Maintaining proper oil pressure is vital to keeping an engine running. Rapidly moving metal surfaces produce lots of heat and friction and require constant lubrication to prevent damage to individual parts and the engine as a whole. The oil pressure sensor assumes the role of monitoring this internal pressure and sending a signal to the oil pressure gauge on your dash, alerting you immediately if there is a problem. This gives the driver time to pull over and assess the problem before costly repairs become necessary. Considering the important part they play in keeping your engine intact, how can you tell if an oil pressure sensor is failing? Remember, your local NAPA AutoCare has the right tools to test your engine oil pressure so you can be certain if there is more than just a sensor issue.
The Warning Light
If your oil pressure warning light comes on, pay attention to it! Any time this light comes on, even if you know your sensor is bad already, you need to check it out. If the dipstick reads that the oil level is fine and the engine sounds like it’s running quietly and smoothly, then the light is probably just the result of a bad sensor. If you find that the level is good, but you hear loud grinding or ticking noises coming from the engine, this could mean that your oil pump isn’t working, and you should not start the engine back up until it’s fixed. If you find that the level is low, this could mean a lack of pressure from a leaking hose or gasket, or possibly that the oil is being burned in the combustion chamber, and that you simply don’t have enough oil. In this case, definitely stop driving until you’ve resolved the issue or you could be facing major and immediate engine damage.
If you have a problem with the actual oil pressure in your car, chances are it isn’t intermittent. And it almost certainly isn’t a condition that changes rapidly back and forth. Thus, a sporadically blinking oil light is probably the clearest sign that the sensor itself is on its way out. Note that some older cars might not have a dedicated oil pressure light, and this problem might pop up as a check engine light in those cases. However, not all check engine lights have something to do with oil pressure, so either way, get it checked out. Always confirm that your oil level is adequate, and there are no strange noises before moving on.
The Oil Pressure Gauge
If you get a constant gauge reading of either very high of absolute zero, this could indicate a bad sensor. It could be an internal short in the sensor giving a constant high reading, or the signal pathway may have been destroyed altogether, giving you a zero reading. Damage to the wiring harness, a corroded plug, or simply an unplugged connection could be the culprit. Once more, it is important to rule out actual low oil pressure by checking the dipstick and listening to your engine. Remember, too much oil can cause a low-pressure situation due to foaming, which isn’t good for your vehicle, either, so don’t overfill.
A broken oil pressure sensor is an annoyance, but it’s also a danger. Having to pull over every time it shows up to double check that everything is fine quickly becomes tedious. You might also get complacent and assume it’s a bad sensor when in fact a problem has developed. A bad sensor isn’t capable of letting you know what is really going on in your engine until it starts making bad (and usually expensive) noises. It’s worth it to change the sensor right away. It will save you the hassle and potential damage to your vehicle in the long run.
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Blair Lampe is a New York-based professional mechanic, blogger, theater technician, and speechwriter. In her downtime she enjoys backpacking wherever her boots will carry her, rock climbing, experimental theatre, a crisp rosé , and showering love on her 2001 Sierra truck.