Troubleshoot That Ticking Sound in Your Car's Engine

mechanic stethoscope
A stethoscope can help locate the source of unwanted engine noise. Getty

Hearing a sharp tick tick tick under the hood? There are a number of things that can cause this sound to come from your engine. Some of them are troublesome and can be expensive to fix. But others are almost meaningless and can be easy to remedy if they need fixing at all.

First things first, be sure your cat didn't steal your Rolex to hide out under the hood with a few buddies. If you're sure this isn't the case, read on and let's see what we can figure out.

Listening Closely

A professional mechanic will often listen to your engine with a stethoscope. Yes, I'm talking about the same thing the doctor used at your last physical exam. I know what you're thinking: I don't need a stethoscope to hear this ticking sound, I can hear it loud and clear from the driver's seat! This may be true, but it can be difficult to figure out exactly what part of your engine is making the sound. Even with the hood up and your head hovering over a moving engine, sometimes you can't tell for sure. If you want to try the stethoscope method, be sure to do it safely! There are lots of moving parts that can catch loose fitting clothes or hair. Things can get ugly in a hurry if you don't keep clothing, hair, and fingers away from anything spinning or moving. Unfortunately, you can't use a stethoscope on your engine while it's not running, so you have to do it, but carefully!

By holding the stethoscope on the cylinder head of the engine, you'll be able to tell if the noise is coming from a valve, it will get much louder. Check your owner's manual to see where your cylinder head or heads are located. This is a great test, because if your valves are making the noise, it may just be that you have a low oil level, or you are long overdue for an oil change!


Assessing the Damage

Before you dive in, however, there are some things to consider that will definitely guide your troubleshooting experience. A few questions:

  • Is the sound definitely coming from under the hood, in front of you?
  • Does it tick more in the morning, and seem to go away when you start driving? Or does it tick all the time?

If you answered yes to the first question (it's coming from under the hood) and it ticks all the time, the first thing to do is check your oil level. If your oil is low, it can cause the engine to tick because not enough oil is making it all the way to the top. If it only ticks a little when you start up in the morning, don't sweat it. It takes a sec for the oil to circulate through the entire engine after it drained to the bottom overnight. If the tick doesn't go away or seems to have been getting louder and louder over time, you should take it to your mechanic to check your valves. However, if you keep your oil level where it should be, and the ticking doesn't bother you, there is very little chance of anything catastrophic happening. Just turn the radio up!