Why is My Engine Ticking?
"Purrs like a kitten” is an age-old proverb to describe an engine doing what it should do, and not producing any noise we feel it shouldn’t - like a knock or a tick. A ticking sound from an engine could be minor – or could be serious and trying to distinguish the difference between the two can be confusing, or frustrating.
For starters, it is important to note that a good majority of modern engines today use direct injection, which is similar to the way a diesel injector operates. These injectors can be noisy, and “tick” with they open, making many of today’s gas engines sound more “diesel-esque” than engines of old. If your vehicle is equipped with direct injection, the ticking you hear may be completely normal.
There are, however, scenarios where engine tick is not normal, and below, we’ll cover some of those, and what the remedy is.
Why is My Engine Ticking?
1. Low Oil Level, Oil Pressure, or Worn Engine Components
Low oil, oil pressure, or worn tolerances in the valvetrain, can trigger a very distinguished ticking sound. People often call this “lifter tick.” The top end of your engine will suffer initially if you do not have adequate oil or adequate oil pressure. While some vehicles do have valve adjustments that can be made, the majority do not. Over time, low oil pressure, or lack of oil changes can cause problems with lifters, followers, or the camshaft itself, causing ticks. Make sure you are full of oil, it’s being properly changed, and have any suspicious ticks checked out quickly. If you are unsure where to turn, seek out one of our Preferred Shops to help diagnose.
2. Exhaust Leak
Your car’s exhaust system is sealed up tight — any leakage, especially closer to the engine, like an exhaust manifold, will produce a very loud tick as the exhaust pulsates. The remedy here is to find the source of the leak and repair. This could be a gasket, a crack in something like the exhaust manifold, or a pipe / flange that has actually failed. Many times, you will be able to see black soot around a suspect area where there is a leak, so check all gasket mating surfaces and flanges carefully when looking for a leak.
3. Bad Bearing
Sometimes, a front-engine accessory, pulley, or bearing can trigger a ticking sound. This can occur with AC compressors, water pumps, alternators, belt tensioners, or pulleys. If you suspect there may be a component ticking, one method for diagnosis is to remove the drive belt and hand-spin each component. If nothing is still suspect, start the engine and immediately listen to see if the tick has disappeared. Keep in mind that without the drive belt, you should never leave the engine to run longer than 10-20 seconds, as in most cases, the water pump is not working. Listen to see if the tick has gone away, and if it has, you have narrowed it to being one of the accessories that the belt is powering. You can hook the belt back up and use a mechanics stethoscope to help narrow down where the noise is coming from.
4. Engine Fan or Loose Parts
Every engine has a fan of some type. With the engine off, visually inspect the fan blades and shroud for damage.
5. Ignition Issues
Your engine’s cylinders are designed to fire at a specific time. If this timing is off, it can create a pinging noise, but this will also trigger a check engine light as well. If no lights are present, this is likely not the issue.
How to Fix a Ticking Noise in the Engine
1. Oil-Related Concern
Start by examining your oil level. Pull out the oil dipstick, clean it off, reinsert it, and then pull it once again. If it’s low, top it up — however, know that you might have an oil leakage. Inspect the level frequently to see if it drops, and keep an eye out for leaking oil under the vehicle or under the hood, or small areas of oil on the back of the vehicle near the exhaust.
Inspecting your oil pressure is your next action. Make sure it’s at least 15-20 psi when the engine is warmed up and idling if you have an oil pressure gauge in your control panel instrument cluster. You might have a worn or sticking engine part if the oil level and pressure check out.
One last possibility of significant engine problems is called rod knock, which is different from a tick. A rod knock is louder, and deeper, and instead of originating at the top of the engine, sounds more internal. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between an engine tick or knock, but a mechanic can help diagnose this.
2. Exhaust Leakage
Repairing exhaust leakages can be labor-intensive, specifically on automobiles with rusted hardware. But these repairs can generally be done easier by DIY if you choose.
3. Bad Bearing
Once you have diagnosed where the part is that’s making noise, it can either be repaired, rebuilt, or replaced.
4. Engine Fan
Examine the heat and dust guards, metal lines or brackets, or anything else that can vibrate and come in contact with another part while running. Take a look at the bottom of the hood for contact marks.
5. Ignition Issues
As mentioned before, any ignition issues should also trigger a check engine light. If the light is on when the ticking noise started, come into AutoZone for free diagnosis, and we’ll also help recommend a shop to help with the repair if necessary.
Engine Ticking Noise on Startup
Ticking on start-up, especially in the cold, winter months can be normal. As an engine gets older, its ability to immediately build oil pressure gets tougher, so parts like lifters and other engine parts may need a second to get the proper oiling and build pressure. Excessive ticking during start-up could be an issue though and may need to be looked at.
Extra Advice on Engine Ticking
Engine ticking could be benign, or it could be very serious. Either way, it is unsettling to hear and you will want to figure out the root cause right away. For answers to more specific questions about engine ticking or for recommendations, visit or call your local AutoZone! If the job is too big for you, seek out one of our Preferred Shops to help you do the job.