Knocking or Ticking Noise From Your Engine

Updated on July 3, 2017
eddiecarrara profile image

Eddie spent 33 years in the automotive business with Honda. He is an ASE certified master technician.

What Engine Noise Is Normal?

A knocking or ticking noise from your engine is a sign that something is wrong.

Usually, it's because

  • there is a lack of lubrication,
  • something has broken,
  • or something is about to break.

Some engines have a normal ticking noise caused by electrical components like injectors, relays, and solenoids, and also the engine itself makes some noise turning thousands of RPM's (revolutions per minute), but for the most part, engines should generally have only a very soft ticking noise with no knocking noise.

If your engine develops a knocking noise while driving, usually it's quickly followed by a red or amber warning light on the dash notifying the driver there is a problem. If the light is red, I highly recommend shutting off the engine, red means STOP! If the light is amber, I recommend taking it easy until you reach a garage or service station, amber means CAUTION and the noise and light should be checked very soon by a reputable mechanic (not your cousin, unless they have a mechanical background).

If your engine develops a ticking or knocking noise in a short period, the first thing you should do is shut off the engine and check the oil level. You'll need to find the engine oil dipstick and see if you need to add oil or if the oil level is up to the full line. If you cannot find the dipstick, ask for help; don't chance driving without checking the oil level first.

Reasons Why the Oil Level Might be Low

There are several reasons the oil level in your engine may be low. The most common cause is an oil leak. If you suspect you have an oil leak, check the ground where you usually park your car: most often you will find several drips or small puddles of oil on the ground or garage floor. If you cannot see any signs of leaks on the ground or garage floor, try placing a large piece of cardboard under the engine overnight and check for leaks in the morning. This method usually verifies an oil leak clearly without any questions.

Leaking timing belt tensioner
Leaking timing belt tensioner | Source

Noises From The Upper and Lower Engine

I created this video below of some typical engine ticking and knocking noises. Some of the ticking noises are from the top of the engine where the camshaft is located; worn camshaft lobes are a common cause of upper engine tapping/ticking noises. Deeper knocking noises are from below where the crankshaft is located. Worn crankshaft and connecting rod bearings are the usual cause of lower-pitched, deep knocking noises but are not the only parts that can cause these types of noises. I had a vehicle in the shop that had a blown timing belt tensioner (see above) and this was a very heavy deep noise, so you just never know what is making the noise until you have a knowledgeable mechanic check it out.

Below the video are some pictures of a normal camshaft and another one that is worn causing some noise.

Ticking or Knocking Engine

Camshaft Lobe: Normal and Damaged

Normal looking camshaft lobe
Normal looking camshaft lobe | Source
Worn camshaft lobe
Worn camshaft lobe | Source
Worn camshaft lobe
Worn camshaft lobe | Source

You May Have an Internal Engine Oil Leak

If you don't see any visible external engine oil leaks, it's possible you are leaking oil internally. There are lots of possible sources of internal engine oil leaks like piston rings, valve guide seals, gaskets, and o-rings. If your engine is burning oil past the piston rings or valve guide seals, the usual sign is blue smoke exiting the exhaust pipe, some when the engine is idling and more when the engine is accelerating.

There is another type of internal engine oil leak called a head gasket leak. In some cases, the head gasket can leak engine oil into a cylinder, again causing blue smoke out the exhaust; it can also leak coolant into a cylinder and cause thick white smoke out the exhaust. One other possibility is coolant and oil mixed together internally causing a milky mess either in the oil pan or radiator. This type of leak is very noticeable: just pull the oil dipstick, or look in the coolant overflow tank, and if you see any contamination that looks like chocolate milk, you have found your problem.

If your oil is dark brown or amber, and your coolant shows no signs of oil mixing, but you still think you may have a possible internal engine oil leak, top off the oil to the full line on the dipstick, then check your oil level every 500 miles and document your findings. (Note: If the oil level is low when checking it after 500 miles, top it off again and recheck it in another 500 miles), this will give you an idea of how much oil you're losing or burning.

Blue Smoke From Exhaust = Internal Engine Oil Leak

What is the Fix When Your Engine Makes These Noises?

Once an engine develops a noise like this, there is no easy fix. Typically, you'll need to dig deep into the engine to either fix the noise by replacing internal engine parts (camshaft or crankshaft) or replacing the complete engine. Once an engine runs low on oil to the point where the engine makes noise, it's usually too late, the damage is done.

Here is one tip of advice. If you never do any service to your vehicle, the one maintenance item you should always do is change your oil. The oil is the blood of your engine and the engine is the heart of your car, just like the human body, take care of your heart, and the blood will keep pumping.

The Difference an Oil Change Can Make! A Dirty Engine

Source
This is a look inside of an engine that was not maintained, by the looks of this engine, the oil was not changed very often. Engine miles were 86,000
This is a look inside of an engine that was not maintained, by the looks of this engine, the oil was not changed very often. Engine miles were 86,000 | Source

The Difference an Oil Change Can Make! A Clean Engine

Source
This engine was maintained properly and the oil was changed every 5000 miles. Engine miles were 110,000
This engine was maintained properly and the oil was changed every 5000 miles. Engine miles were 110,000 | Source

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    • eddiecarrara profile image
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      Eddie Carrara 13 days ago from New Hampshire

      Hi Tyler,

      Once the coolant mixes with the oil it only takes a few hours of running to damage the rod/main shaft bearing on the crankshaft. It sounds like that may be your problem.

    • profile image

      tyler 2 weeks ago

      i have thick oil, it looks the color of a starbucks coffee (tan) and sludgy. i know this is screaming head gasket but the engine isnt overheating nor am i using excessive oil or coolant. also have a knocking sound (thinking thats a rod maybe). this is all happened all of a sudden within 1 day from the truck running fine. any input on what it might be would greatly appreciated. btw its a 2002 dodge ram 1500 4.7L v8

    • profile image

      lylacrooz 4 months ago

      Great information and visuals. This helps me before taking my car anywhere. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • eddiecarrara profile image
      Author

      Eddie Carrara 5 months ago from New Hampshire

      Hi David,

      Sometimes having a thicker oil in an engine will quiet them down, especially when they get older and the clearances get wider lol. Thanks for the feedback :)

    • hardlymoving profile image

      hardlymoving 5 months ago from Memphis, TN

      Hey Eddie,

      I had a tapping noise in my car only during warm weather acceleration load. Thought it was either fuel injectors or upper cylinder carbon buildup. I did a pressurized fuel injector and upper engine cleaning treatment with GM's detergent. 4 oz to 1 qtr. Only helped a little. Turned out it was due to low viscosity oil (using 5w30). Added 1 qtr of 15w40 and the problem disappeared. My car has over 200k miles so I guess the mfg recommended oil no longer holds true.

    • profile image

      Thomas Pratt 5 months ago

      Thank you very much. The photos are especially helpful. My noise from my 2003 Porsche 996 C4 is a persistent rather loud ticking noise. That said, I am hearing impaired, and if I take my hearing aid out the ticking almost goes away. :-)

      The car has 87,000 miles. The IMS bearing and the rear seal were replaced at 77,500. I drove it from Indianapolis where I bought it, to Ventura, CA, my home. It performed beautifully, and continues to do so. No warning lights. I changed the oil and filter soon after reaching home. Used Mobile 1, synthetic, oW40. (Should I try 0W50?). About one every ten startups, there is a puff of white smoke, significant enough I can smell it inside the car. Otherwise, no smoke. The ticking is most noticeable at idle. Disappears at about 2,000 rpm, or is drowned out by other engine noises. Ticking comes from the right side of the engine. Sounds like approximately just ahead of the muffler.

      I'm beginning to think it cannot be diagnosed short of tearing down the engine.

      Thanks,

      Thomas Pratt

      tlp@tlpimages.com

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