When your oil pan starts leaking you need to get it replaced as soon as you can. A faulty oil pan will potentially cause damage to your driveway, your exhaust and even your engine. Not to mention the cost associated with having to replace oil on a regular basis. An oil pan replacement will usually cost between $100 and $400. As you might expect, the price very much depends on the make and model of the vehicle you drive as well as the mechanic you take it to.
An oil pan by itself will cost you anywhere from $30 to $130 if you go looking for a new one on AutoZone.
What is an Oil Pan?
The oil pan on your car is a reservoir that holds all the oil as it circulates through the engine and keeps it cooled and lubricated. The pan is bolted to the bottom of your engine and a pump will circulate the oil around and back into the engine to keep everything running smoothly.
If there's a problem with your oil pan, you're going to be leaking oil and that can be greatly damaging to your car if it's allowed to progress. This is definitely the kind of problem that you don't want to let sit for too long.
Signs of a Bad Oil Pan
Because the oil pan is located under your car, it's not readily apparent when there's some kind of structural damage to it. Fortunately, there are a number of signs you can look for to let you know that there is an issue with the oil pan that requires repair or replacement.
- Oil Spots. One of the most noticeable and easy to spot signs of a damaged oil pan is the accumulation of oil under where your car has been parked. If you notice a lot of oil staining your driveway or garage, then you definitely want to get your oil pan looked at.
This may not be as easy to spot if you're only parking somewhere temporarily, like in the parking lot of a store, but it should be more noticeable in your parking spot at home.
- Smoke. Obviously, it's never a good sign if smoke is coming from your engine. If there's a problem with your oil pan or with the oil pan gasket, oil can leak out onto your exhaust manifold. It will burn and cause quite a bit of noticeable smoke when it happens. The longer this goes on, the more likely you are to further damage gaskets and even some sensors.
Often when you have oil burning in the exhaust system, you'll notice that your exhaust is producing a grayish blue smoke. It can create a snowball effect for the cost of damages that you need to repair.
- Oil Levels. This one is fairly obvious, but if you're finding that you're constantly running out of oil then obviously it's going somewhere. If your oil levels are dropping much faster than they should, it's clear that you have a leak somewhere and the oil pan is the first thing you should take a look at when trying to diagnose the problem.
- Overheating. One of the main functions of the oil in your engine is to keep the temperature down as your vehicle operates. Motor oil is specially formulated to operate at high temperatures just for this reason. Without adequate oil levels to properly lubricant and cool your engine, the temperature will drastically increase and can cause some pretty severe damage overall. You'll get a temperature warning if your oil levels drop too low and your engine begins to overheat. Letting an engine get too hot on a consistent basis can cause some catastrophic engine failure that will end up costing you a lot of money to repair in the long run.
- Warning Light. Aside from the check engine light or the temperature warning that can happen when your car overheats, you should also have a warning light that comes on when your oil levels drop too low. Although sometimes you can be tempted to ignore these warning lights on your dashboard, it's never a good idea to let them sit for too long because they do pop up for a reason. Driving with low oil levels is not something you ever want to do.
It can be hard to diagnose if an oil leak in your car is coming specifically from the oil pan. Because the oil is pumped from the fan and circulates through your entire engine, it could theoretically be dripping from almost anywhere. Even when you get under your car to inspect it, you could see actual drops on the paint itself, but it could still be deceptively coming from somewhere else.
Often the best way to diagnose where and when the oil leak may be coming from is to thoroughly clean the area and then observe to see if new leaks form. In some circumstances you may actually be able to see precisely where the oil is dripping from to know for sure if it's the oil pan, or if it's coming from elsewhere in the engine and just dripping down to the oil pan.
What Causes an Oil Pan to Leak?
Like any component in your vehicle, the oil pan is subject to wear and tear that will break it down over time. That said, there are two main causes that are most common when it comes to why your oil pan may have started leaking.
- Faulty Gasket. One of the most common reasons for an oil pan to leak is that the gasket that seals the pan has worn down. Any gasket in your vehicle only has a limited lifespan and the gasket around your oil pan will break down due to the heat it's exposed to over time. Once it is degraded far enough, it's no longer to keep a secure seal around the oil pan, and that will cause oil to leak out of it.
Theoretically, the gasket on your oil pan is meant to last as long as your engine does. That's definitely not always the case. These gaskets are made of rubber, and in older models they may even be made of cork. Cork gaskets will wear out much more quickly. They become dry and brittle and pieces will just flake away. Even the rubber gaskets over time can start to break down, especially if they are exposed to excess heat.
- Damage. Your oil pan is less likely to be damaged by things you notice when you're driving, it's the things you don't notice that are most likely to give it trouble. Because of where it's located under your car and so close to the ground, it's subject to damage from things like debris on the road as well as potholes.
One of the things that could be so frustrating about oil pan damages is that you won't notice if you happen to kick up a rock at a bad angle or if a pothole is just deep enough for you to scrape the bottom of the pan across the road. The result can be a hole or crack in the pan that can start a slow leak.
Why You Need to Replace a Faulty Oil Pan
It's not the oil pan itself you need to worry about when it breaks down. The function of the oil pan, as we said, is to hold the oil so that it can lubricate and cool the engine. Where the oil pan malfunctions, that means your engine is going to overheat and lose that important lubrication.
Without adequate oil in the engine, the moving parts in your engine will begin to grind and seize up. This will quickly lead to the engine stalling out on you. The oil is what keeps the pistons pumping smoothly, which allows the combustion reaction to take place and make the entire car work. You can consider oil the lifeblood of your vehicle, without it, your car will die quickly.
When the oil drops low enough, the sound that your car engine makes is incredibly loud and impossible to ignore. If it gets to that point however, the damage may already be far worse than you realize. And while replacing an oil pan is only going to cost you a couple hundred dollars, if your engine seizes up and dies, you're looking at thousands of dollars in repair cost to get it fixed again.
This is why so many mechanics really promote the idea of routine maintenance for your vehicle, things like regular oil changes and quick visual inspections to ensure that everything is running properly. The amount of money that you can save by ensuring that your car is in good working order is pretty dramatic.
Oil Pan Repair DIY
If you are a fan of do-it-yourself car repair, changing out your oil pan or the oil pan gasket is something you might be interested in trying yourself. You need to be able to get your car off the ground to accomplish this, so you'll need a reliable auto jack or some ramps to take your car up on. If your car came with a jack, it's probably best not to use that and find a more reliable jack somewhere else.
If you can secure your vehicle at the right height on even ground, then replacing your oil pan is not that difficult a task and does not require an extensive number of tools. In fact, there is a remarkably short list of things that you need to properly swap out an old oil pan for a new one.
- New oil pan changing kit
- Socket wrench
- New motor oil
- Oil filter
- Some sealant
- Some rags
Along with your pneumatic jack, this is all you'll really need to replace the oil pan and gasket. There are numerous guides you can find online, both written out and even YouTube videos, that guide you through the process step by step. If you're able to perform the repair, you could be saving yourself several hundred dollars.
The process is a fairly simple one, and takes just a few steps:
- Jack the car up. You need to be able to get under your car and work comfortably. Make sure you're on a flat surface, and everything is secure.
- Place the pan under the engine and locate the screw plug to drain the oil from the old pan.
- You're probably going to need a half inch socket to remove the plug but check the size to be sure and give it about a quarter turn until it's loose. You can finish the job by hand and be careful to keep track of the plug because they can get lost pretty easily.
- Once the oil is fully drained, you can loosen the old pan and remove it.
- You want to use one of your rags now to wipe down the area where the old pan had been. There's likely to be some debris, even metal shards stuck around the edges that you can clean off.
- Now you can run a bead of sealant around the new gaskets to attach it to the new oil pan.
- Put the new oil pan in place and start tightening the screws to hold it in place. Make sure not to over tighten any of the screws.
- Replace your oil filter and fill up with your new motor oil. Get back under the car to check for any leaks anywhere in the system to make sure that everything was installed properly.
Obviously not everyone will be comfortable with this kind of repair, but this is one of the more simple tasks that you can do, and as we said there are some very clear walkthroughs that can show you the entire process. Just make sure you're able to start everything safely and your car is secure before you ever attempt something like this.
If you have any doubts, then don't bother risking yourself or your safety and get to a mechanic who can take care of replacing the oil pan for you.