Is Your Car Burning Oil? Here’s How To Check

Checking your car’s oil, and fluids in general, is one of the simplest ways to keep the vehicle happy and healthy. However, it’s also one of the most overlooks aspects of automotive maintenance. People often wait till the light goes on, then take it in for service only to forget about it a little later. However, it’s incredibly important to check your oil frequently in order to make sure it hasn’t caught a case of excessive oil consumption. And yes, even new cars burn oil, so be diligent.

Checking the oil level in a tractor engine, using dipstick.
Oil Dipstick | Wayne Hutchinson/Farm Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

How to check for burning oil

Checking your oil takes all of 5 minutes. Refer to your owner’s manual or online as to whether or not you should run the car until it reaches operating temperatures or if you should check it cold. Every car is different, but the process is fairly the same. Most dipsticks are also the same, with two little lines or dots indicating how much oil is in there. The bottom dot represents the “fill line.” Be sure your oil level doesn’t drop below that. The top dot is the “full line.” Make sure your oil level is never above that.

First, remove the dipstick, which is easily indicated by an orange or yellow tab right on your engine. As you pull it out, you’ll find it’s got some remnants of oil in it. Wipe it down with a paper towel (I keep a roll in my car), and then slide it all the way back in. Pull it out again and take a peek at the oil. Wherever it ends between the two dots is your oil level.

But one oil check can’t prove whether you’re burning oil or not. Before putting the dipstick back, snap a clear photograph and hang on to it. Drive for about 1000 miles or so, then check the oil again. If it’s where it was before, or relatively close, then you’re likely not burning oil. It’s a good practice to check your oil every 1000 miles, because what may look like a minor change in oil levels after 1,000 miles be a large difference after 3,000 miles.

If you are burning oil, hop over to your nearest parts store or gas station to see if they have a quart of your car’s oil, and a funnel just to make life easier. Always refer to the owner’s manual and fill your engine with what’s recommended. Unscrew the large black cap on your car (it often has the engine oil grade written on it. Mine is 0W-20) and fill the engine a quarter bottle at a time to make sure you don’t overfill.

What can you do to fix burning oil?

You’ve caught the problem, but what can you do to help stop burning oil now? There are a number of things that could be wrong with your car, some of which are more expensive than others. The easiest fix to oil burning issues are engine oil additives, but be very cautious. Some of these additives are like snake oil, they do nothing and no harm to the engine. Others, however, can do more harm than good in the long run. And if an engine is in bad enough shape, the additives won’t do anything to stop it from burning oil. It’s best to look at the mechanics of your car.

Very often, excessive oil consumption is caused by a dirty or damaged PCV valve. Short for positive crankcase ventilation, it gets harmful emissions out of the engine and through the tailpipe. But when it gets clogged up, it creates a vacuum that sucks oil into the engine, which ends up getting burned. Lucky for you, it’s a $10 part, and it’s so easy to fix you can do it at home. If, however, the issue persists, it could have something to do with your engine’s internals.

Piston rings are often the next culprit, and while having those replaced can help with oil consumption, it’s also a lofty bill. Be sure to have this done professionally, as rebuilding an engine is no easy feat. If you’re lucky, your car’s warranty will cover excessive oil consumption, though not every automaker acknowledges the issue.

Is burning oil a common issue?

Father And Son Checking Oil on a Volkswagen
Father And Son Checking Oil | Tim Brakemeier/picture alliance via Getty Images

No car should burn oil, but many cars do. According to Consumer Reports, even new cars fall victim to excessive oil consumption. And to automakers, it’s seen as a nonissue. Excessive oil in and of itself isn’t exactly dangerous, car recalls and warranties worry more about damage to the occupant.

But checking your engine’s oil and making sure it’s topped off every now and then makes excessive oil consumption a symptom many grow to live with. Leaking oil is a cause for alarm, but burning oil happens as a car ages. So if you want to make sure your car’s life is extended, be sure to check every 1,000 miles. Now, if you’d excuse me, I’m going to check my oil.

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