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Why Is My Car Engine Making a Ticking Noise?

Dan Ferrell writes about DIY car maintenance and repair. He has certifications in Automation and Control Technology and Technical Writing.

A car engine ticking noise can occur for many reasons. It mostly starts for these reasons:

  • Incorrect engine oil level
  • Worn valve train components
  • Faulty valve train components

As you can see, you should diagnose engine noise as soon as possible to prevent expensive repairs.

The next sections tell you about systems and components that eventually may cause mechanical noise; how to implement a diagnostic plan; common valve train components that can cause ticking noises; and finally, how to deal with an engine ticking noise in minutes, sometimes, without emptying your wallet.

Before you start, though, have the service manual for your vehicle on hand. The service manual for your specific vehicle make and model will make things much easier when performing diagnostics and repairs.

If you don't have a Haynes repair manual yet, buy a relatively inexpensive copy from Amazon. Haynes manuals include step-by-step procedures for many diagnostic, maintenance, parts replacement jobs, and other projects, plus electrical diagrams, and a maintenance schedule for the most important systems.

You'll save money on maintenance and repair jobs and recoup your small investment in a short period of time.

1. Watch for These Clues Before You Start

Noise-inducing engine mechanical problems don't occur often, unless your engine has high mileage or you frequently skip maintenance. So before you get started, consider the next items.

Low Oil Level and Pressure

Although worn valve train components tend to tick over time, don't overlook the obvious.

Check engine oil level and quality. Insufficient or worn oil not only can cause engine noise but serious damage to components like valve lifters, rocker arms, bearings, and other critical internal components.

Use the recommended engine oil by your car manufacturer or a competent shop. You can find this information in your vehicle repair manual. Using the wrong engine oil can lead to poor lubrication, noises, and bad oil pressure.

If necessary, check oil pressure as well. A worn oil pump prevents oil from reaching critical components.

High Oil Level

Just as low oil level can cause noise and, eventually, serious damage, high oil level can be just as bad. The rotating crankshaft will foam the oil, preventing proper lubrication and accelerating wear.

When Does the Noise Occur?

On some vehicle models, ticking noises occur during the first 10 to 30 seconds after engine startup and then go away. Don't worry much about it, especially if your engine has hydraulic roller lifters.

However, if engine noise began soon after an oil change, make sure you used the correct oil for your vehicle and an OEM oil filter with an internal check valve.

Still, some ticking noises appear suddenly. One morning you fire up the engine and get the unnerving surprise of a ticking, tapping, or clicking noise at idle that just keeps coming back. Then, investigate the source of the noise.

What Type of Noise Do You Hear?

If you hear a subtle, ballpoint-pen type of click, pay special attention to these possible faults:

  • Loose rocker arm
  • Worn camshaft lobe
  • Accessory becoming loose
  • Faulty return spring on a mechanical fuel pump

A rattling, or tapping type of sound, may come from:

  • Valve train loose component
  • Worn valve gear
  • Valve clearance in need of adjustment

A more solid, tapping-on-metal type of sound may point to:

  • Worn piston pin
  • Loose timing chain (depending on model)

2. Follow a Diagnostic Plan

Implement an orderly diagnostic plan to help you find the source of the noise sooner.

  1. Can you tell under what conditions the noise occurs?

    For example, you may notice the noise only happens at idle, when the engine is cold, and goes away once the engine warms up, which may indicate a poor lubrication system; or you may notice the noise at idle, whether the engine is cold or warmed, but goes away at higher RPM, which may indicate a worn or out-of-adjustment valve train component.

  2. Have you noticed any other noises, odors, or symptoms that appeared along with the ticking sound?

    A misfire that appeared soon after an intermittent ticking noise, for example, may indicate a sticking valve.

  3. Can you isolate the problem area?

    With all the moving parts outside and inside the engine, you may have a hard time locating the source of the noise. In this case, you can use a mechanics stethoscope to isolate the noisy area.

    You can also use a length of rubber hose for the same purpose. Just place one end of the hose against your ear, while using the other end to probe different areas of the engine, pulleys and other components.

    Keep in mind that high-mileage engines may have more than one source of noise. Using your stethoscope – or rubber hose – check around the cylinder head (valve train), pulleys, accessories, and belts; also, check around the engine block for noisy pistons, sprockets, timing chains, or belt assemblies.

  4. Is the noise coming from the valve train?

    Unscrew and lift the oil filler cap a bit to listen for the sound. If the sound gets louder, suspect a faulty valve train component. Depending on your particular model, you may need to adjust the rocker arms, add shims, or adjust valve clearance.

3. How to Do a Quick Valve Train Check

Most worn or faulty valve train components tick at idle. Here's a quick way to check valves and related components for noise.

  1. Park your car in a safe place
  2. Set the emergency brake
  3. Set your transmission to Park (automatic) or Neutral (manual)
  4. Remove the valve cover
  5. Protect your eyes with goggles
  6. Start and idle the engine. Be aware that some engine oil may squirt around the engine without the valve cover in place.

    You can check an overhead camshaft with relative ease. Once you remove the valve cover, take a look while idling the engine. Check for a noisy cam lobe, lifter, rocker arm, pushrod, and other parts.

    Checking an overhead valve engine is not that easy, though. Still, you can check rocker arms, springs and related components, or confirm a faulty valve train component.

  7. If at first you don't see anything strange under the cover (a loose rocker arm, broken spring, stuck lifter), use a stethoscope or length of hose to listen to each valve at a time. Also, wearing a pair of vinyl or mechanic's gloves, push on each rocker arm at a time and see if you can quiet the sound. This may help you locate the noisy valve assembly.
  8. If your engine uses an overhead valve (pushrod) engine with flat-bottom lifters (consult your vehicle repair manual), take a look at the pushrods. Lack of rotation in one or more pushrods may indicate a worn lifter or camshaft.

This quick and dirty technique can save you some money and help you locate the fault.

Have You Noticed Any Other Symptoms?

Valve train noise may appear along with other symptom(s), which can tell you where to look. The three most common symptoms include:

Rough high speed operation
Ticking noises accompanied by faulty engine operation at high speeds usually point to worn or leaking valves.

Excessive oil consumption

This often indicates worn valve stems or guides.

Low engine power
Take a look at the following items:

  • Faulty ignition timing (check this first)
  • Sticking valves
  • Weak valve springs
  • Worn camshaft lobes

4. What Can Tick in the Valve Train

Many valve train components can lead to noise when working under unusual conditions (low or high oil level) or because of a fault (worn cam lobe, dirty lifter, broken spring).

These bad parts can become noisy, depending on your particular vehicle make and model:

  • Worn or loose rocker arm
  • Worn or dirty valve lifters
  • Worn or bent push rods
  • Sticking or warped valve
  • Excessive valve seat run-out
  • Worn camshaft lobe
  • Too much valve stem-to-guide clearance
  • Plugged valve lifter oil holes
  • Weak, cocked, or broken valve springs

Depending on your particular model, you may need to do a bit of extra work to identify the faulty component (see the Resources at the bottom of this post), or consult with a car shop.

5. How to Deal With Engine Ticking Noise

No single fix can help you quiet down every engine ticking noise that appears. It all depends on the particular fault.

Sometimes you can get away with a relatively simple and cheap fix. For example:

  • Tightening a nut to fix a loose rocker arm
  • Pouring oil stabilizer into the crankcase to quiet a worn lifter or valve
  • Replacing a faulty component, like a broken valve spring
  • Add shims or a thicker valve spring retainer

Other times, you may have to remove the valve train, make a thorough inspection, and replace the camshaft and related components as needed.

Make your decision after you've found the cause of the problem, taking your engine's mileage into account.

If in doubt, consult with a reputable shop. Once you know what you are dealing with, you may want to fix it yourself or leave it to the shop, depending on your mechanical experience and available time.

6. Resources

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2022 Dan Ferrell