Oil is considered one of the most critical fluids in a car because it lubricates (and provides a barrier between) the internal engine components. Without oil, friction between these components would increase, to the point of the engine parts overheating and failing.
The oil sits in a reservoir known as the oil pan. You’ll find the pan bolted to the bottom of the engine block. An oil pump siphons the oil from the pan and pushes into the engine oil galleys.
One of the most common places for an engine to develop leaks is the oil pan area. If the leak goes unfixed, it can cause your engine to run low on oil. And that can lead to a catastrophic internal failure.
What Causes an Oil Pan to Leak?
An engine can leak oil from many different places, one of which is the oil pan area. There are two common causes for a leak from the oil pan to occur: a worn-out gasket or impact damage.
The pan itself may leak if it sustains impact damage from an accident or road debris. In such a scenario, the damage will usually create a hole or crack in the oil pan. As a result, the oil will leak out, potentially leading to significant engine damage.
Worn or Damaged Oil Pan Gasket
In many cases, the oil pan gasket will simply wear out over time. When that happens, leaks can develop.
The oil pan gasket is sandwiched between the engine block and the oil pan. The gasket acts as a seal, preventing oil from leaking from between the two components.
Oil Pan Gasket Leak Symptoms
The symptoms associated with a leaking oil pan are fairly straightforward. Here are the signs you’ll want to look for:
Puddle of Oil Underneath the Car
Engine oil dripping or pooling beneath your car can indicate a leaking oil pan or pan gasket. Of course, there are many other places your engine can leak from, so you’ll need to do some troubleshooting to determine the source of the leak.
Take a peek under your vehicle and look at the oil pan—does it look like it’s leaking? If so, double-check that nothing above the pan (i.e., valve cover gaskets, timing cover, etc.) is dripping down and fooling you into thinking that the pan is leaking.
You may need to clean off the engine and recheck everything to pinpoint the leak.
Low Oil Level
A low oil level can also indicate a leak—potentially from the oil pan. Engines can leak oil from many locations, plus they can also burn oil. As such, you’ll need to do some homework before condemning the oil pan and/or gasket.
Smoke/Burning Smell Coming Out of the Engine Compartment
Smoke coming from under the hood is always a bad thing. An engine oil leak is one of several reasons why you may see smoke.
There are cases where the oil drips onto the hot exhaust, causing the oil to vaporize almost instantly.
How to Fix an Oil Pan Leak
In most cases, to fix a leak from the oil pan area, you need to either replace the gasket or the oil pan itself.
But there are some instances where you could get lucky by employing an easier fix.
Oil Pan Leak Quick Fix
As you may know, the engine oil drain plug threads into the oil pan. Each time your car gets an oil change, the plug is removed and reinstalled. Because the plug is tampered with so frequently, it can easily become the source of a leak.
Sometimes, to fix the leak, you can tighten the drain plug or install a new gasket behind it.
In other instances, the drain plug may need to be replaced. The pan may also need to be repaired or replaced.
Oil Pan Gasket Leak Repair
Typically, to fix a leak from the oil pan area, you’ll need to replace the oil pan or gasket.
It’s important to note that, on many vehicles, other components must be removed first to gain access to the oil pan. In some instances, the entire engine must be removed from the vehicle to get to the pan—so make sure to consult the repair manual for your vehicle before digging in.
The following is a general outline for oil pan replacement on a vehicle that offers direct access to the pan.
1. Prepare the vehicle
Make sure the vehicle is parked on a level surface, set the parking brake, and chock the rear wheels. Then, safely raise and support the car using a jack and jack stands.
Disconnect the negative battery cable.
2. Drain the oil
Place a container directly under the location of the oil pan. Remove the drain plug to drain the oil.
3. Unbolt the oil pan
Locate all of the bolts holding the oil pan to the bottom of the engine block. Then, start removing the bolts one at a time.
It helps to leave a few bolts at one end of the pan in place until you’re almost done. That way, you can leverage the end of the pan opposite the bolts to drain the oil and avoid a mess.
4. Remove the oil pan
Finally, you can remove the oil pan. If it’s stubborn, tap on it gently with a dead blow hammer or rubber mallet to get it free.
5. Remove the old gasket
Remove the old gasket and carefully scrape any remaining material from the engine. Clean the mounting location on the engine with solvent—the area must be completely clean for the new gasket to form a good seal.
6. Install the new gasket and the oil pan
After everything is clean, you can install the new gasket and the oil pan. Start by placing the gasket on top of the pan. Then, insert a couple of bolts through the pan to hold the gasket in place.
Finally, thread those bolts into the engine by hand.
Once the pan is in place, you can thread the rest of the bolts in (also by hand). Next, use a torque wrench to tighten the bolts to the manufacturer’s specification.
If you’re reusing the old oil pan, reinstall the drain plug and tighten it to specification.
7. Refill the engine with oil
Carefully remove the jack stands and lower the vehicle. Once you’ve done that, refill the engine with the correct amount of fresh oil.
Reconnect the negative battery cable, then start your engine and carefully check for leaks.