Can a broken dipstick cause a car to lose 2 quarts of oil over a couple of months?
March 4, 2011 7:47 AM   Subscribe

Can a broken dipstick cause a car to lose two quarts of oil over a couple of months? Should I just replace the dipstick, or should I have a mechanic investigate other potential problems?

In the middle of December the brakes were fixed on our car, and the primary driver asked the mechanic to change the oil too. Soon after, the primary driver noticed a strange smell from the car vents.

This part may be a tangent: In January the car broke down and was in the shop for two weeks, same one that did the brakes and oil. It had been sputtering and stalling infrequently over the previous few years, but this time it wouldn't start up again. The mechanic couldn't find the problem. We did some research online and decided the problem was probably the fuel pump, asked him to replace it, and now the car drives much smoother. It is probably too soon to conclusively say the stalling problem is gone because, even though the frequency had been increasing, it was still infrequent.

Back to the main story: The car wasn't driven much in the second half of December due to the holidays and was in the shop for two weeks in January with the seemingly unrelated problem described above. About a week ago the primary driver tells me about the weird smell, but I don't think much of it because the car has some other weird smells (musty smell from the vents). A couple of days ago the primary driver says "I think the smell is oil." I say, "Maybe the car is burning oil because it is getting old, but I guess there could be something wrong with the gasket or the engine or something. Better check the oil." (The car is a 2001 Ford Contour, and, if it is not obvious yet, I don't know much about cars.) So last night we check the oil. The dipstick is broken, just the stick is in the tube, protruding about half an inch; no little cap, no handle. I'm not positive I am getting the dipstick all the way down (I don't want to lose it!) but barely any oil gets on the dipstick--maybe a quarter inch. I open the oil cap and peek in. There are signs of oil inside, little puddles, but not much actual oil. We put in two quarts of oil and get a "full" reading on the dipstick. There is not a lot of obvious oil on the outside of the engine, but we pull the car back and there are a few oil spots on the driveway--I think they are new. The oil light never came on.

For better or worse, no one has opened the hood of the car since the oil was changed in December except the mechanic. So either he broke the dipstick and didn't replace it or he didn't bother to tell us that the dipstick was broken by a previous mechanic.

Should we:

1a) Buy a new dipstick and forget about it
1b) Insist the mechanic gives us a new dipstick and forget about it
2) Get the mechanic to investigate whether something else went wrong at the time of the oil change
3) Suspect that something else is wrong unrelated to the oil change and get this or another mechanic to investigate
posted by nequalsone to Travel & Transportation (13 answers total)
If oil were coming back up the dipstick tube, which seems unlikely, it be obvious by the mess on the sides of the tube. So the oil loss likely has nothing to do with the dipstick. However, burning a quart every thousand miles or so in the realm of normal for a older car. If you aren't seeing oil on the driveway under the car after it is parked I wouldn't worry about it. Go to the dealership and get a new dipstick - it shouldn't cost more than $20. I've never had any luck with the universal dipsticks you can get at the auto parts store. Check your oil every 1000 miles or so and add a quart as needed. I've been doing it for years on my 1997 Mazda.
posted by COD at 8:07 AM on March 4, 2011

A dipstick at AutoZone would cost a whole $11. Go buy one and eliminate it as a possibility. If any of the issues happen again, take the car to a different mechanic for a full inspection, usually $40-50. I really would suggest a different mechanic, because it sounds like you don't trust your current one.

Side note: There are no 2001 Ford Contours, the last model year is 2000.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 8:08 AM on March 4, 2011

Response by poster: The way I posed the question makes it seem like I am on the fence about getting a new dipstick. I am in fact 100% certain that I should get a new dipstick. I intend to do it before the car is driven again.

What I am trying to figure out is if the broken dipstick is likely to be the cause of the oil loss. And the answers are very helpful in suggesting that it is not. Thanks.

COD: I estimate around 1800-2000 miles driven over the period in question. However, I think we are seeing some oil on the driveway and I think only recently. Does that put it in the "monitor more closely" or "take it to the mechanic" column?

Mister Fabulous: You're correct. It is a 2000.
posted by nequalsone at 8:25 AM on March 4, 2011

So, wait. The cap was gone from the dipstick too? Couldn't you have lost oil that way?

In the meantime, monitor your oil levels carefully, and check to see if anything's leaking out from under the car. I'd do it every day until you're confident that it's not leaking *that* quickly.
posted by schmod at 8:30 AM on March 4, 2011

Did the car have a problem with burning oil previous to this? If no then the most likely scenario is the guy probably just didn't fill it all the way when he changed it. Check the oil level every couple of weeks and if it seems stable then you most likely have nothing to worry about.

The small amount of oil that probably sloshed out of the dipstick tube likely accounts for the spots and the smells but most likely not being low a whole 2 quarts. Get a new one of course, but it's not urgent.
posted by Rhomboid at 8:30 AM on March 4, 2011

Response by poster: schmod: The best way I can explain it is to compare the dipstick to a sword with a blade, a hilt, and a handle. Only the blade is left. And to clarify, the oil cap on the engine (where you put the oil in) is in a different location and is still in place.
posted by nequalsone at 8:35 AM on March 4, 2011

And BTW it's standard operating procedure after an oil change to start the engine and let it idle for a few moments and then check the dipstick to make sure that it's at full, because the level drops a bit after the oil circulates through all the various passages and voids in the engine and filter, so if in fact he did send it back to you 2 quarts low he's lazy and/or rushed and you should find another shop for your regular business.
posted by Rhomboid at 8:37 AM on March 4, 2011

Best answer: I'm not positive I am getting the dipstick all the way down (I don't want to lose it!)

If you aren't sure the dipstick was fully inserted, then you have no idea whether the reading was correct. You may very well have added more oil than is appropriate. Go get another dipstick (drive some other car to the parts store) and get a reliable reading before deciding what to do.
posted by jon1270 at 8:38 AM on March 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Get a new dipstick. Also, you want to not overfill the oilpan - the crankshaft sits right there and if it is partially submerged will make the oil frothy and diminish performance. You should not see any oil when you look in the cap. funny story - on my first car, I had no idea where the dipstick was, and thought you put oil in like a lawnmower. Filled it right to the top. Took like 9 quarts. The car ran for about 3 minutes and then never started again because I blew out the rings and some gaskets. My dad still gives me shit about it.

A missing/broken dipstick can cause some oil loss, but it wouldn't be significant. You might smell it, though. Burning through a quart of oil every 2000 miles or so isn't terrible - old engines leak - however, it can be significant of a major problem down the road.

As for the burning oil smell after an oil change - I'd put money on some being spillled on the valve cover and seeping down onto the block. There could be gasket leaking however and you are getting some seepage. You'll want to find out which - if it's a head gasket, that's troublesome. I've had a lot of luck finding it by getting the engine good and hot at night and using a small, high powered flashlight to look for smoke. It can be time consuming however. It's not an urgent problem, but you do want to keep your eye on it.

Another good telltale sign is the exhaust - you shouldn't see very much vapor or smoke at room temperatures. If you see black smoke, youre burning oil and white smoke is coolant. If you're losing oil over time, its probably getting burned as fuel and you can smell it in the exhaust. If this is the source of the smell in the car it is probably not a big deal, but does mean that you are getting exhaust vapors into the passenger cabin. Look at fixing the exhaust line, or make sure you're ventilating the cabin more.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:39 AM on March 4, 2011

Best answer: First, the fact that you may not be getting the dipstick all the way down throws off your reading. As mentioned above, get a dipstick and properly read the level. If it is too full, have some drained off as Pogo is very right about the damage too much oil can do.

Next, if you still suspect that the car is losing oil check the following: If the oil is coming back up the tube (very doubtful) there will be oil all over the engine compartment and will be literally dripping onto the driveway. It will be obvious. If this does not appear to be the case, look carefully at each side of the engine. If a gasket is leaking, there will be a smear of oil on one or the other side of the engine extending down to where it finally drips off.

Lastly, look under the car. It is possible your mechanic didn't properly tighten the drain plug. You will see oil smeared on the bottom of the oil pan and back onto the bottom of the transmission.

If none of these things is evident and you still think it is using oil, look inside the exhaust pipe. If there is a black oily residue, it may suggest engine trouble like worn out rings. If this is the case, take it out back and shoot it.
posted by Old Geezer at 12:10 PM on March 4, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks folks. I am going to buy a new dipstick and monitor the levels and look for oil more pointedly in the places you have suggested.

It is a very good point about possibly overfilling. I don't think I could have overfilled by much because you can sort of feel where the dipstick wants to sit in the tube, but it is certainly possible and I really didn't think of it.

I'm also thinking about finding another mechanic, which.... well, I don't look forward to it.
posted by nequalsone at 2:05 PM on March 4, 2011

First, get a new dipstick (on preview, you are, which is great).

Second, it may be a pain but you need to find another mechanic. I'm not one but I am a revhead, service my own car regularly, and I've worked for a mechanic workshop. A "mechanic" who can't diagnose a fuel pump as the cause of your previous problem shouldn't be trusted with your vehicle.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 2:16 PM on March 4, 2011

Response by poster: Got a new dipstick at the dealer this morning ($27) and it was indeed overfull. Took it to the mechanic and he drained out maybe a quart or a bit more. I'm not sure how much this is worth, but he said the idea that an old car burns a quart every thousand miles is outdated. He said a quart every 3,000 is closer to average, but some older cars burn basically none.

We will monitor more closely to see if the burning oil smell was because the dipstick tube was open and if there is any other suggestion of a leak. Thanks everyone, especially those who pointed out the possibility that I got a bad reading from the handle-less dipstick.
posted by nequalsone at 12:12 PM on March 5, 2011

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