What Does the Oil Light Mean? How to Take Care of Your Vehicle

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Eventually, every driver has to deal with an oil warning light. While receiving the message can elevate your anxiety, there’s no reason to panic as long as you take the appropriate action.

What does the oil light mean? Well, you should know two types of warning lights: an oil change and an oil pressure light. Several reasons, such as a clogged filter, low oil levels, or faulty sensors, can cause both. Scheduling an oil change is the best way to keep your car running efficiently and deal with the problems those lights represent.

Let’s examine what those lights indicate, the main causes, and what you can do when faced with this situation.

Oil change

What Do Oil Warning Lights Indicate?

Oil change and pressure lights indicate something wrong with your car’s engine oil. Let’s walk through both definitions in detail.

Oil Change Light

The oil change light is one of the most common warnings that appear on your vehicle’s dashboard. The appearance of the message can change depending on the make and model year.

Regardless of how the message appears, the meaning is the same: Your car is overdue for an oil change.

Older vehicles typically need a change every 3,000 miles. However, newer vehicles with modern lubricants can go between 5,000 and 7,000 miles. Always refer to your owner’s manual to determine when your oil needs to be changed. So, can you drive after your oil change light comes in? You can, but you should prioritize the service. If you continue to drive long after the oil change light comes on, you can severely damage or stall your engine. The best course of action is to head over to a local service center.

Oil Pressure Light

The meaning of an oil pressure light indicates there’s an issue with your vehicle’s oil pressure. If the indicator displays on your dashboard, the pressure has dropped to the point where it could severely damage your engine. Oil pressure gauges monitor the amount of pressure in your vehicle. If you ignore this message, you risk stalling the engine since it won’t receive the constant oil supply it needs to continue operating.

Avoid driving if the oil pressure light comes on. If you notice any ticking, rattling, or knocking noises, those are indicators that the pressure is low and your car should not be on the road much longer. While the exact prognosis depends on the cause of low oil pressure, it’s best not to take the risk.

Taking your car to Take 5 is the best way to minimize oil problems that could escalate into something much more severe. Check out our oil change services for more information.

What Causes an Oil Warning Light? 6 Reasons

Here are six reasons your car might receive an oil warning light.

1. Low Oil Levels

Severely low engine oil levels are a common culprit for triggering the oil pressure indicator light. When oil levels decrease, so does the pressure. The lack of sufficient lubrication prevents the moving parts in your engine from working as they should. This can cause friction and an overheated engine.

2. Dirty Oil

Over time, your engine picks up debris and other small metal particles that disrupt its performance, including its pressure level. Contaminated oil cannot properly protect against excessive wear in crucial areas like the oil pump, leading to poor engine performance and potential failure over time.

How can you tell if your oil is dirty? If you spot a dark brown color or metal particles in your dipstick when you pull it out, that’s a sure sign that your oil is dirty.

3. Oil Leaks

Your vehicle may be running low on oil due to a leak, causing the oil light to come on. The most common causes of leaks include a:

  • Leaking filter
  • Bad gasket
  • Loose drain plug
  • Damaged oil pan

If you suspect your car’s oil is leaking, park the vehicle on a level service for a few hours. Afterward, look underneath for any puddles. If you don’t see a puddle but still suspect your oil is leaking, take your vehicle to an auto shop for further inspection.

4. Clogged Oil Filters

Oil filters help maintain your engine’s oil pressure. Unfortunately, they can get overloaded with dirt, metal particles, and other contaminants over time. When this happens, oil pressure decreases, activating a warning light on your dashboard. A new oil filter is typically included in a full-service oil change.

5. Defective Oil Pump

The oil pump keeps oil circulating through the engine. When the pump wears down, the oil pressure decreases. A bad pump doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have enough oil—but if it’s not reaching the areas it needs to, you may need a replacement.

6. Faulty Oil Sensor

The oil sensor is a plug-in device that monitors your car’s oil pressure, notifying the engine control module if it drops to a dangerous point. Despite their efficiency, oil sensors can malfunction, causing them to trigger a false oil change or a pressure light warning.

A bad sensor doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong with your oil levels or the pressure, but you’ll need to get it fixed so the warning system works.

3 Steps to Take When Your Oil Light Comes On

If an oil warning light comes on, follow these three steps:

  1. Switch on your vehicle's emergency lights and pull over to a safe place.
  2. Check the oil level using the dipstick test. Make sure your car has cooled down before proceeding because hot parts may cause burns.
  3. To perform the dipstick test, remove it from its tube, clean it with a rag, reinsert it fully, and then pull it out again to read the levels accurately. If your oil is too dark, it’s dirty and needs to be replaced.

How to Reset a Change Oil Light After an Oil Change

Resetting an oil light after an oil change is generally a simple procedure. But since every make and model differs from the next, it’s crucial to look up specific instructions for your vehicle.

Some cars require you to press the gas pedal multiple times to reset the light. With newer models, you might have to fiddle with the controls on the steering wheel and follow specific instructions.

The best way to determine how to reset the oil light on your car is by consulting your owner’s manual. Alternatively, if you need a visual demonstration, check out step-by-step instructional videos on YouTube that pertain to your vehicle. Regardless of which tutorial method you select, you can rest assured that you won’t see the oil pressure light come on for a while.

Why Does the Oil Light Stay On After an Oil Change?

If your oil warning light remains lit after an oil change, that could indicate other problems. Perhaps there's a bad oil pump or a sensor issue. This could also indicate that your car:

  • Does not circulate enough oil for proper lubrication
  • Has sludge in the engine

Don’t delay if this happens. Consult with professionals who can identify the exact cause.

Get an Oil Change with Take 5

What does the oil light mean? As we’ve seen, there are a number of possible options. The best course of action is to contact professionals to get an accurate diagnosis. If you're overdue for an oil service, schedule an appointment at a Take 5 location near you.

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