Signs of Engine Failure
September 14th, 2015
First, the good news. Today’s engines can easily run well over 200,000 miles with no major engine repair or overhauls. Of course, you’ll need to stay up to date on maintenance like regular oil changes and coolant flushes, and not ignore any problems should they arise. Still, it’s a long way from the 1970s or 80s, when a 130,000 mile service life was about the end of the line for most vehicles.
Things can happen, though, and these are all signs that you may have major engine repair in your near future:
- Smoke: There are a few different reasons that a vehicle might smoke through the tailpipe, and three different colors of smoke that can all indicate different things. White smoke means that coolant is entering the engine’s combustion chambers, often from a failed head gasket or cracked head. That white smoke is actually steam…but light amounts of steam are normal, especially in colder months, as exhaust contains a certain amount of water vapor. We’re talking about massive clouds of steam, along with the smell of antifreeze.
Blue-gray smoke means oil is being burned in the engine, from a failed piston ring, worn valve guide seals or broken valve guides. You’ll also see more oil consumption; topping off the oil once between oil changes is normal, but when oil consumption gets up to a quart every 1000 miles or so, you’ve got a problem. In extreme cases, the exhaust will smell like burned oil.
Black smoke is an indicator of a too-rich fuel mixture. It isn’t usually a sign of imminent engine failure, but it does mean that there’s a problem in the fuel delivery system that is causing too much gasoline to get dumped into the engine’s fuel/air mixture. If left too long, this is something that can cause more serious problems.
- Noises: Not just a slight clatter…a noise that sounds like someone whacking a galvanized-steel trash can with a hammer. A knock like that almost always means bearings are about to fail; the engine contains main bearings for the crankshaft, bearings where the pistons connect to their rods, and bearings where the connecting rods connect to the crankshaft. A knock means that a bearing is failing and allowing a metal surface to become scored, scuffed or galled. Other noises might include a pinging or clattering sound that could point to valve train or camshaft problems. While these can be serious, they can usually be addressed without a complete engine teardown.
- Vibration: It’s not unusual to notice a slight vibration at idle. No, we’re talking about a rough, uneven vibration that shakes the whole vehicle…that can indicate a cylinder that isn’t getting good compression, or other problems that are causing the engine to run roughly.
- Loss of Power: Any vehicle will lose power over thousands and thousands of miles, due to normal wear. If your car loses power quickly, though, or suddenly starts using a lot more fuel, it can be a sign of some real engine problems, especially if accompanied by other warning signs like noises or heavy smoke.
- Loss of Oil Pressure: Most cars now come with an actual oil pressure gauge and not the “idiot light” of years past. Keep an eye on that gauge; it’s normal for a vehicle to show higher oil pressure until it’s warmed up, since cold motor oil is thicker. If the oil pressure drops below 1/3 or halfway on the gauge, however, it can be a sign of trouble.
- Check Engine Light: The Check Engine light is triggered by the car’s engine control computer when it picks up an out-of-whack reading from one of the engine/drivetrain’s many sensors. The Check Engine light often indicates a minor problem, but should be checked out nonetheless.
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