much Do Low Oil Pressure Issues Cost to Fix?

Because there can be so many areas affected and there are various causes of low oil pressure, the cost of whatever needs to be repaired can vary drastically. 

If the issue is something as simple as topping off your oil or making sure there is enough, the only cost will be the oil itself. The same thing applies if you have bought the wrong oil or even bad oil. Depending on the kind of oil and how much you will need, it can cost as little as $20. More specialized oils can be closer to $40 or $50 per bottle. 

Things like replacing the oil pump and fixing other issues affected by low oil pressure can cost several thousand dollars, depending on the extent of the damage. $300 to $600 is not an uncommon cost for singular oil system component replacement. Labor costs also vary depending on locality and mechanic.

Final Thoughts

Your oil system is a crucial component in allowing your vehicle to function well and smoothly. When low oil pressure occurs, it could cause symptoms like an overheating engine, decreased vehicle performance, illumination of the oil light, a burning smell, and even engine failure.

It is important to practice good maintenance for the oil system so that problems can be avoided. If any of these symptoms occur, check with your local mechanic to help diagnose the issue.

Shawn Furman
I have been a vehicle hobbyist for as long as I can remember as well as a freelance writer for the past three and a half years. My clients have included Vehicle Scene, Autolist, CarGurus, and now The Vehicle Lab. In addition to my current clients, I also maintain my own blog where I am able to share my knowledge and experience through vehicle reviews, car-buying guides, how-to guides, and list articles.
The Vehicle Lab looks to cover all aspects of the automotive industry: News, Maintenance & Repair Guides, and Product Reviews
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