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White smoke out of the tailpipe

This morning I went to start my car and it wouldn’t start. So naturally I had it jumped and it started. When it did there was white smoke coming out of the tailpipe. I do want to mention that 2 days ago it was really low on oil and I added 3qts. It is almost 3,000miles over its oil change but this is the first time since I have had the car that the oil has not been changed when it should be. Do you think it just needs a tune up and oil change? My car is a 99’ Mercury Sable with over 100,000 miles. Please help me!

Running that low on oil isn’t good at all. The engine probably holds around 4.5 quarts of oil and you were WAY low and have no idea how long it was this low. Was the smoke purely white or gray or blue/gray in color? Did the oil have a milky color to it? Is there any sign of oil in the coolant?

Change the oil and filter ASAP but make sure to take a good look at the old oil. Do you see any metal flakes like silver or gold flecks in the oil? How about a milky look?

BEST CASE: The engine is now using oil and you need to keep a real close eye on the level and change interval.

WORST CASE: You have a head gasket or similar problem and possibly damage to the rings and bearings caused by running so low on oil.


What’s the weather been where you live?

White smoke generally indicates water vapor. In regions where it’s cold in the morning, white clouds of vapor are normal from a cold engine. Water vapor is a normal byproduct of combustion, and it co,mes out the exhaust as a white cloud.

However, ,monitor your fluids. If you’re losing coolant, the vapor might also be due to some getting drawn into the combustion chamber from a headgasket breech. If you aren’t losing any, you’re fine.

The low oil is another problem. You need to begin monitoring your fluids more regularly. Hopefully you caught this low oil condition before too much damage was done.

By the way, if you think it might be due for a tuneup and an oil change, it probably is. Get the servicing up to date ASAPP and maintain it in th efuture per the manufacturer’s recommendations.

Good suggestion! If you aren’t sure if your car needs a tun-up or a fluid or belt needs to be changed, it probably does.

Have you had any overheating issues in the past?


A very important detail has to do with how long the white smoke was coming out of the tailpipe, and you left out that detail. Since we have low temperatures in most of the country currently, it is normal for there to be some light white smoke during engine warm-up. However, if this continues after the first few minutes, it could be a sign of some very ominous things for your engine.

Then again, the fact that you allowed the oil to fall by 3 qts is itself ominous. That means that you rarely check the oil and/or that the engine is damaged goods at this point. In fact, depending on how long the engine was run with a very low oil level, you may have already consigned it to the scrap heap.

Some possibilites include:

If the white smoke continues after warm-up, the head gasket may be breached. Checking the oil level very frequently is important, as is checking to see if there is evidence of oil in the coolant and/or coolant in the oil. If the oil dipstick shows evidence of what looks like a chocolate milkshake, that is a strong indicator of coolant getting into the oil, and an engine will not last very long under those conditions. If you see a dark brownish/black line at the top of the coolant overflow reservoir, that is evidence of oil in the coolant. This is not as bad, but is still a strong indicator of a breached head gasket that must be attended to if the engine is to be saved.
The engine may be clogged with damaging sludge as a result of going too long between oil changes. My clues for this are twofold–your statement about “being 3k miles overdue for an oil change”, as well as the fact that this car is driven less than 8k miles per year. This car needs to have its oil changed every 6 months, regardless of how few miles it has been driven in those 6 months. If you have been doing oil changes strictly on the basis of odometer mileage over a period of several years, the engine may now be a basket case as a result of accumulated oil sludge that formed as a result of changing the oil too seldom.

This car needs to be taken to a skilled mechanic for assessment.
Please note that “skilled mechanic” does NOT mean taking it to a quick oil change place, or to chains like Midas, Meineke, Monro, Sears, Pep Boys, or AAMCO. Take it to a well-reputed independent mechanic, and tell him that you want a full assessment of the condition of your engine, meaning that you want him to do a compression test as well as any other tests that he deems necessary in order to find out if you have a breached head gasket, a sludged engine, worn-out bearings, etc.

You just may luck out, but from afar and without knowing how this car has actually been maintained over the past 13 years, this is difficult to say. Please have the car examined/assessed, and then report back to us for further advice once you have gotten some specifics from your mechanic.

And…for the sake of your wallet, in the future please remember that cars which are driven for so few miles per year need to have their oil changed at least every 6 months, rather than on the basis of odometer mileage!

VDC, with great respect I should point out there are many cars that will continue putting out white clouds in cold weather even after a 20 mile drives. 20F air flowing by the exhaust system removes the heat faster than it’s being added and the exhaust stream really gets beyond that cloud-forming temperature all the way down the pipe.

I do absolutely agree, however, that if there’s any doubt the OP should get to a good mechanic.

@TracyDD, here is the factory maintenance schedule for your car.

Go through your records and see what’s due/overdue.
I suspect it needs a few items on that list.

Depending upon the environmental conditions, the old Sable I used to own would steam considerably out the tailpipe; especially when cold and humid. Hopefully this is the case with the OP’s car and it’s not coolant smoke.

The part that would concern me more would be the going 3k miles over the oil change interval (whatever that may be) and running 3 quarts low. That leads to premature engine wear and oil sludging.

this sounds like a troll…not a legit communication

@gdawgs, what is a troll?

In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response, or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion. The noun troll may also refer to the provocative message itself, as in: “That was an excellent troll you posted.”

@VDCdriver, thanks for the explanation