With time and wear through accumulated mileage, every engine will eventually begin to leak oil. This is because no gasket is indestructible and immune to wear and tear – prolonged exposure to heat will wear gaskets out.
Even if there are many places from where your engine might leak some amount of oil, few gaskets tend to be as susceptible to leakage as the infamous oil pan gasket.
The oil pan is under your engine, and it is a kind of a reservoir that stores the oils as it circulates through the passages of the engine and flows through the components. And the oil pan gasket is located between the upper flange of an engine’s oil pan and the lower lip of the engine’s block.
The oil pan gasket acts as a seal to keep the oil contained in its place. Without it, the oil would leak out of the pan and be unable to circulate properly to the engine. So its role is quite important.
To see the common symptoms of an oil pan gasket leak, why it occurs, and possible costs associated with the repairs of this gasket, continue reading below.
Oil pan gasket leak symptoms
Let’s see what the common symptoms of an oil pan gasket that has begun leaking are. We’re going to talk about what to look for and where.
1. Inexplicable oil loss
While basic, you should always check your vehicle’s oil level. Do it every couple of months or so. It’s just good maintenance and a good habit to prevent problems.
And if, when checking your car’s oil level, you notice that on the end of the dipstick, oil is getting lower and lower (or it already is low enough to top it up with fresh oil), one cause might be the oil pan gasket.
Of course, there can be other causes too! But usually, if you’re facing an oil pan gasket leak, you’ll see another symptom together with the suddenly low oil level.
2. Oil stain on your driveway
The scary and dreaded oil stain on the driveway is a sure way to tell that your engine is leaking some oil from somewhere.
That somewhere might just be the oil pan gasket. So take a look at your oil pan, as a simple oil stain is no obvious indicator of the oil leak source. But it is a clear sign that you DO have an oil leak and should inspect the car for the source of the leak.
3. That horrible burning oil smell
A damaged oil pan gasket has a distinct heated fresh oil smell. Just like fresh oil would be heated to engine operating temperature. It is different and more obvious than the normal smell of an operating engine that is actively consuming and burning oil.
This sort of burnt smell grows stronger as the severity of the oil pan gasket leak increases.
This smell appears as the engine oil escapes to the exterior through the faulty gasket. And as the exterior is a pretty hot area as it is near the engine… the burnt smell occurs. And it is quite easily detectable.
4. Oil underneath your vehicle
You might also notice that the underside of your vehicle, even at the middle/end of the vehicle, is a little bit coated in oil. This is due to the effects of blowback, as they apply while the car is in motion.
Air rushes beneath your vehicle, and it sweeps any oil from the faulty oil pan gasket to the rear. The spreading of this oil grows as the severity of the leak grows.
It is worth mentioning that the burnt smell mentioned at the above point can appear due to the presence of oil underneath your vehicle. This is because oil might get on parts of your exhaust system, a system that gets extremely hot during normal engine operation.
5. Oil light warning on your dashboard
Most modern cars have a low oil light in their instrument cluster. This lights up in case of significant oil loss. More modern cars might even give your a warning message about this. It depends but the symbol in the below image is quite universal.
If you see this light come up, you should pull over as fast as safely possible and shut off your engine. Doing this as quickly as possible can spare your engine for substantial damage, as an engine requires a certain amount of oil to run properly and without increased wear.
To be fair, it is quite uncommon for your oil pan gasket to get so seriously destroyed as to cause shuck a big leak that it would light up the low oil warning light, but it is possible especially if you neglected possible driveway oil stains or other symptoms.
Be wary that this warning light might also have other causes like the oil sensor, another defective gasket or part, etc. But it might be related to the oil pan gasket.
6. Random engine smoke
Remember the burnt smell we’ve talked about above? Well, when your engine is at the proper operating temperature, and you take a long trip, that heated oil can also produce a little bit of smoke.
This smoke ofter serves as a dead giveaway that a noteworthy oil leak is present and should be dealt with.
The amount of smoke might increase if enough oil gets on parts of the exhaust system, as this gets pretty hot while at normal operating temperature.
Is an oil pan gasket leak serious?
Even if the leak is not severe enough to bring up an oil warning light or cause actual damage to the engine, it should be treated as a moderately-serious issue.
Any oil leak is bad, as our car’s engines require oil to function properly. And a specific amount of it too.
If you know that your engine is leaking oil, be it from a bad oil pan gasket or any other source, you should carry with your a quart of oil, just in case of an emergency top up or something like that. The last thing that you want, is your engine to run without sufficient oil.
Should you drive with a leaking oil pan gasket?
We’re not all made of money. Heck, I can’t remember the number of times I’ve driven with some defect because… well, you know, sometimes money is tight. So you can drive with a leaking oil pan gasket. But you should be careful, and if you know that your oil pan gasket is leaking, I would check the engine oil on a daily basis (or before any trip if you don’t drive daily). Having a leak will not make your car undrivable. But it is unwanted and definitely not indicated if there is a lot of oil leaking (like a quart of oil is not enough to top things up – in this case, just go to a mechanic ASAP).
In any case, all oil loss should be rectified by adding the missing amount of oil into the engine, and you should repair this leak as soon as you can or can afford it.
Why does a oil pan gasket go bad?
There is not one specific reason oil pan gaskets go bad. They usually give out due to normal wear and tear. Over the course of your car’s life, the oil pan gasket goes through a lot of heating and cooling cycles. with time, this causes the gaset to become brittle, with ultimately leads to failure.
Another common cause would be something like hitting the oil pan. If the oil pan gets hit by something, it might upset the seal of the gasket; therefore, a leak could occur.
The replacement cost for a bad oil pan gasket
This is very, very hard to estimate as a general cost. This is because every make and model has different specifications, and on some cars the whole replacement operation is easy on some, not so much.
You could expect to pay something between $150 to $500. But I’ve seen people pay even $700. This is why you should ask your local shop for a quote (of course, after confirming with them that you are talking about an oil pan gasket) even if you know you don’t want to get it done today. At least you know how much it will set you back when you do decide to go for it.
There you have it!
As oil is the blood of our engines, any leak is bad and unwanted. But oil pan gasket leaks are, unfortunately, common. Especially in older cars.
Either way, I urge you to repair this oil leak as soon as you can afford it if you do notice that your car suffers from it. The last thing you want is for a minor leak to turn into a hassle or something more serious. On time and thorough car maintenance is key for avoiding more problems down the line.