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99 honda civic - low oil

Hi everyone,

Hoping someone can give me some insight into what i might be dealing with. I have a 99 honda civic with 172,000 miles. Since the day i’ve owned it (that was 142,000 miles ago) i’ve gotten the oil changed every 3000 miles. In the last couple years every time i would take it in for an oil change the mechanic would get on me about my oil level and the fact that it was bone dry (as in - completley out of oil). Keep in mind I’ve continued to do oil changes every 3000 miles. This prompted me to shorten the length between oil changes, for the past year or so I’ve been getting the oil changed every 2000 miles. Even with oil changes every 2000 miles the mechanic will mention to watch my oil level as it’s low. This of course made me curious, as it seemed peculiar, so I asked the technician what the problem may be with my low oil levels and he stated that high mile cars generally will suck oil faster. He also stated my “oil pan and gasket?” were loose and should be replaced as it was causing an oil leak. I went ahead and had the oil pan and gasket replaced, but the low oil levels seem to persist. The guy runs like a gem, but obviously i dont want to shorten the life on the vehicle by depriving it from oil.

Thanks for any help or advice -

Bfletch

Check it regularly, maybe every morning before you start it, to get an idea of how much oil it actually consumes or drips. Do keep it topped off as that will keep that car running. Letting it get low will eventually cause it to fail.
If you have to add a quart of oil once in a while to top it off it isn’t a big deal on a high mileage car.

I’d be reluctant to suggest to get it fixed unless the consumption gets so bad to where you have to start thinking of strapping an oil drum on top of the roof.

There are actually at least two problems here, unfortunately.
The first, most obvious one, is a mechanical problem of some sort that was causing the engine to consume or to leak oil.
The other situation, that has apparently not dawned on the OP, is that he/she himself/herself is a significant part of the problem.

On any vehicle, it is wise to check the oil on a frequent basis, simply because once an engine is run low on oil, the internal wear of the engine increases, thereby increasing the rate of oil consumption. If this has happened on multiple occasions, the engine has suffered very accelerated wear and thus, the rate of oil consumption has increased even more.

The first time that the OP was told that the crankcase was dry, that should have been a clue to begin checking the dipstick every week or so, with the object of the game being to NEVER allow the level to fall more than 1 qt below the full mark. My personal policy is to replenish the oil once it has fallen by 1/2 qt.

By not doing frequent checking of the dipstick and by not replenishing the oil well before the crankcase is “dry”, the OP has essentially shot himself/herself in the foot, and the engine is now severely damaged goods.

As Remco aluded to, the age, the book value, and the odometer mileage of this vehicle make engine repair a poor economic proposition, and the only sensible thing to do is to begin checking the dipstick at least once a week and refilling the crankcase at the first sign of a drop in its level.

Running the engine low on oil will cause oil consumption as it can damage the cylinder walls and piston rings.
It doesn’t make any difference what your oil change regimen is; the engine oil level should be inspected every few weeks at most even if you know for a fact that the engine is using no oil at all.

My feeling is that if both a dry and wet compression test is performed you will find that the rings are the problem and you will need a new engine to resolve this.

This problem is all on your shoulders and yours alone. Unless you get in the habit of maintaining fluid levels then every car you own will suffer the same fate.
You stated that your mechanic “would get on you about the oil level and the fact that it was completely dry” and yet you persisted in ignoring that advice.

Sorry to be so critical here but unless you change your ways you’re going to be doomed to more of the same on your future cars.

You don’t need to shorten the oil change interval. You can add a quart of oil yourself when needed between changes. Lots of places sell oil, so just get a couple of quarts the next time you are in Walmart.

@bfletch,

Your owner’s manual recommends you check the oil level every time you put fuel in the car, but evidently, you never check your oil. Letting the oil level get low has damaged your engine.

Your car is now burning oil because of oil starvation. It probably also leaks as well.

You need to get into the habit of checking the oil frequently, and if necessary, adding oil. Even though the damage is done to your current car, you can probably get more life out of it by maintaining the proper level of oil in the engine. If you keep up good habits of checking under the hood, your next car will last longer than this one will.

The very first thing that bfletch needs to do is learn how to check the oil. His/her mechanic should be willing to demonstrate. There are instructions in the owners manual as well. Then get into the habit of checking the oil every time the gas tank is filled.

Next is to look for a leak. I believe that this engine has a distributor, one of the last Honda’s to have one and they are prone to leaking around the mounting hole. Its a simple and inexpensive fix, just an O-ring and about 15 minutes tops.

Next is the valve cover gasket, and that includes the spark plug holes. If the engine has not has a valve lash check in the last 30k miles, then that should be scheduled and make sure the mechanic replaces the valve cover gasket and spark plug hole seals. Again, not to expensive, but if not done, it could lead to burned valves so it is justified whether it is the source of the leak or not.

Third is the front main seal and camshaft seals. This car is due for a new timing belt if that has not been done recently. New seals should be installed at the time the belt and water pump are replaced. The timing belt job is a $600+ job by itself, adding new seals and a water pump do not raise the bill all that much more and are well worth adding because if done separately, they are very expensive. Since the valve cover has to come off at the same time, the new valve cover and lash check/adjustment could be mixed in, but that would not have the same savings as including the water pump and oil seals, there isn’t as much duplication of labor with this.

Last thing to check is the oil pressure sending unit, another cheap fix if that is the problem.

So, if the timing belt and valve lash check haven’t been done for awhile, a $1000 (est) investment can and should provide you with about 7 more trouble free years of driving, what a bargain.

One point not yet mentioned is the oil pan and gasket. IMHO this was a waste of time and money and should not have been recommended. It’s perfectly common for high mileage engines to weep a bit of oil past the pan gasket, and unless the leakage is dignificant enough to cause puddling or the vehicle is otherwise in perfect shape and one desires to keep it that way, it isn’t a problem. The gasket itself loses its compression, and with the pressure in the crankcase and the splashing around, seepage is normal. Your crankcase get pressurized by combustion gasses blowing by the piston rings. In your case, since you’ve been running it dry, the pressure can be significant.

Also, by running repeatedly low on oil, you’ve created significant wear on the cylinders and the piston rings. That’s where the high oil usage comes from. A very fine film of oil is always left by the oil “wiper” rings on the cylinder walls to lubricate the compression rings as the pistin comes down. The miniscule amount of oil left after both the rings pass is burned in the combustion process. In your case, the wear on the cylinder walls and the rings is leaving much more oil on the walls than is normal, and the oil is getting burned at a high rate. The higher pressures in the crankcase can even drive more oil than normal to be ingested via the Positive Crankcase system, since the space under the valvecover is pressurized also, creating a greater pressure differential between the intake and the valvecover space. Oil will get drawn in via the PCV system.

In short, your engine is prematurely shot due to your not checking your oil. If you begin to check it routinely, perhaps twice weekly, you may be able to get a few more years out of the vehhicle. If you continue neglecting the engine, you’re not likely to even get THAT far.

You’ve not been kind to your main, rod, and other split bearings either. But I’ll refrain from pontificating. We’ll save that for another lecture.

The point is check the oil regularly between oil changes. You have high miles on this car. The oil use is acceptable and may or may not have been better if you had taken more notice. I try to check oil every gas fill up. At this mileage even a quart in a thousand miles is perfectly acceptable. I have put many miles on cars needing a quart every 300 miles. Your oil burn rate is not clearly known since you do not check often. I doubt you have done any of the scary damage stories the others relate, BUT CHECK YOUR OIL or have someone do it for you.

I don’t understand how you can say that “obviously” you don’t want to shorten the life of this car. You’ve ignored your mechanic and your owner’s manual on one of the most important things you need to do with any car. In the future, check your oil!

I have a hard time believing his mechanic did not ask if he checked his oil and show him how.

I know people that think like this. My cousin’s girlfriend is one. It took both of us to convince her that she had to check it when she put gas in it.

Note the cut and paste line from the original post.

In the last couple years every time i would take it in for an oil change the mechanic would get on me about my oil level and the fact that it was bone dry

The OP has apparently made running out of or very low on oil a regular event. If I were the mechanic I would refuse to service the car at all because eventually that engine is going to scatter itself and someone will be looking for a place to lay the blame. This scenario is not a rare one.

In the past, when I was in the habit of changing the oil every 3,000 miles, I frequently went an entire oil change without checking the oil. I got lazy, and I wasn’t losing enough oil at the time to worry about it. I’m not proud of it, and when I would change my oil and realize I hadn’t checked it since my last oil change, I would scold myself. Now my '98 Civic has almost 225,000 miles on the odometer, I’ve gone from a house to an apartment, and money is tight, so I’ve gone to a 5,000 mile oil change interval. I’ve also stepped up how often I check the oil.

The reason I share this story is to show you you don’t have to go crazy and check the oil every time you put gas in the car. However, if you notice you start losing oil, or your mechanic tells you it would benefit you to get into the habit of checking the oil, checking it once a week might be a good idea. Once you get into the habit of checking and adding oil when it’s needed, you’ll get a handle on how bad the damage is. Are you adding a quart a week, a quart every two weeks, or a quart a month? Once you figure out this rate, you can figure out how often you should check the oil, and you’ll notice if it starts burning or leaking more oil than usual.

Motor oil is the life blood of your engine, so for most of the people who post in this forum, to not check your oil is to engage in risky behavior. We see it as gross negligence because checking the oil is a pretty easy thing to do. You don’t have to be mechanically inclined, you just need to take an interest in making your car last.

Your car is one of the most highly rated cars in terms of reliability and longevity. The 1998 Civic (the same model as yours - a 6th generation Civic) is still one of the top ten stolen cars in the U.S. I think the 1994 Accord rated #1 as the most stolen car in the country. My point is that if you take good care of it, your car it will last you a long time, in spite of the 172,000 miles on the odometer or the fact that it’s a 13 year old car.

Check back and let us know how much oil you’re adding to the engine to keep it at a safe level. If it gets bad enough, you might need to drive around with a case of oil in the trunk while you save for your next car.

BTW, in case you’re interested, my Civic burns about a quart of oil per 2,500 miles.

So on your NEXT car, check the oil every 500 miles and if it’s low, add the necessary amount of oil…You can start now to get the feel of it…

I don’t think the OP has any idea on how fast that oil disappears, something very crucial to know. If that thing drops two quarts every other day after driving only 150 miles, checking it every 1000 miles is moot because you’re running with an empty sump most of the time. You will do damage and one day it will leave you stranded.

Check it every day for a week or two and keep a record of how much you’ve added - jot it down on a note or mark the oil container with a sharpie with a line where the oil was, where it is and with a date in between those two lines.
Then decide what a good schedule of checking is. Usually every fill up (300 miles or so) works for most people.

“Bone dry” is subject to interpretation here. I’m sure the oil pan was not bone dry, more likely just the dipstick and on a civic, that means about a quart and a half low. I would not assume that the engine is toast just yet.

I stand by my suggestion to check the oil at each fill up, for many people, that is about once a week or so. At least do this until the actual rate of oil consumption can be determined. Then the interval can be modified to fit the need.

Thanks to everyone for the comments and recomendations. I’ve now been educated and will check levels now regularly.

You may find an advantage in checking your oil at home when the car is cooled down, instead of when you gas up.

At the gas station, the engine is hot, you may be rushed to get to work or to get out of a line up of cars waiting to get to the pumps, not want to get your hands or clothes dirty, etc. I find it’s just much easier to check fluid levels at home after the car has cooled down a few hours or overnight, the majority of the oil has drained down, I can easily wash my hands afterward, and I’m not rushed. It’s also the only way you can check your coolant…engine must be cold for that. Just keep a small supply of oil, coolant, and other fluids at home or in the vehicle. It’s a good idea to also check brake fluid, transmission fluid (if it’s an automatic), power steering fluid, even washer fluid, tire pressure, even the functioning of your exterior lights, though these don’t need quite the frequent attention that engine oil deserves.

It may be too late to worry about on your current car. You should have a compression test performed. If compression results of 120, 140, etc come back then you know the engine is damaged.

That chronic oil consumption is also going to end up in the catalytic converters so over time a loss of performance, Check Engine Light, etc can be expected. In worst case scenarios, even engine overheating can occur.