Why Engines Burn Oil

Generally, engines burn oil due to a few reasons.

Bad valve seals

Worn valve guides

Pressurized crankcase (oil pan) due to a clogged PCV valve or breather system

Blow-by from worn piston rings

Bad valve seals: The valves are located in the cylinder head above the combustion chamber. Oil is pumped at 50 to 80 psi of pressure into the top of the head, lubricating the valve-train; the valves have seals on them to stop the flow of oil down into the engine when the valve is open. If the seals fail, oil is allowed to flow down into the combustion chamber and is burned.

Worn valve guides: The valves are guided by a small cylindrical chamber called a valve guide. These guides wear over time causing eccentricity (or slop); the excess gap allows the flow of oil down the valve stem into the combustion chamber to be burned. What about the valve seal you say? Well, the gap is too great for the seal to stop the oil flow, so down it goes to be burned.

Pressurized crankcase due to clogged PCV or breather system:The car's engine is a giant pump, consequently it must breathe. The PCV (Positive Crankcase Ventilation) system does just this, allows the engine to exhaust the excess pressure build-up (which is a natural phenomenon of the internal combustion engine). Carbon build-up is a by-product of an engine and can build up in the PCV system, clogging the breathing passages. This in turn pressurizes the oil pan and pushes oil up into the fuel delivery system, where it is fed into the engine and burned.

Blow-by from worn piston rings: The pistons in your car's engine have seals around them in the form of rings. These rings do two things:


Seal the combustion chamber so the precious power developed from the firing of the cylinder is not lost.


Provide vital lubrication to the cylinder walls.

When the rings wear out, the pressure from combustion reverses down into the oil pan, pressurizing it and forcing oil into the valve covers, through the breather system, back into the fuel delivery system, and into the engine to be burned.
You may ask yourself, "What can I do to stop this from happening?" Keep your oil and filter changed every 3,000 miles and keep the air filters changed every 12,000 miles! This will keep sludge and carbon buildup down to a minimum. Understand that you can't stop mechanical wear, but you can slow it down!

Now a word about new cars. I have had several people write to me regarding the fact that that they have noticed the engine in their new vehicle seems to be burning oil. They contact the dealer and are advised that using oil is a "normal condition." I agree, however there is a difference between "burning oil" and "using oil." We just discussed how oil is burned. In contrast, today's engines operate at higher temperatures and compression ratios, causing oil to be used. Higher temperatures and compression ratios achieve two things:


Lower exhaust emissions


More power out of smaller engines

However, along with these benefits comes the side effect of using oil, due to the increased friction and heat. As a result, the oil is evaporating or being broken down while doing its job. In other words, the oil is being used. It is not going out the tail pipe as it does when it is burned.

The rate of oil use depends on how much the vehicle is used and, more importantly, under what load. For instance, a 3/4-ton pickup truck used for hauling will use more oil than a small passenger car. For those experiencing a higher rate of oil use, I suggest using synthetic oil. It has a higher resistance-to-viscosity breakdown and will do a better job than standard oil. Happy motoring!