An oil pan is a reservoir for engine oil where it is stored and drawn from by the oil pump. As a general rule, it is located at the bottom of the engine at its lowest point, so all oil can return to the oil pan when the engine is not running. The oil pan is secured to the engine block with several bolts and sealed with a gasket.
When the engine is running, the oil pump sucks the oil from the pan and delivers it to all moving components inside the engine for their proper lubrication and cooling. Thus, the oil lubricates pistons, moving up and down inside the cylinders, the crankshaft, the camshaft and the valves. Then the oil continues its way throughout engine passages back to the oil pan where everything repeats until you stop the engine.
The oil pan also houses the oil drain plug (bolt) used to drain out the oil from the engine when the fluid needs to be changed. The oil drain plug is removed and tightened back once the oil is drained out of the motor, so fresh oil can be poured into the engine. Keep in mind that a new oil filter must be installed before the engine is filled with new oil.
Signs of a bad or damaged oil pan
Your oil pan is designed to last a lifetime, however, it can get damaged if you hit flying rocks or another obstacle when driving. This will lead to losing oil, which, in turn, will result in the engine overheating and even its damage. To avoid this extremely disappointing turn of events, draw your attention to the most common signs of a bad oil pan:
There are oil leaks under your vehicle
If you notice oil drops on the ground under the engine bay, they can be a sign of a leaking oil pan. You should inspect the oil pan and the area around it for leaks. There are several possible sources of oil leaks, including the oil pan itself, poor gaskets and a loose or damaged oil drain plug. If you’re going to start the engine, check the engine level first and top it up if necessary.
Your oil pan is bent or damaged
The oil pan is the lowest point of your engine, which is why there is a chance you can hit an obstacle or a large pothole and damage the oil pan. If your oil pan is durable enough, it will get dented. In another case, you’ll have it cracked or damaged. Whichever happens, this may cause oil leaks and lead to engine overheating and damage. You should not drive a car with a bent or cracked oil pan even if there are no signs of oil leaks.
You have to top up the oil level
Regular oil level checks are a part of your routine car maintenance. If you notice a steady loss of oil every time you check the oil level, you should inspect the oil pan for leaks. Even if an oil leak is very slow, it should be fixed as soon as possible as it can increase in size while you’re driving the vehicle. On cars and trucks without an oil dipstick, there could be a low oil level warning light on the dashboard. If the light comes on, you should check the oil pan for leaks and top up the oil level before starting the engine.
Smoke coming from under the hood
If drops of oil reach hot exhaust parts, they may burn due to extreme temperatures, so you’ll see smoke coming from the engine bay. Once you notice the smoke, stop the car, shut down the engine and get everyone out of it. You should not try to open the hood and to fix the problem yourself. It’s better to have your vehicle towed to a repair shop for inspection and repairs.
Your engine needs a specific amount of oil to be circulated inside it for its proper lubrication and cooling. That’s why a lack of engine oil due to your leaking oil pan may cause the engine to overheat and even lead to its complete failure. Once you notice high readings on your dashboard temperature gauge, shut down the engine and wait until it cools down to check the level of coolant and oil. If your engine gets overheated even when the coolant level is good, contact your mechanic for a piece of advice.
May I drive a car with a bad oil pan?
It is a bad idea to drive a car with an oil pan that leaks. Even if a leak is small, there is no guarantee it will not turn into a big one in a minute or two. The best you can do is to call your mechanic and ask him or her to check your oil pan for damage and leaks. If the oil pan needs a replacement, your mechanic will do the job and check the engine for other possible problems.
How to fix the problem
The first step is a visual inspection of the oil pan area. The root of the issue can be one of the following problems:
- A cracked or damaged oil pan
- A poor oil pan gasket or drain plug gasket
- A loose drain plug
- An overtightened drain plug
Once the source of the problem is found, a mechanic will offer you an appropriate solution. A poor gasket can be simply replaced, and a loose, cross-threaded or overtightened drain plug can be fixed by replacing or reinstalling it.
In some cases, a bad oil pan can also be removed and repaired. However, if it got critical damage, the only way is to replace it with a brand-new oil pan.
The repair process for everything but the loose drain plug should begin with draining out the oil. The second step is to remove the oil pan in order to repair or replace defective parts. The final step is reinstalling the oil pan using new gaskets and seals, and topping up the engine with fresh oil. Keep in mind to check the oil pan for leaks before starting the engine.
Can I replace it myself?
You can try to replace or repair a bad oil pan yourself if you have the required knowledge and have already dealt with this type of repair. Besides, you will need a lift to access the underneath of your car and some other tools for the oil pan repair. On some vehicles, an oil pan can rest on the subframe or the car’s chassis, or be blocked by other vehicle parts. In this case, the job is going to be more complicated, so it’s better to leave it to a professional.