How can I determine if the engine of a 2004 Toyota Camry LE has been damaged by the engine not having enough oil in it?

How can I determine if the engine of a 2004 Toyota Camry LE has been damaged by the engine not having enough oil in it?

I am considering buying a 4 cylinder 2004 Toyota Camry LE from someone who would simply require that I take over the monthly payments.

The problem is, even though the seller has records of having the oil changed every 3,000 miles, when I checked the oil today, it was very low.

We immediately took the car to a local oil changing station where they changed the oil and said that the reason the oil was so low was because the oil filter had a slight leak.

I'm wondering how I (or a qualified mechanic can determine if the engine of this 2004 Toyota Camry LE has been damaged by the fact that the oil may have been very low for around 3,000-4,000 miles of being driven on a daily basis.

How can this be done?
IT GuyNetwork EngineerAsked:
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mangofourCommented:
Depends how far you want to go but the easiest way to check is to pull the “dipstick” oil level indicator and see if the oil is “black” in colour.
The only other way you can tell is to drain the oil and see if there are any metal shavings in the oil. You can also use a magnet to see if there is much in the oil you have drained.
Mechanics will pull the engine completely apart to tell if any damage has been done to any moving parts.
Thibault St john Cholmondeley-ffeatherstonehaugh the 2ndCommented:
A compression test might show it there is any piston/cylinder damage. Engine noise could indicate scored bearings. If you are in doubt about the car it might be better to buy a different one. You might always be less confident with this one.
aleghartCommented:
A teardown, I think, is overkill.  Running on low oil doesn't damage the engine all by itself.  It increases the risk for other problems because:

1. oil breaks down faster
2. less oil to carry/dilute contaminants
3. with hard maneuvering, oil pump may suck air for a fraction of a second

But, engine oil forms a protective layer between the piston and cylinder.  If it's there, it's doing it's job.  You need to be concerned with metal particles in the drained oil and filter.

I have a Honda that got nothing but syntheic oil for the first 10 years of life.  Averaged about 10K miles between oil changes.  My mechanic didn't want to do it any more often because it was a waste of good oil.

A few times over the last 5 years I've run 10K or more miles to discover that the oil level had dropped significantly (but not enough to trigger the warning lamp).  It's disconcerting to add 2 quarts of oil, and still have more room to go on the dipstick.

But, I'm closing on 200K miles, probably by next month with zero work on the engine itself.

If you're not comfortable with the results of an oil change (or have them do it twice), then just find another car.  You'll always have a nagging concern that there's hidden damage.  It's a valid concern, but you shouldn't blow it out of proportion.

After all, if there's 3K miles between oil changes, how can you say that the car was driven for 3K miles on low oil?  The math doesn't add up, unless the oil filter leak was sudden and catastrophic (losing 2 quarts or more), then magically stopped leaking.  Leaks are slow, and there's no way to track when it started.

Ask your mechanic.  He will probably give you the same story.

Of course, all of this is moot if the seller regularly drives the car at, or exceeding, redline RPMs.  In that case, doesn't matter what he does with the oil...don't buy the car.

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Tiras25Commented:
tons of questions:

Monthly payments for a lease? or to buy? Who has the title now? Do they approve? This stinks already.

What, in your expert opinion, is "very low"?

And what the hell is an "oil changing station"? And for $24.99, why would you expect them to diagnose anything?

Have a real mechanic do a compression test, as well as a comprehensive pre-purchase inspection of the entire vehicle.
aleghartCommented:
>And for $24.99, why would you expect them to diagnose anything?

They can diagnose obvious external sources of an oil leak.  A leak from a defective or damaged oil filter, or improperly installed, should be within their skill levels.  OP did ask how a mechanic can diagnose damage...I don't think implying that the people changing oil were mechanics.

If you're on good terms with your mechanic, sometimes you can get an inspection fairly cheaply (or free).  They'll be working on the car, and won't want to hear your constant complaints about the lemon you bought.

>what the hell is an "oil changing station"?
:)  Well, it isn't a filling station or gas station.  Or a water station.
JiffyLube: "Quick Lube Locations"
EZ Lube: "Instant Oil Change Locations"
Oil Can Henry's: "Service Centers"
At least Big-O sells "stuff", so calls theirs "Tire Stores"
Tiras25Commented:
Ah! You cant tell,really.if it sounds ok, doesnt smoke, thats about it.  You could get the compression tested at a shop if you want,might be an indicator of condition.

Truth is, people who are about to lose cars dont take care of them.
If the balance owed isnt a lot,might be a deal,but if its say,7000 bucks or something,keep looking.  How many miles?
aleghartCommented:
With a 2004, this is probably already a used car.  New car loans don't go out any farther than 72-mo., and generally 60-mo. on a low-value vehicle under $35-40K.

So, is this a used car...then you're paying the monthly payments to a car dealership, or credit union?  Like Tiras25 said, the title holder must approve.
oedipoesCommented:
A damaged engine will show you symptoms of what is going on inside by running harsh, stalling or having "dips" while revving, consuming oil (with consequent blue smoke coming from the exhaust), or polluting its watercooling circuit with oil (look for oil marks in the water reservoir) etc.
I think (& hope) your concerns are more between your ears than in the engine internals of your car... :o)
My turbo diesel engine dramatically ran with too little oil once. While cornering, the oil pressure lamp started blinking and a buzzer went off. The car seemed to hold its breath, as if I had the handbrake on (was doing 60mph). When looking in the rear-view mirror I saw an enourmous blue smoke coming from my exhaust. I managed to get to a safe place to stop. Diagnose: turbo turned without oil and jammed completely. Engine was fine. My mechanic told me that the engine would have produced even more blue smoke if it had been damaged.
So if you haven't seen any blue smoke when cold-starting the car or revving it up (warm!), you shouldn't leave your sleep for it. You can of course always get a cylinder pressure measurement or a visual pro inspection with an 'endoscope'  to make you feel better. The latter can be done by taking out the spark plugs and looking into the cylinders with a camera for specific wear marks and other traces of damage (e.g. from damaged segments).
KKatkovCommented:
Just check compression to be sure the piston and cylinder aren't damaged. If you want to check the engine for excessive wearing, take the car to computerized check, and ask them to measure engine horsepower. Excessive wearing will result in significant power loss.
IT GuyNetwork EngineerAuthor Commented:
KKatkov,


How exactly does a mechanic "check compression to be sure the piston and cylinder aren't damaged?"

I want to make sure when I take the car to a mechanic that the mecahnic performs the right kinds of test.
KKatkovCommented:
Compression check is performed this way:
You take out the cable from the spark plug in the first cylinder, and using a ratchet you screw out the plug. After that, you screw in a compression meter instead of the plug, and give starter for a two or three seconds.
Write down the compression that you measured, and do it for the remaining cylinders.
Normally, on warm engine compression should be between 160 and 190 psi, depending on the car and engine wearing (you can check it in service manual for your car). There should not be big difference between the cylinders (more than 10-15 psi), if there is, the cylinder with low compression (in case you have, for example, 150-170-175-170) is worn or damaged.
BrianGodfreyCommented:
There's low and then there's LOW.

If the oil measured below the desired range on the dipstick then that's just a little bit low and it won't do any harm, especially if it had only been 3000 miles since an oil change.  The 3000 mile interval will ensure that there was always pretty good, fresh oil in there.  (It's better to be a bit low on good oil than to keep topping up old oil and accumulating contaminants.)  If this is the case, then it is not an issue in buying the car.

If the oil level got so low that  the low oil pressure idiot light came on on the dash, then that's LOW.  Low enough to damage the engine if you run it for very long that way..  If the engine was stopped immediately and the oil topped up, then probably no damage occurred.  Low pressure is not necessarily equal to zero pressure and the oil coating the bearings does not disappear immediately as soon as the pressure drops.  But there's probably no way to know how often or how long the vehicle was driving with the idiot light on, so if I knew the LOW pressure warning had been on, then I would not buy the car.

I think the check engine light will come on if the engine oil pressure goes low while it is running.  You might call a Toyota service department to confirm this.  In that case, and if the CE light is off, and if their maintenance records don't show the CE light as being reset, then you can probably be confident that the engine has not been oil starved.

So what goes wrong if the oil gets LOW and how can you check it?

The oil lubricates bearings and it lubricates and seals the cylinder walls.  If the oil pressure goes LOW and the engine continues to run, then the film of oil that protects the bearings will seep out and the bearings will be damaged.  Typically the softer bearing material will melt and attach itself to the shafts that are turning inside of them.  This is bad and requires that bearings be replaced and shafts be resurfaced if not replaced.  But it does take time for this damage to occur (minutes, not seconds) and modern bearings are very well made and slippery.  How do you check it?  The engine will probably make rattling sounds and if it is bad enough the bearing will seize entirely causing a loud bang followed by severe rattling sounds.  My hunch is that this is not the case or you wouldn't be asking.  :-)  

Low oil pressure will also cause wear in the cylinder walls and in the piston rings that seal to them.  The pistons have springy rings which expand to fit tightly against the cylinder walls.  That is what keeps the fuel-air mixture in the cylinder and allows the piston to compress it.  The rings are not a complete circle, there is a gap which allows them to expand.  The larger this gap, the more air can escape during the compression stroke.  As the rings wear on their outside surface, then have to expand more and more to keep a tight seal.  But this very expansion causes that little gap to become larger and larger.  The oil on the cylinder walls reduces this wear and actually helps to seal the rings even better to the sides by filling tiny scratches and such.

So if there is not sufficient oil pressure to spray oil onto the cylinder walls, the rings will wear more rapidly.  This can occur when the LOW pressure idiot light is on, even if there is enough pressure to continue lubricating the bearings.  The accelerated wear opens the gap and can also make larger scratches in the cylinder wall.  Both of these things cause lower compression.  In the worst case a ring can overheat and break, resulting in a loud bang, rattling sounds and a large mechanic's bill.

The compression test will tell you if the rings are excessively worn.  Excessive wear can result from high mileage, too, so it is not a pure indication of operating with low oil pressure, but you don't want to buy an engine with low compression regardless of the reason for it.

My opinion, for what it's worth: see if the check engine light is on, ask them if the low oil pressure light has ever been on while the engine was running.  If not, and if oil could be seen on the dipstick, even if below the low marking, then you're probably fine.  If you're still worried, do the compression check.
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