Incidences of metal shavings in oil should be addressed quickly, lest you want to incur expensive repairs.
The purpose of motor oil is to lubricate the various moving parts of an engine, helping keep your engine in tip-top shape so that it runs smoothly. Having metal shavings in your oil can, therefore, be quite problematic.
If not addressed quickly, this contamination can severely damage your engine and lead to costly engine repairs.
This article goes over seven common signs that your oil probably contains metal shavings, what it entails, and what you can do to sort everything out. Let’s get started.
When Metal Shavings Are The Cause Of Engine Oil Contamination
You might be surprised to learn that it’s normal for the friction of your engine’s moving parts to leave microscopic metal particles in the engine oil. Some of these particles are collected by the oil filter and are usually not cause for concern.
It’s only when they become substantial and observable by the naked eye that you have a problem.
In addition to determining if metal particles are the result of normal wear, you must also clarify their characteristics. Are they shavings, flakes, or chunks? What kind of metal are they? What’s their color?
The answers to these questions will help you pinpoint the underlying problem.
Types Of Metal Shavings
Not every part of your engine is made of the same metal, so a good way to identify the source of the metal shavings is to determine the particular type of metal you’re dealing with.
The metals to look out for are iron, bronze, copper, brass, chromium, and aluminum.
- Iron shavings typically stem from rotating parts of an engine, so your camshaft, crankshaft, or valve train might be the culprit.
- Bronze, brass, and copper shavings point to deteriorated bushings or bearings in the engine.
- Chromium and molybdenum are what your engine’s pistons and piston rings are made of. These components may be worn.
- Aluminum shavings often result from excessive wear on the aluminum caps holding the overhead camshaft in place, the camshaft’s bearings, or both.
In addition to going by the color of the metal, you can use a magnet to detect if the shavings are iron. Magnets stick to iron but not the other metals discussed.
Symptoms Of Metal Shavings in Oil
Now that you know the potential sources of the metal shavings and how they can be identified, let’s go over the common signs that you might have metal shavings in your oil.
1. Shiny, Glittery Oil
Though it could be caused by other issues (perhaps you need an oil change), a shiny or glittery appearance of your engine oil can be a telltale sign that it contains an excessive amount of metal flakes.
Remember, having some metal particles in the oil is usually okay, but having too much likely indicates that one or more of your engine components is in poor condition.
What To Do
It can be difficult to see the particles with the naked eye, so you will need to inspect the oil carefully to notice any contamination. Here are several effective methods you can try:
- Dip a dipstick into the oil and wipe it on a clean white cloth. You might have to repeat the process to see the metal flakes, should there be any.
- Run a magnet over the cloth to see if any metal sticks to it.
- Let your car or truck sit for a while and then drive it for a couple of miles. If the oil is clean, the glittery bits might be due to normal wear; if it’s noticeably more glittery after the drive, you might be dealing with a bigger problem.
2. Rough Idle
Many things can cause a gas-powered vehicle to idle roughly, including fouled or bad spark plugs. However, if you suspect that it’s due to poor lubrication, then the problem is likely related to the quality or level of the engine oil.
When your engine isn’t properly lubricated, it causes unnecessary friction between some of its components and makes them work harder than they should.
The grinding also results in an excessive amount of metal particles, the buildup of which can further undermine the viscosity, pressure, and overall effectiveness of the oil.
What To Do
There are several things you can do to determine if the rough idling is due to metal shavings in your oil.
- Check the oil level using a dipstick. If the oil is low, top it up. If it’s at the right level and you still experience rough idling, the problem lies elsewhere.
- Check the quality of the oil, looking out for any discoloration and/or a high concentration of metal particles.
3. Ticking Noises
As noted earlier, the build-up debris, metal shavings, or other substances in the engine oil can disrupt the flow of the oil, depriving your engine of the lubrication it needs to operate smoothly.
This often results in your engine parts hitting or rubbing against each other more than they should, creating ticking or rubbing noises in the process.
Use the methods highlighted above to determine if the noise is related to excessive metal shavings in the oil.
4. Decrease Engine Power
Of course, if your engine is not working optimally as a result of poor lubrication, you can expect it to produce less power than it normally does.
After all, the engine is working harder and exerting more energy than it should, making it less efficient.
Check the oil level and quality. If the problem persists after making all necessary corrections, consult a mechanic.
5. Engine Knocking
Contaminated oil, whether due to metal shavings or other substances, can cause excessive wear on the engine’s connecting rod bearings, potentially resulting in engine knocking.
Don’t take this lightly — engine knocking is one of the more severe symptoms of contaminated oil that’s left unchanged over a long period.
It’s important that you schedule routine oil changes and use the right oil for your vehicle.
6. White Exhaust Smoke
Having metal shavings in your oil and white smoke coming out of your exhaust usually go hand-in-hand. Both are commonly caused by the same underlying problem.
Motor oil is designed to lubricate an engine’s moving parts and shouldn’t enter the fuel system. White smoke indicates that oil is entering the fuel system and is being burned during the combustion process.
This could be due to worn valve seals or piston rings causing a leak, a telltale sign of which is chromium shavings in the oil.
If you see white smoke coming from your exhaust, take your vehicle to a mechanic immediately. Trying to diagnose the problem yourself may just make it worse.
7. Warning Lights Are On
When the accumulation of metal shavings or other substances causes the pressure or quality of your engine oil to drop, the car will usually set off one or more warning lights in your instrument cluster to alert you of a potential problem with the engine.
Some of the more popular warning signs are as follow:
- Check engine
- Service vehicle soon
- Oil pressure
- Oil service
- Reduced power
Never ignore these warnings. If you see any, get your car inspected.
How To Tell If Your Motor Oil Has Metal Shavings
There are a few things you can do to determine if there are metal shavings in your oil. The easiest is to use your senses to check for a shiny or glittery appearance, which often results from a high concentration of metal particles or other contaminants.
A magnet can also be used to detect metal in the oil. However, considering that magnets only attach to heavy metals such as iron, you might get a “false reading” if the metals contained in the oil are lighter varieties such as aluminum and chromium.
If there is a high concentration of metal shavings, emptying and inspecting your drain pan will often reveal them. The same can also usually be said about inspecting your oil filter.
It’s advisable that you try all three methods to ascertain that the oil does indeed contain metal shavings. Better yet, for the most accurate reading, have your mechanic perform an oil analysis.
How To Prevent Metal Shavings In Oil
Several things can be done to prevent metal shavings from becoming problematic, though most involve keeping your motor oil in good condition. They are as follows:
- Keep the oil clean by changing it routinely. Check your car’s owner’s manual or consult your mechanic for the appropriate servicing schedule.
- Replace your oil filter every time you change the oil so that it doesn’t clog prematurely.
- Use a dipstick to check the condition of the oil between oil changes, keeping an eye out for metal shavings.
- Use motor oil that’s compatible with your engine. Not only might a “lesser” oil provide insufficient lubrication and even damage your engine, but it may also be more prone to contamination.
- Monitor the oil pressure oil gauge to ensure your engine always has good oil pressure.
- Have your vehicle inspected if you start hearing strange or new engine noises.
Performing these tasks will limit the amount of metal shavings in your oil and help prevent the underlying problem(s) from causing serious damage.
Oil Metal Shavings FAQs
We knew you would have more questions, so here are answers to some of the most popular questions about the subject.
What Causes Metal Shavings In Oil?
Poor lubrication and excessive friction are the main causes of metal shavings entering a car’s motor oil.
Lack of lubrication causes key parts of the engine to rub against each other more than they should, producing an excessive amount of metal particles. A lot of these particles make their way into the oil.
Can Oil Filters Catch Metal Shavings?
Oil filters can catch some metal shavings, but not all. That’s because many metal particles are so small that they simply pass through the filter.
In fact, oil filters are primarily designed to trap sludge and other substances that have large particles, not metal shavings.
Do You Need A Total Engine Rebuild If You Find Metal Shavings In Your Oil?
Having traces of metal particles in your oil is normal and can often be dealt with by flushing and replenishing the oil. However, metal shavings, especially excessive amounts, usually indicate a much more serious mechanical issue that can permanently damage your engine if not resolved promptly.
In this case, simply replacing the oil won’t do much since the metal shavings will just return. If you don’t address the underlying problem quickly, the damage can become so severe that you may need a partial or full engine rebuild, which is usually expensive.
How Often Should You Change Oil?
The intervals for changing your oil will depend on your particular car and its age.
Newer vehicles typically don’t need their oil changed as often as older vehicles, and vehicles that are designed to use synthetic oil can usually go longer in between oil changes.
Regardless, consult your owner’s manual or trusted mechanic for the appropriate intervals for changing your engine oil, and don’t forget to also replace your oil filter with every oil change.
Motor oil plays an integral role in the operation of your car. It lubricates your engine so that it functions optimally.
When the oil becomes contaminated with metal shavings or other substances, it not only hinders the performance of your car but often also indicates a more serious issue that can seriously damage your engine if not addressed quickly.
We went over some of the symptoms of having metal shavings in your oil and provided several ways you can detect them. Oftentimes, it’s best to have an oil analysis performed to clearly determine the materials floating around in the oil.
Now that you know the causes of metal shavings in oil and what you should do to address them, how about checking out some of our other car care guides? We have articles on fixing faulty turn signal lights and sagging headliners that might interest you.