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What do I do if I spill oil on my engine?

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Updated 6 Apr 2021

Jason Unrau

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Master technician, backyard DIYer, or novice car owner - we’ve all been there.

You’re adding engine oil through the opening on the valve cover when something happens.

Someone bumps your elbow. The wind kicks up a notch. You sneeze.

Suddenly, you’ve splashed oil somewhere it shouldn’t be, and that’s on the outside of your engine.

What do you do about it? What happens if you just leave it?

And how do you properly clean it up? Here are a few tips if you happen to spill oil on your engine.

Finish filling the engine

Before you deal with your oil spill, no matter how large or small, finish what you started.

Top up your engine oil to the appropriate level at the top of the hash marks on the dipstick.

You might spill again, so why clean it up twice?

If you aren’t using a funnel, consider adding it to your tool collection so you can prevent messes like this in the future.

Wipe up accessible oil

Some of that spilled engine oil is going to seep out of reach.

What’s accessible should be sopped up with a clean cotton rag or paper towels.

Get as much of the oil cleaned up as you can access – it’s going to be a problem if you don’t deal with it.

If oil has spilled on electrical components or moving pulleys and belts, pay special attention to getting it thoroughly wiped up.

Oil on a serpentine belt or pulley can cause the belt to come off, plus oil will cause rubber to swell and degrade over time.

If there’s an oil slick under your car, wipe it up as well.

No need to introduce that into the environment.

Wash the engine

Using a spray can of degreaser, carefully douse the spot where oil has spilled.

Like dishwashing soap on cooking oil, it cuts through the grease so it can be washed away.

Once it’s been given a few minutes to dissolve the oil, wash it down with either a garden hose or a pressure washer.

Now, here’s where you have to be extremely careful.

Water sprayed on electrical components can damage them, so never directly spray the alternator, electrical connectors, or wiring if it’s avoidable. Then, let it dry up.

Run the engine

After you’ve washed the engine, start it up.

Don’t be alarmed if the belt squeals at first, or if there are funny smells.

Oil residue, degreaser, and water on the belt can cause quite the din, but it should go away in a minute or two.

Both the engine oil residue and degreaser may cause a foul odour as they heat up and burn off, so run the engine in a well-ventilated area.

What happens if you don't clean an oil spill?

If you choose to ignore your oil spill, it’s not just dirty and messy. It can be dangerous.

The serpentine belt can come off while you’re driving, potentially causing you to lose power steering and other functions.

More importantly, spilled oil is a fire hazard! Hot steel and hot oil in the presence of electrical sparks is a bad combination.

Can you think of anything worse than flames shooting out from under the bonnet?

If you’re unsure whether you’ve done a thorough cleaning job, a local auto expert on AutoGuru can check to make sure that oil hasn’t pooled anywhere it shouldn’t be.

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Written By

Jason Unrau

Jason is a Canadian automotive content writer with a background in the auto service industry, but he’s been hooked on cars and mechanics since childhood.

One of his first cars was an ’80 Mazda RX-7 that’s sorely missed to this day. A ’68 Ford Torino GT, a ’66 Ford Country Squire Woodie station wagon, and a ’96 Suzuki GSX-R 750 have spent time in his fleet of cars, bikes, and trucks over the past two decades.

Jason’s pride and joy is under construction – a turbocharged ’88 Mazda RX-7 convertible. Also on his resume is CASCAR official certification.