How Long Can You Drive with Low Oil?

How Long Can You Drive with Low Oil

When your vehicle is running low on oil, it’s clear that you need to top it up to the recommended amount. If you haven’t got time to hop out of the vehicle or there’s no oil close by, you may be hesitant to continue driving. Chances are you’re wondering how long you can continue driving while the oil level is low. Down below, you’ll find out if it’s safe to continue driving with low oil and how long you should wait before you top it up. You’ll also see the dangers of driving with low oil pressure.

If there isn’t enough oil in the engine, on modern cars there’s an oil indicator that will illuminate when the oil is low. If you don’t have this oil light, then you’ll be able to check the oil by looking at the mark on the dipstick – if the mark on the dipstick is low, this will tell you that the oil level is low and you’ll need to change it. Oil is crucial to the engine’s components and it won’t be able to function without it. If you’ve been driving with low oil, you should top it up as soon as possible. Failure to change the oil can lead to absolutely no oil in the engine which could lead to severe problems down the line.

The engine has a bunch of moving components and as it runs, these components rub past each other and cause a lot of friction. If there’s not enough oil, the friction will get too much and can cause the engine to overheat. The job of the oil is to keep these components lubricated so that the engine can stay a cool temperature. If there’s no oil to lubricate the engine, the components can build up heat – the oil can cool down the engine by dispersing the heat to other parts of the engine, so it remains cool as a whole. Dirt can also build up in the engine and the oil can help to clean it. If the debris on your engine isn’t cleaned up, then this can affect the performance of the engine which can affect its longevity.

How Long Can You Drive with Low Oil?

Since the oil level is low and has not completely finished, you can drive for about 5-10 minutes or 3-7 miles before you change the oil and sustain no damage to the engine. If you don’t want to risk it, you should stop driving as soon as the low oil light comes on because sometimes this means that there’s pretty much no oil left and if you continue to drive, you’ll damage the engine. This differs across all engines but if you’re far from a top up, you should drive no longer than a few minutes. If you do manage to find some oil, 1 quart is enough to sustain the vehicle for a long journey.

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When you’ve noticed the oil is low, the low oil light comes on – it’s an indicator that you have a few miles left before your engine will be completely damaged. The lights are set to come on when there’s enough oil to last you a certain amount of miles – the miles you can continue to drive once the oil light comes on depends on what the manufacturer or mechanic has set it for. If the manufacturer set it from a few miles before the oil needs to be topped up, then you’ll be able to drive for a few miles with the risk that the engine could down at any time.

The downside to this is that you don’t know how much is oil left when oil light comes on so you won’t know how long you can drive for – the best thing to do is to open the bonnet and check the oil level on the dipstick – an experienced driver should be able to gauge how long they can continue to drive with that amount of oil in the vehicle.

An oil light can be caused by an oil leak and if the oil is leaking, this means that you’ll run out of oil very soon – if there’s an oil leak, oil Is being lost faster than normal so if you continue to drive, you’ll be left with no oil at all. Failure to top up the engine at the correct period can cause a lot of problems to the engine and this will affect its longevity and quality over time. If you don’t have oil around, this can be a tricky situation which is why it’s important to always have oil in the vehicle ready for when the oil needs to be topped up.

How Much to Put When the Oil is Low?

If you have a small tank of oil in your vehicle and you don’t know if it will be enough for the engine to stop showing the oil light, you should pour it anyway – any amount of oil you have available while the oil level is low will be useful for the engine. 1 quart of oil is enough to top up the engine when you have low amounts of oil. This can last you a few weeks depending on how much you use the vehicle.

When you pour the oil in, you should aim to reach the recommended amount because this will help the engine function correctly. The oil is like blood to the engine and if it doesn’t have enough, it can suffer. If you have a standard 4-cylinder engine and the oil is low, you should aim to put in 5 quarts of oil to sustain the engine for about 4k-6k miles. If you have a 6 cylinder engine, you should aim for 6 quarts. You should change the oil every few months or each time you do between 4-6k miles.

Dangers of Driving While Oil is Low

Knocking Sounds – if there isn’t enough oil in the engine and you fail to top it up, if you continue to drive, you may hear knocking sounds within the engine. When there isn’t enough oil, the engine doesn’t get lubricated properly so when the components rub against each other, there will be a lot more fiction. If there’s no lubrication, the engine rods can become loose and this happens when the pistons are no longer secure. If this is the case, then the rods can become lose and they’ll be thrown around inside the engine compartment and cause knocking sounds. If they’re loose, you’ll need to get the vehicle to the nearest repair shop and get them checked out.

Burning Smell – if there’s no engine oil remaining and you continue to drive, the lubrication within the engine’s components will be limited. Since the components are made up of metal, they’ll start to rub against each other and this will start to produce a lot of heat. Because of the amount of heat produced, you may be able to smell a burning smell coming from the engine. You’ll need to get some standard or synthetic oil and pour it into the reservoir so that the engine can start to lubricate.

Engine Failure – if there’s too little oil and you continue to drive – this can lead to the engine using up all the oil that’s left. If it’s all been used up, this can cause the engine to shut down. Since the components will continue to rub past each other with little oil, this can cause the engine to overheat and this will lead to engine failure. If the engine fails, it can be expensive to repair and you might have to end up getting the whole engine replaced.

If You Don’t Check Your Oil, the Engine will Fail

If you want to ensure that your engine has longevity, you’ll need to make sure that you’re putting the right oil and doing the right checks on the engine. There’s a lot to know about oil such as the quality, additives, consistency, brand, and temperature that can all affect the way the engine runs. Failure to maintain the engine by putting in the wrong oil can cause the engine to deteriorate quickly. The key to a long-lasting engine is maintenance. Oil is just one form of engine maintenance and even this needs to be done right. Failure to main your vehicle as a whole can lead to all sorts of problems.

If you want to avoid engine problems or any other problems and save $100s of dollars that you’ll spend at the auto repair shop, you’ll need to service your vehicle often – you can use our mechanic-rated Auto Maintenance and Repair Manual to do this. It’s basically what mechanics use to go through your vehicle to check if there are any problems that need fixing. As soon as they notice the most minor problem, they’ll ask you to fork out some money even though it’s a problem you can fix yourself in minutes – the manual will teach you how to maintain your vehicle every few thousand miles and it’ll teach you how to fix minor problems that mechanics will ask you to pay for; saving you money in the long run.

A lot of our readers have the Auto Maintenance and Repair Manual printed on their garage wall and 92% of them haven’t visited the auto repair shop in the last year because they know what to do to avoid problems. All it takes is giving your vehicle a little attention every few thousand miles and you’ll never spend money at the workshop again.

Reason Why the Oil Level is Low

There are a few reasons why you can have low oil, and this might not just be because you’ve used up a lot of it. There could be damaged components in the vehicle that has caused the oil to be used up more than normal. As the engine wears down, oil can escape more than usual. If you find that you’re losing more oil than normal, there could be a problem that causes this – for example, there could be an oil leak due to a bad gasket. This can be expensive to repair but it’s best if you want your engine to perform optimally.

There are a few symptoms that could signify that there’s low oil – this could be:

  1. Smoke in the exhaust.
  2. Brown and foam coolant.
  3. Oils puddles under the vehicle.
  4. No smoke in the exhaust.

No Smoke – If you notice that the vehicle is using more oil than normal that there’s no smoke coming out the exhaust, the oil is always low between the scheduled change time and it doesn’t seem like the oil is being burned in the engine, this could signify that the PCV system isn’t working properly and you’ll need to replacement it – the engine may have mechanical problems and you need to check for compression to determine the condition the engine is in – the valve seals may have been worn so you’ll need to get them replaced – the head gasket is damaged and you’ll need to replace them.

Coolant Brown and Foamy – if you notice that the coolant is brown and foamy, and the vehicle seems to be losing oil from somewhere and you can put your finger on it. There are no obvious leaks but you’re losing oil from somewhere – you check the coolant and you notice it looks brown and foamy. This could mean the head gasket is blown and you need to replace it – the cylinder head has cracked and you need to remove and repair the head or replace the cracked cylinder head – the oil could be leaking into the coolant.

Some vehicle’s oil cooler system circulates oil inside a chamber that’s filled with coolant. This allows the system to cool down. However, sometimes the oil can leak into the coolant rather than circulate the chamber. If this is the case, you’ll need to replace the oil cooler.

Drips of Oil under Vehicle – if you notice that there’s a pool of oil or oil is dripping underneath the vehicle. The oil level is low between changes and you’ve noticed this has been happening recently. In this case, you have an oil leak and the engine isn’t using up the oil how it’s meant to be used. Along with this, you might see smoke burning in the engine and smell it. This could be caused by the PVS system not working, therefore, you’ll need to get it repaired – it could be caused by the gasket or seals being damaged therefore you’ll need to get either one replaced – the oil filter that filters debris out the oil may be broken so you’ll need to tighten or replace it.

Smoke in Exhaust – if you notice that there’s smoke coming from the exhaust, the engine is using more oil than is normally used to, and it looks like the oil is being burned in the engine because of the smoke in the exhaust. You may also notice that the engine is not as powerful as it used to be. In this case, the engine could have mechanical problems that need to be checked by compression.

If the engine has bad compression, it could be fixed easily – the PCV system may not be working properly and this can cause the oil to be sucked back into the engine and through the air intake – in this case, you’ll need to replace the PCV valve. If the piston rings in the cylinder have worn out, then the engine oil can slip and go to the wrong side of the piston rings. If this happens, then it could be a problem with the rings or a worn-down cylinder wall. In this case, you’ll need to replace the piston rings. This could also mean that the engine valves seals are worn, and oil is being let through that shouldn’t be.

Job Guthiri is a freelance writer with 3 years of experience writing for Motorsrun and other established automobile outlets. His focus and key interests are Tacomas and maintenance. Read our Editorial Guidlines and Fact Checking process.